On the Road to Nowhere
Tuesday, December 31, 2013
On the Road to Nowhere
The gently folding waves of a blue jade-streaked sea greeted us as we arrived at the port. It was not exactly the intended shoreline we had expected to see following our departure from Calitri. I'll have to explain the snafu as it unfolded that Sunday morning, which found us first headed to Naples and then by ferry for a leisurely escape to Ischia. There were four of us; myself, Maria Elena and our stateside friends, Dan and Roberta, who were staying with us in Calitri.
Calitri, our Italian address, is located in the extreme eastern part of Campania. It lies within out-the-window sight of the neighboring Italian region of Basilicata, sitting as it does at the convergence of three provinces: Foggia, Potenza and Avellino. Downtown Naples lies a little over an hour away on the coast to our west. Our immediate objective was the main Naples port of Molo Beverello, today a bustling tourist port but late in WWII known as 'Fleet Landing', arrayed with warships from the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet. There we'd purchase our tickets to paradise.
We began with elegant zigs and zags down from our towering perch high atop the ridge that cradles Calitri in its side. The fun in beginning any trip from Calitri this way is that you can almost imagine yourself at the Monaco Grand Prix, no pun intended. All that's missing are some hay bales by the side of the road. Everything else was there from blind turns to the possibility of instant flight off the side of the road through an invisible door on silent hinges into the Ofanto River valley beautifully arrayed far below. The return trip has nowhere near the excitement. The frequent, quick, 180 degree snap turns to reverse direction as you gradually make the climb call for first gear all the way, meaning slow journeyman's work, nowhere near the fun. But maybe I'm getting too deep in the telling. Let me just conclude by saying we were on our way, dizzy though we may have been after all the turns. Arrived on SS7, at the base of the plateau, we hesitated just long enough for gas before really departing on this adventure and an adventure it would become. As those immortalized words of Elwood Blues put it, with "a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes (not really) ... and wearing sunglasses", we were on our way.
It's an enjoyable ride to Naples. That is unless you find yourself behind an eighteen-wheeler or are unexpectedly waved over by the Carabinieri for a random document inspection, or worse, both! Whether stopped or otherwise delayed, the scenery remains dramatic. We soon passed anvil-topped Cariano and the new town of Conza della Campania in the shadows of its parent village destroyed years ago by an earthquake. The lovely though lethargic Lago di Conza soon appears before reaching the sprawling town of Lioni. Following Lioni, we enter an enchanting valley, my favorite part of the trip. Up and over a few more ridges and you get your first glimpse. This sprawling valley is blanketed by chestnut tree forests ranging to the heights of bordering mountains that together do their best to conceal villages like Montella and Bagnoli. Across the impressive highway on concrete stilts, something Italians are masters at constructing, you shoot past tiny Cassano sitting on a pinhead of a ridge so close you can just about see inside windows. Eight or so gallerie (tunnels) later you reach Atripalda, which signals me that we are just about to join the A16 toll road. From there, it was a smooth ride to the outskirts of Naples summarily heralded by a giant Ikea lollypop signboard smack in the center of your windshield.
To get across the city to the busy port with the least agita, guaranteed to happen from the unbridled traffic so rightfully associated with Naples, we planned first to return our rental to Capodichino Airport. No need to pay for a car when we wouldn't be using it for a while; I'd get another on our return. With aircraft on approach to landing over the Ikea ‘outer marker' it's not far at all to Capodichino. Following the turn-in, we decided on a taxi instead of taking a bus to the port. With four of us along, the economy and efficiency of this decision made it the easy no-hassle choice. Only later did the significance of this decision come home to us.
The taxi stand was just across the street from the rental return lot. We were traveling light so it made for an easy walk. Arriving at the head of the queue, which consisted of just us, we explained where we wanted to go and negotiated with the driver. How should I describe him? Tommaso appeared to be in his mid 40s. Oddly, he sported a bright, long-sleeve white shirt. No tee-shirt for this guy. Then again it was Sunday and just maybe he had been to Mass or was soon headed to mommas for dinner - really good Italian boys do both! He had a muscular build topped with a head distinguished by a strong face and short thinning hair. It came together to endow him with an alert air and an adventuresome, almost swashbuckling look – seemingly something you’d want as a Neapolitan taxi operator. There wasn't much haggling on our part once we realized that what he was asking for was 25 Euros. We readily agreed especially once we realized that this was the total cost, not per individual. With four of us along, this was a good deal. We quietly congratulated ourselves on how adept at bargaining we had been. For all I knew, just as the price of an espresso in an Italian cafe is regulated by the government, this may have been a set fee from which he couldn't deviate. We were prepared to pay more but as you will see that would just have to wait for later.
