Thursday, January 31, 2013

Landing at Salerno

You can tell when it’s time to move on, when you’ve developed an itch to see something or someplace new. From when we’d first arrived in Italy, to a degree, we’d already done some exploring, about a week of it. We had stopped in Modena and among other things had enjoyed a marvelous lunch in the main piazza. From there it was a short drive to see a "prancing pony" at the Museo Ferrari (Ferrari Museum) before moving on to nearby Parma, the prosciutto capital of Italy as well as a university town full of interesting shops. Later one quiet foreign afternoon in Calitri, we had climbed to the neighboring town of Monteverede to walk its deserted streets, peek into darkened churches and roam the alleyways beneath its well preserved castle.

Travel has a tendency to enlighten our perspective on the world, the people who populate it, their cultures and most importantly, even ourselves. We had been around town for a few weeks by the time the urge to travel beaconed once again. Our rental parked out in Piazza della Repubblica, idling the days, said about as much. By then the itch to visit someplace new had gone viral. It was time for that getaway, a brief respite from familiar Calitri and we had just what we needed, Groupon Italia for hotel e vacanze (hotels and vacations). Our English friend, Gerry, had put us on to Groupon and now was a time to take it for a test ride. Calitri’s location makes a great base for trips to the Amalfi Coast, Pompeii and points farther south into Basilicata, like Matera and its renowned sassi. We had only to look for a place.

It was easy. I just entered the area we were interested in and up came the hotel offerings. We focused on the Tyrrhenian coast south of Naples for starters. Before long we found Hotel Olimpico located along the beach just south of Salerno. It looked interesting and at 59 Euros per night (including breakfast) seemed to offer great value at an attractive price. The bonus would be Salerno, for though we had been to Italy many times by this point, we’d never visited this nearby coastal city just below Pompeii where the Sorrento Peninsula juts into the sea. Here was our chance.

It was on a Friday morning in mid-October when we set off to find a place along the coast named "Pontecagnano Faiano", basically a suburb of Salerno and the 4-star rated Hotel Olimpico located there. At first I considered taking a straight shot toward Naples, then heading south to the Salerno area. Along this route I could anticipate, almost guarantee, heavy traffic and a beehive of cars with assaults from all sides to include motorcycles and scooters in the role of pesky gnats. I reconsidered. You can tell I'd done this before! Instead we drove a more fishhook shaped route, first south then swinging west for a while toward the sea before hooking north back toward Salerno. We’d come in from below. We'd taken this same route before to the IKEA store located in that area. Yes, they have them in Italy too! It wasn't far. In a little over an hour, about 25 km short of Salerno, to our surprise, we saw a sign for "Pontecagnano". We took the exit and a few roundabouts later and time enough to pass a small airport, fields of artichokes to include a brief cultural delay where we gave way to a flock of sheep, we broke out onto a two-lane road that paralleled a camel-colored sandy beach on the blue-green Tyrrhenian Sea. The sheep, tractors and farms we'd passed had us wondering just where we were heading. It appeared to be an isolated, still relatively underdeveloped area, void of the seaside amenities you might expect. A few kilometers later with the warm sea breeze blowing in Mare's window, we arrived at the Olimpico Hotel and Resort.

Its location is somewhat isolated, with few local amenities like shops or a variety of restaurants within walking distance, unless you are into the beach scene or have a car at your disposal. For anyone who has been to Cancun, Mexico, the siting is similar to being on the undeveloped sandy strip south of the main hotel complex (if it hasn't all been developed by now) and the busy town itself. Quiet when we visited, yes, but the historical record indicates that people have populated this Italian coastal plain since the pre-history of the Copper Age (3500 BC). What remains, however meager, of the ancient Gavdos civilization, a people I’d not heard of, dates back to around 2500 years BC. The equally ill-documented Villanovan culture, predecessor of the mysterious Etruscans more than a thousand years later, though well shrouded in the mists of time has also been unearthed. On these shores a powerful Etruscan city, thought to have been named Amina, flourished from the eighth to the fourth century BC only to be replaced in 268 BC by the city of Picentia, built by the Romans. Current and up to date on its historical record, we parked in the gated parking area behind the property. Eager to take a look at our 'Groupon 59€ special', we crossed our fingers and went inside.

I was impressed the moment we ascended the marble staircase entryway. Italians do love their marble and this was no exception. The Olimpico was clad in marble. The desk clerk on duty at the moment happened to also be the owner. Family run, it had been started by his father and had only recently completed a renovating face-life. You could tell it was carefully maintained for the place gleamed down to the almost mirror finish on the floors, all of them. The small lobby joined a bar area on one side (we’d get there later) with the entrance to a large restaurant just opposite. The vestibule between the two opened to an outdoor patio and pool complex boxed in by tall green hedges. The lovely pool complex and its surrounding grounds looked fabulous going as far as to offer tennis, shuffle board and ping-pong. I could only imagine the crowds out there at the height of the season just passed.

