Monday, December 31, 2012

A Flood of Streaming Thoughts

I’m recently reminded of a vignette going around the Internet about an elderly gentleman who decides one day that it's time to wash the dishes piled high in his sink. Short on detergent, he heads for the pantry for more and while there discovers a screwdriver he’d been missing and decides to put it away in the garage workshop where it belonged. Entering the shop he came across the needle valve he'd been looking for to pump-up the grandchildren’s basketball and decided to inflate it right then. When he found the ball outside on the grass, he also discovered the morning newspaper lying in the driveway so he decided to take a short break from the nothingness he’d accomplished and read it. Sitting down to enjoy the news, he realized he’d enjoy it even more if he had a cup of coffee to go along with his favorite editorialist so he got up to get some coffee and so on, and so on, and so on. Come to find out, by end of day the dishes hadn’t been touched and he'd still accomplished niente (nothing)!

Though I’m nowhere near as bad, only occasionally entering a room and not recalling why I'd gone there in the first place, I do sometimes find myself cascading through thoughts, one leading to another. Attention deficit on my part? A raised eyebrow on Maria Elena would most likely indicate she concurred, but truth be, I always seek her attention! My hopscotching thoughts are especially the case when I’m in that morning semi-awake fog state somewhere between sleep and consciousness. I want to believe that it's at times like these that something similar to 'defragmenting' your computer's hard drive is going on. Only in this case your brain may be physically organizing your memories, removing the wasteful gaps between our recollections, tidying up what space remains in my grey matter. Here is an instance from just the other day where I can recall fiddling with my ‘not-pointy-enough’ fingers on the tiny pseudo-buttons of my iPhone touchscreen to suddenly find myself in the Netflix streaming video application in the middle of a BBC made for TV Robin Hood episode. No matter the adaptation, whether it be the version starring Kevin Costner and his Moorish sidekick (played by Morgan Freeman) or one of its many other variations, that classic scene with Robin Hood splitting an arrow with an arrow is sure to be depicted.

This reminded me of current attempts to hit a bullet with a bullet, or more precisely, one projectile with another as in my experience when I worked at Raytheon. We were hitting a missile with another missile, something quite technically feasible these days as demonstrated by the advanced missile defense system being developed to protect ground forces from tactical ballistic missile attack. Nothing as simple or foolproof as the legends of Robin Hood would have you believe.

Case in point, my thoughts skewed to friends who while at the gym recently and although the drone of the siren had been deadened by the sounds inside the gym, still heard the warning with enough time to escape into an air-raid shelter. Minutes later, now in the safe confines of the shelter, just as the stress from the stench of sweat was about to exceed any concern for the threat posed by the attack, thankfully, the all-clear sounded following the successful intercept by their Iron Dome missile defense system. At this point many headed for the showers, then home, but for my friend, Rony, and his wife, Malca, the sudden drop in the number of patrons meant the added bonus of returning to a practically empty gym to avail themselves of the best of the machines! Later that night, he was literally caught with his pants down or better said, off! When the sirens once more sounded he had to scramble, trailing a path of water out of the shower with nothing more than a towel, down into their basement shelter. This was Israel where every building is required to have a shelter. Moments later, following the whoosh of another Iron Dome interceptor, indicating another inbound missile lurked somewhere in the night, there followed a tremendous explosion, seemingly next door. Unknown to them at that moment, Iron Dome hadn't worked as planned. The incoming missile had leaked through the defenses and hit a six story building only a half mile from their home. Feeling safe, naively confident in their technology, they emerged from hiding, each picking up the routine of their lives once again, resuming their routines as best they could, as though nothing had happened, his wife back to making dinner and Rony back upstairs to finish his shower. For the people who had occupied that nearby penthouse apartment (see photo album) there'd be no going back for dinner, finishing a shower or any chance to change from towel into proper clothing. Hearing him tell it, there is humor even in terror, but nonetheless, still a game of Russian roulette. My mind segued to the image of my friend draped only in a towel trudging up two flights back to his shower, most likely muttering something off-colored in Hebrew, preferably a prayer in thanksgiving for being spared. Strange how my thoughts cascaded to thinking about water. I actually wondered if he'd bothered to shut the shower off on his hasty departure! Then in another detour, I wondered about how valuable water must be in such an arid place as Tel Aviv, let alone all of Israel, certainly nothing like other places with an abundance of water, even some to spare.

Water now flooding my mind, my thoughts flew elsewhere, this time to a Sunday visit to Caposele, headwater of the Sele River. Funny I mused, as my attention deficit to an attention deficit kicked-in, here Mare and I were in the heart of Italy yet still searching for Italy, kind of like being in the middle of Rome and looking for the Italian section of town! But to return to my original wayward thought, the Caposele flows westerly approximately 40 miles through Campania to the Gulf of Salerno just below Naples. We visited Caposele (meaning 'Head of the Sele') one shiny Sunday afternoon in October on the invitation of my friend and barista, Mario. Along with Mario were his suocero (father-in-law) Angelo, Mario's son Yuri and UK buddies, Bernie and her husband Gerry. With a group this large we needed two cars. Our convey formed in Piazza della Repubblica, just outside Mario’s Caffè, and headed off to investigate the waterworks of Caposele.

Straying into another memory I recall how it was an especially nice drive down one of my favorite valleys along S91 from Lioni. I can see it even now, the valley bordered by mountains rising bare and wild, with numerous hilltop village outcroppings, all worthy of a visit. That day we'd get to explore one. Not many miles from where S91 began, it was already time to exit. You can't miss the exit because there are a couple monuments of sort that serve as visual cues in case there is too much conversation going on at the time. One is the mountaintop Church of San Vito, off to the left (we got to the top once only to find that God had locked up for the day), and to the right, close to the exit, sits the Basilica of San Gerardo. We had visited the Basilica about a year earlier and found it not only open but full of tourists, to include busloads of pilgrims. With its towering conical appearing roofline the Basilica can be seen from afar. Its stained glass windows recounting episodes from the life of the saint for which it is named.

Saint Gerardo (Gerard Majella) is legendary in this area of Campagnia and in fact is the patron saint of Caposele. He was a saint of the people. From a humble beginning in a poor village family he initially worked as a tailor but with little success as measured in profit. Instead, possessing a strong devotion to serve God, he one day went off to follow his calling, literally trailing a pair of brothers as they departed his village. They initially refused his desire to join their order telling him he was unsuited for a life like theirs, but he persisted. His incessant labors and devotion eventually won their hearts. Thereafter his life was an amazing sequence of miraculous events. Highlights of the saint’s life are in fact presented inside the Basilica in storyboard fashion (see photo album). Gerardo died in nearby Materdomini (meaning 'Mother of God') of tuberculosis on October 16, 1755 at the young age of 29. The tomb of St. Gerard Majella quickly became a destination for pilgrims with the crypt of the saint today located at the center of the church behind a beautiful marble relief.

For a brief moment I flashed back and remembered the inside of the sanctuary. I vividly recall an area that at first I thought was lined with telephone booths! Inside the ‘booths’, however, you could only dial God for these were confessionals where the faithful received absolution for their sins. I’d never before seen so many in one place but neither had I ever been to the focal point of pilgrimage; a shrine entirely devoted to a saint’s memory. In another area we entered rooms filled with baby pictures and ribbons of blue and pink. It was as if you'd entered a perpetual baby shower. Here in way of thanks, parents celebrated some miraculous intervention in the lives of their children. There was also somewhat of an equivalent for adults. On an upper level, silver replicas of various limbs and organs ... arms, legs, kidneys, hearts, breasts, feet ... you name it, lined the walls. I'd seen shops in Naples where these medallions could be purchased and now I understood the custom. As a sign of thanks for their recovery from some life threatening ailment, survivors presented these tokens in gratitude to St Gerardo for his apparent miraculous intervention. On a lighter note, in the basement underpinning of the shrine, was a large room filled with miniature nativity scenes (presepi) and dioramas detailing village life in the past. These weren’t the small type you might see at Christmas time under a tree. Instead, a great deal of real estate was taken up by these scaled renderings of bygone times. Each tugged on your attention to spend time to examine their minute intricate details.

Now past these religious waypoints and with their memories behind us as well, we arrived in Caposele in a sizeable piazza and parked beside the modest Chiesa della Sanita (Church of Health). When the aqueduct project first began, the powers that be determined that this church needed to be moved. It was moved, stone by stone, leaving behind only its bell tower, Il Campanile delle Sorgenti (Bell Tower of the Sources), which still stands there today overlooking the hydraulic station. As the story goes, the first engineer in charge died when he began to move the church. His replacement had the same fate but the third engineer to be appointed was spared, seeing that the church had by then been successfully repositioned. Indeed the “Church of Health” had been well named. Apparently, there were other powers to contend with - your health might depended on it!

My mind spooled to when we met our guide for our afternoon excursion. He was a young, local, Pro-Loco (historical society) volunteer named Nicky. Following introductions in the piazza, he directed us to the nearby, fenced Carabinieri compound. After unlocking the gate, he directed us around to the opposite side of police headquarters to a non-distinct, squatty stone building that housed the Caposele aquifer. It made sense to protect such a valuable resource. Unlike the origins of many rivers, the Nile for instance thought primarily to be Lake Victoria, the source of the Sele River is not visible for it originates from deep beneath nearby Monti Picentini. Before entering, Nicky pointed out that the field adjacent to the waterworks had in past times actually been a lake. Underground springs had kept it filled to overflowing and from this wellspring the Sele River originated. Various channels once flowed through the town supplying Caposele with an over abundance of water. There is such a plentiful supply that to this day the townspeople do not pay for water. They in fact sell it. What a deal! There had been enough flowing through town to power water wheels for mills, drive olive presses and even allow for washing laundry by hand along its edges. With all these streams coursing through town it was a veritable Venice in Campania, less the gondolas.

