Tuesday, July 13, 2010


I mentioned earlier how immediate the distant past is for Catholics in this country because of the many elements of paleo-Christianity that are immediately at hand. But the same is perhaps truer for a classicist; the classical world is everywhere in southern Italy, not to speak of the pre-classical, neolithic and even paleolithic world. Sandy and I have been hop scotching along the coasts for several days, and we’ve been bumping into a whole lot of history.

Last week, for example, we accompanied Fernando to one of the many conferences he participates in, this one to help launch the new book he and his friend and distant cousin Amadeo La Greca have published on Licosa and Ogliastro, two seaside towns along the Cilentane coast. Fernando's talk was accompanied by slides, and we were able to follow most of it. The Punta di Licosa is one of those points along the Tyrrhenian coastline that mark another bay, which spell a measure of safety for a hard-driven sailor. But of course to reach that safety you have to pass by the points, the most dangerous, shoaly places along the coast. It’s one of those ironies that the danger is what creates the safety. I suppose there’s a life lesson there, though I’m not sure what it is.

In any case, this point is associated in myth and history with two goddesses, Leukosia, one of the fabled Sirens who lure sailors to destruction, and Leukothea, a sea goddess. Imagined either in wholly anthropomorphic form or as harpies, that is, creatures with the upper bodies of women but the lower bodies of birds of prey, the Sirens brought ruin either by singing so sweetly that sailors became enraptured, forgot about business, and crashed on the rocks and died. Alternately, they shrieked so loudly that sailors became distracted in their terror...and crashed on the rocks and died. Choose your poison. By far the most famous hero to encounter these gals was Odysseus, the great hero of the Trojan epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Odysseus has been warned in advance and so he has his crew plug their ears with beeswax so they can’t hear and has himself tied to the mast so that he can hear the fatal songs. Odysseus has a real problem with self-control, but at least he’s beginning to learn after a mere 18 years.

Alternately, the point is associated with the goddess Leukothea, “The White Goddess”, savior of sailors (and ultimately of our guy Odysseus). Two letters difference, nemesis or savior. But which one? There’s a solid tradition in the ancient sources for both. Nobody ever accused the Greeks of being unsophisticated in their thinking, so I’m going with both. Hey, it’s a gorgeous little harbor, as Sandy’s pictures will attest. But when I look at that point, especially on Fernando’s aerial view that shows the shoals and reefs, even I as a jackleg sailor get the fantods. And when you consider that ancient sailors habitually coasted, that is, ran along the coasts instead of in deep water, it’s easy to see how some poor fellow desperate for refuge in a storm might discover his plight too late.

Two days later we headed for two other fabled towns, Policastro Bussentino and Palinuro, further down the coast.

Policastro was the site of an important Roman town but is more interesting to me because a famous Roman wine was produced there. To reach the town we headed away from the coast and through the heart of the Cilentane mountains along the superstrada that follows the old Roman Via Annia. We passed near to Monte Bulgheria, whose dramatic profile had us believing it was eight or nine thousand feet tall, although it is in fact less than four. I suppose it’s because the road at that point is close to sea level and the mountain just erupts out of the valley and shoots straight up above dizzying precipices. In any case, I’ve never seen anything else so much like those peaks in Yosemite.

The mountain derives its name from Bulgarian colonists who settled there in the 500s CE, and there’s a little town, Celle di Bulgheria, that commemorates the event. The locals think the mountain looks like a recumbent lion, something like a sphinx, with it’s haunches to the west and head to the east, and that this leone like any good sphinx guards the valley and protects them from harm.

The little town of Policastro itself is underwhelming. There’s a beautiful beach with lots of little lidos, the businesses along Italian coasts that have showers and rent cabanas and/or umbrellas and beach chairs, as well as offering snacks and sandwiches. The Greek town was Pyxintos or some such, but after the Punic Wars it was refounded as a Roman colony and renamed Buxentum, and became an important seaport. Unfortunately, that made it vulnerable to the constant depredations of invaders and pirates during the next 1300 years. Again and again the little town would be sacked and destroyed by Byzantines, Saracens, Aragonese, Bourbons, Turks...you name it. Again and again the conquerors would recognize the strategic advantage of the town and rebuild and refortify it, only to be supplanted by the next group of thugs. Eventually most of the population wised up and moved up on the mountain to a new town, Santa Marina, more easily defended and less malarial.