It was just about then, after our light bags had been placed in the trunk, that Mare picked up on something she thought strange. She doesn't miss much. Why would a group of taxi drivers, undoubtedly professionals in the byways of Naples, be in a heavy discussion on how exactly you'd get from the airport to the port? It was curious all right, though later when she mentioned it, I hadn't even noticed. A few minutes later we were on our way. We had somehow managed to arrive during the lengthy festival of San Gennaro. Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples, was a priest from Benevento somewhat inland from Naples who later became Bishop of Naples. He had been executed during the persecution of Christians under Emperor Diocletian. Each year, on the anniversary of his martyrdom, his blood is exposed to the faithful. They eagerly await proclamation of the renewed miracle as a vial of his blood, preserved since the 4th century, returns to liquid form. The faithful believe that failure of the blood to liquefy is an omen that soon some tragedy will befall the city and the region. There have been rare occasions when the anticipated miracle has not occurred. The most recent being in 1980, a year when a devastating earthquake crippled the region. Calitri was especially hard hit. In Calitri today, evidence of the devastation remains visible in the shells of destroyed homes close beneath the walls of the Gesualdo Castle poised above the Borgo. The carnival-like San Gennaro festivities, still underway, took the form of parades, more solemn processions, street-side market booths crammed with every sort of item, along with the requisite throngs of people. It was a challenge, ably countered by the persistent honk of the taxi’s horn, as we tried to safely make our way through the crowds and onto the Tangenziale highway through Naples. Tommaso, a first class scholar of gesture, whether by horn or hand, was unfazed. For us this was concerning, a reality show in the making. For him this was normality, simply another day behind the wheel at the “office”. Taking it all in stride, he began mumbling about something. It was about then that I thought we heard him mention a BOMBA (BOMB)!
At first, I didn't understand exactly what he was talking about. As he continued to talk and maneuver through streets clotted with life, I vaguely began to comprehend his meaning. Yes, it had something to do with a bomb. A bomb, I thought. Oh yeah, I understood. He was talking about a bombola or gas cylinder, the kind we have in our home in Calitri. These are cylinders of liquid gas, which we use to fuel what is commonly referred to as a cooker or gas stovetop in our kitchen. They are larger than the gas bottles we are familiar with connected to barbecues here at home. Besides being a little taller, another big difference between the States and Italy is that Italians are allowed to use them inside their homes, something safety types and insurance companies here have fought and succeeded in preventing. In my superior RosettaStone broken Italian I tried to express that yes, I understood what he was referring to, a bombola. As he bested another car by cutting him off as we turned and I marveled at his daring finesse, he continued his rant about a bomb and shook his head. From his body language I quickly understood that he was being emphatic. How could I miss it? No, it had nothing to do with a bombola, which with my as yet limited Italian vocabulary now exhausted, could only mean that he was trying to tell us something about a bomb, the real kind, the nasty bad kind.
With the celebration of San Gennaro still underway, with all these crowds of people about, my next interpretation of what he was trying to tell us was that a bomb had detonated somewhere in Naples. God forbid. Images of the terrorist bomb attack at a recent Boston Marathon rapidly refreshed in my mind. Was he trying to tell us that there had been a bombing? Was a terrorist cell on the loose somewhere in Naples? Bad as it seemed, what a day we’d picked to visit the big city, however briefly. When I asked if this had anything to do with terrorismo (terrorism) he shook his head side to side and mentioned the Guerra Mondiale (World War). That’s when things first started to come together. This mystery had something to do with a WWII bomb! And here all these years Maria Elena has said I’d never make a good detective! How wrong was she?
Naples was the most bombed Italian city in World War II and heavily bombed at that. It began over a year before the American entry into the war when in November 1940 RAF light twin engine Bristol-Blenheim bombers from Malta came up the coast and made their debut appearance over the city. Their primary targets were the port facilities teaming with shipping and warships. Over 200 strikes occurred between 1940 and 1944 with an amazing 180 of those attacks occurring in 1943 alone. The largest raid occurred on 4 August 1943. Can you imagine the aluminum overcast that day, a shadow cast by 400 American B-17 heavy bombers each with a bomb load of approximately 6000 pounds? Could one of them have been a dud?