My recollection soon had us inside the station. The interior of the building was immaculate. It looked as though it had been completed only days before. Large glass panels allowed glimpses of the incoming and outgoing channels in addition to preventing visitors from falling into the waterways. On the work-floor stood four large black metal control valves, their threaded shafts disappearing into the floor. Each had the appearance of the helm of a ship, although these were double sided such that two brawny individuals could rotate the wheels to, I assumed, control the flow of water. And water there was. Crystal clear it gushed through brick sloughs in a torrent. Amazingly over 3200 liters per second rushed by before disappearing into feeder tunnels! To help me put that into perspective I tried to imagine the equivalent flood of 4,275 bottles of vino being simultaneously emptied every second. Certainly enough for a lifetime, if not a few wonderful years! Just imagine the spectacle of it if not the formidable stain that would result. Although snowmelt run-off was mentioned as a source of the water, it would take the end of an ice age to consistently create this much water! In keeping with the religious nuances of the area, I was a "Doubting Thomas" in this regard. In 1694 Caposele was completely destroyed by an earthquake. Almost 300 years later, much like Calitri, Caposele was again seriously damaged by the Irpinia earthquake of November 1980. In this area where tectonic plates clash, terremoti (earthquakes) are common and a condition of everyday life. Surprisingly, the violent shaking has not yet disrupted the century-old masonry or the flow of water from deep beneath the earth.

In ancient times, the Sele was known as the Silarus and was the location of the Battle of the Silarus. It was in this battle in 212 BC that the pesky Carthaginian, Hannibal, won a major victory over the Romans, killing 15,000 legionnaires in the process (this after a similar mauling four years earlier at Cannae, west of Calitri, when an estimated 55,000 Romans fell on a single day). This was not the only blood to stain the waters of the Sele, for this was also the local of the battle in which Spartacus (remember him, played by Kirk Douglas), leader of a slave rebellion against the Romans, died. In 73 BC, Spartacus, a former Thracian slave, trained to kill in the arena as a gladiator, escaped with about 80 others and eventually wound up leading a slave army of about 100,000. They defeated Roman forces on a number of occasions, including one particular mountaintop battle (thought to be pre-volcanic Mt Vesuvius), which had only one narrow path to its summit. The rest of the mountain was steep and slippery. Spartacus' army, apparently trapped, made rope from the ample supply of vines on the mountaintop, which they used in the night to climb down and surprise their Romans attackers from behind. Pursued and harassed for an additional two years, the rebellion eventually ran its course and the slave army was decisively beaten near Caposele. In a conjunction of then and now only the Sele remains.

Cradle of Roman history, home to a Saint and the origin of the Sele River certainly all of these, but there was more. Through an ingenious bit of engineering, Acquedotto Caposele is also the source of the Acquedotto Puglase system of pipelines. This system channels millions of cubic meters of water through a most impressive series of hydraulic works through Basilicata into Puglia on the eastern side of the Apennines as far as the very stiletto tip of Italy at Capo Santa Maria di Leuca. Funny, at an outside fountain that day we had not only sampled the cool water at Caposele, but in the past had also unknowingly enjoyed the same water at its distant terminus in Capo Santa Maria di Leuca. When the first of the waters arrived in Bari on the Adriatic coast in 1915, it marked the beginning of the permanent end to the thirst and parched earth that had plagued this arid region for centuries.

Our tour of the 'Source' completed, Nicky then took us for a walk along what appeared to be a main avenue through town. Not far along Corso Europa, across the street from the Sunday crowd at the Crystal Bar, I recall coming across sort of an annex to the bar. When there are just too many games on a given day, the bar’s patrons spill over into this rather fashionable tent. Ever been to an Italian soccer match? As a close second, ever watched one on TV with a tent full of passionate Italian fans cheering on the likes of Mario Balotelli or Andrea Barzagli? That's what this tent was all about. Inside, in addition to a seven foot mushroom-shaped gas heater, the kind you sometimes see outside restaurants to keep warm by, there was a couch and plenty of plastic tables and chairs - nothing so valuable that it couldn't be broken in the excitement following a goal or the torment expressed in a loss. Everything was angled toward a large flat-screen TV. Unfortunately, the tent was empty at the moment so after just a peek and a disappointing sigh I continued to thread my way farther down the Corso Europa until arriving in Piazza 23 Novembre.

In my mind’s eye I vividly recall how this piazza was dominated by a fountain, no ordinary fountain, but one dedicated in dramatic style to the earthquake on that November day in 1980. Inside a circular catch-pan rose a seven tiered, three sided stone obelisk. Steeply tapered, it had more the look of an inverted icicle rather than some broad based pyramidal shape. At its summit balanced a metal sphere from which water emerged to begin its cleansing descent down the sides into the stone basin. Striking in itself this was not what made this memorial to a disaster so memorable. There was something more, which gave it a unique stylized signature. To one side, inscribed on a large metal slab in witness to lives lived were the names of all the townspeople who had perished in that Sunday evening terremoto, the youngest only three years old, the most senior having been born in 1884. To its side stood a bronze statue of what might best be described as a soul in agony. Naked but for a loincloth he half knelt, half stood, hunched over, his head bent toward the ground concealing his face, his left arm extended, rising over his head toward the top of the monument. As your eyes took it in you couldn't help but follow his arm up its length to his hand where in a poignant expression of his torment, a spike pierced his palm. It left so much unsaid it could have been mimed. Pondering its symbolism I struck on the only image of a spiked palm I knew, that being Christ crucified. Both his palms had been pierced. In a rush of imagination I wondered if the people of Caposele, on their own journey toward closure, unwilling to eclipse the image of their savior’s suffering, were attempting to express their own communal anguish in a similar though diminished degree?

Though no way near as prominent as the fountain, my mind hesitated on another interesting though invisible feature of this piazza. Nicky pointed out that the Commune of Caposele had installed free wireless internet access. He’d installed the servers himself. In evidence, antennas were visible on the roof of the nearby post office. This was somewhat rare in provincial Campagnia. Only recently had Calitri started the dialog for such a capability but no signal yet. In addition the Pro-Loco historical society had Facebook and Twitter accounts. Caposele was definitely on track to the 21st Century, its history coexisting with its future, moving forward arm-in-arm with the past, its future rapidly becoming the present.

Our turnaround point was the Church of San Lorenzo but not before we had an opportunity to explore its interior, something hard to ever forget. It was relatively new, having been consecrated only recently in 2009 as a replacement for a church of the same name that had been destroyed on this spot as a result of the earthquake. Telling from the end result, the intervening years had been well spent. The architect's hand had captured the essence of Caposele and its persistent theme and lifeblood of water. As the water of the Sele and Acquedotto Puglase flow from Caposele to give life to the countryside, near and distant, so the spirit of this church flows, heals and gives life to its believers. In 1988 in recognition for its apt interpretation and adaptation of the essence of Caposele and its history, we learned that its design won the first prize at the International Exhibition of Architecture in New York. Water, the one classic element on which the theme of this church is based, was represented not only in its architecture but in water related Biblical scenes and verses. Water even spurted from the mouth of Jonah’s whale into the baptismal font! The main isle added the illusion of a large river flowing from the entry doors to the altar, while above and about you, waterfalling down from the ceiling and continuing onto the walls, terraced steps of concrete prolonged the illusion of whirling eddies of water in form, color and in a glorious flood of light.

As we headed back toward our cars, Maria Elena, Bernie and I were still discussing the interior of the church as we passed a home near San Lorenzo. Our conversation must have caught the attention of an elderly woman who happened to be out on her balcony, for soon she offered us an enthusiastic “boungiorno”. Bernie was the first to respond with a heavily British accented “boungiorno" of her own. Bernie’s English accent then triggered a conversation between the two. Come to find out this woman, born and raised in Caposele, now lived in the same English town as Bernie. They even shared some of the same friends and acquaintances! As we continued on, our conversation now not only encompassed the church but also the small world phenomenon we had just experienced. Coincidence? Small miracle? I didn't want to go there since we were nearing the Church of Health!

Like an old fashioned rolodex my thoughts then turned to that memory when as we were passing the Pro-Loco office and the local watering hole next door, I fell behind. It wasn’t that I needed an espresso or caffè corretto. What had caught my attention and thus caused my delay was a line of old timers passing their day in that favorite of Italian pastimes, kibitzing al fresco. A dozen or so of them stretched along the wall by the side of the street and just begged for a photograph. As I studied them they likewise studied me. As an icebreaker I lifted my camera motioning to them that I’d like to take their picture. I told them their facce di Italia (faces of Italy) would be my subject but first I needed to know who the best looking among them was! Bordering on street theater antics, just about all their hands went up while the more modest pointed to various others. It was a neat moment and I got the shot (see photo album). The game then turned to just exactly what breed of straniero (foreigner) I was. They went through the usual list … English, then Tedesco (German), various Scandinavian guesses … but hardly ever American until I let them know. They muttered “Americano” as I moved on to catch up with my disappearing group. Whatever happened to leaving no man behind?

By this time I realized that while being lost in my thoughts I’d missed quite a lot of the Robin Hood episode I'd stumbled upon. I could always rewind but then my mind freewheeled to that other classic scene where Little John and Robin kindle a friendship by dueling with wooden staffs over a river crossing and … on and on and on … my thoughts still streaming through my mind like the waters of the Caposele aquifer. I’d managed to accomplish nothing thus far, that is unless the serendipity of memories, setting my course, counted.

