Saturday, August 28, 2010

Exploring the Leg of Bella Italia

I Was Awake. Without my glasses it took more than a few moments to be able to make out the numbers on the digital clock - 10:30 am! We had overslept, but not really, since we'd gone to bed around 3am. I'd been dreaming. Something about our first attempted flight to Rota on that Martinsburg Air Guard C-5, a fire bottle warning light in the cockpit and that plaque in the Dover passenger lounge which read:

"For those who've fought for it, Freedom has a flavor the protected will never know."

I'd wanted to remember that perceptive turn of phrase and now I was, albeit in my dreams. Now it was already late morning, approaching checkout time. I had to get moving and back to the terminal to rent a car ASAP. My nagging fear – Sicily’s Naval Air Station Sigonella was a small place and they could easily run out of cars, especially with the weekend at hand. We'd arrived in Italy the night before, although there are more than a few Sicilians who will take exception to that. Sicilians are a breed apart - first and always Sicilians, then maybe, just maybe, Italians.

The Sicilian Sun was already making its presence felt as I trudged along in what I thought was the direction of the passenger terminal. It had been early that same morning, past 2 am in fact, when we'd first made the trip from the terminal to the Navy Gateway Inn, where we had stayed overnight. Now by daylight, everything looked different. I was trying to spot the tower, which I know rose above the terminal. I wasn't really sure on the direction so I waved at an approaching security police vehicle and the young driver was kind enough to drive me there. At every turn, I was still being amazed at the polite service I was receiving - he could have easily just said it was up ahead. It was a short ride. I'd been on the correct heading. A few blocks later, I was deposited at the Europcar rental office beside the terminal. I soon departed with DX518XH, the plate number of my Alpha Romeo MiTo. With six forward gears, this two-door classy lady was made for speed but over the 30 days we'd spend together, I'd learn her flaws. Yet, as I left the rental office, someone mentioned zero to 100 kilometers per hour (62 mph) in 5 seconds. I'd have to see about that but I doubted I could shift that fast!

After Lunch at the Navy Galley we were on the road headed for Massina. This is the major jump-off point by ferry to mainland Italy. There is no bridge yet. Along the way, we passed familiar haunts, especially touristy Taormina and the charming mountaintop village of Forza d'Agro. Forza d'Agro is an interesting place and now part of Hollywood lore. Reached via a twisting corkscrew road from the coast, Forza d'Agro is the site of Sant'Agostino. It was this church, in the second film of the Godfather epic where, if I have it right, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) marries Apollonia. It is now part of Sicilian lore as well and not for the 16th-century castle overlooking the coast toward the Strait of Messina. Instead, word is that mafia fathers come to this church to proudly give their daughters away, an offer you couldn't refuse. Not quit Grauman's Chinese Theatre, noted for its memorabilia, but a start. When we visited, the church was lavishly decorated with flowers like something we've never seen before. There had been a wedding that morning. I still recall how in the coolness of the interior, the intoxicating perfume of the flowers, some strewn down the center aisle, added further to the sensual dimension to the scene.