Tommaso gradually confirmed the supposition I’d steadily inched toward. A bomb dropped in WWII had been unearthed that morning. I don’t know where the bomb was found but it was definitely somewhere between us and the port. Most likely, some excavation work had uncovered this remnant from our forefather’s past. More than likely, it was near the port itself since it had been such a high priority wartime target. We learned that luckily it hadn’t gone off. At least not yet. Demolition crews were likely on their way to the scene. I could imagine that scene, straight from the movies, as a sweaty trembling hand decided on whether to cut the red or black wire! As a safety precaution, in case it decided to detonate after all these years, streets had been barricaded in the immediate vicinity of the bomb. Who knows, while the odds were low, my mother may have worked on that very fuse. Although not a "Rosie the Riveter" type fastening aluminum skin to the fuselage of B-17s destined to fly over Naples someday, she had done her part working in a factory making bomb fuses. I recall her showing me one once. Seems she brought one home as an unauthorized souvenir. Luckily the fuses themselves were not explosive especially since I recall that the thing was kept in a drawer in our dining room where, white shirt or not, we did sit with momma for dinner after Mass on Sundays!
An inevitable traffic backup had so clogged the city that now traffic was approaching a standstill. The discussion with the other drivers, that Mare had noticed, had been all about how to get around the growing traffic snarl. The question remained could we? Tommaso would try his best. We had no idea just how determined he could be as we finally departed the area of the airport onto the tangenziale, into the city. From there it wasn’t long before he exited and we came to a full stop facing a line of bumper-to-bumper impenetrable traffic. Slow as the going was, let me describe a few minutes of this mad-hatter adventure turn of events.
With the precise hand of a surgeon clutching a scalpel, Tommaso gripped his wheel and made an exploratory incision into the vein of that first lane of traffic. It presented no openings, little opportunity. With scant hesitation, he rolled into the bumper-to-bumper wall of cars. His arm out the window as if shooing a dog away, he signaled his determination to continue his advance. The vehicle he was assaulting gave no ground, would not yield to his (our) advance. As if a gauntlet had been thrown, a challenge extended and accepted, a faceoff ensued to be resolved in creeps and jerks. This was war, a war of wills. The dual literally 'rolled' on. There was no eye contact, no conversation. His movement alone expressed his resolve as his opponent remained resolute, unwilling to give ground. The driver of what I'll refer to as the accosted vehicle advanced on his aggressor until Mare could have put her hand out the window and touched it if she dared. With his hands again clutching the wheel, unable to flail his arms for added expression, his recourse was his horn. It was the Monte Carlo Grand Prix in reverse. Speed was out of the question. The skill was in the maneuvering, sometimes imperceptible as it was and requiring nerve. Some of us clenched teeth, others closed their eyes. His driving philosophy appeared to be that driving was a tease, his attitude, go ahead and hit me if you dare.
As hectic and chaotic as driving in Naples is, there are surprisingly few accidents. Each operator somehow knows his limits, but like a card player in a high stakes game, holds his secret close - his secret, just how far he's willing to go before yielding. Their daily joists on the streets of Naples continually redefine and tune their limits. Personal wins and losses ensue. All that is missing is some sort of placard of wins and losses posted on the side of their cars like fighter jets, bombers and submarines keep running score of kills or missions on their sides in times of war. Only dents and scratches recorded defeats, though depending on your viewpoint, they might possibly also signify victories. In a way, this was war on a personal level. Had this become personal? Had the four of us suddenly been forgotten, reduced to observers, potentially accident victims? Were masculine pride, personal honor, or perhaps some twisted form of machismo in play here? It was amazing to watch, nerve-racking to experience. In the back seat, Mare clutched Roberta's leg. Our driver was attempting either vehicular suicide or a Neapolitan form of vehicular anarchy. We were hard pressed to decide at the moment. Metal on metal was inches, only moments away. Neither yielded. No one blinked, at least not at first. It was Tommaso’s relentless advance that eventually won out. With little alternative but to hit us, the offended yielded to the gatecrashing interloper!
