Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tales of a Hitch-Hiker Searching for Perfection
Part IV – Time Bandit

We, all of us, may believe we've been to Italy but until we've experienced the rural countryside and its people, we've essentially been circling the airport. Rome, Florence and Venice, in any order, are no more representative of Italy than New York City, Chicago, LA or that Disneyland for adults, Las Vegas, are representative of America. Here, real America lies outside these megaplexes in the apple pie small town burgs found throughout the USA. The same carries over to Italy but forget about the apple pie and think more along the lines of torta (cake)! So once again we were off, continuing our journey south toward our home in Calitri, all along the way taking in the perfection and hopefully the reality of life in real Italia.

Departing San Marino we soon left its rolling mountainous terrain behind and headed back toward the 'leg-vein' of the A14 Autostrada running down the calf of Italy like the once upon a time seam of vintage silk hosiery. Reaching the coastal city of Fano, we took up a more westerly heading, cutting across the peninsula toward Rome but with our destination this day being the medieval hill-town of Spoleto. Spoleto lies on ancient Via Flaminia, which originates in Rome. It sits East of resilient Todi and South of Saint Francis' Assisi in the eastern Umbrian foothills of the Apennines. Inhabited since pre-history, it became a Roman settlement in 241 BC. Remains of this Roman period are still sprinkled throughout Spoleto's compact historic center.

It was mid afternoon by the time we saw the first exit sign for Spoleto. The confusion of a modern city soon stretched before us as we did our customary search, this time not only for the old part of town but for a place to stay the night. Contrary to that time-worn portrayal of manly quirks, I'm not one to hesitate about soliciting directions. I have no qualms about asking. I can explain this; I simply hate the inefficiency of being lost far more, so I pulled over and spoke with a gentleman conveniently passing by carrying his groceries. Lucky for us he spoke English, though at first he discounted his ability. Surprisingly, he confirmed we were on course to the centro storico (historic center) and recommended a stay at the Hotel dei Duchi located there. As he advised, up ahead through the arches of what appeared to be a Roman aqueduct, we made a hard right turn and ascended into the historic section of Spoleto. From there it was anyone's guess where this particular hotel was located. Our GPS assistant 'Margaret' certainly didn't know because we could provide her no address. As we rounded a corner, however, we emerged into a small square. As with most piazze (squares) in Italy, they are not complete without a church. True to form, there was a church where the Sunday afternoon Mass was about to begin (here was yet another opportunity to thank St Anthony for his intervention (read Part III). Again, I hesitated long enough to ask an approaching parishioner about the Hotel dei Duchi. She instructed me to go around the left side of the church (‘a sinistra’) and then continue straight ahead (‘dritto’) along that street. It wasn't far and by the end of the street we'd found dei Duchi. This had been easy. Easier than we'd expected, for we knew how much time it could take finding a place without reservations in advance. It being October and a week or so into the off-season had helped. They had plenty of room and for a four-star hotel, at a very affordable price. Other than ourselves, there seemed to only be a bus load of Australians on a two month tour staying there. It's superb customer service and relaxed atmosphere distinguished it as an incredible find. It was only later that we discovered the Hotel dei Duchi ranked sixth out of thirty or so similar Spoleto establishments. No wonder, for it had a true home away from home atmosphere, mostly due to the staff. This extended from the courteous manager at the reception desk, who was always there to help with our every need, through to the entire staff, all evidently concerned with the image and reputation of the Duchi. Jumping ahead to breakfast for instance, our waiter brought me a cappuccino which included a caricature of me made in the frothy cream. I’ve seen animals made from towels on cruise ships but never my face, glasses and mustache included, staring up at me from my cup! Should I say hello or take a sip?

Everything of interest in this medieval gemis accessible from the dei Duchi on foot and we wasted little time getting started. Following a brief visit to our room (see photo album), which was gorgeous and rather spacious by European standards (nothing like that unimaginative, depressing room, lit by a naked 40-watt bulb, once upon a time in Lucca!), we headed off to explore the area, eagerly joining the noisy conviviality of the street. The picturesque walkways of a medieval town soon enveloped us. Roman ruins intermingled with shops offering all sorts of modern finery including art pieces and beckoning restaurants. Amidst the street theater of acquaintances hugging and kissing the air beside each cheek, we wondered and quickly came upon the Piazza del Mercato where a bazaar of sorts was underway, then along Via dei Duchi lined with medieval storefronts selling local products, the rose-windowed Cathedral of Santa Maria dell'Assunta, the nearby Ostrogoth Castle and the Caio Melisso Theater where events for the Festival dei Due Mondi (Festival of the Two Worlds) take place each summer. All that was lacking were the premature old women and widows, perpetually dressed in black, so commonplace in the South of layered Italy.

