Monday, July 22, 2013

Molto Gentile!

Molto Gentile

       I know it sounds smarmy, but again and again we discover that the most memorable thing about our trips here is the Italian people themselves—so warm, genuine, helpful.  I can’t even number the times I have said, sometimes several times a day, in my bad Italian, “Tu sei molto gentile! (You are very kind!) in response to some act of generosity on the part of some total stranger who took the time to help a struggling foreigner and did it with a  quick smile and a gladdened heart.

     That started the first time we were here, way back in 1995.  We had our five-year-old daughter Amy with us, and we had heard how much the Italians dote on children, but we really had no idea.  Now, Amy was an adorable tot by any objective standard: cute little redhead in pigtails, sweet disposition, a melting smile, and a sweet little voice that could charm the angels.  And of course the people in Malmantile, in Tuscany where we were living, could tell at a glance that we were foreigners, although they automatically assume still that we are Germans.  Lots of Germans drive across the Alps to Italy to enjoy warm weather, good beaches and a respite from their uptight, rigid social norms.

     But it was still a bit of a shock, frankly alarming, the first few times that total strangers came up and offered Amy a pastry or stroked her hair.  They just wanted to take a few minutes and dote on a little girl and let her (and us) know that she was very welcome in their country.  One encounter was especially memorable.  Malmantile was about 13 miles from downtown Florence and we often rode the bus in with the locals to tour in the morning.  By noon it was far too hot even for Americans to be abroad in that torrid river bottom, so we’d hop the bus back home to the cool, breezy hills for lunch, a nap and a relaxing swim in the pool at the agriturismo where our apartment was located.  But by the time we boarded the bus my little fair-skinned redhead was always flushed and sweaty.  On one occasion the bus driver stopped in a little hamlet half way back to Malmantile, ran inside a bar, and proudly emerged with a cold Fanta which he smilingly handed to my daughter.  Naturally we were charmed and grateful but a bit alarmed; after all, there were lots of other people on the bus.  But as I glanced around to catch the mood I saw nothing but smiling faces.  That, my friends, is Italy in a nutshell:  not so busy and self-absorbed to enjoy vicariously a simple act of kindness to a little girl.

That trip was when we, including Amy, fell in love with this country.  I cannot tell you how many kind strangers took the time to say hello to her, make her welcome, ask about her constant companion, her little stuffed squirrel named Squirrelly (Scurrili for the struggling Italians).  And of course they were almost as generous with us, what with our struggles with the language, with customs, with the protocols of shopping, garbage disposal, flushing the toilet (don’t laugh; it’s a challenge sometimes), even mopping the floor of the apartment.
Over the years we have learned that a smile and a badly pronounced “Buon giorno!” is about all you need to gain an introit with most Italians.  Oh, there are stinkers here, don’t get me wrong.  But they are few and far between and most of them are behind the wheel of a car.  I suppose it’s something about the anonymity of that position which invites a certain amount of rudeness.  But there are so many more kind ones that worrying about the few is quibbling.

This trip has been no exception.  Here’s a sampling of the many.  There was the municipal policeman Maurizio in Agropoli who patiently explained that there was no reprieve from my parking ticket on grounds that I didn’t understand the byzantine system because these are handled by a semiprivate consortium, but then sat and filled out the forms for me, left his office and the building it is located in to go outside and point me in the direction of the post office, where, believe it or not, fines, utility bills, phone bills, you name it are paid.  I was tempted to ask if I should take my postcards to the pharmacy to mail, but I was so grateful for the help that I didn't.

There was Annibale, a wonderful young man in Buccino.  We had traveled eastward for an hour to see this beautiful little hill town situated on the site of an ancient city, only to discover that the archaeological museum was closed.  But a local policeman made a phone call and ten minutes later Annibale was there to let us in and turn on the lights, after which he proceeded to give us a two-hour, guided tour of that incredible facility, housed in a Medieval monastery!  And it wasn't too shabby either being instructed on the Roman period by a guy named Hannibal.  After offering profuse thanks to Annibale, we had a delicious lunch of orecchiette and fusilli, both lovingly handmade there at the local trattoria.  I asked our waiter Ciro (who had made the orecchiette, by the way) how we could find the castle and the archaeological site and he patiently explained the route, left, and two minutes later came back and announced that he and Nina, the owner’s daughter, would lead us to the sites.  Which they did, after which they gave us another two-hour guided tour!  We grinned like lunatics all the way home, basking in the sheer kindness of those young people.

