Friday, July 8, 2011


Wow, two castles in two days! But this one surrounds, not a derelict palazzo, but a beautifully restored abbey.

We had been to Castellabate several times last trip, but either in the late evening or at night, when it was difficult to explore. So yesterday afternoon we took a break from establishing our ancient Roman vineyard and loading pictures and video and headed for this nearby town. Actually, there was some concern this time we might not see it again until night; at a roundabout I managed to take the wrong turn four out of three times! That’s a record so far! But, as so often in Italy (and in life), it’s the wrong turns that often lead to the most interesting places. We ambled through the little town of Santa Maria all’Castellabate, the little seaside village below the mountain on which the main town is located. Now very touristy, but most of the hordes from Naples are back home now, so there were lots of locals getting off work and heading to the spiaggia for a nice swim and a rest before tackling that 9 o’clock dinner. We came upon a shipyard with a huge davit on wheels at a local pier, a monster which could be driven (two separate cabs with controls) down to and astride the pier so that slings could be run under seagoing vessels and powerful winches gently hoist them out of the water and they could be taken to dry-dock for repair or cleaning.

We tootled down the shoreline to the south, admiring a series of beaches created by breakwaters formed by huge concrete blocks. Lots of caffe bars, restaurants, pizzerie, all at the foot of the little village.

Finally we found the main road again and the juncture to Castellabate and zigzagged our way up a series of switchbacks to this gem perched on the rocks. Castellabate is a little medieval town located on the headland of a ridge, some 900 feet above the sea. The town was founded as an abbey by Costabile Gentilcore, a Benedictine monk who began a new monastery in this gorgeous but austere place in 1123. Abbeys in Medieval times were repositories for considerable wealth, and a castle was built around the abbey to protect it from pirates. Hence Castrum Abbatis, Castle-of-the-Abbot, Castellabate. Costabile died and was sainted before he saw the abbey completed by his successor as abbot, Simeon. He would have been proud. Last year we happened to be here when the abbey was opened to the public for a concert and we could explore to our hearts’ content. The abbey is a large, four-story rectangular facility surrounding a beautiful cortile, courtyard, with passageways that lead to the Aragonese towers at the corners of the surrounding ramparts. Perhaps it was this building that gave me the forlorn hope that the Palazzo in the castle at Agropoli might someday be restored. This one has been lovingly refurbished to a polished gem and is now a cultural center for the little town. When we were there last year a New Age group was performing in the cortile and, though I have to admit some of that style music drives me batty with its sonorous repetition, here amid those ancient stone walls with a half moon floating overhead, it was hauntingly pretty. Much of the third floor was devoted to exhibition of local art and there were some stunning sculptural pieces at the time. I admire anyone who works in bronze, it’s such a demanding medium with such an ancient pedigree, and there were several bronze pieces that, to my untrained eye, were on a par with anything we’ve seen at our state art museum. But they were being upstaged! Every ten feet or so was another window, open to admit those delicious maritime breezes we usually have at night, and the lure was irresistible: that panoramic view of the mountains or the bay..or both! And that moon! What artist could compete with that?

This time we parked near a little piazetta on the lower side of the town, grabbed caffe from a bar across the street and sat and admired the views over the mountains. Monte della Stella, one of the two highest peaks in the Cilento, was immediately before us. This piazza had been donated by Francesco Matarazza, a local boy who emigrated to Brazil at the beginning of the last century, made a fortune as an industrialist, and became a patron for this area. He had also bought and donated to the lower town a palazzo which is now a cultural center for the whole area. I don’t know why I think of the United States as the great melting pot but other new-world countries as homogeneously Hispanic. Huge numbers of Italians, not to speak of other European nationalities, immigrated to all those South American countries, and folks from this area seem to have chosen Brazil as there ticket to a better life.

After idling in the piazza for a while we deliberately made our way up through the center of the old Medieval town. Not a street in the whole area that would legitimately be called a street in America! Tiny little viali meandered sinuously, leading to cul de sacs or wee little courtyards. And above us those gorgeous old sandstone and limestone buildings, rugged, austere, but everywhere adorned with window boxes of geraniums, bougainvillea clinging to the corners, oleander in huge terracotta pots. And all the little volunteer flowers. To say that flowers love this climate is a ridculous understatement.

We came to the Church of Santa Maria de Giulia, built in the twelfth century, rebuilt and expanded in the late eighteenth, and promoted to a papal basilica in 1988. The padre was outside in the piazza taking a reading break, which added a nice touch of authenticity, not to speak of humanity, to the scene. The interior of the church is that pretty early gothic style with the simple nave and side aisles and wooden trussed ceiling. But there was an impressive cupola above the altar and the altar piece was a pretty wooden triptych in the Byzantine style, obviously preserved from the Medieval church. One of the side aisles housed a chapel with a rather kitschy illuminated bust of a pope, I presume the one who gave the church its promotion, but above him on the ceiling of the apse was a brilliant mosaic depicting the adoration of Madonna and Child. Outside we strolled on up past the church and admired the roof of the cupola, cleverly built with compression rings like the Pantheon, but this time the compression rings were festooned with rings of roof tiles which gave the whole thing a frilly effect. Perfect in this environment.

After reaching the Abbey and paying our respects to St. Costabile and ogling those spectacular views of the coastline from the belvedere we made our way back down through the old town by a different route, just to savor more of that incredible Medieval flavor. And I found my dream house! Oh, it’s a fixer-upper for sure. Most of the front part of the ground floor is pretty much gone, including part that has collapsed into the basement. And, truth be told, much of the upper floor of the back of the house looks none too safe, including two insanely tottering chimneys. And what a nightmare to repair it would be, hauling building materials by handcart through those impossible streets. But, oh friends, that top floor opens to a terazza which runs out for a good thirty feet along the southwest flank of the town. And the views from up there must surely be spectacular! If I had running water and a kitchen and I could sip my morning espresso on that terazza overlooking the sea and those wooly old mountains, I’d probably be so distracted I’d be content to let the rest of the house collapse.

PS: I'm sure it's obvious that these little ramblings are just a way for me to clarify my thoughts about this amazing experience and perhaps serve later as a reminder of it in my rapidly approaching senility. But I'd still love to hear some feedback from any readers. What do you like, what do you not like, what has intrigued you, what have you wondered about. Really whatever you'd like to say.

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