From That Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled “ Streaming Thoughts”.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Castle of the Little Men

We were freelancing – on the road with no particular destination in mind, simply steadily heading south through Tuscany and beyond. Sometimes not knowing what lies ahead adds mystery if not excitement to our everyday lives. After our short stay in Vernazza we had taken the train to La Spèzia to retrieve our car parked in the underground garage just outside the station. Always anxious about leaving our rental anywhere, especially for an extended period, we were relieved to find everything in order … nothing like that time in Montreal when we were short four hubcaps. Thankfully the tires were still there! After all these years, knock on wood, we have yet to have any car problems and here in a country known for car thefts, if not chaotic driving habits. This we can attest to.

From La Spèzia, with Margaret, our GPS, set for Liverno, it wasn’t long before we passed the splintered marble quarries of Carrara, visible off in the distance to the side of the A12 Autostrada. Renowned in history as the place Michelangelo personally visited to select the blue-grey marble block to sculpt his Renaissance masterpiece, The David (1501-04), it would remain for us, at least for a while longer, a place to someday visit. We sped by with all the power our 1.2 liter engine could afford us, slowing only when Margaret sounded an alarm to signal an approaching speed checkpoint, an ever growing threat to drivers in Italy.

Short of Liverno we broke off toward Certaldo, a place we had visited years before. These course corrections kept Margaret under tighter control. Close to Certaldo we made another course adjustment, this time with Siena as our elusive destination. We’d also been to Siena years earlier and had enjoyed our adventure in this famous city especially in the Piazza del Campo, home to the twice-yearly Palio, where we visited the Museo Civico inside the Palazzo Pubblico located there in the square. It was here that we had seen the 1338 fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti of "Good Government" beside its negative counterpart entitled "Bad Government". In an adjacent room non la destate (not to be awakened) lay a lifelike sleeping child on a dimpled mattress carved by the master hand of Giovanni Dupré; both the child and his bed carved in timeless marble. We were fascinated by how realistic it was, expecting the child, asleep now for centuries, to awaken at any moment. Beautiful as it is, it too would not be our destination this night. Exactly where that might be, however, we were not certain. To help us find a place to rest our heads, hopefully as comfortably as this 'not to be awakened' child, we entered Margaret’s 'menu' section and highlighted 'points of interest/lodging'. Poof, like magic this miracle of modern technology popped up a list of nearby area hotels, B&Bs and agriturismi (holiday farms) and their distances from us at the moment. I do the driving in Italy while Maria Elena is the navigator. As navigator, she is also the minder of Margaret. So it was in this capacity that as she scanned the display she struck upon THE CASTLE, a true-to-life, lived-in Tuscan castle. The thought of a night in a castle had her mesmerized as her childhood visions of damsels and knights in armor rushed in to fill her fantasies. I was helpless to object, no matter the cost!

Passing Siena, we departed Strada Statale 326 (SS326) at the Serra di Rapolano exit and after making the rounds of a rotary (twice actually to read all the signs) and passing through the environs of an industrial zone, we joined an unpaved 'white road'. We were pretty confident we had it right, especially with Margaret encouraging each turn we made, but the gravel road had us soon questioning even though before leaving on this adventure I'd given Margaret an electronic lobotomy followed by an injection of updated maps. Blazing a trail of dust behind us we followed Margaret's directions well after the signs for the castle petered-out. It wasn't long afterwards that Margaret also abandoned us there on a dirt road in the middle of the Tuscan equivalent of nowhere after solemnly announcing we had "arrived at our destination on the right". Problem was there was nothing there other than an empty field. In fact, we were surrounded by empty fields. We certainly needed a knight in shining armor to arrive about then! After a brief stop and assuming we were close, we kept going. Over a rise and around a turn or two we could make out the outline of a complex of buildings ahead. A little closer yet and the crenellated battlements of a castle came into view. From the battlements our little Lancia Ipsilon rental, now covered in white dust, could have been mistaken as the resolute charge of a white knight! We had arrived at Castello di Modanella.

The castle's estates are expansive, occupying approximately 700 hectares (1730 acres) of tranquil rolling Tuscan countryside. The oldest parts of the castle date from the XII century and were originally built by the noble Cacciaconti family. In 1450 the property came into the possession of the Piccolomeni family who then inhabited the castle for hundreds of years. I was taken by the name Piccolomeni for it so reminded me of piccoli uomini, meaning 'little men' in Italian. Though the door frames were rather low for my needs these were not 'little men' in either political or physical stature. The most famous member of the family at the time was the likeable though reportedly extremely fickle Enea Silvio Bartolomeo Piccolomini, better known to history as Pope Pius II (1458-1464). Vacillating to the point that at one time he was actually an opponent of the papacy in addition to being somewhat of a libertine from the novels he authored, then suddenly poof, surprise, he was crowned Pope! In our political world the pundits would call this flip-flopping, major flip-flopping! Remembered mostly for his unsuccessful attempt to finance and lead a crusade against the Turks, history records that over his lifetime he was an ardent traveler, an admired Latin poet, author, effective diplomat (during an especially volatile period of turmoil in Christendom) and meticulous autobiographer (his 13 volume 'Commentaries' are the only autobiography ever written by a reigning Pope). He even had time to try his hand at what we'd today call urban-planning, something unheard of in medieval times. He went so far as to have his native village of Corsignano, overlooking the picturesque Val d’Orcia valley, rebuilt and its name changed to Pienza (Pius). Enough of my dissembling - sufficient to say that these were a noble, powerful and clearly influential family and now we had arrived at their ancestral home.

Modanella is a set piece for a fantasy. Today it consists of a cluster of farm houses, a school and 16th century church, forming essentially a small village situated on high ground, which with the addition of its beautiful 12th century castle, dominates the surrounding landscape. Under a shading canopy of trees we pulled up beside the entry doors to the fortress. There was no moat or drawbridge just a towering stone facade with an arched timbered entry door big enough, if opened, for a truck to drive through. Since it was closed up tight, a buzzer beside the doors seemed our only recourse. Moments after pressing the button the sound of an electric servo indicated that a smaller door within the much larger entranceway had unlocked. Pushing it open we stepped inside the gatehouse but not before Maria Elena bumped her head on the low overhang of the door ... once again 'piccoli uomini' came to mind. In moments we were met by Fabrizio, 'armored' all in red clothing, seemingly his favorite color, who would be our host during our stay. Hearing of our vagabond, freelance circumstances and therefore the lack of any reservation, he was accommodating enough to offer us a room for the night. Along with the room came dinner in the castle that evening and breakfast in the morning. Because we would apparently be unable to enjoy spa services located somewhere nearby, the all-inclusive price was adjusted to 178E ($220). This immediately exceeded my hypothetical set limit so I left the decision to Mare, after all she had pressed the button that had brought us by circuitous route to Castello di Modanella. Let me tell you, she had no problem making it!

Our room was not in the castle but in an outbuilding apartment just behind the garden walls and shy of the swimming pool. Although there were but the two of us we could have hosted quite a crowd in the space we enjoyed, which on its multiple levels included a kitchen and two baths. It was not long after we'd settled-in that we were sampling Modanella's wine. Vineyards occupy 22 hectares of the estate where Canaiolo, Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes thrive in specially selected soil giving the wines a unique and expressive taste. The wine, like the food we would shortly enjoy, is crafted by people who clearly demonstrate a passion and skill for what they do. It was not long, therefore, before we had our gift bottle of 2008 DOCG Chianti 'breathing' as we relaxed to enjoy it amidst pleasant surroundings including several estate farm houses visible in the distance from our dominating position there on the patio beside our door.

The bottle well drained (yes we can do that easily after many visits to Italy) and it being only mid-afternoon by then, we still had several hours on our hands before dinner. Another couple staying nearby (they visit Castello di Modanella yearly) recommended we drop by the nearby hill-top ancient village of Lucignano. So off we roared trailing a geyser of white dust behind us across country back roads to medieval Lucignano. We found it without difficulty, parked outside its elliptical fortified walls and entered through the Porta Murata. The exterior walls of Lucignano surround the city like a racetrack while what would be the infield consists of multiple rings of connected homes separated by narrow cobbled streets that move in concentric circles. No matter the street you chose, you could circumnavigate the entire town on foot in about 15 minutes. It was relatively quiet especially for a Saturday afternoon as we made our laps of the town only stopping briefly for some refreshments at an outside café. Few people were out but by custom it was early yet for people to appear for the evening ritual of passagata where they’d walk the streets with the sole purpose of meeting friends. The layout of the streets was certainly amenable to this. In the ‘bulls-eye’ historic center of Lucignano we found the town's main structures: the 13th century Romanesque Church of San Francesco, the Torre delle Monache, and the late 16th century Collegiata Church of San Michele Arcangelo. Bordering San Michele Arcangelo we walk the Piazza del Tribunale Piazza to the historic Palazzo Comunale (thirteenth-fourteenth century). The adjacent Municipal Museum contained an elaborate reliquary known as the L’albero della Vita (the Tree of Life) - a gilded and jeweled tree surmounted by a crucified Christ. In many ways this extraordinary example of medieval urbanism reminded us of San Gimignano, Cortona or similar fortified Tuscan towns but absent their marked commercialism. We especially noticed how well maintained everything was. The stone buildings appearing as if they’d been completed yesterday, the streets void of discarded wrappings and cigarette butts, even the ever-present sprawl of graffiti was absent. Clearly a well-preserved sense of heritage and a dash of civic pride help account for its fascinating atmosphere and popularity with tourists from all over Europe.