Messina is a Mini-Naples with cars, buses and especially hoards of screeching motorcycles everywhere. This time, we used a more northerly exit from highway E45 to bypass the adventures experienced when traveling through the center of town. Getting tickets for the ferry is always a novel pastime, especially for the uninitiated. You follow the traghetto (ferry) signs until you come to an area of utter confusion with cars parked or I should say stopped every which way in the street, while hucksters selling bogus CDs or attempting to wash your windows, ply the traffic jam. Some, sensing a straniero (outsider) amongst them - someone new to all this fun, try to help you get to the ticket kiosk when you exit your car in the midst of this melee, expecting a finders-fee in return. A few words in Italian usually puts them off and on to more fertile prey. Italians can easily circumvent any attempt to get them organized into lines. Painted lines on the ground are laughable. If there is a way to somehow advance, even at someone else's expense, they'll try it. Their driving is a classic example. The worst repercussion might be a hand waving verbal broadside from someone less imaginative. But here, they are dealing with fellow Italians who know all the angles so the ticket booth is buttressed with sturdy metal handrails, which define the lanes. They would give the merrymaking operators of Disney World pause to reconsider their crowd control techniques. The use of these parallel steel rail queues avoids five or so people with their hands thrusting money through the window slot all at the same time. It also keeps them in a tight line like cattle headed for slaughter, where by slaughter I mean the fee to cross. When you reach the ticket clerk, you learn that the tariff is 30.50 Euro for two passengers and a light auto. Of this, the city of Messina is reserved 1.50€. Included is a 20% VAT (Value Added Tax), something some politicians here want to introduce. God help us! No wonder only President Berlusconi is interested in building a suspension bridge across the Strait. It is doubtful, however, that there will ever be one with all the politics and intrigue involved. Pockets run deep in these parts, far deeper in fact than the waters of the Strait. Promise of the start of construction has been going on every year, I think, since the Romans ran the place! While Marie Antoinette may have said, "Let them eat cake", around here the equivalent is "Let them talk of building a bridge".

Fearing They Might be Left Behind, vehicles from two to eighteen wheelers eagerly scramble aboard the ferry under the eagle-eyed supervision of dockworkers who efficiently choreograph the loading with the sidestepping precision of matadors. Once parked tight as Sicilian sardines in the bowels of the ship, you can go upstairs to the passenger lounges. I recommend you do because some of the trailer trucks keep their engines running throughout the crossing and the fumes can be overwhelming. You can watch your progress crossing the Strait from either the deck in nice weather or otherwise inside. All told it takes about an hour to get across. When the ferry’s behemoth boarding ramp drops open at Villa San Giovanni, it’s as if the green flag at Daytona has been waved in everyone’s windshield – let the race begin!

And So We Too Were Off, along the A3 Autostrada on a meandering journey north. We had decided earlier to take our time and see some of the province of Calabra first, followed by Basilicata. While in Sicily we’d entertained stopping at Siracusa but decided to do that another time. We were in no particular hurry yet wanted to get across – you could never be sure there wouldn’t be a strike or some sort of slowdown. Recalling what Elwood had said to Jake in “The Blues Brothers", “we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark, and we're wearing sunglasses”, Maria Elena said ‘hit it’ though neither of us smoked and it was broad daylight! The route, marked by the green ‘RC-SA’ (Regio Calabria to Salerno) signs, is pocked-marked with galeria (tunnels). There are times you are inside them long enough for your GPS, we call ours ‘Margaret’, to lose its signal even in a speedy Alfa Romeo. That in itself isn't bad and can be expected but there are places where these tunnels are so close together, one following the other, that as you exit a tunnel there isn't enough time to reacquire the satellite signals before charging headlong into another galeria! Luckily, there were few roads to mistakenly take in the meantime, allowing time for Margaret to catch up in a clear sky.

This Highway is an engineering marvel. Once you have driven it and seen its jagged saw-tooth landscape for yourself, you can understand how prior to its construction the Mezzogiorno, or Southern Italy, was uniquely isolated and consequently remained underdeveloped. Bridges with amazing superstructures span the breaches formed by the deepest of ravines between formidable mountain peaks. You sometimes get a glimpse of an approaching bridge spanning one of these Mariana trench-like abyss’ as you round a turn. Simply amazing. It is hard to imagine even attempting such a project. Where would you begin? Along the route, which for a time keeps to the Calabrian coastline, you can sometimes catch sight of an azure sea embroidered with beaches, some sitting beside small villages, off to your left, far, far below. Within sight, but still out of reach, they beg to be explored but not today, even if we could figure out how to get down there.