Our first order of business after briefly checking out our room was finding something to eat. First off, however, we had to find a place to eat since the hotel's dining room was closed. Inquiring of our host, he recommended and directed us to a restaurant on the shore directly across the street from the Olimpico, adjacent to their private beach. It wasn't too difficult getting across the road in October but in the busy August high season you’d need to be both careful and quick, if not motivated by starvation. True to the recommendation, it proved to be a heavenly spot to enjoy an idle luncheon. Its name, Paradiso (Heaven), was literal proof of that! But first Maria Elena had to walk the beach in search of sea glass and shells. To the north the beach stretched until the sand and docile sea merged as one, marking the end of the Gulf of Salerno. We could easily make out the silhouette of Salerno where it butted against the mountain range that jutted into the sea to form the Sorrento Peninsula, home to the resort towns of Amalfi and Positano, in addition to Sorrento itself. Southward, the beach continued on past the Foce del Sele (Mouth of the Sele River) and past ancient Paestum until the shore shoved itself farther out into the sea to host the town of Agropoli.

The beach now well reconnoitered, the surf sampled to knee height, feet dusted and shoes back on, we went inside the Paradiso. It had a comfortable almost turn of the last century atmosphere and a handful of patrons with tolerant smiles. Our waiter, a heavyset gentleman, was genial, conversant in the history of the area, and as cosmopolitan as he was, spoke English. This is especially helpful since I still speak 'Italianish' - I get by using lots of nouns but have a marked audible weakness for verb formation. Confound those horrid tenses! I liked him right off. At the mention of the glass boodle Mare had amassed scouring the beach behind the restaurant, he related how this particular beach was an invasion beach. On 9 September 1943, British and American forces had stormed ashore here. In what was top secret parlance at the time "Operation Avalanche" was to be the main Allied amphibious thrust into Italy. Bits of glass aside, here we were almost 70 years later preparing to enjoy a meal on hallowed ground. It was surreal to imagine what may have occurred on this very spot. I disconnected from the present .... had it been a day like today? Stranger even to imagine what we might have uncovered in the sand. As my startled imagination continued to conjure further possibilities and what-ifs based on this unexpected bit of history, our waiter, in charming fashion, returned me to reality by asking what we might like.

For starters we began with a bottle of local red wine. I'll refer to it as 'mystery wine' because it lacked any labels. Quite possibly from the owner's or a relative's cellar and never even close to the inside of an oak cask, this homemade vintage, sans-label, is reliable and the lifeblood of rural Italy. This was followed by a basket of crusty Italian bread like you can never seem to find at home in the States (at least we can't), along with dipping oil. It had been four or five weeks since we'd stayed in Vernazza on the rugged Italian Riviera coastline of Cinque Terre. Recalling the seafood meal he'd enjoyed there two nights in a row, we decided to revisit that gastronomic phenomenon. Once again it would be a platter of crispy anchovies with lemon-wedge chasers and another of fresh, plump, purple muscles in a picante broth, this time accompanied by french fries and a salad - a Napolitano verses Ligurian style showdown. We were in no hurry to decide the winner, which turned out to be us. It is at a time like this, when presented with a smorgasbord of excesses, that I have a hard time recalling when I ever had a flat stomach!

After the sweet and sour of it - the sour from all the stress of navigating, dodging sheep then traffic and the sweetness of a prefect retreat amidst the pleasure of a satisfying pranzo (lunch), we decided on a nap before venturing off into Salerno. Our room was relaxing and modern - flat screen TV, upscale furniture, wooden appointments throughout, a sparkling marbled Italian bath, even a balcony with a small table and chairs. Our objective was the large bed, however. We had made reservations for the 4:30 pm shuttle so we had almost two hours to snooze. Surprisingly for this time of year, when we got on the minibus, it was full. It took about 20 minutes to get to the center of Salerno where we were deposited in front of the train station. We were scheduled for the last of the returns at 9 pm. With a budget of about four hours we headed off along Corso Vittorio Emanuele, the main avenue through the heart of the historic center, and beyond long after it morphed into Via del Mercanti. The wide avenue bustled with activity and teamed with stores of all kinds, shoppers, merchants and fleeting street vendors, many of them, we suspected, not quite legal. In a rather large piazza where streets and people converged, we found a spot to relax while our eyes, hands and tongues were busy in a coordinated effort to keep ahead of the drip-drip of our gelato al limone (lemon ice cream).