There is Aniello and his father, Signore Botti.  Aniello is a younger colleague in our search for palmenti, who lives about 25 miles away in Vallo della Lucania.  Aniello is a grad student at the University of Rome but is home this summer to work and be with his family.  Understand, Aniello’s dissertation concerns a Medieval manuscript in Naples, not some crazy open-air treading vats.  But he’s insisted on taking us to two of the local palmenti, once insisting on driving his own car because ours was new and the roads were bad (they were a bit bumpy but paved and perfectly fine), then heard that we also wanted to see a Lucanian city nearby, called work, called his dad, and before we knew it we were meeting Signore Botti at a local bar where we were treated to caffé and pastry and then whisked off to Civitella for, you guessed it, a two-hour tour guided by both of them!

There was the young man in Stio who, when we had tried three different restaurants in a 20-mile radius looking for some kind of lunch after a hard day of hiking and touring, only to discover all three closed, on hearing our plight, took out his cell phone, called a friend to confirm that he would open his restaurant for us, then insisted on leading the way in his own car!  Not to speak of the kind young man at Il Ritrovo Ristorante who saved the lives of two starving Americans (it was 3:30 pm by this time) with two delicious pasta dishes.  Then there was Angelo, a native of Stio.  As you may be able to tell from the photo, Angelo has some special mental challenges but like so many of those wonderful people he embraces the world with wide-eyed innocence and gusto.  Angelo knew instantly that we were strangers in this tiny town and he could hardly contain his beaming enthusiasm as he asked all about our home, our sojourn in Italy, our family.  By the time we left Stio, Angelo was my new best friend, insisting that I call him the next time I came to Stio so we could tour togther,  and as we waved goodbye pulling out of the parking lot he shouted repeatedly in Italian, “I love Americans!  I love Americans!”

There was another Angelo in the tiny hamlet of Valletelle who, when we became hopelessly turned around trying to find a Medieval church and mill, explained in great detail how to get there, then revealed that his grandparents had lived in New Jersey but had returned home for retirement and again insisted on hearing all about our native state and family.  A simple explanation turned into twenty minutes of delightful human interaction.  Before we left, Angelo and his mother agreed to a photo, one I will treasure because the kindness in their character is so obvious on their smiling faces.

There is Signore Borelli, owner of the local pizzeria, who treated us to incredible pizza our first night here and never fails to make us feel like celebrities when we show up for more, even sending his lovely daughter over once to announce in English that he hoped we enjoyed a wonderful holiday.

And then there are our wonderful friends, the Astones, and dear Fernando, and lovely Katiuscea.  But if I start detailing the thousand acts of kindness we’ve enjoyed from these nearest and dearest, I’ll be blogging the rest of the day and most of the night.  At some point “Molto gentile!” becomes “Troppo gentile!” At least, too many kindnesses to list.  But we carry them in our hearts, believe me.

An Italian Bakery

    This morning we were up and out early again, this time, mirablile dictu, at the instigation of Miss Sandy.  Meanwhile Dave was grunting in monosyllables and nursing a small cup of espresso.  What could prompt such a radical shift?  Nothing less than a visit to the pasticceria, the Italian bakery.

