Saturday, November 30, 2013

Plan B

Plan B
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, … ”
Homer’s Odyssey
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,

 For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy  Look for and click on a photo album entitled “Plan B”.