This was no win, however, since we continued to only inch forward. Tommaso soon exited to try another avenue of approach in his own relentless attack on the port. From one place to another he continued trying to reach the port only to be stopped by additional traffic jams. As he literally skirted the problem, he would even pay tolls in his attempt to advance our position from another direction. At one point he made an exceedingly bold move that scared us to death. We were in the far left lane of traffic, though I guess “traffic” implies movement, which there was little of. Why he had pushed and persisted into the far left lane we did not know. We couldn't read his mind. Maybe there was a stop ahead and a need to turn left. What he mumbled in Italian was lost to the disharmony of horn blasts and the whoosh of traffic headed in the opposite direction, beyond the median. We were incredulous when he veered to the left, mounted the curb of the median and entered the opposite lane facing oncoming traffic! Only guard rails could have deterred him of which there were none. He had his mission, he was driven. It was surprising how much 25 Euros could underwrite in determination! Avoiding first one approaching vehicle then dodging another amidst the blare of horns, he headed for an exit ramp, which of course favored the oncoming traffic. Undeterred, he sped to the exit ramp, performed a rapid 120 degree turn to the left onto the ramp, all the while causing other vehicles entering the ramp to halt. In our white-knuckled ashen states we were dumbfounded and speechless. Miraculously, there were no collisions. We relaxed some, but only slightly, as we sped down the ramp apparently headed for another try at the port.
Tommaso seemed undeterred. Unlike nearby Vesuvius known for eruptions, there was none evident here in the likes of sweat erupting on his snowy white shirt. He remained cool – maybe there was value in being the driver verses passenger. He’d tried all the routes he could think of, certainly employing any advice he'd received from the other drivers before we'd departed. His fallback position was to seek more advice. Pulling over to the side of the road, he talked with a maintenance crew. They confirmed that the city was basically locked down; the snarls of traffic visible evidence of this. For an irresolute moment we thought we were stuck. Once he understood the scope of the problem, combined with the fact that in all his attempts we had made no progress, he suggested we return to the airport. It was then that I suggested that he try for Pozzuoli. Maria Elena and I had been there once before and knew that ferries regularly departed from there to Ischia.
Pozzuoli sits on the Phlegrean Peninsula, a headland that juts into the Gulf of Pozzuoli as part of the Bay of Naples. It lies just west of Naples. It was here where Saint Gennaro, mentioned earlier, was martyred. We had already come close! From the airport, it is about a 30 minute drive to Pozzuoli. We were back at square one. Fortunately, we hadn’t taken a bus to the port from the airport or attempted to drive there on our own. If we had, we would most likely still have been locked in traffic, compounded by the fact that once in the snarl there would be no way back. Luckily we hadn’t. We’d also survived a potential bomb blast and auto crash. It had to be a walk in the park from here. Pitifully easy, sure, but at what renegotiated cost? We soon learned that from the airport to Pozzuoli would be considerably more costly. Curse those B-17s!
Tommaso counted on his fingers as adept as a Bedouin trading camels at a bazaar. As though using an abacus, he quickly arrived at a new fee to take us around to Pozzuoli. His renegotiated number was 110 Euros! Renegotiated, however broad its meaning, may be a misnomer here since it usually involves give and take. In this case, it was far more 'take' but then the alternative was unacceptable. It would have proven unacceptably far more expensive to find a place by the airport and stay the night, all the while paying for unoccupied rooms on Ischia. Our swashbuckler had us over the proverbial barrel. He knew we had little recourse and about then indulged me with a smile. I expect that with that haul and the fact that the roads were essentially impassible, our driver took the rest of the day off. But decorum reigned. No ugly Americans here! Oh well, I guess it is all in keeping with the main tenant of social Darwinism - "Survival of the Wealthiest!
Following those earlier, most tortuous attempts to nowhere, we reached the Port of Pozzuoli in less time than it takes guacamole to turn brown. On our way through town, Tommaso pointed out a small prison where in 1974 iconic Italian actress Sophia Loren, having cut financial corners, once spent 17 days of a 30 day sentence for tax evasion. After all we had been through, I felt like dropping him off for a temporary stay there myself. It was the sight of sea that put me out of the idea. The sight of a ferry at dockside kept my spirits afloat. Lovely Ischia was less than a horizon away now. At portside we settled up. By this time, I felt Tommaso should have been paying us for the mental anguish suffered and the imminent threat of bodily harm endured! I softened considerably though when I thought how he’d tried his best to reach the port and hadn’t easily given up. For him this had almost been a routine day, while for us it made an indelible memory. In the end, we don’t remember days do we, we remember moments. Our trip had been one of those memorable moments, a case study in taxi mania, big enough for the record book.