Last week as we were leaving the Centro we ran into Fabio while he was on duty, but he took the time to lead us down the Via Gasperi to the bakery of a friend, Signore Andrea, appropriately named the Pasticceria Carmen, after his wife.  Fabio introduced us to Andrea as well as his wife and son (it’s a family business, as so often in Italy), and we were treated to a delicious little sfoglietello, cheesecake, but in this case encased in crispy pastry and flavored with orange zest and (I think) orange water.  We had just finished eating at a local pizzeria where we had been porci, in the interest of research of course, and ordered two different pizzas.  Now, I’ve seen many an Italian down one of these pizzas, some 14” in diameter, and I confess I have myself on several occasions, but it was late by American standards, 9:30 pm, though still early for dinner by Agropolesi standards, and I’ve learned by experience that a stuffed stomach and sound sleep are not good bedmates for the Americano.  So we both ate several slices (in Agropoli the pizza comes unsliced and with a knife so you can DIY) and declared that we were finished.  And then ate another.  And another.  So we could tell that Signore Andrea’s sfoglietelli were delicious, but we really weren’t the best judges at the time.  
Fabio explained that I wrote about traditional foods and Sandy did the photos and Andrea generously offered to allow us to come back some morning to see the process.  Ergo our early morning visit.
Monday morning is a delight in Agropoli.  The hordes of weekend beach-goers have made their way back to Salerno, Naples, Rome, and points northward, jamming the superstrada with stop-and-roll traffic from 8 pm Sunday till some ungodly time I’ve never determined.  The air is cool and crisp in our little town, the streets are just beginning to come alive as locals make their way to work and stores begin to open.  Best of all, parking is a snap.
When we arrived at the bakery about 8:30, three young women were hard at work, one up front tending the counters where partially filled racks of gorgeous pastries were already displayed, and two in the laboratorio, the workroom.  Quarters were cramped and we were obviously in the way, but in the typical southern Italian way, these signorine gentili were incredibly generous with their time and workspace.  A large cooling rack held trays of assorted pastries fresh from the oven and the aroma was unbelievable.  Overpowering scents of freshly baked pastry, enough butter to resurrect Julia Child, and faint hints of almonds, orange, lemon, chocolate; Sandy was completely incapacitated for several minutes, not even able to take a photo.  In a large electric oven, sfogliatelle, the shell-shaped ‘many-leaved’ pastries for which this part of Italy is famous, were baking.  The spelling is not a typo; apparently the change of gender of the noun is enough to denote another kind of stuffed pastry. On the counter a tray of taralli were cooling.  Meanwhile, our two young artists were quietly, efficiently producing little masterpieces.  Maria loaded pastry cream from a generous bowl on the counter into a large piping bag and began to pipe cream onto little cookies, then covered them with a second cookie and quickly smoothed the edges before deftly pushing crumbled nuts onto the edges.  She explained that they were aptly named deliciosi.  
       Meanwhile her cohort Nina had filled another piping bag with chocolate cream and was filling little profiterole-looking puffballs that she said were called bigne, perhaps a cousin to the French (and New Orleanean) beignet.  Then she took two and glued them together with chocolate cream to create little pastry porcini mushrooms.  Maria checked the sflogliatelle in the oven (the little ‘leaves’ of pastry for which they are named are paper thin and easily burned), quickly rotated the tray to achieve even browning, and went back to work.
All quietly choreographed from some mental list that must have been ingrained from thousands of such mornings.  We never saw a list of items to be made, much less numbers of each, but there was never a wasted minute as these women whizzed through their routine.  Next Maria brought out little chocolate cannolini and piped cream into each end.  Behind her a stand mixer on the floor, big enough to make any Kitchen Aid in America die of embarrassment, some 4 1/2’ tall, rested quietly from its night’s labors.  Out came monster cannoli, 6” long, and were deftly filled with cream or chocolate.  Maria dusted both as well as her deliciosi with powdered sugar.  Nina laded what looked like eclairs with cream or chocolate.  Meanwhile, a special order:  Rita darted in from the front, grabbed two cornette, the huge croissants so popular in this area, as well as a big tub of apricot jam, sliced the cornette almost in two, smeared a generous blob of jam on each, and placed them in a bag.   Another young woman rushed in with motorcycle helmet in hand, was startled by our presence, retreated to the front of the store to deposit the helmet, then came back in, smiled shyly and quickly loaded a tray with fifteen sflogliatelle, wrapped them, and was out the door in a flash.  Italian bakeries deliver!  I assume to local caffé bars, since the whole population is not grossly obese.
Another special order, cornette filled with chocolate cream.  And out from the oven came the tray of sfogliatine, little cousins of the sfogliatelle that had recently left.  The aroma was amazing.  
I would continue, but I think Sandy’s pictures once again will tell the rest of the story better than I.  The display racks at the front held a gorgeous assortment of pastries of all sizes and descriptions: bocannotti, cassatine, zeppoline, crostatine, babá, ochio di bue, corteccie al cioccolato: even the names are delicious.  A cooler in the corner held equally beautiful torte, cakes.  We bought an alarming assortment of pastries, (mostly) as a gift, and the total bill was 12 euros, about 15 bucks.  
How in the world DO the Italians avoid obesity with that kind of temptation at such a price?  A few thoughts.  First of all, Italians enjoy their food and never feel guilty.  By not creating the allure of ‘forbidden fruit’ they seem able to place such indulgences in their proper place, an occasional treat to be savored without guilt. And then go back to their healthy Mediterranean diet. Meanwhile in America every other medical type in the country is screaming about our diets and we grow fatter as a nation all the time.  Could there be a connection?  Perhaps we need to quit shouting about the evils of food or, alternately, deeming it magic or medicine, and enjoy it for its own sake. 
Secondly, Italians rarely eat sweets as dessert.  The dessert of choice here is a luscious piece of fruit and perhaps a small piece of cheese.  Sweets are generally eaten at midmorning with a good cup of rich coffee, or perhaps as a spuntina along about four in the afternoon, with coffee or perhaps even with a tiny demitasse of Tio Nino’s homemade liqueur.  And then only in the company of friends and as a special treat.  
And that is perhaps the real key to the healthy Italian lifestyle.  Food is not just sustenance but an integral part of the social fabric.  Italians don’t just eat, they dine with family and friends, and the social interaction is more sustaining than the food itself.  As the ancient writer Plutarch said, “We come to the table, not to eat, but to share food with those we love.”
As more and more Italians are adopting the crazy American lifestyle, with family members grabbing a bite and rushing off in all directions, that healthy social system is starting to crack around the edges and, perhaps predictably, obesity is starting to become more and more common here.  But, grazie Dio, the majority of Italians still cling to their traditions, especially in small towns and here in the South.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Night Sounds