Still only recently arrived in Italy, our bodies were not yet on Italian time and neither were our appetites. We arrived at the Castle's main dining room at 8 pm, having postponed our arrival long enough we thought given our growling stomachs. When we realized we’d be the only patrons, we retreated to the palm tree confines of the garden but not before obtaining tall gin and tonic cocktails from the small bar, which greeted us at the entrance. Under a full September moon we strolled through the courtyard with its charming loggia to the garden contoured every which way with well-maintained hedges. There we sat nursing our drinks until after 9 pm when others began to arrive, assuring we would not dine alone. Food lovers can enjoy their meals in formal Italian dining elegance and hospitality in one of the three high-ceilinged rooms situated on the castle's ground floor. We were escorted to a table for two in a corner commanding a view of the main dining room. The tables were elegantly arrayed in fine linens in stark contrast to black rimmed charger plates and stemware both wide and narrow mouthed to accommodate our selections. We were actually pleasantly surprised by the formalness of the affair - our smiling and attentive waiter even sporting a black bowtie and dark suit. The room itself was equally impressive starting with the ceiling where cedar beams divided its span into areas of small alternating red and blue squares. Intermingled in the blue squares were yellow crescent moons; the yellow complementing the saffron colored walls. It was Fabrizzio who explained that a member of the Piccolomini family had been successful in a number of battles in the Holy Land during the Crusades. As commander he'd won five battles. In fitting remembrance of that achievement five crescent moons in the shape of a cross commemorating those victories become the iconic symbol of the Piccolomini. Where walls met ceiling, wide borders of heraldic emblems, garlands, ribbons and cherubs surrounded us to complete the ornate etiquette of this elegant chamber. A huge fireplace seemingly unused these days occupied the center of one wall. Clearly depicted on its massive stone hood was a shield embossed with a blue cross containing five yellow crescents with stone ribbons extending from the shield on either side. We were amidst history here in the heart of Tuscany. Would that this room still retained the echoes of long ago voices recounting their glorious deeds in battle heard above the crackle of the fire and the yelping of dogs at their master's feet. Our discovery of Castello di Modanella was nothing like that time in Montichiari, Lombardy when only after our tour of the local Castello Bonoris did we realize it was a reproduction, albeit a fine replica of the real thing though not built until 1890. I should have caught on much earlier, the frescos looked too new, but then I knew less Italian at the time and must have missed what everyone else had apparently understood from our guide vis-à-vis its abridged history. Here in the great room of the castle, the sounds of the past long departed, it was now time to enjoy dinner amidst the hum of cheerful voices and the cin-cin of raised glasses.

We dined as King and Queen that evening, our dinners a gastronomic adventure. First off as we looked over our menus and without asking, our long-stem fluted glasses were charged with a sparkling wine followed soon afterwards with the arrival of a bottle of the estate's 2008 Chianti. The menu included multiple choices in every category from Gli Antipasti (The Appetizers) on through to I Nostri Dolci (Our Desserts). As we read over each offering and discussed them between ourselves, carefully considering each possible choice in each category, Fabrizzio informed us that we could enjoy anything we might fancy from the evening's menu. He had said earlier that dinner was included with our stay but we hadn't realized just how open ended it would be. Our attention back on the menus we made our selections and shortly afterwards shared them with our waiter. Not long after ordering, what appeared to be our appetizers arrived. On sampling the creations we soon realized something was amiss. At first I thought it a simple mistake, that Mare had received mine and I hers. However, both being the same, it was quickly obvious that what was before us was not what either of us had ordered. I called our waiter's attention to the obvious mistake. Perhaps it had been meant for another table, then again perhaps not. He explained that just as we had received the wine earlier we were now receiving a complementary small appetizer as a sign of welcome from the chef. I was familiar with the customary complementary serving of a plate of olives, some bread and dipping oil, possibly even a tapenade but had completely missed what was going on here. Clearly I'd not fully appreciated where I was, though with the arrival of what is properly called an amos-bouche (French for 'mouth amuser') I was beginning to understand. Our dinner selections, from among the many offerings follow (see photo album):

Gli Antipasti (The Appetizers)

Mare chose: “Terrina di Zucchini alla Parmigiana e fiore ripieno in Tempura” This appeared to be layered eggplant, cheese and tomato apparently done in a loaf pan then cut into squares each wrapped in thin zucchini slices and topped with a tempura fired mozzarella stuffed pumpkin flower. What a beginning! I chose: “Pate di Capriolo, al mosto cotte, con pan brioches all’uvetta” A grape must syrup flavored venison pate served with raison pan brioche. I just hated when it up and disappeared!

I Primi Piatti (First Plate)

Instead of gnocchi, soup or crepes both of us enjoyed “I Pici tirati a mano con Salsiccia croccante e Funghi di raccolta” ... otherwise a homemade 'pici' pasta (a hand-rolled, fat spaghetti pasta on the order of bucatini, less the hole running through its length) served with tiny cubed pieces of crispy sausage and mushrooms. Even Mare who is not overly excited about pasta (while I am) enjoyed this creation.

I Secondi Piatti (Second Plate)

Maria Elena chose “La Casseruola di Angello glassata al miele di lavanda con cuscous di miglio alle verdure”, a lamb casserole glazed with lavender flavored honey served with millet couscous and vegetables. All she needs is to see lamb on a menu and she's hooked. My choice was “Bocconcini di Capriolo profumati al Ginepro con Funghi porcini e Polenta fritta” which translated was a juniper flavored venison stew served with 'ceps' (strong flavored, meaty yellow mushrooms with a spongy underside rather than gills) and deep fried polenta. While Mare goes for the lamb dishes in a big way, I'm the same when it comes to venison. The polenta was an added treat.

I Nostro Dolci (Our Dessert)

For dessert we enjoyed “Cantucci artigianali e vino santo “ergo sun”. These were homemade miniature biscotti almond cookies served with Vin Santo dessert wine for dipping. We had never tasted the sweet sacred serum, Vin Santo del Chianti, which we understand is made from the concentrated juice of grapes first dried until they resemble raisins then aged for a minimum of five years in small cherry casks. Somehow I managed to run out of the dip before the cookies vanished. I just had to make due.

After all this, I feared there'd be no way I'd ever fit into my armor let alone my Under Armor on the morrow! I wouldn't attempt to speak for Maria Elena. And to think there was still breakfast to look forward to. It's tough being King and Queen!

The next morning following breakfast, which I won’t describe, fair only to say it too lived up to its billing (our neighbors had said not to miss it), the newly minted fair maiden and portly knight were off, headed once again down the, by then, familiar 'white road'. On the GPS, Maria Elena selected 'favorites' and then 'Calitri', as our destination, for god-willing this day would see us arrive at our home there beneath the shadow of our own 13 century Castello Gesualdos, though not before one brief stop. There to the side of this country road by a brook some children fished. Close by, with one of the estate's vineyards as its backdrop, rose a bricked shrine atop larger stones at its base. Though old it appeared well made with inlays of unglazed ceramic pieces forming columns, mantles, lintels, even the roofline. I stopped and got out for a closer look. At its center, in a canopied recess in the fashion of a tabernacle, rested the framed picture of a religious icon. Telling from the potted plants, flowers and the can-like electric candles in offering, it had not been forgotten, though strangely, the icon itself was missing from the frame. Faded to oblivion perhaps but obviously still remembered by those who still said a prayer there or otherwise honored this spot. It would be our last memory of Castello di Modanella and though we were alone I thought I felt the gentlest of breezes, heard the whinny of a horse and the rap of metal on metal. Could it have been a light wind carrying the neigh of some distant farm animal? Perhaps. Maybe sounds from some unseen farm implement? I'm not sure. I'd much rather believe it was some passing spirit knight of old who no-doubt traveled these same roads from Siena to Modanella, if not Lucignano, wishing we pellegrini (pilgrims) farewell and safe journey. My prayer there before the local equivalent of the Trevi Fountain was simply to someday, in another cloud of dust carried on another breeze, to return.

From That Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled “ Castle of the Little Men”.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Vernazza - Prettiest of Them All

When I awoke I was disoriented. Where were we? So many places in the last few days … Vicenza, Modena, Parma … had by now taken their toll. It took seconds to adjust and re-orient but then there were those bells. We awoke to the gong of seven bells from the nearby campanile (bell-tower) barely visible from our window. Surprisingly, these were followed by 52 more tolls from the church tower. Maria Elena had counted them! Apparently there was no getting around the need to get up. At home, four horn blasts signified a car accident and the need for the volunteer fire-department personnel to respond. Here, what could 52 possibly mean? I’d have to look into what that was all about.

Slowly my eyes had adjusted to our surroundings. We were lying on a queen size bed in a small box of a room. Above us on the ceiling and in fact on all four wall surfaces as well, a blotchy blue paint scheme gave the room a cloudy sky appearance either intentionally, by design, or they had never received their second coat of sky blue paint. With only a little sensory deprivation, the kind you might have when you first regain consciousness from a deep sleep, you would swear you were floating in the clouds. A foot from the base of the bed was the entry door held closed by a sliding bolt and to either side just enough room to swing your legs off the bed. Other than a shuttered window, the only other exit was into the stanza da bagno (the bathroom). It was constructed on a raised floor in order to allow room for the plumbing. The design required that you step up. Still higher yet was the toilet fixture itself reigning over a sink and corner shower. The shower, fitted according to the size of the room, was likewise tiny. Once you sucked in your stomach enough and were hopefully successful in getting the inward swinging door to close, believe me, you wouldn’t want to drop the soap and then have to negotiate its retrieval! A single candle-shaped bare bulb on a side-table lit our tiny bolt-hole at #27 Via San G. Battista in Vernazza. Outside, up the stone lane a few steps beyond our entry door, was the 15th century Doria Castle which had served as a lookout tower to protect the village from that ever present scourge of old, pirates. Though confining and tighter then the smallest cabin on a cruise ship, we loved our perch of a place what would be home for a few days.