From that Rogue Tourist,
Posted by Paolo and Maria Elena at 11:37 AM
Saturday, November 30, 2013
We had a travel plan in mind and were just about to leave when our friends in Rome called and as the saying goes, “everything went to hell in a hand-basket”, but then it really didn’t. Let me explain. We hadn’t bought our bus tickets for our planned trip from Calitri to Rome yet but were just about to when my cellphone rang. Had it rung a few hours later, we would have at least been out the cost of the tickets, or worse, been on our way up the A1 Autostrada toward Roma! Our friends, Dan and Roberta, had been staying with us in Calitri. At the end of their stay, they headed off to enjoy a week in Rome. The apartment they had rented reportedly had two bedrooms and if we’d like, why not come up later in the week and join them. There materialized at least three glitches with this wonderful offer relayed to us during that auspicious cellphone call. First, there was a bus and rail strike planned in Rome for the days we would be there; secondly, their apartment was 40 minutes outside of town with only expensive taxi service available during the strike, but worst of all, they’d discovered that their apartment had only one bedroom! Maria Elena had taken the call and after hearing just the first impediment to an otherwise ideal opportunity to get away, had already nixed the idea of taking this vacation within a vacation even with Rome in the offing. Though set to go, we found ourselves with no place to go. We needed a Plan B!
Only a few weeks earlier we had visited Ischia, itself a wonderful place. It was in the town of San Angelo, at the end of the line by way of an overfilled bus from our hotel, that we first heard of Sperlonga. Over beers, we were taking a leisure break from the heat outside the Conte Hotel, when we met Pierre Luigi who worked there. He was serving us cooling Nastro Azzurro’s when he mentioned what he described as a beautiful “white Saracen village”, bringing to mind the village upholstery of the Middle East. For future reference I jotted it down not realizing just how near that future would be. Referring to a map, we found Sperlonga clinging to the coast about midway between Napoli and Roma, just north of the hectic port-town of Gaeta. So with our urge to travel intact, it was early the next morning that we headed off to Sperlonga, our newfound Plan B. We were in no particular hurry so we went the slow way, though I doubt there really is a fast way to get there. All told, it took about three hours accounting for lunch and a few missed turns on my part and some due to our GPS Margaret's insistence. Oh well, whoever said a plan would ever go as envisioned?
I had made a reservation at what to our surprise we discovered was a beautiful four star hotel. We found it overlooking an enchanting pure expanse of sea that calmly washed a long crescent shaped beach within sight of Sperlonga. Two hundred meters from this inviting beach the Hotel Grotta di Tiberio sat amidst an ancient olive orchard. It proved to be an idyllic refuge during our stay. From our balcony looking off across these ancient trees, heavy with the fruit of their upcoming harvest, the panoramic silhouette of Sperlonga, a few hundred meters to one side, dominated the near horizon. This countryside south of Rome is referred to as the Sud Pontino. Sperlonga, also known as La Perla della Costa Pontina (The Pearl of the Pontine Coast), is one of its standout seaside resorts. Even today, the Sud Pontino remains an unspoiled land of many ancient hidden treasures. We were about to learn why Sperlonga was indeed that rare find, that treasured pearl.
A prominent feature of our view toward nearby Sperlonga was the Torre Truglia tower built in 1532 by the Spanish over the remains of a Roman coastal lookout tower. With piracy so widespread beginning from the 9th century on, this tower served as a lookout against the Saracens and other marauding pirates who too frequently raided Italian coastal villages. The most famous of these took place on a summer day in 1534, when even with the tower, it fell victim to a Turkish sacking by the infamous Barbarossa who unsuccessful attempted to kidnap the beautiful Countess Giulia Gonzaga for his sultan's harem. The tower's square base rests on an older circular platform thought to date back to the Romans in addition to remains believed to be of the 'il Trullo’ lighthouse, which came later, and from which Torre Truglia takes its name. Unlike the many coastal towers we've seen in the past, this tower had a modern look about it, some of it certainly due to repairs and rebuilds over time. Jutting skyward from atop a rocky promontory beside Sperlonga's sheltered marina, smooth whitewashed sides matching the look of the town coat its unique square shape. Support buttresses, like boosters on a space launch vehicle, angle up its sides for added support. The pirates are gone, yet the tower's dominate presence, an iconic symbol of Sperlonga, remains.
As was true for pirates of old, Sperlonga remains a point of passage to inland villages – an opening to the sunny lands and seascapes of southern Italy with its distinctive blend of Mediterranean, even African cultures. We may have been confused with Pierre Luigi's description of Sperlonga. Though it was indeed awash in white, as white as an ivory soap, it had a distinct Greek look about it. Add a touch of blue here and there as it sat there on its promontory shimmering in the heat and it could easily be confused with Greece's Santorini. Likewise, I'm now sure the Saracen part of Pierre Luigi's description had to do with the pirates, not the architecture. Like pirates, we needed to seek out the distinctive hidden treasures of Sperlonga for ourselves, but first, we wanted to walk that inviting beach arrayed before us.