       Sorry, friends, none of Sandy’s wonderful pictures this time.  This is an auditory blog.  One of the pleasant adjustments we make to living in this environment is learning NOT to be encapsulated in a house insulated from the larger world.  Our windows are open twenty-four seven to admit the wonderful breezes here and keep the apartment cool.  As often as not the doors are wide open as well, and it’s not unusual to have a little canine or feline visitor invite himself or herself in.  How different from Piedmont North Carolina where daytime temps in late June and July and August are consistently in the high eighties or above and the humidity is oppressive so that the need for air-conditioning forces us into sealed cubicles.
One of the joys of living in contact with the outdoors is the sounds with which we are inundated.  The cicadas are buzzing down in the olive grove below the terazza and one little cicale sits in a tree directly across it and sings for all he’s worth, a happy sound when it doesn’t imply oppressive heat.  Magpies chatter in the trees across the terazza as well.  I’d attach a photo of these handsome guys, but they’re so cagy neither of us has managed to get one.  It’s not as if they aren’t in close proximity either.  Our last two visits, two perched in the mulberry trees 20’ from the door and chattered while they ate, but always, infuriatingly, on the opposite side of the trees from us so that no photo or even clear view was possible.  This year we were astounded to see that both mulberry trees, the black and the white variety (I never knew there were two varieties) were gone.  At least so we thought until Rolando showed us their remnants, the butts of trunks some 8’ tall.  Disease?  No, he cut them down.  They were simply too big.  But there’s healthy growth from those stumps and if God grants us a chance to be here again, I’ve no doubt that we’ll get to enjoy those little jewel fruits again.  Meanwhile, our magpies just perch in the olive tree a bit further away, not to eat as before, but apparently just to talk.  I should explain that we’ve never seen magpies except in pairs.  I don’t know if they are Mr. and Mrs. Magpie or just buddies, but they are definitely Italian because the one thing they seem not to be able to live without is conversation.  They cackle to each other constantly, on the wing, while they eat, as they hop from branch to branch—it really is comical to listen to them and imagine the gossip that must be passing between them.
Perhaps the most dramatic differences, though, in auditory life here and in the States is at night when our bedroom window is wide open, though screened to keep out the zanzari.  As quiet descends upon our snuggery, a regular symphony of night sounds begins.
There is, for example, CNN, otherwise known as the Canine News Network.  Dogs all up and down the ridges can be heard yipping some item of news.  Luckily most are far enough away that the sound is soothing.  Occasionally, however, our own boys get cranked up.  For several nights at the beginning of this week, for example, all three went in to periodic paroxysms of  almost frantic yipping.  A strange dog or other animal in the neighborhood?  Perhaps.  My own theory is that we had yet another donna impassionata giving off pheromones  and the guys wanted to make sure she knew they were available and very manly.  None of our dudes are spayed and they spend the night locked in on the Astones large front porch, where they have ample opportunity to sample the breezes and react.  “Hey, Belissima, just give me a second while I unlock this *&^%$ gate and I’m your man!  No, no, regazza, not that chump, for goodness sake he’s got a stumpy leg and mange, and look at me!  Give me five minutes more and I swear I’ll jump this wall!”  Happily, they’ve since settled down.
        Not so the karaoke bar up at the top of the ridge.  From time to time when the breeze is calm we get a real earful.  Can I give you some advice you probably won't take?  The next time you think about doing karaoke remember why you haven't quit your day job and DON"T.  On one particular night there was a young woman who had no chance of following the melodic line, she was a third octave too low.  But the incredible thing was she created a discord every single note!  You'd think she would have hit a melodic chord just by accident on occasion, but nope.  It sounded like some sort of Satanic ritual.
But there are far more delightful sounds.  There’s the sighing of the breezes, something that makes me sleep like a babe at the North Carolina beaches.  Here it is defined by our tramontana, mountain thermal, as it move through the trees on and around the terazza.  First you hear that wonderful sound, you wait in anticipation and several seconds later you feel that caress on your skin.  We’ve actually had to sleep with the coverlet up many nights since our arrival as the nighttime temperature dips into the lower sixties.  Heaven.
