Wednesday, February 29, 2012

An October Night in Bagnoli

As we exited the tunnel from the Calitri borgo into Piazza della Repubblica, the autumn night shone bright with a snow-white moon. Long shadows anchored to our feet mimed our every movement as we waved and crossed the pavement to waiting friends, Antonio and Gerardina. They had asked us to join them on an evening drive to neighboring Bagnoli Irpino, itself a small town west of Calitri. It harkened back to a similar trip years before to nearby Montella to its annual castagni (chestnut) festival. This night, little Bagnoli would exalt an elusive yet pungent fruit of the earth, believed by some to be a powerful aphrodisiac, the tartufo nero (black truffle).

We exited SS7, the main artery through this part of Campania, to begin our serpentine drive through the forested approach to Bagnoli. This forest of walnut, chestnut and beech trees, once home to brigands, is today solely the habitat of wild pigs, birds of prey, badgers, foxes and a few wolves. The bright moonlight helped guide our path as we first wound then unwound our way into town on country roads. Antonio easily found a parking spot. Fortunately for us, it was still early by festival standards and a few unclaimed spaces still remained in the cubbyhole parking lot we entered. Stairs from the lot led up to a garden park still beautiful even in the cool of autumn. Its pergola-lined central walkway, reminiscent of a whimsical Maxwell Parish painting, still hinted at how striking this space must be at the height of summer bloom.

A few streets and turns away we entered the town’s main square, Piazza Leonardo Di Capua. Bagnoli, unlike Calitri, had remained undamaged in the earthquake of 1980. To this day its medieval center, embodied in this open piazza, still encapsulates the heart of this town. Unlike many we’d seen, its inner perimeter was lined with mature trees leaving enough space to their outside to maintain a Champs Elysées-like walkway. This wide walkway, along with the trees, completely bordered the square .... trees to the inside and all types of businesses to the outside. The symmetry of the space was added to by a suspended hedge-like wall of greenery formed by the interlacing of the well-trimmed tree branches.

We slowly made our way around the piazza. Along with a floral shop, a printer, tratorria, cafes, a religious shrine or two and of course bars to lay in at, makeshift booths had been set-up. Many of these booths showcased products such as cheeses, oils and spreads featuring truffles. Even following our visit, these prized “underground mushrooms” remain for us a yet to be acquired taste, similar for instance, to getting accustomed to grappa. I’m sure that I’ll grow accustomed to the strapping taste of potent grappa long before I acquire a fondness for the musty, earthy flavor of truffles. For now, with either, we recommend moderation.

Opposite from where we had entered the square, a bonfire blazed. Unlike the historic Savonarola bonfire in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria centuries earlier, this one was fueled solely with wood. Its heat offered comfort from the nighttime chill. Some groups huddled by the brassier, while others came and went with the dancing flame. Italians are forever concerned with drafts and chills. With almost regimented fervor they don puffy parkas, hats and mittens en-masse by a date certain each year, not to be removed until another formal date. They have nothing like a groundhog as we do to make matters arbitrary. We had seen this before. Here in October, it was obviously past the do-by date. But for the surrounding architecture, you might easily confuse the scene for Sitka Alaska! In their defense, it was unseasonably cool for this time of year. Even Maria Elena, “ill-packed” and therefore ill-prepared for the unseasonable temperatures, had been forced to buy a parka while we were there. It will remain in Calitri, now part of her Italian inclement weather ensemble.