Unlike most things in Italy, Italian beaches are well organized and efficiently run. While free beach access still exists, by far the private beach clubs, called stabilimenti, dominate its stretches of sand. Their colorful umbrella shaded sun-beds, by row and column approaching military precision, stretch from the water's edge up the beach to dressing cabanas, refreshment stands, even the occasional beach volleyball court. As I've said, this is commonplace, the everyday norm. What was different here was the amazingly clear clean water along with the fine white sand. Though close to big-city overpopulated Rome and Naples, I believe this is one of the finest beaches to be found anywhere in Italy. Maria Elena certainly thought so! While it was hot that day, it had to have been comic relief to have watched as I tried to dunk myself in the sea. While I remain an inept professional amateur, Maria Elena being from seaside Newport was and will forever remain much more adept at it. Her goading and an occasional splash in my direction did me in, or in this instance, got me in, goose bumps notwithstanding! Once I'd taken the plunge, as is always the case, all was well as I soaked in the salty brine, which was notably saltier than the Atlantic. It was only the beckoning appeal of the Torre Truglia tower, connected to lofty Sperlonga by an arched causeway, that eventually got us out of the water and headed into town by way of this sandy beachfront.
A brief walk along the beach later, we entered beautiful Sperlonga overlooking the Gulf of Gaeta from the cliff face of Mount San Magno. Like its tower, it is a town awash in white. Narrow alleyways that climb and fall on the steep headland melt shape and color into a fairytale vertical village. After exploring the tower briefly, we crossed the connecting bridge onto terraces above the sea into the centro storico, a charming tangle of houses that cling to each other as if afraid to slide off the cliff. Without a map in this tangle of houses, we had no idea where we were or where exactly we were headed. Many of the streets weren't much more than stone staircases. Up seemed to be the best route. As in Calitri, houses in this vertical village were tightly clustered into a maze of warren-like streets where a simple turn might bring you to unexpected views or an occasional piazza. This ancient hive contained many tempting restaurants, too numerous to sample during our brief visit. A momentary refreshment stop at Bar Nibbio in Piazza della Libertà got us oriented, though the cool Prosecco may have helped. It was here that our waiter suggested we try Ristoranti Gli Archi for dinner. On the move again, we were wondering down Corso San Leone when we came upon a group of men engrossed in a lively game of Scopa (Broom), where the ‘Ori’ cards and especially the seven of that suit are best to have! Their colorful gibes and rebukes as winning hands are 'swept' from the table make it delightful to stand by and watch it unfold. It was across the street from their banter that we came upon the charming Ristorante Corallo, an elegant restaurant with a fantastic view down below to the very beach we had just traversed. Everything about the Corallo was also white … the tablecloths, the walls, the chairs, even the outside awning. Proud of its heritage, old pictures of earlier times in Sperlonga adorned the walls. We chatted with the owner. She was an American who had come to Sperlonga and fallen in love with not only the place but with a 'Sperlongiani' who at the time owned one of the beach stabilimenti! Together they had moved up off the beach to this culinary loft all in white (see photo album).
That evening we returned to the old town for dinner. With Ristorante Corallo closed we headed for Gli Archi (The Arches). This traditional family-run establishment though small in size with only six to eight tables was big on atmosphere. We discovered it tucked in a small alley-like courtyard surrounded by certifiably ancient houses. It was both welcoming and romantic, for inside, apart from a few other couples enjoying an authentic Italian dinner experience, we were alone. The hewed comfort of aged stone arches cast their spell over our seafood dinner, for a wine and seafood evening it would be. For starters, we began with savory citrus marinated anchovies and an order of zuppa di cozze (mussel soup). Then, for both of us it was on to risotto seafood entrees. Mare thought the risotto a bit too salty and suspected that they had treated the rice with an over amount of the seafood broth. You could almost taste the sea, which we’d already agreed was especially briny. We could have remained seated there all evening, and they expect you to, but we needed to be off to catch the Roma-Napoli Series-A soccer match on a big screen TV at a nearby bar. Our waiter, Romano, pointed us in the right direction when I inquired where best to see the game. We root for the Naples team, but being in strange territory, midway between Rome and Naples, we had to be careful about our allegiances. It was a small Neapolitan pennant over the bar that told us we were in friendly territory after all! Unfortunately, there was little cheering that night for Napoli went down to defeat, 2-0.