There’s the plaintive sound of the trains whizzing by on the tracks about a mile to our south.  All the trains here are electric and the sound they make, unlike the thunderous roar of American diesels, is a wonderful whirring sound.  I can only compare it to the sounds of our little Lionel train sets we played with endlessly as kids, only amplified to carry over several square miles.  Italian trains operate often and around the clock, so on a typical night you may have the chance, if you are conscious, to hear five or six trains.  Occasionally if one is stopping at the Agropoli station it will sound that little high-pitched plaintive whistle, also strangely soothing.
And the night birds:  goshawks and owls and doves.  We had a little dove that would settle in the palm tree right outside the bedroom window two years ago and twitter away along about 2 am.  At first it woke me, but soon the subconscious, genius as it is at maintaining deep sleep, had incorporated her twitter into my dreams.  But as long as she woke me she evoked powerful memories of childhood.  When I was a kid living in Martin, Tennessee, our little house on University Street had a driveway right outside my bedroom window.  Now, any youngsters reading this must understand that there was a time in the distant past (gulp) when even in the South we lived without air-conditioning, and keeping the windows open at night was the only hope you had of not sleeping in a pool of sweat.  That combined with window fans and attic fans which created a powerful draft and artificial breezes, since this little town in the Mississippi flood plain was way short on natural ones in the summer.  Outside the window and across the driveway from my bed was a large mulberry tree where the mourning doves loved to perch and coo.  Unless you’re of a certain age you’ve probably never noticed, but these birds are aptly named; their coo sounds something like “!” and it could just as well be a bereft mother mourning her lost child, it’s such a mournful sound.  At least to a nerdy little kid like me, terrified of almost everything.  My friendly old closet, my favorite hideout which my imagination turned into everything from fort to rocket, was across the room at the foot of my bed, but somehow at night if the door was left open it managed to transform into the very wellspring of every terrifying goblin in the universe.  Look, I know darn well they were there, I could SEE them moving about, ready to jump me!  And that prospect combined with that mournful cry outside the window was just a little too much!  Somehow I would finally muster the courage (desperation?) to sprint across the room, slam that closet door (my ogres were stupid and didn’t know how to open a door), then zip back to the bed and under the covers with the pillow over the head to block out those banshees outside the window.
In the early morning I was often awakened by a different sound, the sound of my dad cursing those same birds who had been eating mulberries all night long and leaving evidence of it all over his pride and joy, his 1953 slate blue Plymouth, before he took off to make rounds at the hospital.  I’ll not go into specifics of the discourse, but I learned at an early age that my normally restrained father had a large and colorful vocabulary.  I’ve now made my peace with mourning doves and love to hear their gentle coo, and I hope he has as well, there in the other world.
But I have to tell you, there is one Italian bird I can never forgive, dead though he now is, may he rest in everlasting torment.  Our first summer here I consistently woke up at four am and was awake for an hour or so before I drifted back into lovely oblivion.  Don’t know why I awoke, it made no sense at all as far as biorhythms are concerned.  Italy is 6 hours ahead of the States and so 4 am here is 10 pm Stateside.  Why 10 pm?  Can’t tell you.  At any rate, more often than not when I awoke, there was one overachieving rooster several villas down the ridge who felt the need to protect his job security by crowing.  All night long.  On average, every 13 seconds.  No, I’m not making that up, friends, I did a highly scientific survey to determine his average rate of crow.  As I sat there fuming because I couldn’t sleep.  But the really demonic thing about the little devil was that he was a master of suspense.  Hitchcock was absolutely right, suspense is not the viewing of violence, it is the anticipation of violence.  Or obnoxious crowing, as it were.  From time to time, just to infuriate his audience, Mr. Rooster from Hell would delay his performance.  Imagine Dave in the bed, stewing because a stinkin’ rooster is keeping a hick like me from sleeping.  And counting, “One...two...three....Wait, I’m already up to 26 and he hasn’t crowed.  Could it be, could it possibly be that he’s finally shut up, that he’s gone to...”  “COCK-A-DOODLE-DOOO!!!” “Noooooooo!”
Well, I’m happy to say Mr. Rooster has gone off to the perdition he so richly deserves.  And I like to think before he left this mortal coil he wound up in the stew pot of some irate Italian farmer.  And that the mode of his demise went something like that of another obnoxious rooster, a renegade who tormented Sandy’s Aunt Madge for several months by running around her neighborhood in the Tennessee mountains randomly crowing all night.  Until one blessed night when Madge heard through her own open window, “Cock-a-doodle-BLAM!”  And that was the end of another pestiferous rooster.  Am I being purely vindictive if I pray that he, too, found his way into the stewpot?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Ghost Towns