And yet, there is a large and beautiful church in the old town, built over the site of the old Roman forum and probably right over the Temple of the Capitoline Triad (early Christians were not too subtle in their religious symbolism) and incorporating Roman architectural features such as columns. Down the center aisle of the nave are buried no fewer than three bishops, the ceiling is gorgeously ‘frescoed’ on wood panels, there are impressive paintings along both side aisles...the whole thing is most impressive, way too impressive for such a tiny village. Sic transit gloria mundi indeed. Most shocking of all to me is the fact that wine is no longer a big deal here. There’s no local DOC (the Italian version of a designation of origin) and as I fly my Google Earth helicopter around the environs, there is just no vineyard anywhere to be found! What happened to the famous wine?

Palinuro is bigger, more touristy, but equally pretty. We hustled to the tiny Antiquarium to beat the closing time. The site has seen human occupation since the dawn of man; remains of Homo erectus have been found in a nearby grotto. Then there were the Oenotrians, the native Italic folk who evidently impressed the Greeks with their winemaking (Greek oenos = wine). So much so that a colony from Phocea, escaping from the Persians who had invaded western Turkey, Greek at the time, was established here in 540 BCE. Once again we are in the land of a siren, this one Molpe, who gave her name to a tiny village about two miles from the main area of settlement. But it was not Odysseus who suffered at the dramatic headland but Aeneas, the future founder of Rome, a Trojan prince who had escaped the destruction Odysseus and his Greeks had wrought and was told by the gods to found a new Troy in “Hesperia”, the ‘western land’.

Imagine, Aeneas has struggled from one hardship to another for almost ten years, has lost his wife and his beloved papa and is finally within reach of his new home. But the wrath of the gods is not yet sated; as Aeneas rounds the point of Palinuro and enters the bay of Licosa, he is beset by a terrible storm and loses many of his ships and men. Even his trusted helmsman Palinurus is swept overboard and drowned, a fate commemorated in the name of the Greek and later Roman town.

From the town we wound our way to the top of the headland and the faro, lighthouse, possibly built over the site of its Roman analogue. The name faro comes from the famous lighthouse built in Alexandria, Egypt which was 430 feet tall and whose beacon could be seen 36 miles out at sea. The Romans thought that was a cool idea, so, ever practical, they built phari all over the Mediterranean and even out into the Atlantic in western Spain. Today the Egyptian word is not only an Italian lighthouse, but an Italain flashlight as well. Any port in a storm, right? As we stood on a tiny rock outcrop and stared down 650 feet to a natural arch and a pleasure boat, I learned for the first time the meaning of 'dizzy heights'; I literally became dizzy and had to sit down. Nothing short of spectacular.

Sandy and I learned the hard way why our heroes preferred sea travel, with all its attendant dangers, to travel over the rugged headlands of the Cilento. Coming out of Palinuro, we had wanted to take the road southeastward to pick up the superstrada again even though we were ultimately headed north. But GPS and the Italian Siren Bad Signage conspired against us and we were directed along the coast road instead. No problem, it’ll take a bit longer, but there is another breathtaking panorama around practically every bend, since the coast road is anywhere from 200 to 400 feet above the sea...straight down. But as we came out of the picturesque little Medieval village of Pisciotta and headed toward Ascea, some 30 miles out of Palinuro, we found the road closed and barricaded. No signs anywhere along the way to indicate upcoming problems, just concrete barriers and nowhere to go but back. Back down the road we went, but cut across over a local mountain road to San Nicola and Foria to pick up the susperstrada.

Unless you’ve lived in the mountains you have no idea how serpentine a county road can be, so I won’t waste my effort. But believe me, there were many times when we made such sharp switchbacks that we were able to kiss our own fannies. Coming into a blind curve we came upon a road sign, “Frana!” Then the monologue from Sandy went something like, “Frana? What’s a fra...aaaaaaahhhhhheeeeee! Oh ^^%$^&! Oh &&^%())*&*! Oh &&^$^&!” And so on and so forth for about another mile. I won’t spoil the fun, but I will tell you that Italian frana shares the same Latin root as English fragmentary. Fortunately, our Leukosia proved to be more of a Leokothea, and we made our way without too much further incident back to the superstrada and back to our welcoming little home away from home.

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