Friday, July 1, 2011


Sunday after we had a chance to recover a bit from our long trip, from the rigors of the tour, and from the excitement of just being here, Fernando came by to visit, to give me a list of possible ‘adventures’ for this trip, and to invite us to ‘La Chiena’. Through the rigors of our bad Italian we were able to deduce that this was a festa in a local town that was analogous to the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. Only this was the ‘Running of the Water,’ when torrents of water were released from two small rivers in the town into the streets and the populace raced ahead of it to escape the coming flood. Fernando mentioned there was the problem of proper footwear—what to wear to your local Chiena?—and gestured with his hand to mid-thigh and said that he would, for the first time in our experience, be wearing short pants. How could we resist all that spectacle?

So early the next day Fernando came by and picked up the Sleepyheads and we were off to Campagna. No, not the region of Campagna, in which Agropoli is located. Nor the plain south of Rome which is such an agricultural treasure for the city (the Italian word campagna simply refers to a plain; think of camping in the fields). This was the little town of Campagna, about five miles northeast of Eboli, just the other side of the A-3 autostrada. We headed up Highway 18, cutting across country before we reached Battipaglia, to the outskirts of Eboli, where we hopped on the A-3 toward Reggio for less than three miles, then took the exit and traveled north to the flanks of the Monti Picentini. Along the way Fernando pointed out a huge Palazzo at Pasana which had once belonged to one of the kings of Naples but now served as an outpost for the Italian army.

Now, whoever came up with the name of the town was seriously demented; if ever there was a place that does not qualify as a plain, Campagna is it. The town is actually located up a steep gorge formed by the confluence of two small rivers, the Tenza to the west and the Atri to the east. The rivers crash down on both sides of a rocky outcrop, and there, clinging to the triangle formed thereby is the pretty little Medieval town of Campagna. These rivers are what the Italians call torrente, torrents, swift-moving mountain streams which come crashing down the sides of precipitous gorges. In fact, we discovered that it was this geography which gave birth and life to Campagna. Campagna was a mill town. Not ‘mill’ as in ‘factory’, but ‘mill’ as in ‘water mills’. The rivers provided something all too rare in the ancient and Medieval worlds, a free and unlimited supply of power. At one time there were numerous mills for grinding wheat, for pulping olives, for sawing wood, you name it. Whatever could be done with rotary motion, you could find at Campagna.

We parked at the bottom of the town and met one of the local organizers, a stylish middle-aged woman with elaborate glasses, a huge pendant with a fake bronze bust of Minerva, and a huge purse which featured Cruella DeVille. Hey, you can’t make this stuff up! The event was sponsored by the local Rotary Club. I think of Rotary and Lion’s Clubs in America as pretty much moribund, which is a shame because they did so much charitable work when I was a kid, but they are both very much alive and kicking in Italy and do all kinds of charitable and cultural work, even publishing books. We joined with a group of Italian tourists and worked our way up through the streets of the town. Be assured that the local organizers were going to make sure we had the grand tour of the town. First we came to the church of Saints Salvatore and Antonino. This church was a parocchia, not a chiesa or basilica. I had to wiktionary that one to find out it’s a parish church, not one directly governed by a diocese. It was a pretty little local church, a nave and side aisles but no transept, statues of saints in the niches along the aisles, an elaborately gessoed and painted ceiling, handsome Doric-style columns along the aisles, a gorgeous intarsio choir loft with a small pipe organ. But the focus of worship was a Corinthian-style column which looked as if it might have been Roman in origin, about 8 feet high. We were told that legend had it that insane people were manacled and chained to this column and underwent a miraculous cure. Doubtless the most famous cure of all, though, was Saint Antonino himself, a local boy who was orphaned early in life and left, as was the custom in the old days, as a ward of the local monastery. St. Antonino was said to have done so much mischief in his early years that he got the pazzo treatment and went on to become a priest and ultimately the bishop of Sorrento, where he died and was sainted.

Next stop was the Fountain of Justice, a cute little pedestal fountain with four spigots at the cardinal points of a labrum, only one of which was still functional. But the water was delicious. Sidebar: All over Italy the water is perfectly safe to drink and it is generally absolutely delicious. My recommendation is to drink as much of it as you can. The real charm of this fountain for me was that the fountain heads were carved as Sileni, those goaty little helpers of the wine god Bacchus with their snub noses and pointed ears. Think of a chubby middle-aged Peter Pan. Next we stopped in the tiny courtyard of a local palace, the Palazzo Tercasio, pretty, but hardly an eye-popper. Next we cruised up to the town’s cathedral, the Basilica di Santa Maria della Pace, completed in 1683. It was definitely an eye-popper, but Mass was being said and so we had to admire the exterior only.