In this part of Italy that seems so blessed today, despite its poverty, it is easy to forget how much human suffering has shaped the landscape.  I suppose that has always been the case. This is ‘Megalla’ Hellas, ‘Magna’ Grecia, ‘Greater’ Greece in both senses of the word.  Greek traders from the Mycenaean period who saw this landscape must have been agog at the rich agricultural lands and the relative abundance of water.  Settlement followed several hundred years later in the spectacular form of Greek colonies everywhere along the coast of southern Italy and Sicily.  But the very elements that have made the area ‘great’ have also made it a target of human depredations and there is a 2,500 year history of periodic misery to witness.  Add to that the vagaries of nature and you have a situation where human populations are constantly on the move, looking for simple security and a modicum of peace and quiet.  And that has given rise to a number of spectacular ghost towns here, one of which we visited yesterday.
Cappacio Vecchio is one of no fewer than four towns associated with the name.  The first settlement on the southeastern flank of Monte Soprano was Caput Aquis, from which our town derives its name.  Monte Soprano is richly blessed with springs of delicious, healthful water (it still has a huge water reservoir on its southern flank), and this was the ‘Source of the Waters’ for the aqueduct which supplied the Greek city of Poseidonia, which we know in its Roman guise as Paestum, home of the rich archaeological remains.  
But as bradyseism, that relentless rise and fall of the lands here powered by seismic pressures, led to the gradual siltation of streams and the creation of huge swamps in the Plain of Paestum, the city of Paestum became an unhealthy, malarial environment.  People naturally sought the slopes of the hills and mountains some 5-10 miles inland.  Then there were the depredations of the Saracens, as early Christians called the Muslim armies from the east.  The Saracens famously occupied Agropoli itself in the tenth century and made its fortress the headquarters from which they launched raids on surrounding towns, including Paestum.  Even then Paestum was an important city, the seat of a diocese of the early church.  Last night Fernando showed me paintings of the Medieval town and photos from the early excavations which clearly suggest that the reason we call the Temple of Hera the ‘Basilica’ is because that is what it was, at least after Rome Christianized.  The temple was converted into a basilica in the paleochristian sense and the bishop’s palazzo can clearly be seen next to it.  But in the eleventh century the bishopric was moved to a new location up on the mountain, somewhere close to the Roman waterworks, and Paestum further declined as Cappaccio, as it was now called, grew.
Perhaps it was at this time as well that a shrine was built to the Madonna of the Garnet, Madonna del Granato, where the modern Sanctuary that we visited is now located.  Here are more ties to old Paestum, where Hera was worshiped as a mother goddess and giver of fertility.  Hera is repeatedly shown seated on a throne with a pomegranate, symbol of fertility and eternal life, in her right hand.  Just as is the Madonna.  Some people find those resonances of paganism in Christianity disturbing, and I suppose I can understand that point of view.  But to me it is a sign of the genius of early Christianity that they could assimilate so many elements of the old religion.  The modern sanctuary is stunningly beautiful, as usual, a Medieval jewel with nave and side aisles, two lovely chapels in the side aisles, a gorgeous stained-glass window behind the altar of the nave, and several precious remnants of the original Medieval frescoes.
A road just to the north of the church leads along the flank of Monte Soprano about 900 yards, where a huge concrete water tank and a sign direct you to the trail up the side of the mountain and to the Medieval city, Cappaccio Vecchio.  ‘Trail’ in the loose sense of the word.  Ms. Sandy almost balked several times as she confronted the sad condition of the trail, now little more than a cowpath, complete with pies.  Add to that the fact that there were thunderstorms abroad in the lowlands, which we could easily see over Salerno and along the sea.  But, listening to her idiot husband yet again, she scrambled to the top of the ridge, where a somewhat better trail conducted us west to the crag which defines the promontory of Monte Soprano and where the Castle of Old Cappaccio nestles up against the imposing rock.
The Castello, as so often, is in a perilous state of ruin, which somehow makes it all the more romantic and suggestive.  The castle was besieged by Frederick II of Suebia in 1246 when Cappaccio joined the so-called Confederacy of the Barons against Suebian rule.  Some four months later it was taken and put to sword and fire and the houses of the town razed to the ground.  Today the only testimony to the little town are segments of the citadel walls and the monumental city gate plus a huge scatter of stones from the houses themselves.  And everywhere among the scatter are marble and sandstone on this mountain where neither occurs.  I’d say it’s a safe bet that at least 30% of ancient Paestum is up here, recycled from the old town to build the ‘new’.
Today the town is completely deserted.  After the devastation wrought by Frederick the inhabitants moved some three miles to the southeast, but still some 1300 feet above sea level.  That is a town we have visited several times because of its spectacular vistas of the sea and the Paestan Plain, as well as its breezy coolness when the temperature soars down in Agropoli.  But once again Cappaccio is on the move.  The little town is absolutely stunning and it is to be hoped that the fresh air, incredible panoramas and ease of auto travel will retain the old and perhaps even attract new population.  But it doesn’t appear so.  Everywhere there are signs of desertion.  And a new town, Cappaccio Scalo, has grown up back down on the plain, close to the superstrada, to stores and restaurants and the beach.  And to old Paestum.  It seems that Cappaccio wants to return to its birthplace.
Yet another ghost town that we hope to visit soon is Romagnano al Monte, perched on a vertiginous slope above the rivers Bianco and Platano.  The town is first recorded in 1167,  but it certainly was the site of its own castle several centuries before.  A pestilence in 1656 wiped out half the population at a stroke.  Famine and brigandage made life tough in the following centuries, and in 1857 the town was struck by a massive earthquake. In 1881 the town reached its largest recorded population, some 950 inhabitants, and four churches were built and maintained.  But on November 23,1980, the earth shook for 90 terrifying seconds.  Many of the houses collapsed, most others were seriously damaged.  And the little town was abandoned forever, its inhabitants establishing a new town in the lowlands at Ariola.  And there on this mountain aerie still perches the beautiful little Medieval town, quietly basking in the sun.  That story is repeated again and again in the Cilento:  Roscigno, Sacco Vecchio, Casel Velino.
     In a way it's sad that the Medieval towns are being deserted.  At least to a pampered American living in a nice house with all the modern amenities.  And little worry about the chances of deadly earthquake or pirate attack.  In another way it is an entirely hopeful sign.  Of course Cilentans now prefer to live in modern houses which, by law, are earthquake-resistant, and have all the modern amenities, in towns with streets wide enough for two cars to pass in opposite directions, with access to modern stores.  The most hopeful signal of all is that Italians now base their choice of home on hope and aspiration rather than misery and fear.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Surf 'n Turf