The Church of St. Margaret, dating from the sixteenth century, loomed large in one corner of the square. Oval insets, high up on either side of its Baroque-style curlicue doors, had long lost all definition. Long faded and now vanished was all evidence of what they may have once portrayed. At the foot of the stairs, in front of these doors, in the collective shadow cast by the combination of bonfire and moonlight, muffled against the cold, was a most unlikely quartet. It was its make-up that surprised. Distinct from the murals, this vibrant scene held a drummer, a harpist, a violinist and a guitarist. The percussionist straddled a single drum; the violinist stroked an amplified instrument in the shape of a dollar sign; the guitarist, looking very much like one of the Beatles, strummed his electric guitar. It was the harpist, however, who captivated my attention. Not since the K.D. Lang hit, “If I Were You”, could I recall hearing a harp in up-tempo contemporary music. Wrapped to the chin, lacking only gloves to complete her hooded and scarfed cocoon, she focused on her art with pitiless concentration, each naked finger free to flex the pliable strings. There before those church doors, she exuded her own brand of solemnity. Throughout my lengthy hesitation, in full voyeur mode standing before them, as I took in the sound wafting gently past me and on throughout the piazza, and even later, when I returned for more, she remained sober-faced, resolute and I feared, just a bit too somber. Maybe it was because she was the only woman in the group that my eyes naturally gravitated to her. Her eyes never wondered. They only had room for the vibrating strings she fed with motion … nothing like the guitarist with his perpetual smile (see photo album). Could it have been her debut with the group? I question my own theory for her contribution was clearly central and essential. I wish she had smiled - maybe I just needed one stingy expression of her pleasure.

Under the trees, along the inner perimeter, various food stations were arranged to attend to the crowd. Antonio, I’ve learned, is a strict interpreter of what it means to be a host. If he invites you somewhere, he is intent on paying. He therefore graciously got tickets for us that included choice of an appetizer, a main course, wine and of course dolce (dessert). The appetizer included cheese softened over a charcoal fire and then spread on toasted bread (see photo album) as well as bruschetta. Our main course was equally interesting. We chose the ravioli in a white cheese sauce sprinkled with, what else but, black truffles. At that moment we had no idea just how much we’d enjoy our choices. I should have anticipated our upcoming delight for the sole reason that it had been prepared and served-up by the prettiest of chefs, cloaked in black and white and for once, smiling. While the nearby harpist emoted enchantment, this slip of a girl kitchen elf had conjured a delicious blend of the familiar and the exotic – both their talents evoked of this place.

The wines and their selection were also novel. Their associated stations stretched all the way around and past the fire. A cup of your choice required from two to three tickets. You could choose from a number of noble vintages. These included wonderful ruby-red Taurasi, Fiano di Avellino (the grape behind the ancient Roman wine Apianum), ancient Greece originated Greco di Tufo and the region’s abundant Aglianico (the principal grape of ancient Rome’s famous Falerian wine), any of which here at home (when they can be found) would demand a roll of tickets! To assist with your selection, knowledgeable sommeliers, their silvered ‘tastevin’ cups dangling from chains about their necks, explained the finer points of each of these nectars. I couldn't resist the Taurasi. Adding further to the specialness of that evening, we enjoyed all our selections atop hay-bales! That’s right, good old fashioned bales of hay. A pair of stacked bales served as our table while single blocks of hay substituted as seats (see Maria Elena "at table" above). The entire occasion, with its music, festive people, harvest food, distinguished wines, fireside crowds and hay-bales under Autumn moonlight, at least for us, was definitely something special and out of our ordinary.

Memories speak ..... when we think back or hear Bagnoli mentioned in the future, we’ll also fondly recall our brief visit to the town’s Pro-Loco historical society where a photo wall showed the square outside when the trees were yet immature and in another where proud hunters bore wolves over their shoulders like scarves; visiting a social club where friendly scopa card players slapped down their picture cards in presumed triumph; that crooked and gnarly tree emerging from a wall by the town’s old fountain, undoubtedly witness to so much of its history, as well as the auctioneer beside the square's fountain barking out bids by megaphone ... "dieci, sento undici?" (ten, do I hear 11?) ... for sapling apple trees. Thanks Antonio, Gerry and the Bagnolesi as well for building new memories in us by sharing this ritual of autumn festival that is so characteristic of rural 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 “Bagnoli”.