We Exited the Autostrada near Lamezia Terme in favor of the coastal road (S18) hugging the shore of the Tyrrhenian Sea to continue our casual drive north. Our goal was to reach the village of Maratea, which I’d read about years before. A few hours later we saw a road-sign and realized that based on the remaining distance we needed to cover and our pace thus far, we would be wise to stop somewhere now. We had passed an interesting looking place a few kilometers back and decided to double back. It was the seaside town of San Lucido, named after a monk who once occupied a nearby monastery there. We had noticed what looked like a curving palm-tree lined street overlooking the sea almost like a balcony as we'd driven by and wondered if this might be near some hotel, seeing that the setting was so perfect. We made a couple of loops through the town, which like so many others is dominated by one way streets, to get our bearings. I'd passed a local policeman on one pass and decided to ask him on my next go by where there was an albergo (hotel). He didn't seem to mind when I double parked to ask, stopping traffic. Following his directions we indeed passed down the tree lined avenue we'd seen from the highway. With the aid of a group of old men, startled like a covey of pigeons by an American stammering for directions in his own pigeon Italian dialect, I was able to find Antico Ristorante Da Peppone and its adjacent hotel, 'Catherine's House'. I swear it was a scene right out of a Fellini movie, for with the knot of senior citizens at my back, mostly to satisfy their curiosity but ostensibly to insure I was on course, I found one of the restaurant’s family members busy setting up outside for a World Cup match and got a room. He'd produced a scrap of paper scrawled with names and nodding toward it while asked me if I had a reservation. On my negative reply he shrugged and I consequently shrugged in disappointment, then moments later producing his cellphone, he chatted briefly with someone and announced he had a room for us after all. Explain it as you will but I think the lonely castaway look I gave him triggered some primal disposition Italians seem to have to make the current situation acceptable. It was just barely a hotel room anyway, situated three floors up, essentially in the attic. Our only window resembled one from a basement foundation and true to form was on the floor. On hands and knees you might see out! It, however, had all we needed for the night including an air conditioner mounted high on the wall, which made staying there bearable. A short nap later, we were on the streets of San Lucido. Dinner this evening would be at La Venere Ristorante.

We Dined Alfresco at La Venere. Not to be confused with the Italian verb 'venire' (come), which I managed to do, La Venere means 'The Venus'. We learned of it when we asked about a place for dinner while people-watching outside the 'John Bull Pub'. Mare likes a 'Black & Tan' beer now and then and with Guinness available we had every reason to linger. It was hard to believe that of all places, you’d come across a pub in Calabria! There must be a modicum of British influence about. If it had been American, I'm sure there would have been a Planet Hollywood around! As with Botticelli's celebrated painting, 'The Birth of Venus', La Venere essentially emerges from the sea below San Lucido. Turns out La Venere was over the railing of that palm-lined street in a lower part of town about 200 feet below. Like Venus, we too were in essence born anew for here and for the first time since returning to ‘Bella Italia’ we once again tasted purple sunshine on our tongues flowing from an excellent bottle of Nero d’Avola. I recall enjoying 'fritti di mare' (seafood pasta) but what we ate, though excellent that night, was nowhere near the fabulous time we had later with fellow diners. It was not until we’d finish our meals and were preparing to leave that two men at a nearby table waved us over and proposed that we join them for an aperitivo. They had observed us during the course of the evening and whether out of curiosity or the need for companionship wanted to share grappa and conversation with us. They soon learned we were American, not British as they'd suspected, and we in turn that one was a lawyer and the other a bookstore owner from Paolo, a town a few coastal villages further north. The grappa flowed and we had a wonderful time together until well after midnight talking about everything from politics to football, which in Italy is almost politics itself! They must have been regulars for soon our foursome had grown to include the chef and his wife, who had been our hostess. It rekindled in us that epiphany in awareness that anyone who has spent time in Italy will one day or another realize of how hospitable, generous, charming and otherwise almost childlike in their friendliness Italians can be. Our moments together adding weight to the notion that a memorable dining experience is not what is on the table so much as who is at the table. The assent up the steps to town, followed by another assent to our attic sanctuary in the Hotel Caterina was a further rebirth in the knowledge of how out of shape our legs were. Not withstanding our previous night's convivial soiree, we were on the road once again by mid-morning headed north into Basilicata.

