THE CERTOSA OF PADULA
Yesterday I was up early and off with Fernando to visit the famous Certosa of Padula. As we used to say down home, you can’t get there from here.
Padula is only about 35 miles due west of Agropoli, but it’s 35 miles across some of the highest mountains in the Cilento. So it was a two-hour trip. First we headed due north, then northeast to Eboli where we picked up the A-3 Autostrada (interstate) and headed south down the stunning valley of the the Tanagro River, the ancient Tanagrum. On our right were the jagged peaks of the Monti Alburni, with their desolate but beautiful tablelands at the summits, and on our left were the equally dramatic spires of the Monti Picentini. Fernando reminded me that we were traveling along the Roman Via Annia, so often misidentified in the books as the Via Papiria.
In Polla we stopped momentarily to pick up Umberto, one of Fernando’s graduate students, who is as erudite as he is friendly and accessible. Umberto is from nearby Pertosa and served as our local guide. The last stretch of interstate took us along the eastern side of what Fernando tells me is a Cretaceous inland lake bed, flat as a fritter and heavily farmed with row crops, with little towns hugging the flanks of the mountains on both sides.
The Certosa itself is spectacular. Protestant American that I am, I had to Wiki certosa to discover it is Italian for a Carthusian monastery. The Carthusians are an order founded by St. Bruno in Medieval times in Chartreuse, France. The Brits derive their word charterhouse from Chartreuse as well. This order practices a combination of contemplation and self-imposed solitude. But it is the building itself which is an eye-popper.
Loosely arranged around an outer courtyard and a huge inner cloister, the plan is said to reflect the griddle on which San Lorenzo, to whom it is dedicated, was martyred in early Christianity. St. Lawrence, my namesake (my middle name is Lawrence), had the singular distinction of being martyred by being barbecued on the steps of the Temple of Hadrian and Faustina right in the middle of the Roman Forum. Halfway through the gruesome process he is said to have calmly told his torturers, “Time to flip me, boys, I’m done on this side!” Thus, in my warped mind at least, he is the patron saint of barbecue, a saint that any North Carolinian could love.
And speaking of culinary miracles, prominently displayed in the outer courtyard of the monastery is a frying pan some 13 feet in diameter in which was cooked the world’s largest frittata requiring 1000 eggs, the legendary ‘Frittata dalle Mille Uova” cooked in 1535 to honor the visiting Charles the Fifth. The pan is so large that a mechanism was required to empty it.
There are 31 separate cloisters in the Certosa, but the grandaddy of all cloisters is the one that really defines this monastery and has given it World Cultural Heritage status. The cloister covers almost three acres and has over 300 cells around it for the monks. At the far end of the cloister is an incredible double staircase with panoramic views of the grounds and the sleepy town of Padula at the top of the mountain to the east.
Elsewhere we saw the huge kitchen which serviced the refectory of the monastery, and another famous staircase, a spiral beauty in this case, which led us to the Certosa’s library. The shelves are empty now but the elaborate woodwork is still as impressive as ever, and the floor is paved with a huge mosaic, the tesserae of which are Vietri majolica tiles which are easily a foot square. The famous tilewoks of Vietri are just north of our Cilentane coast. On the ceiling is a ‘fresco’, but in this case painted on linen ‘wallpaper’, the first time I’ve ever seen this technique.
I was forced to wait to see my own piece de resistance, the cantina. A conference was being held in one on the spacious chapels and for reasons I never did quite understand we needed to wait until it was finished to proceed to the cellars. But, not to worry, the papers had been delivered and all that remained was for the organizing priest to make a few closing remarks. After 15 minutes all the local politicians bailed and came scurrying out in their perfect Armani suits to give interviews to the local media. Obviously they had been through this drill before. After thirty minutes a few restless members of the audience left. And then we waited...and waited...and waited. After an hour I sat on a curbstone and began to read. Then, suddenly, one of the certosa’s guards whisked us away, through a back stairway, back down another, and down into the huge cantina, a barrel-vaulted behemoth at the far end of which was the largest lever press I have ever seen and likely ever will see. I know how hopeless a description is, but I’ll press on (forgive the bad pun): the main lever of the press was massive beam made from a whole oak tree, some 35 feet long, a yard high and almost a yard across, counterweighted at the back and bound to a massive wooden screw at the front. The screw was easily 15’ tall and a foot in diameter. To counteract the tremendous force created by the lever, the arbores, the posts which act as fulcrum, were fitted to massive stone counterweights in a chamber below the floor. Along the wall of the cantina were the massive chestnut botti (butts) in which the wine was fermented.
But most of this wine was destined for another transformation; the Carthusian brothers had discovered the magic of distillation, and, unlike the mother certosa which produces an eponymous green liqueur, the product here was the fiery brandy which is still so popular in Italy, grappa. The Certosa of Padula is the House that Hooch Built!
As we were leaving an hour later we saw Padre Verboso had finally allowed his victims to escape. Later we visited a rustic little baptistry from the fourth century, built over an ice-cold mountain spring near Pertosa. Doubtless the converts were touched by the spiritus sanctus when that frigid water hit them. Fernando pointed out the irony of the signage for the site: one of the real gems of paleo-Christianity in this area, and what does the sign at the crossroad say? “Trote vive,” “Live Trout!” The waters of the spring feed an adjacent trout farm. I must say in fairness, though, that some of those trote vive were darned impressive; I saw a couple of giants which appeared to be almost four feet long.
Then we were off to the home of Umberto’s family, the Soldovieri clan, for a feast. Here were gathered in the home of his nonni , in addition to the grandparents, his parents, his maternal uncle and aunt, his beautiful sister and female cousin, and his handsome male cousin. Dinner began with two kinds of pasta accompanied with the standard aqua minerale and the far-above standard vino rosso of Signore Soldovieri. Next came what I assumed was the main course, a wonderful selection of traditional Cilentane fare including stuffed artichokes, hard sausage, and little braccioli of sausage nuggets wrapped in lardo, the cured pork fat that is a great rustic favorite in Italy, and of cutlets. All accompanied by braised broccoli rabe so good and reminiscent of the greens my own mama used to make it almost brought tears to my eyes.
Then the dinner took an alarming turn; it seems we had only finished the antipasti, and poor Dave was already as ripieno as those artichokes had been. Out came platters of roasted chicken with potatoes boiled and then browned in the pan juices of the chicken, together with a salad. At that point I should have waved the white flag and disappeared under the table, but here came the cheese course, local bocconcini and caciocavallo along with a soprasata sliced paper thin. And then the fruit course: apples, plums, apricots, all from the family’s orchard, of course. And then the dessert course! Tiramisu and a type of cookie made only in the bakeries of the Cilento. Then a quick nip of an Amaro, a bitter liqueur which I suspect was made from chinotto, the bitter orange of Italy. The Italian palate is so refined that they actually cultivate a taste for bitter foods like radicchio and swear they aid digestion, and at this point mine needed all the help it could get. Finally, delicious Italian coffee, black as the Devil's soul and sweet as Mama’s love.
Umberto had in mind to take us next to a local grotto, but at this point even Fernando had to admit defeat and we headed back down the mountain and up the flank of a ridge to the Autostrada and homeward, two properly stuffed and roasted maiali. All that was lacking was an apple in each mouth.