It was while walking in Spoleto, that memory once again turned the wheel of remembrance in me. Have you ever thought about going back in time, or better still, having someone from the past hang out with you in present day? I've thought about this from time to time, triggered by an event or where I was at the moment, as at this moment in Spoleto. I'm talking about drafting a subject from way-back and showing this time-traveler something like a light bulb or an automobile. Just imagine Beethoven's reaction listening to an iTune? The complexity of the technology as in an automobile, for instance, would I think be like having an ant try to comprehend its place in the universe (aren't we still working on that?). Maybe it was that 1949 Bing Crosby movie “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (trust me, I first saw it much, much later!) or more likely that mid '50s TV series hosted by Walter Cronkite, “You Are There”, that planted the seed in me. “You Are There” took an entire network newsroom on a figurative time-warp each week reporting on past historic American and World events in dramatic recreations. Modern dressed reporters, holding ‘mics’, would describe the action as if in real time and interview central characters like Caesar or firefighters at the Hindenburg dirigible disaster in each thrilling episode. Wikipedia reminded me how...

“Cronkite, from his New York anchor desk, would give a few words on what was about to happen. An announcer would then give the date and the event, followed by a loud and boldly spoken "You Are There!" At the end of the program, after Cronkite summarized what happened, he’d remind viewers, "What sort of day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times... and you were there."

I was hooked, my mind plucked from the present to wonder in time. My time bandit penchant has been with me many times since. I’ve imagined what it had to have been like to walk Paestum's Via Sacra amidst the bustle of daily life among the temples, feel the cool metal of a sickle-shaped strigil scrape my skin in the baths of Pompeii or cross the mosaic threshold of the House of the Fawn and hear the trickle of the atrium’s fountain. This type of thing had to have had an influence on me. In high school, for instance, I recall a history class project where I interviewed classmates and asked them the following: “If you could go back in time to some historic event and observe it, what would that event be and why have you chosen it?” Using an old fashioned reel-to-reel tape recorder I captured their responses. Sure it was geeky by today’s standards but some of the choices and their reasoning were amazing. It was fun though and if I have it right, time travel got me a good grade!

This predilection was with me even then as we walked past a Roman theater, circa 90 AD. It smelled of time. I wondered what the performances had been like and what the concessions may have offered (dormice?) and on and on and on. Where was Cronkite when I needed him? A little further along, as we approached the Santa Maria Cathedral by way of a grand avenue, I happened to peer through the iron rails of a fence into the cool privacy of a lush garden. I was taken by surprise to among all places come upon a robotic lawnmower going about its task (see photo album). We were joined by others equally fascinated to watch it travel back and forth, reversing its direction with each obstruction it encountered. The juxtaposition of this ultramodern device, in this garden, in this medieval setting, was striking. My mind slipped into the long past to visualize this scene if it had unfolded then. "Sorcery" would have been a common comment captured by Cronkite's man on the scene. Matters would have gone viral fast - a burning of the whirring demonic thing surely. Biased by superstition, no amount of explanation, laid on ears ill-equipped to comprehend, would have sufficed.

We rarely take our dinner in a hotel. Though the staff praised their cuisine to high heaven, we prefer to sample the local fare in a town’s restaurants. We’d seen an English couple in our hotel and while continuing our rambles through the town later that evening crossed paths with them once again. They had a few days of Spoleto experience on us so when they recommended we try Ristorante Apollinare, we didn’t hesitate. Located in a building built into Roman walls and once a former 12th century Franciscan convent, it retained the charm, elegant ambience and intimacy of the past. We enjoyed a quiet dinner selected by the chef under the fading sheen of autographed photos of past celebs like Italy’s Sophia Loren and Terence Hill. We first enjoyed puffed pastry with Umbrian cheese in truffle sauce followed by sliced pork with pecorino cheese and apples. Dessert, a real surprise, consisted of yogurt and prune paste topped with chopped pistachios. Free to alliterate, I'd say Spoleto had been splendid! It is a city of visible history and telling from the caliber of our hosts in the Duchi and Apollinare, it will continue to enjoy a remarkably success story based upon its antiquity and beauty, graced with hospitality.