Not a problem for Dave and Fernando, the classical nerds. We were taken, single file, through a mill on the flank of the Tenza, currently under extensive reconstruction. This beauty had formerly housed both grain mills and a frantoio, an olive processing facility. At one time scholars thought that the Romans had barely discovered the concept of the water wheel as a source of power, despite the fact that the Roman architect Vitruvius gives us a detail description of just such a mill. But in the last thirty years we have come to understand that water mills were everywhere in the Roman world, even along the Tiber River in the environs of Mater Roma herself. During the siege of Rome by the Goths, the barbarians destroyed many of these mills in an attempt to starve out the Romans. The brilliant Byzantine general Belisarius simply floated water mills in the middle of the Tiber and allowed the current to turn the wheels.

But these mills were unusual, though hardly unique, in being side-shot wheels. A bit of explanation: water wheels come in three flavors, the overshot wheel familiar to many of us, where a flume directs water from some distance upstream across the top of a wheel with vanes, and the force of the water and its dead weight turn the wheel, a motion which is transferred to a spindle and ‘geared up’ with a crown-and-pinion gear to make the stones above rotate. The second configuration sends the water under the wheel to turn the wheel in the opposite direction. Slower and less powerful, since it is simply the current of the water that moves the wheel, but much simpler since it requires no flume.

And then there are those situations where the force of the water is so great that a short, closed flume directs a jet of water to the side of a turbine and thus eliminates the need to transfer the vertical rotary motion of the wheel to the horizontal rotary motion of a spindle, as well as any gearing. I’ve only seen one such mill back in the states, a beautiful if decrepit old mill out in the boonies of Greene County, Tennessee where we used to live. The facility in Campagna had three such mills in series, one of which apparently was used to process olives. You see, before olives are pressed to remove the juice, they have to be mashed up, and long before the Romans, the ancients were using rotary mills with massive vertical millstones to effect this process. There are many places even today where such mills continue to be used. But I have never before heard of one operated by a water mill.

A jaunt to the other side of the piazza led us to yet another mill, much smaller, but here part of the actual wooden turbine was still preserved, complete with its canted vanes. (Look in the background of the picture.) Dave and Fernando were in heaven.

A quick tour through the lower level of the Basilica for a nod to the Monte delli Morti, Mountain of the Dead, and we all raced up to the corso of the town to await the big event. It seems that in olden times, several of the flumes which operated such mills could be closed off and diverted to direct their powerful jets through the streets of the town. Considering the general level of sanitation of Medieval towns, this was a cheap and effective way to clean the filth from the streets. A banner would be hoisted above the town to alert the populace to the coming torrent, a signal would be given, and the flood would follow. So you can imagine our anticipation when we saw a trickle of water round a curve further up the corso and head our way. We tore off our shoes and braced ourselves for the onslaught. The trickle became a flow, the flow grew to two inches, three, four....and there it stayed! And the fun began. The good citizens of Campagna, men, women, and bimbi of all sizes and varieties, waded through the street, laughing delightedly, kicking water on friends and strangers alike, scooping up water in plastic buckets to more effectively soak their neighbors. It was hard to tell whether adults or kids were having more fun. The three of us waded up the hill to see where the water was burbling up through a large grate in the street and then slowly waded back down till we came to a local trattoria selling delicious fritters, pezelle, made with zucchini flowers, and little homemade pizza pockets, sciurilli, along with a refreshing nonalcoholic aperitivo containing fresh fruit.

So, go on with yo bad sef about that Pamplona business. Sho nuff, now! Dave and Sandy have faced the terrifying onslaught of the mighty waters of the Tenza and lived to tell the tale. Were we disappointed that our excursion didn’t involve a bit more danger? Let me put it this way. Where but in Italy could they turn street-cleaning into a festival, and one fun for the whole family? “L’aqua e vita a gioia” says the flyer for the festival. “Water is life and joy.” Indeed it is. I do have one small regret; I’m convinced that if the good citizens could have generated just two more inches of water, we could have experienced the world’s longest water slide. And coasted half way home to Agropoli.

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