Vernazza is one of five small isolated villages nestled in the hillside along the coastline of Liguria, south of Portofino and north of La Spèzia. The towns are connected by a system of hiking paths, a rail line, a seasonal ferry service and not much more. Vernazza's name derives from the Latin adjective verna meaning 'native'. Verna and the aptly named indigenous wine, Vernaccia (Ours), no-doubt helped give it its name. As early as 1080, records refer to Vernazza as a fortified town. As an active maritime base it was a likely point of departure for naval forces in defense against pirates. In Genoa's conquest of Liguria, it provided port, fleet resources and soldiers and by1209 had pledged its allegiance to the Republic of Genoa. Later years saw it as a center of wine making along its terraced hillsides, a fishing center and olive oil producer. In 1997, UNESCO recognized the Cinque Terre area as a World Heritage Site and in 1999 the National Park of the Cinque Terre was born. Today, Vernazza’s main source of revenue is from tourism. We and the thousands of others who spill into town are proof of that. The centuries old tradition of fishing and the fishing fleet itself are long gone. In fact, there is only one remaining fisherman. We saw him one morning in fact, the last of a tough breed, rolling his harvest to a spot near the tiny stone Chapel of Santa Marta where he set up shop. Let’s just say he wasn’t happy to see yet another tourist, me, snap his picture.

We had arrived by train from La Spèzia, as do most tourists, a little over twelve hours earlier. Our Vernazza adventure began only minutes off the train following our descent down the steps from the station into town when we were met by Miriana, a local woman who manages seaside rentals there ( We were visiting our friend Titti who lives in Vernazza and while her home was in use for a “destination wedding” all the way from Austrailia, Titti had arranged alternate accommodations for us through her friend Mainetta. Along with Miriana was Massimo. Massimo, a barrel chested tree-trunk of a man had hoisted Maria Elena’s duffel bag suitcase onto his shoulder and made off up the winding stone steps to our awaiting room in a shot. Try as I may it was no contest as I attempted to keep up. Something about that name, Massimo. At his birth his mother must have known he’d be massive and hence dubbed him Massimo. Could it have been that simple? Not really, my fantasy stands corrected since although Massimo, a derivative of Maximus, sounds to me as being related to the word ‘massive’, it really means “The Greatest”. I like the name. He was the second Massimo I’d ever met. The first had been in Positano on Via Positanesi D’America just past the seaside torre (tower) in a hillside restaurant run by both him and his wife. True to their names, that Massimo, missing a front tooth, had been a great chef; this Massimo would have made a great NFL fullback. His broken field running abilities through hordes of tourists before breaking left and bounding up the stairs of one of the many alley-like backstreets of Vernazza with the alacrity of a mountain goat was all the proof I needed. Unable to keep up, I could only cheer!

As do all the tourists when they arrive, it wasn’t long before we made our way down the curving main street of town, Via Roma, to the sea. Catering to the needs of its day visitors this main avenue is alive with restaurants, bars, souvenir shops and small markets. It opens at the shore front to a harbor sheltered by an arcing seawall. To the left side of this crescent shaped harbor Castllo Doria towers over its underpinning of colorful homes and restaurants, while to the right the Chiesa (Church) of Santa Margherita d'Antiochia (circa 1318), abutting towering stone ramparts, marks the end of town in that direction. Between the two is a small unkempt beach. Overlooking the beach sits the town’s main square, Piazza Marconi, where both vividly colored wooden boats and café tables and chairs duel for space.

On our arrival the sea was boiling in the aftermath of a recent storm. Large waves crashed ashore. We settled in with a mèzzo litro (half liter) of wine at Pizzeria Baia Saracena on the waterfront closest to the surf and enjoyed nature’s spectacle. A constant battle ensues here … the sea against the shore, the sound undoubtedly heard here since the birth of the sea itself. As along the Amalfitana, the sea here relentlessly crashes into cliff-like bluffs, the roar of the released energy ending with the sound a drummer might make sanding his wire brush across a brass symbol. Coexisting as they do, their struggle for supremacy never stops. Gossamer white iridescent foam atop slate green waves exploded onto the massive boulders of the seawall. Because of its particular violence that day, ropes limited how close you could approach the surf. Nevertheless, some would venture to the brink, reminiscent of TV weathermen covering a Category I hurricane, only to hastily retreat from an especially fearsome assault from the sea or hypervelocity blast of wind. The spray from one particular energetic wave died only inches from our faces and although we were spared being soaked, we did have to lift our feet to be spared a bath. The oohs and aahs from the international host of spectators around us only added to nature’s performance.

By 10 am each day, like a rising tide, people begin to flood Vernazza by the trainloads. This flood of tourists would course down Via Roma like the disastrous flood and mudslides of October 2011. While the tourists leave each day, this flood devastated the village leaving it buried in an astounding 13 feet of mud, as high as a building’s second story. One morning as we enjoyed coffee and brioche next door to the Gambera Rosso, our waiter told us his story of survival. On the 25th of October 2011 the rain had begun around 11am. By 2 pm the conduit corralling the water flowing from mountain ravines to the sea had become jammed with debris. The developing torrent quickly breached the banks of the river and found the easiest course through town – Vernazza’s main street, Via Roma. Almost a year later, you are hard pressed to find evidence of this 100 million euro disaster. Certainly some storefronts, even some homes at the top of the town, remain boarded but a majority have been rehabilitated. It is staggering to imagine the amount of work it took to shovel the mud by hand that had completely filled the ground floors of the town’s center. We marveled at a booklet of photos taken at the time. Cut off for days until helicopters and eventually the military arrived to assist in the recovery, the townspeople, none alone but all together, began to dig out and account for their missing. That only three residents had been killed was a miracle. Our waiter could easily have been added to that number. At first he had shut the doors of the café and damned the spaces beneath them but as the water continued to rise, the pressure of the muddy torrent broke through trapping him along with some customers inside. With only this entry available there was no other avenue of escape. Even the area above the door-jam was secured with bars, preventing escape. The water continued to rise toward the ceiling until there were only inches of air separating life from death. By this time, the others with him had given up their frantic attempt to dig through the concrete ceiling and like him struggled to breathe. Then, as if by miraculous intervention, the water gradually began to recede. The flood, broadening as it entered the area of the piazza, could only get so high before it joined with the yawning abyss of the sea. In a way it was a miracle as God’s physical laws of nature took the upper hand.

One of the highlights of our brief stay in Vernazza was a concert in the church by the cliff-lined shore. Totally by chance we had arrived during the “XXXI International Music Festival of Cinque Terre”. That night’s performance featured an organ recital, for the most part, of Bach compositions. Our organist, sporting a white Nehru-type collared shirt contrasted starkly with the brooding grey columns, blacken stones and late night shadows of Santa Margherita. He was Maestro Ferruccio Bartoletti from nearby La Spèzia. It was a perfect setting to listen to Bach as we sat amidst pious confessionals, votive candles, stations of the cross and life-sized crucifixes some occupied, others abandoned beneath a scrawled ‘INRI’. Behind us, over the main entry doors, copper colored organ pipes produced intricate strains of high pitched whistles only to plunge to basement base notes moments later as a flurry of notes emerged from meter long pipes. Watching the performance, the organist’s head swaggered like a bobble-head. In staccato, woodpecker-like head movements his spirit joined with the poetry of the music, his hands and legs maintaining the tempo as he adjusted switches and choreographed prancing feet across the damper peddles of the organ. Filling the night air by the deserted harbor, he would trip through the cascading notes of a Bach fugue followed by a soothing Ave Maria by Liszt then move on to the ecliptic trill of Du Friedefurst. Glancing across the aisle for the effect the music might have on other attendees, I noted one young patron, his eyes closed; his head complementing the swaying movements of the maestro’s, simpatico with the short-lived notes resonating throughout the chamber. All the while, the sound of an agree sea fought for attention against each Bach strain.

We took our meals at the same restaurant both nights of our stay and our meals both those nights were also exactly the same. No, it wasn’t some scene from “Groundhog Day” where events keep repeating exactly the same, time after time, day after day and it surely wasn’t for any shortage in choices of places to eat or in menu selections. It was simply a matter of choice. We had so enjoyed our first visit to the Antica Osteria il Baretto that we wanted to repeat the experience. You might imagine that the food there reflected the bounty from the sea and you would be right. Dinner was of white wine, a heaping mass of fried anchovies accented with lemon wedges and mussels in a picante garlic-tomato broth, finished off with potent grappa. I know that the mention of anchovies can be a turn-off to many. We’d been apprehensive years earlier in Calitri ourselves when as dinner guests we first heard we would be served anchovies. A quick glance at each other silently confirmed we’d both conjured up imaginings of the fishy smell, salty taste and how our ring fingers, hell all of them, would be swollen by morning! However, as it was then, it was again in Vernazza completely the opposite. Most people also turn up their noses to the thought of eating mussels. After all, aren’t they mostly used as bait? They are where Maria Elena comes from! It seems that the variety served in Italy is also superior to those at home, but then you knew I’d say that, right? Seriously, they are plumper, just about filling the entire shell and when compared with steamed clams, we find them tastier. We especially enjoy them in a marinara sauce, tinged with garlic and a dash of peperoncino for that extra assault on our taste buds. The wine was especially refreshing. Its label read “Cinque Terre - La Polenza”. Though not frequent imbibers of white wines, this was one of the best we’d ever sampled. It was a blend of the vibrant intensity of three grapes … Albarola, Bosco and Vermentino. Later we tried to find additional bottles at a local enoteca but their supply was depleted for the season. After savoring it for two nights, we could understand why.