     Our North Carolina mountains are beautiful, fuzzy old mountains that we love.  And we have some of the best beaches on the east coast.  But it’s a luxury to be able to visit the shore and the mountains all in less than a day.  And be back in time for a sunset and dinner.
Today we visited Il Porto di Agropoli, Agropoli’s scenic little port facility, now mostly for yachts and smaller pleasure craft but still the home of a healthy fishing fleet as well.  The shutterbug was intent on visiting the fleet when it docked for some good pictures and I knew I’d have my work cut out for me since that involved waking her at seven and being able to communicate in something more than grunts before 7:30.
In the event our trusty canine cadre came to my rescue.  Promptly at 7 am, spurred by who-knows-what crisis in the neighborhood, all three dogs ran down the Astones’ stairs and around the corner in front of the house, barking maniacally, and off they went on a mission.  Where they continued to bark for the next ten minutes.  I was in the kitchen trying to generate some caffeine from the trusty Moki when I heard stirrings in the bedroom.  I have to say, for someone so abruptly awakened, Ms. Sandy was remarkably cheerful, and we had breakfast and were dressed and out the door by 7:30, pretty good for two old duffers.
We took the lazy man’s route to the Port, around the Centro along the shore of Trentova and by the little Tower of San Francesco, where St. Francis preached to the fishes.  Five minutes longer but without the hair-raising labyrinth that takes you through the Centro by way of tiny one-way streets and countless doglegs.  We arrived by 7:45 and there was the whole fleet, neatly docked from their early-morning trawls.  Along the quay boat crews were patiently unraveling nets and carefully freeing their catch before plunking little fish and crustaceans into plastic buckets of sea water.  We made a quick inspection of the whole fleet and found plastic cartons of beautiful little fish already out for sale.  We settled in and watched two fishermen as they slowly inspected the nets, occasionally throwing some small fry into the bay where a seagull eventually did cleanup duty, more often saving the catch to a bucket.  Out on the quay came a fascinating array of seafood.  In one container were pretty little triglia, rock mullet, with their orange stripes and eyes.  Elsewhere cartons of alici, the anchovies for which this stretch of the coast is famous, flashed silver in the sun.  Another container held scombro, Mediterranean mackerel, beautifully opalescent, and one of our favorites, little cicale di mare, ‘cicadas of the sea’, little mantis shrimp with the two large spots on their tails which deceive predators into believing they’re monsters.  These guys are the devil to pearl out of their shells when cooked but have a unique, sweet flavor that’s worth the effort.  Then there were the assortments:  sole and scorpionfish and skates and sea bass and monkfish, a huge octopus, tiny little murex.  We were so tempted to buy, but we’re so ignorant of prices and of course haggling is obligatory at the docks, so we contented ourselves with listening to several retailers, perhaps restaurateurs, perhaps owners of local pescatorie, fish shops.  I’m happy to say I never heard any actual insults of mamas, though there was some obviously good-natured banter and the deal was sealed with a few extra small fry or perhaps a fish or two of some less expensive variety.  Altogether a very successful trawl for us as well:  wonderful images and memories and a huge wave and “Arrivederci!” as we drove away from a nice old gentleman whom we had befriended at the dock.
Back home we had enough time for a cup of tea and some sad news.  It seems that gentle Rolando’s brother has died in Torino and he will be taking the train northward tomorrow to pay his respects.  Shortly afterwards Fernando arrived for a piccolo giro.  Now when Fernando says ‘short trip’ we have learned to prepare for at least five hours, so we made it clear in advance that the Americani had eaten an early breakfast and would be expecting lunch before 3 pm, Fernando’s usual lunchtime.  And off we went to Monte Gelbison, one of the highest mountains in the Cilento at 1,705 meters (5,594’).  And a very special place, since at the peak is located the Sanctuary of the Madonna of the Sacred Mountain, a place of pilgrimage for at least a thousand years.  I’m cribbing shamelessly here from my friend Roberto Pelecchia’s wonderful book, One Hundred Marvels of the Cilento and the Vallo di Diano.  Sadly, unlike Roberto’s other fine book on the beaches of this area, not available in English.  