All along, knotted, sinewy streets coursing from the heavily trafficked main boulevards, leading know-not-where, tempted us to desert our route. Intrepid vagabonds at least for the night, it wasn't long before we were drawn in and soon disappeared into the alleys and cozy corners of Salarno's true 'suburra'. Here, everyday working people witnessed life. Here too an old and crumbling city revealed itself to us, however briefly, exposing the authentic beauty of its decay and imperfection, age-lines to a reality that nothing lasts. Like any Italian city, life here is lived on the streets. Everywhere about us, the throb of activity attested to a vibrant community - beatific children barraged in the kisses of jowl-faced grandmothers, old men with spotted hands at card tables idling the hours at games of Scopa (the winning card always the seven of diamonds!), the persistent whir of scooters, couples arm-in-arm oblivious to all but each other, the constant hum of social banter, the brisk trade of street-side kiosks, even the banner-like laundry swaying high overhead spoke to the energetic stamina that resided there.

Wandering in this, the heart of Salerno, we came upon one of the most beautiful and important churches of southern Italy, the Cathedral of San Matteo (referred to as the Duomo). We ascended stone stairs to reach the entrance to the Cathedral. I thought the stair design, as old as it was, novel, for instead of facing the Cathedral's facade, the stairs paralleled it. If you crossed the landing at the top you simply went down the opposite side. Entering what appeared was the main door we found ourselves not inside the Cathedral but in an outer courtyard. The courtyard was surrounded on all four sides by high walls lined with porticos reminiscent of the streets of Bologna, which defy you to get wet on rainy days. Above it loomed an ornate 12th century brick bell tower topped by a stubby cupola of elaborate decoration. Much of its construction materials we learned were thought taken from the ruins of nearby ancient Paestum, just south of the Hotel Olimpico. Throughout the exterior the use of colors and stripes evoked the aesthetics of Arabic architecture. Inside, Baroque and medieval influences mixed. Behind and above the main altar the central apse drew our attention to a masterpiece in brilliant mosaic still gleaming centuries later. I recall the bright blue and the use of gold in the depiction of saints and Savior. Not lacking in notoriety, the right apse to the side of the main altar contained the tomb of Pope Gregory VII, who died while in exile in Salerno in 1085. Apparently the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, didn't appreciate the Pope's ideas on restructuring the Church nor being excommunicated! So like the Doge's Basilica in Venice and the Cathedral of Pisa what might be considered podiums, here lavishly crafted, rose above the parishioners to either side of the central nave. Lacking public address systems centuries ago, I imagine these served the strong voiced clergy well. As we sat to the side of the main altar for a few quiet moments, looking around, there was nothing to indicate what century we were in. Time traveler for a moment, I was immersed, totally surrounded, in the theological depictions of a medieval time, the smells of wax and incense sealing my reverie.

The downstairs basement crypt was even more amazing. Here lay the relics of the Apostle Matthew. That's right, the former tax collector turned evangelist of "Matthew, Mark, Luke and John" fame. Everything gleamed. Honey-colored marble inlaid with darker stone elements gave the appearance of vines over all the walls. No surface was untouched in this tribute to, if not the epitome of Baroque style. Throughout, quadrants in the domed ceiling spaces were adorned with frescos of cherubs and biblical scenes. In a depression in the floor, accessible by a short staircase and otherwise surrounded by railings supported by thick balusters, was the crypt's centerpiece. From it rose an altar surmounted by a blackened bronze statue of the gospel writer himself (see photo album). Clearly the room had been designed to impress. I'd not seen anything approaching this degree elaborate decoration before. Opposite the altar a reliquary had been built into the wall. It consisted of what I'd describe as a series of transparent portholes. I'm not keen about such graphic physical shrines. Small viewing ports let you glimpse actual remains of the saint that had been brought to Salerno in 954. Old as these remains were, they gave added meaning to the word relic!

Emerging from the allure of Salerno's back streets, we passed through the Parco Comunale with its benches and children at play before we discovered the waterfront and palm lined Lungomare Trieste. This grand strada, bordering the sea, was buffered from the city by an equally grand complex of gardens stretching its entire length. This is reason alone to come to Salerno. By then dusk had merged with night. Like a string of Christmas lights its street lamps curved along the shore stretching well beyond the port. We enjoyed the spectacle seated at a table at the northern end of the promenade were we had first emerged onto the Lungomare. We'd hesitated at a circular kiosk-type bar located there for liquid refreshments before heading off to find dinner. As far as we could see, well beyond Salerno itself, lights twinkled along the coast. It was an enchanting moment for us there among a people keen on la bella vita (the good life).