In a nutshell, we loved our visit to Vernazza. It is a great place to visit for a day, even two. We did, however, feel somewhat isolated by its remoteness and rather confined by the over crowdedness. Living in a forest can do that to you. You can easily say the same of just about any tourist town, from summertime in Newport to the streets of Santorini or Rhodes, flush with tourists. Without question, it is a charming fairytale of a place, seductive and capable of flirting with your senses. Old traditions struggle to survive here in an age of modernity exemplified by the hundreds of ear-buds and cell phones present at any moment. A cleft in a mountainous shoreline just big enough to allow a footing for access to its former source of vitality, the sea, it continues to reinvent itself from that time when its cliffs first greeted the sea. An early morning walk along a hushed Via Roma as the light of the rising sun crests the hedge of encroaching mountains can provoke your imagination to speculate not on where Vernazza is headed, but at least for me, with wonderings of how it once may have been.

From That Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled “ Vernazza”.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Life in Italy mirrors life everywhere else. No surprise there. People go to work, attend school, raise their children, shop, play sports and look forward to weekends to mention a few. What especially distinguishes Italy from would-be competitors, however, is its cuisine. Today it is ubiquitous, found along the smallest of streets to the main boulevards of the greatest cities. The cooking and hospitality on the home front where della nonna (grandmother's) secret recipes still survive in the hearts of the next generation of cooks is the best to be found. Its specialness lies in the use of the finest and freshest seasonal ingredients. When you discover that especially notable place to have dinner out with friends and family from among the thousands that vie for your attention you cherish it like a jewel, defend its reputation like you would the honor of your favorite sports team and sing its praises to all who will listen. The wonderful part of the discovery process, however you go about it, particularly for the typical spaghetti and meatball American, is that you are rarely served a bad meal. There is great enjoyment in the hunt ......

Dining Among Dukes and Brigands

By this point Maria Elena had had it. "Let's turn back". Sage advice and I’d taken it before. She didn't care how attractive the promised place at the end of this road might be, she just wanted out. It was a bumpy, potted, winding road we were trying to negotiate down the side of a ridge toward the sea far below. We should have known better given the ill omen at the very top of this so called road when we'd first exited the paved road and had to stop to avoid a pair of twisting turning black snakes writhing across the road in the heat of midday. They were entwined around the length of each other and in a corkscrew manner slowly moving across the road. Though I'd stopped, I didn't get out to investigate any closer. No telling their tolerance for interruption especially when involved in what I suspect was some sort of intimate moment. After the recent scorpion scare there was no telling if these were poisonous or, like a cobra, might stand erect if I approached. No need pushing it for the sake of curiosity. As added security we'd even rolled up the windows. Talk about an overlapping belt and suspenders defense! We were looking for a hotel we'd seen advertized on the main road. However nice it might prove to be or not, I agreed, it was time to give up, fight another road, another day.

We had hoped to stay in Tropea just a little farther south along the coast of Calabria. We had even briefly visited but found it overcrowded and snarled with traffic, not the picturesque seaside resort we'd always imagined. So we had backtracked some, saw signs advertizing interesting sounding places and investigated a few only to discover, as in the case of 'adder lane', that the hype, if we managed to get there, far exceeded the reality.

Eventually we came upon a sign in the vicinity of Vibo-Valentia and followed its directions to the three-star Hotel Villaggio Granduca. Again down a side road toward the sea, nowhere near as bad as before, we made our way along a somewhat paved lane following signs here and there until we arrived at the elaborate compound of the Gran Duca. Entering an open gate I parked in the Duca’s parking lot, got out and tried to find someone, even going as far as to peek through glass panel doors on the first level. The place was a ghost town, i.e. deserted, with not one soul or single car around. I wondered if the place was actually open for business. Still looking for proof of life I walked around back and found what appeared to be the main entrance. The check-in desk, though protected by a roof, was on an outside deck a few steps up from an expansive paved open area, bigger than the town square piazzas of many an Italian town. In its center wasn’t an old well or dribbling fountain but a massive tiled swimming pool with a ‘fountain island’ and a wading pool for small toddlers. A pile of removed broken tiles by the side of the pool explained why the pool was empty. There was clearly a leak somewhere in the bottom of the pool and from the size of the bare space where the tiles had been removed, it was reasonable to conclude they didn't have a clue exactly where the leak was. Back in the car, still somewhat stunned by the wide-open abandoned nature of the place, we drove off. We hadn’t gotten but a few houses away when a man appeared in the street and waved for me to stop. First it had been a snake and now blocking our path this elderly man. As I slowed to a stop, windows still up, I wondered if we had come upon some sort of “neighborhood watch”, Italian style, and we were about to get bit after all.

A neighborhood watch of sorts it apparently was. However, our presence had been noticed not by some gendarme or random homeowner but by the owner of the Granduca himself, who although named Francesco, I soon would refer to as the 'Duke'. He was a short wiry old chap usually sporting two protrusions from his face – his nose and a cigar! His was one of those knurly cone-shaped cigars, wide at the ash, narrow at the lips. We appreciated his limited command of English for he explained that the hotel, though appearing abandoned, was open and if we would like to see a room he'd take us there. Turned around and back once again by the pool we climbed a spiral staircase to the second floor. I'd describe the design of the hotel as unique. Think of two stunted towers entered by way of separate spiraling staircases open to the elements, one on either side of a covered raised patio somewhat like a hotel lobby, although outside, that led into a grand dining room. This dining room appeared to occupy the entire lower level. Everything looked sparklingly new. In fact the complex was relatively new. Solid rich looking wooden doorframes hinted that building this structure had been an expensive undertaking. The 'Duke' even pointed out three other multi-story buildings beyond a fence used for spill-over guests. About then I was thinking of elevating the 'Duke' to at least princely status with a penchant for the game of Monopoly with houses on every block! There'd be no spillover tonight, however, for following a brief tour and taking a room with a balcony overlooking the "Coast of the Gods", we discovered that our suspicions were correct, there were no other quests! When we inquired about a place to eat that evening the 'Duke' replied "Qui, naturalmente" (Here of course) and that 8 pm downstairs in the dining room would be just fine. We asked if we might be able to get something to drink, somewhere in the meantime and he said he'd gladly bring something to our room shortly. Imagine, room service from a would be prince! A little later as we sat on the balcony Francesco did return with beers for Mare and me. It had taken him some time to find the keys to the kitchen! Final proof we were alone and the place was truly empty came back in cold reality when Mare, getting into the shower, sensing the rush of cold water shouted that there wasn't any hot water! We could only imagine what dinner would be like.

When we spiraled downstairs later for dinner and approached the doors to the dining room we found a group of men and women relaxing on couches. Finally we thought, though not hotel guests, then at least some fellow dinner guests. We were wrong. As we approached they scattered like soldiers called to battle stations. In addition to Francesco, these were people he'd called in to support our dinner. There was a chef and two women to assist him. In case we wanted pizza, there was a pizzaiolo (pizza man) in charge of a wood-fired oven. To top it all, a young waiter named Tony, who could speak English well, had been recruited and stood by reacting to our every motion or nod. We felt like a royal couple dining at Versailles for the room was vast, ornate, more on the order befitting a wedding, if not a coronation.

Mare started with something close to lox and bagels less the cream cheese and capers. The menu presented it as Cornetti di Salmone affumicato su crostini di Pane Nero, bite-sized smoked salmon on toasted black bread followed once again by her favorite, a white pizza. The pizzaiolo must have been grateful that he hadn't come for naught. My prima was Risotto con fave e frutti di Mare, a seafood risotto of tiny clams, shrimp and little crayfish cut in half the long way, mussels and strangely, green fava beans, but then the name of the dish told me that. The rice was a small portion well presented. As a secondo I went for more seafood, a Fritto Misto. For dessert we shared a molded milky flan, which they refer to as panna cotta, topped with a mint leaf and slices of strawberry. Add the wine and everything was just delicious. We would have told our neighbors at nearby tables but there still weren't any, late by now as it was!

Our upscale meal at the Granduca had been a far cry from one only a few days earlier. Though nowhere near as elegant, I rather liked it more. Maybe the presence of other groups at nearby tables breaking the silence barrier had something to do with it. I enjoy my own company but I also like background noise - the sound of a radio or TV even when I'm not paying it much attention. In Thailand years back, I'd gone so far as to give up my private trailer to bunk in with the rest of my crew. This less formal noisier meal had been at an odd sounding place named “La Locanda Ninco Nanco”. The restaurant's name is derived from the nickname of a famous 19th century brigand from the Calitri area. A brigand, a word we hardly use these days or at least I hardly if ever have used, refers to someone who lives by plunder, something on the order of an inland pirate or in our terminology, a bandit - a "stand and deliver" type here known to be especially violent, vengeful and murderous. Indeed the owner, clad in a double breasted chef's jacket with gold piping and buttons to match, told us that Ninco Nanco was a long departed relative of his. With centuries enough time gone by to romanticize the family legend, he backed it up with a photo of his brigand relative quite dead in fact, a rope still around his neck! With that for a starter, what might we like to order? Unlike its namesake, the colorful Ninco Nanco is charming and unassuming. It sits on a sharp bend in a road that leads essentially nowhere. An earthquake years before had destroyed Conza della Campania, the name of this village, so whatever lay beyond the restaurant farther up the mountain was now closed to the public. The survivors had in fact picked up and relocated. Seeking a new place to call home they’d built a rather uninspiring town at the base of the mountain roost they’d previously occupied. The new town, also christened Conza della Campania, seems out of place with the towns and villages that surround it. Concrete-modern as it is, it seemed laid out by some deft draftsman with ruler precision. New as it is, it lacks the cento storico feel of a history. Its history, alongside an even older history evidenced by Roman ruins found not far from the Ninco Nanco, lays disconnected, left behind at the top of a mountain.