The mountain had been a religious retreat probably since the early days of Christianity, but the first records we have are from the Saracen era, when these fearsome invaders held the mountain because of its strategic  position and gave the mountain its Arabic name, Gebel-al Sanam, ‘Mountain of the Idol’, apparently in reference to a Christian icon.  Ergo, Gelbison.  Probably there had been a Basilian monastery on the mountain from the tenth century.  In the 1100’s, with the arrival of the Normans, the mountain was abandoned, but in 1323 placed under the aegis of the Bishop of Cappacio who donated the sanctuary to the Order of the Celestini, another order of monks.  The complex was lovingly restored in the last century and even today thousands of pilgrims from all over the Mezzogiorno make pilgrimage to the site in August.  Many follow the age-old footpath, paved with slabs of local limestone, from the foot of the mountain at Novi Velia all the way to the top. 
Sadly, our little pilgrimage was not so devoted.  We made the trip in Fernando’s trusty car.  But first a stop (Fernando couldn’t resist asking whether we wanted lunch before or after the pilgrimage) to the Ristorante La Montanara.  Where they specialize in porcini mushrooms.  Now, Pilgrim, if you are one of those benighted souls who has never converted to funghi, it’s time to sit on the mourner’s bench and make your peace with the culinary gods.  And forget your darned morels, the absolute king of mushrooms is the Porcino, the ‘Little Piggy’, fat, squat boletes with an incredible depth of flavor.  Which grow in profusion on Monte Gelbison.  And not really anywhere else to speak of in the Cilento.  It seems that Monte Gelbison is richly blessed with the cooler temperatures and humidity which porcini crave.  And, Praise Pellegrino Artusi, patron saint of Italian cooks (sorry, I couldn’t resist; his name means ‘pilgrim’), this restaurant did porcini with incredible flair!  We ordered a bottle of local white wine (which turned out to be nothing of the sort, it was from Salerno, some 50 miles away, harrumph!), Sandy ordered a Lasagnetta with scamorza, the wonderful smoked cows’ milk mozzarella that they make in the area, combined with our piggies.  Fernando ordered Fusilli with mushrooms and I Tagliatelli ai porcini.  Pure heaven.  Fernando tells us the restaurant specializes in grilled porcini and they would be happy to grill one up for Sandy, whose eyes were glazing over with bliss, right there on the spot, indicating with his hands a mushroom cap the size of a saucer.  She looked tempted but declined.  And, by the way, no need for Americans to suffer deprivation, porcini are available dried in almost all specialty food stores and their taste is incredible, one of the few times when you lose nothing by not having access to the fresh product.
And so, on to our other pilgrimage, some nine miles to the top of Gelbison through increasingly fresh air, wonderful mountain smells, the sounds of cascading water and mountain birds, and stands of beech, linden, oak, chestnut.  The last 600 meters was on foot up a ramp with switchbacks, a Via Crucis with Stations of the Cross, enough at least to make us feel as if we had made some proper effort to reach this incredible place perched on the highest crag of Gelbison.
The sanctuary is actually a complex of buildings around a large piazza.  There is the lovely Church of the Madonna of the Sacred Mountain, of course, with its nave and side aisles graced with stained-glass windows.  There is a much smaller Chapel of Saint Bartholomew.  Plus a large dormitory, I presume on the site of the original monastery, where modern pilgrims can find rooms during the Feast Days.  The piazza itself is walled and everywhere the drops on the other side are precipitous and the views spectacular.  I’m not talented enough to describe them adequately nor stupid enough to try, so I’ll let Sandy’s pictures tell the story here.  But I’m told on a really clear day you can see the Aeolic Islands off the northern coast of Sicily to the south and the Amalfi Coast and the whole Bay of Salerno to the north, a range of 120 miles.  A bit too misty for such views for us, but we did have incredible views of a huge swath of the Cilento as well as of three of the other high peaks, Monte Stella, Monte Cervati and Monte Bulgheria.  Breathtaking.  The complex is topped by a huge metal frame cross, some 105 feet tall and 45 wide, which is illuminated at night.  Such things don’t really appeal to me, not here or in the states where they seem to be common in the South, but I suppose they make a statement of some sort. 
To me the far more profound statement is the sheer devotion it has taken over these many centuries to create this complex on such an untenable rock in such a remote and inaccessible location.  Just the logistics of hauling the building materials up this mountain boggle the mind.  It is impossible not to admire such piety, even for a skeptical old Protestant like me.