Close to Rome as it is, Sperlonga was in ancient times, as today, a Roman getaway spot. Emperor Tiberius (42 BC - 37 AD) created a magnificent summer villa in the area, which was lost and remained so until uncovered in 1957. Much like Paestum, it was accidently discovered during road construction. It included a seaside cavern (spelunca in Latin), from which Sperlonga later derived its name when people moved to a nearby promontory to escape death from the unhealthy marshes and Saracen attack. We found Tiberius’ getaway just south of town, a short ride or walk on the beach from our hotel. For the first time the meaning of Hotel Grotta di Tiberio became clear to us ...
My name is Tiro and like my father and mother I too am a slave. Though I have never been there, I recall hearing of a place called Germania, where my father had been taken from. Momma says their courtship at first had been little more than an occasional glance, followed by a few brief trysts in the storage room off the kitchen before the Master sanctioned their union. There are but the two of us now. Papa died a few years ago when part of the great Flacca road tunnel he’d been repairing collapsed. I am fortunate, however, that my mother works in the kitchens of this great villa by the sea. Like the simple comfort I feel when I roll over to a new position in my bed, I’m comforted by the thought that I can always count on something to eat, however meager it might be at times. This too is my home, though really not a home but a place where I too, the gods willing, will grow up to someday serve as a house slave to Great Master Tiberius, just as my parents had served my master’s mother, Domina Livia Drusilla, before him. Though I am still young, only 9, I already love to help-out with the men’s chores. Even now, every morning, I help with feeding the fish in the great sea pens before the huge grotto on the shore. With the arrival of Agesander, Athenedoros and Polydoros from Rhodes, I also help fetch the artists their tools and monitor the torches so that the work ordered by Master Tiberius to decorate the grotto can continue. How strange the one-eyed thing is they call Polyphemus, the she-monster Scylla devouring the sailors of the stone ship and the other things these strange speaking men work to free from the stone. I asked momma what manner of thing is this? She says only that papa would know since he is now with the gods. I shall pray to him. I shall also pray that no harm comes to my Master from these things of stone. ...
Tiberius is the same Roman emperor mentioned in the Bible. Great general that he was on the one hand, he proved a reluctant emperor without any real zeal to rule. He eventually abandoned Rome and its politics altogether, never to return. During his early education, Tiberius studied in Rhodes and while there was taken by the adventurous tales of Odysseus, the legendary Greek hero who wandered for years after the end of the Trojan War. Later, he spent the summer months at his beachfront imperial villa in Sperlonga. Tiberius’ villa included a dining room that featured a banquet hall in a natural cave that included mythological works of art celebrating scenes from Homer's Odyssey. Inside the cave, colossal statues reminded guests of the adventurous deeds of Odysseus, including the assault of Scylla on the hero's ship as well as Odysseus and his companions blinding the drunken giant Cyclops, Polyphemus. This all came to a tragic end when one evening while dining in the grotto, actually on a small island platform at the mouth of the grotto out among the fish raised in the surrounding man-made pools, huge rocks fell from the ceiling and crushed a number of the guests and servants. The Emperor only narrowly escaped death himself. Bad omen? A foretoken of more to come? Like he’d done in Rome, Tiberius forever abandoned his Sperlonga villa and moved his dinner table to another island perch, this one much bigger, Capri, where he remained until his death!
It is hard to believe but then maybe it’s not … Italy is so old that it is conceivable that great places, even entire cities like Paestum, can be lost in the forgotten mists of time. This once magnificent imperial villa is yet another case in point. But for the relative recent discovery of a few rooms in addition to a courtyard, accompanying streets, a kiln, a bread oven, the grotto itself and portions of the great statues that once entertained an emperor, we’d still be driving along SS213, Via Flacca, built in 187 BC, through the same tunnel where Tiro’s fictitious papa had perished, totally unaware of these forgotten fragments of history. Many of the artifacts, some in fact simply fragments from the Grotta di Tiberio, are beautifully displayed in the nearby “Archaeological Museum of Sperlonga”. We spent a morning there that slipped into afternoon. This beautifully designed museum houses the amazing statuary and other artifacts recovered from this once imperial complex.