Perched high on the edge of a bluff the Ninco Nanco overlooks a broad valley taken up for the most part by a reservoir holding back Lago Conza (Lake Conza), which makes for a spectacular view. We had driven there with another couple. Newly met, this British couple, John and June, like ourselves own a place in Calitri. We followed behind our Italian friends, Antonio and Gerardina, who led the way up to old Conza. We were joined that evening by yet another British couple, Malcolm and Shirley, who have a home in nearby Cairano, another ancient place up a narrow lane high enough to give you a nosebleed. With new and old friends alike, our night out, this clandestine gathering in a mountaintop hideout had been planned as a get together of friends who by happenstance were all visiting at the same time. It gave us a chance to catch up on happenings, reminisce on places visited and family as well as a good excuse to eat, drink and in general kibitz. This we did with gusto.

Dinner began with something I hadn't seen since the 70's, a communal pot of cheese fondue! This retro dish was composed of gooey Italian cheese and crusty chunks of salty Italian bread. Following this, which wasn't very long given our communal appetite, came an antipasto which just kept coming. It began with an antipasto of, given an active imagination, what might be described as 'little boats'. The 'hulls' of these sumptuous crafts were made of chunks of seasoned bread while their 'masts' were composed of onions, olives, peppers and pickles one atop the other, held in place by plastic toothpick length skewers. First the fondue then this fleet, curiously we wondered what would be next.

With the 'condiment fleet' now well out to sea, already eclipsing my foodie horizon, what followed was a more classic antipasto, this one cart sized. The surface of the pushcart was packed tighter than the deck of an aircraft carrier with prosciutto, cheese rounds and whole salamis (see Photo Album). Most notably, the prosciutto crudo (uncooked dried ham) appeared in its near native form as an entire dry-cured haunch clamped on edge in a metal vise for easy carving. Expertly drawing the blade of an extremely sharp carving knife across the meat the chef shaved thin slices of the marbled ham onto wooden trenchers for serving. The twisted ribbons of ham accompanied checker sized hunks of sopressata salami, a specialty of southern Italy, and chunks of cheeses, some yellowy solid, others shot through with tiny holes. Accompanied by bottles of the house Aglianico red this was a feast in itself but it continued with individual rounds of steak, pasta and leafy salads.

My 66th birthday was only a few hours away. When the chef heard, his bandit blood stole from here and there in the kitchen to produce a small torta (cake) topped by a tall willowy taper and with that our gathering briefly segued into a birthday celebration. For the others he cobbled together little individual cakes sporting tongue depressors as pseudo candles, albeit flameless. As the hours passed, merriment ensued. At a nearby table a group of young men were also celebrating. One of their own would soon marry a girl from Naples. I'd been way off - my first guess had been that they were members of some squadra (team) celebrating a recent win. It would be a win for him, at least in the looks department, for from the photo he showed us she was clearly an Italian beauty in the class of one of my Italian faves, lovely Caterina Murino (BBC Series "Zen"). By this time it was approaching mezzanotte (midnight). Unexpectedly, in the hum of conversation, while in my head swirled thoughts of past birthdays, other joyful gatherings, even beautiful betrothed Neapolitans, the owner appeared with a bottle of "Scola Enologia" wine, the product of a school for winemaking, something like Prosecco, only milder. This touch of class, christened by the ching-ching of raised glasses, culminated our evening together at the La Locanda Ninco Nanco. For me it had been a special time at a special place that will quickly enter our canon of places to entertain, be entertained and of course dine into the wee hours. But promise me you will not tell anyone, it is after all a hideout, the lair of brigands.

We had enjoyed both of these dinner experiences, one rather smart, almost formal, at the Hotel Villaggio Granduca with the ‘Duke’, the other more casual in provincial Conza at the La Locanda Ninco Nanco, undoubtedly among the raucous spirits of departed brigands. Enjoyment gained in the search for the simplest of pleasures in life in such a seductive place as Italy can't be overstated. It's a destination with a bill of fare capable of teasing, many times astounding your palate. You need to 'bib-up', experience this incomparable food for yourself and get on with that most noble of tasks as recalled in Ecclesiastes ... "Eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart." The author forgot to mention that to enjoy these gifts from the hand of God, best do it in Italy!

From That Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled “ Dukes & Brigands”.

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Harlequin and the Interloper

     Io ho  (I have)		        Io sono (I am)
     Tu hai (You have)		        Tu sei (You are)	
     Lui/Lei ha (He/She has)		Lui/Lei è (He/She is) 	
              .			                 .

I was into it, my Italian lesson, but not yet too deeply as you can tell. Like any schoolboy I looked out the window, my attention distracted by a storm. The morning paper at Mario's Cafe had said there would be rain and of all days, the day we'd planned to get away to the Italian coast for an overnight. While my diligent no-nonsense teacher, Valeria, wrote additional declensions on the board I wondered how Maria Elena was doing. According to our plan, when class ended she'd meet me at the exit of the tunnel outside Mario's with a communal suitcase packed for the both of us and we'd be off. It would have to wait a little longer, however, I still had another hour to go in the fog of Italian verbs.

A week earlier I'd signed up for these one-on-one Italian lessons at the Calitri Pro-Loco. Funny, whenever I hear the word "loco" I can't help but conjure up its urban meaning derived from the Spanish word for crazy or insane. Its meaning in Calitri, however, and I expect throughout Italy, is completely different. "Pro loco" is a Latin phrase that may be roughly translated "in favor of the place". Being "in favor of Calitri", the Calitri Pro-Loco is a grass-roots, non-profit association that among other goals seeks to promote and support tourism in Calitri. At times, especially when those times are economically difficult, progress can be as slow as sailing into a headwind. Maybe the folks that kindly volunteer their time, like our bighearted friend Titti and Dr. Enzo, are figuratively "pazzo" (crazy) to think they can succeed but with a high level of civic pride they inch toward progress daily. Favorable RAI TV coverage, flattering magazine articles and now and again buses loaded with camera and medieval castle buffs provide them encouragement. A familiar adage reminds us that "Rome wasn’t built in a day" so I guess it may take some time yet to put Calitri on the map.

When I got home Mare wasn't waiting for me. Curious as to why, I headed through the tunnel in Piazza della Repubblica into the borgo and walked Via Berrilli toward home. I discovered that we'd had a visitor and Maria Elena wanted me to meet him. As Mare was cleaning the kitchen she'd noticed something on the floor. It looked like a small leaf of lettuce as she bent down to pick it up but when she got closer to it, there seemed to be movement. This stopped her cold in her tracks. Quickly flashing back to the time she was dusting at home years earlier and had unsuspectingly picked up a coiled snake sunning itself on a bookshelf, she immediately went to get her glasses! What she discovered, her vision now much improved, sitting there contrasted well against the lightly colored kitchen floor tiles was a fearsome looking scorpion, its narrow segmented tail upright and inwardly curved over its back like the stern of an ancient Phoenician ship. It wasn't too big, only about three inches long, but she wasn't taking any chances. Unlike the snake, this critter wasn't getting away in her kitchen. I recall our cautious search for that snake, which she had tossed across the room in surprised fear. It had gotten away and to this day never found, never returned. In the back of her mind she feels it might be lurking yet, somewhere in the house, just waiting to reappear some sunny day. And to think some women worry about dust mites! Armed with a broom she began to whack at it but without apparent success against its armor-like skin. If she couldn't immobilize the nasty thing next best would be to quarantine it. With this in mind she took the trash container and inverted it over the unwanted visitor, ready to sit it out, at a respectful distance of course, until I returned. Effectively corralled, there it was when she removed her improvised trap to show me the eight legged interloper. Silent, without any hissing or rattling sounds you might associate with other creatures primed to attack, it looked formidable there in the middle of the floor.

So it was up to me to remove the unwanted visitor. While I catch and release fish when I’m lucky enough to catch one, I wasn’t about to take the liberty with this rascal. Reminiscent of that scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” when Indiana Jones faced off against a seven foot Arab brandishing a formidable scimitar and simply pulled out his revolver and shot him, I out-finessed my opponent and simply stepped on it. So much for unwanted visitors. While all scorpions are able to penetrate human skin and deliver sharp, unpleasant stings, only 25 of the approximate 1750 species are capable of killing humans, thin skinned as we are. In any case, this Italian variant of class “Arrachnida” was, fortunately for Mare, not poisonous. Only later when I'd carefully unwrapped the paper towel coffin containing the corpse of our invader, did Mario inform us it was not of the deadly variety. Even though not lethal the aftermath of a sting, the worry, the pain and the swelling would have definitely put her off going on the trip. Undeniably, Lady Luck had shown on her. A flood of relief came over me quickly followed by the humorous thought ... how fitting, how most appropriate. It all went along nicely with the notion that Italians are lovers, not fighters. Given the choice, they'd much rather raise an espresso than a weapon! Loose ends tied up or in this particular instance crushed, it was time to leave.