Our Next Overnight Stop was at La Locanda delle Donne Monache (, in Maratea. We arrived early enough later that morning to be able to enjoy practically a full day in Maratea. La Locanda, like Maratea itself, is a secluded retreat nestled in rugged mountains just inland, overlooking the breathtaking unspoiled coastline of Basilicata. It offers luxury accommodations in a restored 18th century convent painstakingly converted into one of the finest hotels in the area. But for the lack of an elevator, we were told, it would be classed five star. Its layout precludes the use of elevators and instead substitutes artfully decorated corridors, which wind up, down and around the complex like a Chinese paper dragon on parade. We, neither of us, knew what might lie ahead and where we might emerge and therein lay the fun. We did just that and after passing through a Moorish decorated sitting area surfaced into a garden with cushioned chairs dominated by a large mural beckoning you to linger. Maria Elena (Mare), now intoxicated with the mood of the place, used this quiet retreat to write in her journal. It was on one of these explorations, following a turn and ascent of a short series of stairs that we discovered a wonderful kidney-shaped swimming pool. It was hemmed by gigantic blue hydrangea bushes, and if that wasn’t enough, an ancient church and square campanile (bell tower) served as the backdrop, completing this Italian canvas. Here was a stunning example of Italian design congruity set amidst its crumbling heritage, rivaling Feng Shui principles in its balance. For the time we had there, this became OUR spot. Here we enjoyed ourselves immensely, meeting people, having drinks or doing both while soaking at the edge of this wonderful pool. I'm sure the former nuns never had it this good. Adjacent to the pool was another find, the hotel's celebrated restaurant, 'Il Sacello' (The Shrine). I don't believe I actually did it but while playing lizard, or should I say turtle in the water, by the edge of the pool, I actually called a waiter over and made a reservation for dinner there for later that evening. Given time, you could quit easily get used to this lifestyle and I was making great headway at living life large without any problema! Reality soon sets in, however, for the cost in Euros for this tryst was in the stratosphere. When you made the mental conversion into dollars, it became obscene. If you recall, I jokingly remarked in a recent post that I was sparing no expense on this trip, it being our anniversary! Here was painful proof. I just had to think about it like I had the time we took a gondola ride in Venice - just imagine the cost amortized over ten years or more and then it isn’t so bad. But now about that dinner …

Il Sacello, located in a long glassed-in portico running alongside the pool area, was both intimate and welcoming. Its staff spoke faultless English, which made the evening go especially smoothly and the maitre'de added to a memorable time by his occasional visits and frank chats. Mare and I shared the dinner-for-two special featuring 'Bistecca alla Fiorentina', the grilled steak signature dish of Florence similar to what we'd called a Porterhouse, balanced with such local treats as grilled vegetables served over creamy polenta. This was gourmet cuisine at its finest, accompanied with fine wine and topped off with a dolce (desert) of Tiramisu. Bring on that slippery-smooth mascarpone cheese! Tiramisu remains the most heavenly Italian dessert I've ever eaten. Its name is derived from 'pull me up' in Italia and it does just that. No wonder it is the signature dessert of Venice. We’d eaten deliberately, savoring each flavor, and hated to see the meal end. We even hesitated to leave the next day, after all we had plenty of time, but our vacillation was abruptly overcome by the sobered affect of il conto (the bill)! We cut inland away from the sea and its coastal road and within a few hours were in familiar territory.

Soon We Were Climbing that zigzag ascent to lofty Calitri. There were the 'fashionable' with their never-worn sweaters cast about their shoulders, sleeves knotted on their chests; clumps of old men on the shaded benches lining Corso Garibaldi; Benito in the doorway of his magazine shop; mustachioed Paldo in his bar; Francesco in his furniture store and I was now positive, God in his heaven. My inner Italian had now regained its sense of place. We had arrived in Calitri, slipping up the peninsula like a hand deftly exploring a sheer nylon on a shapely leg – a journey just long enough to cover the sculpted subject but short enough to still remain mysterious, beckoning a return.

That Rogue Tourist,


For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on the photo album entitled "San Lucido & Maratea".