It was a very nice room indeed with a spectacular bath, nevertheless, we decided to move on the next morning. Barring too many more stops, we'd make Calitri by late afternoon. Once again on the road, we made for the A1 Autostrada then circumnavigated Rome as we roared-on southward as best you can in a little Fiat. It was around Aquino that prominent mountain bluffs off to our East first began to appear. Ahead, another dozen miles along this range, loomed a mountain peak crowned by the very visible Abbazia di Montecassino (Abbey of Monte Cassino). During WWII, aerial bombardment, artillery and ensuing ground battles obliterated this Benedictine abbey and the town of Cassino at the mountain's base. British, New Zealand, Canadian, Indian, Gurkha, Moroccan, Polish, Free French, Italians Royalists, American and German forces clashed here for months. It was a Pyrrhic victory in the truest sense consuming 55,000 Allied soldiers and 20,000 Germans, either killed or wounded. The somber graves of thousands of Polish soldiers, each marked by white crosses and a candle, lie just below the abbey mount (see photo album) in visible testament to the ferocity of this 1944 siege. We had passed this historic monument many times in the past but now I wanted to see it.

We sigged and zagged up the steep airy mountainside once awash in blood, the scene of so much agony and death. The views became more spectacular with every turn of our wheels. Snow topped mountains loomed farther east while to the west another range and whiffs of misty clouds hid the sea. The abbey, a physical manifesto to Italian artisanship, has been totally restored to its original majesty. St. Benedict himself founded this monastery and it was here above the ruins of a pagan temple to Apollo that the orders of Benedictine Rule were first written. It is a massive structure. From the outside, its lofty white stone walls emote the intimidation of a true fortress. An arched castle-like entry with enormous metal doors, close by a sign proclaiming "PAX", served as the entry. Inside were a series of stately courtyards and gardens. Arched open colonnades divided these spaces, which showcased ornate fountains and statuary. In the central plaza a staircase led to three bronze basilica doors. In 1066, while the English were occupied holding-off the Normans at the Battle of Hastings, portions of these doors were being cast in Constantinople. Inside, the ornate detail of this basilica is staggering. The richly adorned altar is overshadowed by the 5000 pipes of a massive Baroque-style organ. Above these in the spandrels of the domed ceiling are depictions of the vows taken by all Benedictines - Chastity bearing a lamp, Stability with anchor and column, Poverty leaning on a cross while dropping money and Obedience straining to listen. Looking back from the altar, my attention was caught by a massive fresco on the wall above the entry to the Basilica entitled "The Benedictine Paradise". It is a brightly-colored crowded scene of St Benedict in a misty halo of religious mystery surrounded by a host of monks, nuns, bishops, and popes (see photo album). Above this clearly evident masterpiece in the triangular spaces either side of a window flanked by putti angle heads are the patriarch to Christian and Muslim alike, Abraham. Opposite him is a frightened Moses, tablets at his feet, shielding himself from the radiant glory of God. Notably missing throughout our visit was the presence of any religious. A property this massive could have easily housed hundreds but when I asked a guard how many there were, it was a surprise to hear him reply - sedici (sixteen)! We drove away wondering if the golden age of the monastic lifestyle, epitomized in this structure and its purpose, had ended in a triumph of secular modernity? It would have been wonderful, putting dissimilar eras aside, if Abbot Benedict could have put his quill down and related his thoughts to us on this subject. Could even he have comprehended?

It is never too early to reminisce on life's events. We spent the remaining final hours of this journey, begun days earlier in Ramstein, Germany (or had it been Dover, Delaware?) reviewing our experiences - a bus trip through the Alps to Vicenza, a subdued Riccioni by the sea, a rainy day in lofty San Marino, splendid Spoleto and that day's journey to the lofty heights of immortal Montecassino Abbey. Our search for perfection, worthy of the Borg (please read Part I) was well begun. We had unearthed gleaming nuggets. Here the alluvial soil, watered with time, is rich with the treasured ability to imagine then as now. This is our time, our time in Bella Italia and the world. As we travel and attempt to imagine what it was like when the original inhabitants occupied the ancient spaces we explore today, we only follow in the footsteps of many before us who have done the same. Many have been here before us and many will follow. Finite as we are, let us breath-in the patina of our world and enjoy what time here we have.

Later that afternoon, as I inserted a long key into the door located in the shade of the tiny courtyard we think of as ours and entered our piece of history in Calitri, I turned to Maria Elena and channeling Cronkite said, “Finally, You are there.” to which she replied, as she always does, "Hi house!". We were home at last to continue our walk through time together.


From That Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled “Search for Perfection - Part IV”.