Our trip had been brought on by inspiration, not any extensive research or planning on my part. The inspiration was born from chit-chat in Mario's Cafe over a map one morning about nearby places worth visiting. Moving a finger from Salerno down along the coast, all present spoke favorably about Santa Maria di Castellabate, a place along the Cilento coastline in the Vallo di Diano National Park. When we finally decided to take this road-trip getaway, I checked on places to stay in Santa Maria on Internet. It's an investment of time that pays dividends later seeing you don't have to take up precious hours while there to find a place. One spot, well rated, was the Grand Hotel Santa Maria right on the water and only a few steps from the town center. I gave them a call to make a reservation only to learn that it would be about 150 Euros a night! If I walked in and made the reservation in person, the cost remained the same, however, the clerk on the phone mentioned the rate would be lower if made over Internet. I was back on-line in a jiffy and indeed discovered that the rate was considerably lower, can you believe only 59 Euros, including breakfast. Go figure. A few days later, barring the slight delay with the hard-backed critter in the kitchen, we were finally off to absorb the experience of both new places and people.

I enjoy the drive to the coastal area south of Paestum on the Tyrrhenian Sea. It's really not far from Calitri and the roads are just fine. Especially scenic, in my estimation, is the drive along S91, which we pick up not far from Calitri, just east of Lioni. It leads south through a picturesque valley beginning near the shrine of St. Gerard in Caposele, past hilltop villages all looking worth a visit, until ending near Contursi Therme and the intersection with E45. Heading west on highway E45 takes you toward Eboli and if you continue, to Salerno. Short of Salerno, approaching Battipaglia, we turned south again, toward Agropoli, this time along SS18 through the heart of mozzarella di bufala (buffalo mozzarella) country. You can not transit this area without sampling at least one of these softball size, porcelain-white, milky cheese sensations. You will notice signs offering them for sale all along this road. Nothing like the bagged stuff we see in the States, no matter the vaunted claim, "It was just flown in!" We can never resist these 'snowballs'. As an excuse, if we even needed one, lunchtime was upon us. The restaurant we settled on appeared to be a truck-stop without trucks, just a giant lot out front. Ristorante Agri 2000 Paestum looked appealing, however, with a grand facade and an attached store. Inside the restaurant in addition to finding the freshest of oozing mozzarella di bufala, we discovered a buffet with platters and hot plates filled with delicious concoctions featuring organic farm and local produce. Some of the creations we'd not seen before and here all I wanted was mozzarella. Too good to pass up, my 'want list' suddenly expanded. Replenished and a little 'expanded' ourselves, we were soon on the road again arriving in Santa Maria di Castellabate by early afternoon. Everything considered, it had taken about two hours to get there.

Finding the four star Grand Hotel Santa Maria couldn't have been simpler since it was right on the drive into town, only 50 meters from the sea. The place appeared very empty since the onslaught of the season was still a few weeks away. We even had to roust out the desk clerk who gave us a room with a balcony on the third floor overlooking the sea. The view, a line between earth and sea, took in the Sorrentine Peninsula jutting into a blue-green sea with its touristy villages of Amalfi, Positano and suspended between sea and sky, lofty Ravello. On the horizon directly ahead was the silhouette of ever trendy Capri. We unpacked some, what there was of it, took in the room, the view and presently were on our way to investigate what the town itself was like. The weather had improved considerably as we'd gotten closer to the coast, it always seems to, but threatening clouds low over the water still bode caution. While it hadn't rained in some time we took along an umbrella just in case and headed out the door into town, a few minutes away. We walked along the sidewalk down Via Senatore Peppino Manente Communale, the main road to the town. The first trip anywhere always seems the longest because we tend to hang on, anticipating our destination around every corner. It was no different here. Thankfully, it wasn't far to Piazza Lucia where the town basically begins, it just seemed so. Being that the hour was about mid-afternoon, the town was quiet, its shops closed for the reposso (afternoon rest), a practice especially honored in the south of Italy.

The seaside town of Santa Maria di Castellabate is a fishing village of about 7000 souls. It sits a few miles from the picturesque mountaintop town of Castellabate, its namesake, where time looses conventional dimension. Castellabate lords over the port town from high above rugged hills. Like many similar southern Italian towns it is a medieval fortress town with linked houses, very much like those in Calitri, surrounding a castle for protection in ancient times. Castellabate's access to the sea was always there but not until security from the threat of sea-based marauders improved did Santa Maria grow into a vibrant fishing community. By the end of 19th century fishing and ship-building had become the principal sources of livelihood in Santa Maria di Castellabate.

These days Santa Maria attracts a lot of tourists and less fishermen due mainly to the quality of its pristine beaches and piercingly-clear waters, making it an unspoiled seaside retreat. Every year since 2003, in fact, it has received the coveted 'Blue Flag' beach award. The Blue Flag certification is awarded to coastal resorts that meet 32 stringent European criteria for high eco-friendly environmental and quality standards. From Piazza Lucia we strolled along Corso Senatore Andrea Matarazzo - the wide main street in Santa Maria di Castellabate - that parallels the coast and is lined with attractive shops, cafes, gelaterias, hotels, negozi di alimentari (small grocery stores) and several restaurants. As the street began to gradually fade into a residential area near Villa Matarazzo we turned toward the sea and shortly discovered the broad elegant Via Lungomare concourse. By this time the sun had driven away the clouds; no need for umbrellas as we blinked our way onto the avenue. This wide avenue clearly designed for walking skirted the shore and turned us south toward the little harbor of "Porte le Gatte" and on toward our hotel. Stone breakwaters dotted with fishermen wielding long poles broke up the ferocity of the pounding surf. The place was delightful and I might add at that very moment hot with the humidity of evaporating rain. We needed to stop somewhere on this lazy afternoon to relax, soak in the atmosphere and maybe enjoy a glass or two of wine. It was behind Il New Hotel Sonia that we found an outdoor sitting area. Under a shady tarpaulin adjacent to the hotel's restaurant we enjoyed a few minutes of relaxation while watching some children play in the sand. We were apparently early, not sure if by days or just hours, since service wasn't yet available. There is something about afternoons in Italy. Things are quiet and laid-back as people everywhere recoup over a meal or nap in preparation for the evening's activities. A nap was on our minds too so after a few minutes we moved on, farther along this concrete boardwalk toward the Grand Hotel Santa Maria.

We eventually came upon a seaside cafe that was open. Easily distracted, we quickly plunked ourselves into plastic captain chairs beside a crisscrossed railing separating us from the golden-colored sandy beach. Putting off the idea of wine until later, we instead ordered crispy-cold Nastro Azzurro beers, the Ferrari of Italian beers. Life is good at moments like these as we gazed from our shaded veranda perch at the mirage of distant Amalfitana, nearby waves cascaded over rocks as white globe-like buoys fought to hold position in the surf and dazed sunbathers, oblivious of the struggle, snoozed on lounge chairs. The swirl of bubbles in our glasses couldn't compete with the energy of the sea, yet both were refreshing. Beer in the afternoon has an effect on Maria Elena. Maybe it's the hops, more likely the 5% alcohol content, but the predictable result is that she always gets sleepy. Luckily the hotel was nearby, her nap only minutes away. Hers would be a difficult task, separating the illusion of mid-day dreams from the dreamy surf washed beaches of Santa Maria di Castellabate.

Later that evening we ventured back into town for dinner. We just in time to catch the sun make a glorious show as it silently disappeared into the sea. With the sun's retreat the rain quickly returned. For dinner we chose the Arlecchino Restaurante Pizzeria (Harlequin Restaurant and Pizzeria) located at the very beginning of Via Andrea Guglielmini and adjacent to le spiaggia (the beach). At the Harlequin there are two separate dining areas to choose from. One is inside a wooden structure, novel it seems to stone conscious Italy, looking very much like a log cabin on the outside. Your other choice, our choice, just steps across Via Guglielmini from the 'log cabin', was their outside eating area protected from the elements by a long domed canopy arrangement. It overlooked a wooden tree-lined concourse at the top of the beach at the moment bathed in the faint sheen of dim street lamps. It was rustic, cozier and with only a handful of patrons much more romantic as a light rain dribbled from the canvas canopy. The vacant cobbled street bordered by sand long abandoned by now sleeping children, ancient whitewashed buildings their stories long forgotten and restaurants alike shimmered in a golden misty hue. The drizzle of the night rain added a different kind of charm and a degree of seduction to the place, concealing its secrets and flaws while adding a winsome bella figura (good impression) so fundamental to Italian sensibilities and sense of worth.

While the Arlecchino featured regional cuisine such as fresh fish, Mare had her heart set on a white pizza, this one featuring 'rocket' (arugula) and parmigiano reggiano. My choice was closer to the sea but not by very much with only a few clams to take advantage of my weakness for pasta. Mine was pasta vongole (clams) to be exact (see Photo Album). A basket of crusty bread along with a bottle of Aglianico wine complemented our demure tabletop. The wine actually formed tiny crystalline sediment in our glasses, thought by some to be a sure sign of quality. Who were we to disagree? This particular bottle enjoyed a glorious rather quick death beginning with a proper salute (cheers) send-off. Old pictures along the wall indicated meals like we were enjoying had been served here many, many years. As for the harlequin, the closest we could find to one was the pizzaiolo (pizza man), the guy in charge of making the pizzas in the wood-fired oven. To an uninitiated observer like myself, along with a white t-shirt, he appeared to be sporting colorful pajama bottoms under his apron with a matching bandana cap. With a touch of pride hidden in his joking reply he denied they were pajamas above the laughter of others in the kitchen. Yes, with the help of our waiter and the slightest of encouragement from the wine I actually got into the kitchen to thank the family staff for our enjoyable meals. Nice guy that he was, we laughed together over my initiation to this dough tossing specialist in pajamas, the pizzaiolo. Maybe there was something to the name of this place after all and I'd actually discovered the harlequin. My guess was for them at least, it had been me!

We had discovered the old world atmosphere of Santa Maria di Castellabate like many before and now after a brief look had gained our bearings and an appreciation for this special place by the sea. We would return to enjoy it further at another time in another dream.

From That Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled “Santa Maria di Castellabate”.