Before leaving Calitri, our friend Mario had suggested we have dinner at Donna Margarita on Via Roma. Unfortunately we found it closed. As we strolled along this street, lined as it was with more than enough restaurants, we decided on Trattoria Zi Renato, a small place that extended outside onto the sidewalk under a canvas canopy. The green and white plaid tablecloths and inverted wine glasses were just too inviting. There I enjoyed "vongole veraci" with pasta. These were small clams but why they're called veraci (truthful), I'm unsure. Maria Elena with fork and knife in true Italian fashion dismembered a pizza. By the time we were through it was time to work our way back to the stazione (station) or chance missing the shuttle.

The next morning we joined other guests for breakfast. There were attendants to make you coffee, even eggs to order, along with other standard fare. I especially enjoy making little sandwiches out of small football shaped hard rolls. I stuff them with cheese and whatever cold-cuts are on hand like mortadella and salami. For those of you who can imagine eating something like this for breakfast (possibly those of you who like me can down a cold slice of pizza in the morning), the best part is biting into one and having cornflake sized fragments of the broken crust fall into your plate. It’s all about the bread!

At a nearby table were three men. We had ridden in the van with them the afternoon before and knew they were English. The senior among them, Douglas, had to be approaching 90, if not already there. The two younger men with him were his sons who we learned were accompanying their dad on his return to the beach, where as a commando, he’d stormed ashore that fateful morning in 1943. I immediately recalled our waiter telling us about the invasion beach and here was a man who had been part of it. Douglas had to have been very young at the time. This was the first time he’d returned. Once he'd come clutching a weapon, now he coaxed a cane. He along with 500 other commandos in his unit had rolled the dice. Theirs had been a tenuous experience as they tried to move forward. Five days later it was over for many of them, his unit, he told me, winnowed to 150. Now seventy years later he'd returned with two sons, a journey I'm sure he hadn't imagined taking that frightful morning. No one then could have entertained thoughts about life 70 years in the future when surviving 7 minutes on that beach was a lifetime. Only by pushing inland, off the beach, on across the coastal plain, was there a chance to live another day.

Like General MacArthur would do yet a war away almost 7 years to the day later at Inchon, the idea of Operation Avalanche was, following an amphibious landing, to push inland to cut off any avenue of retreat for the German forces farther south on the Italian peninsula. The Sele River, flowing you may recall from its source in Caposele, close to Calitri, was a natural border and divided the two Allied beachheads - the British X Corps was to land north of the Sele, closer to Salerno, with the US 6th Corps south of the river outlet. In a nighttime confused melee of boats, men and weapons under attack and counterattack, 10th Corps Commandos were to seize the Port of Salerno, capture the present day Pontecagnano Airfield and take the rail and road center of Battipaglia. History kicked-off at 0330. On the beaches under a barrage of artillery shells and the flash of crisscrossing tracers the only protection was found in patches of scrub brush, depressions and irrigation ditches. They were facing the German 16th Panzer Division, which translated to 17,000 men and more than 100 tanks. Italy, having surrendered to the Allies only days earlier, played no part in rebuffing the invasion. When Douglas first visited, if you can call it that, there was no coastal road, no Paradiso restaurant, no Hotel Olimpico, nothing whatsoever, only a killing field and an enemy intent on pushing them into the sea. Getting on the beach present day for some sun, a walk in the sand or a swim is trivial, then it meant life or death - far more difficult than crossing the road as we had to get to the beach. I had no idea what Douglas had gone through, how this experience may have affected his life and occupied his memories. I never learned the exact details of his experiences. I should have. Unlike some, he seemed willing to talk about it. His presence there, clearly a last hurrah in the sunset of his life, hinted at just how much it must have meant for him to walk this hallowed ground and harken not to shell-shot but to a personal requiem for fallen comrades. I'd been to another war, viewed through Plexiglas and returned, nothing like his war. Like many have done to me, I could only thank him for his service.

We were impressed by Salerno and Hotel Olimpico. This attractive seaside resort would be a great place from which to further explore this historic area, possibly catch a ferry to Positano or Amalfi someday. In our brief visit we had been fortunate to discover many interesting places and had seen beauty in things not perfect. Most of all, we had met a quiet and unassuming man who for us had made history become visible. His return to Salerno, where I'd wager nothing was the same save for the sea and the coastline, had undoubtedly brought him full circle. It bothers me even now that I'd failed to ask him the essential questions of why he'd returned, what it all meant. Maybe Douglas, an old man now, his face a smear of wrinkles, was looking for answers, possibly justification for his actions, a chance to inventory memories, to mourn lives that had vanished along with their footprints in the sand. Maybe I'm all wrong. I'd have loved to have had a chance to be out on the beach with him, to have walked in his legacy through time and memory. When that day comes in our future for our return and a chance to walk the invasion beach once again, I'll miss him.

From that Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos (as well as those from other adventures ), click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled “ Salerno”.