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 รจ (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”.