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.