It is comprised of two large display rooms. The first showcases the reconstruction of the monstrous snakelike Scylla sea goddess, once a prominent fixture in the grotto. Wheeling a wide blade she assails the crew while her wolf-like minions with their three rows of teeth chew their flesh. From pieces of the original sculpture recovered from the fishponds by the entrance to the grotto, the Scylla has been painstakingly, though only partially, reconstructed. While still incomplete, what there is of its life-size form still projects this ferocious death struggle straight out of mythological antiquity. A few steps and a scale model of the grotto away in the adjoining room brought us to the one-eyed Cyclops, Polyphemus. As was the case with Scylla, not all of the sculpture’s pieces have been found. What pieces have been recovered are on display, and as with the giant himself, they are of mythic proportion (see photo album). A full scale resin reproduction of the sculpture, once the centerpiece of the grotto dining room, filled a large portion of the room. Odysseus and four of his men are portrayed closing in on the reclining colossus with a javelin-like spear, its fire-hardened tip pointed straight at the “wondrous monster’s” eye, only inches away …
“… They took the stake of olive-wood, sharp at the point, and thrust it into his eye, while I, throwing my weight upon it from above, whirled it round, as when a man bores a ship's timber with a drill, … ”
We left images of deities and tales of heroic deeds along with many other valuable artifacts behind in the museum. It was time to visit the site of this living history. Down a path alongside the museum and a short walk through a thicket of olive trees later, we emerged into the ruins of the villa. Beyond the ruins the gaping mouth of the Gratto di Tiberio beckoned. Passing through the trees was like transitioning a portal in time. From the twentieth first century we emerged into a suspended moment in the first century. Not a contrail, telephone pole or ship on the horizon threatened to snap us back to the present. Spread before us between patches of scruffy grass, the remnants of buildings, a residue of stones upon stone, pocked the field all the way to the edge of the sea. These foundations were for the most part only a few feet tall but occasionally an entire stone doorway and adjoining walls stood in defiance of both gravity and time. Walking in this field of history, I wondered about the men who had built these walls, about their lives, their stories and of the continuum of life which had occupied these spaces in service to an Emperor.
Gradually we arrived at the fish pens before the mouth of the grotto. We were surprised at the large numbers of fish in the shallow mix of fresh and seawater. Like pets expecting to be fed by us, or my imagined Tiro, they followed us as we walked the walled perimeter toward the far side of the grotto. Reaching the end of the path, the Grotta di Tiberio, celebrating the deeds of Odysseus, opened before us. We were alone. Just a step away to the side of the railing and we could be on the marble crescent shaped wall separating the floor of the cavern from the water that arched around the interior of the grotto. There was nothing to stop us, not a sign or an attendant. Moments later we were inside. Along the wall it was evident the stone had been shaped into benches. At the far end we approached a raised secondary domed space approached by stairs, these too carved in the stone. Long ago, this space had hosted the colossus Polyphemus. In the lagoon that dipped into the grotto, submerged bases once used to support additional works of art, like the multi-headed Scylla, were visible. A rather large now grassy isle positioned at the very center of the lagoon and thought to be where Tiberius would take his meals, commanded center stage. While nothing but the bare cave and what I’ve described remains, our museum visit had helped provide a perspective into its once grand splendor, a splendor befitting an Emperor.
When things end, we tend to think about how they began. As our spur of the moment trip came to an end had it all been part of a plan, our Plan B? Not in the least! One thing had led to another … a phone call began a cascade of surprising discoveries tempered with the unexpected. Picturesque Sperlonga, along with our hotel, had been marvelous surprises. Then the unexpected kicked-in, first with the Torre Truglia watchtower by Sperlonga and extending along a parchment colored beach south to a headland jutting into the sea at the site of Tiberius’ historic villa, home to Cyclops and Scylla lore. Faced with an unfortunate situation, we had sought opportunity nevertheless. I guess it is in step with the proverb … "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade". Call me ungrateful if you must. What lemons? What unfortunate situation? Just being in Italy, how could I possibly complain? After all, going anywhere in Italy has to be a win; even staying home in Calitri is a win! The lemons would have been, with our bags packed, staying home and souring over opportunities lost, over what we might have missed. Thank God for Plan B’s and if need be, Plans C and D! Home in Calitri once again, we will waken to another day and reminisce on that concert of sun, incredible blue sea, sky and myth, forever the spell of that pearl, Sperlonga.
From that Rogue Tourist,Paolo
For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy Look for and click on a photo album entitled “Plan B”.
Posted by Paolo and Maria Elena at 2:45 PM