OK, chug that last demitasse of espresso, grab your sunglasses and out the door you go. Today we’re touring the beautiful mountain towns of the western slopes of Monte Stella. Hop in the front seat of Francesca, our cute little Fiat Panda hatchback, buckle up and roll down the window; the air conditioner isn’t worth a darn and besides, you’ll soon be enjoying those mountain breezes, replete with the scents of wild rosemary, thyme, myrtle, broom, and catmint.
Off we go through the little frazione of Madonna del Carmine and around the rump of Monte Tresino, down the valley toward the sea. But this time we’ll take the back road up Colle San Angelo toward Castellabbate and take the switchback across the valley and onto a spur of Monte Stella where Perdifumo shines in the distance. Monte Stella. Star Mountain. To my prosaic mind, so named because it has spurs jutting out in all directions, like a ten-pointed star, and some of those spurs have two and three spurs of their own, such that this grand mountain dominates the whole coastal area between Agropoli and Palinuro on the coast and Vallo della Lucania inland. Of course to my friend Fabio the significance of the mountain is much more poetic, reaching back to the Etruscans who had trading posts in this Italic hinterland as far back as the eighth century BCE. The Etruscans, those adepts at all things prophetic and sacerdotal, used the huge mountain, named after their god Cilens (hence Cilento, the original name of the mountain), says Fabio, as an axis mundi, an axis of the universe, siting northward to the Sorrentine Coast and southward to Sicily in order to create their templum, or supernatural grid, over the whole area, and thereby keep the cosmic forces in balance. My pious friend Fernando, on the other hand, sees Monte Stella very much under the aegis of Madonna della Stella, Saint Mary of the Star, showing me how Renaissance pedants saw in the majestic profile of the mountain the mantle of Mary, shrouding the little towns on her slope like a broody hen harboring her chicks, and even showing me several Renaissance paintings of her with the familiar mountain profile in the background.
I think you’ll find it easy to accept both explanations as you scan the apex of this majestic beauty, some 1131 meters up from the sea. Hard not to feel the spiritual power when you approach the rustic shrine of the Madonna at the apex and scan those far distant horizons. But that’s for another day.
First we come to the gorgeous little village of Perdifumo, huddled on a ridge overlooking the Tyrhennian Sea. Greek settlement in the area begins in the 4th century BCE, and Roman settlement is attested by a beautiful Bacchic sarcophagus now in the museum, a reminder that Bacchus was a god of resurrection and eternal bliss some centuries before Christ subsumed that role in Italy. The main part of the town was first settled in the 11th century, when it is attested under the protection of the monastery of San Arcangelo, as so often with these Medieval towns. The town derives its name from the fact that it lies at the lower end of a torrente, one of those mountain streams so important for milling and water supply. Hence pes de flumine, Perdifumo. My first trip to the town I drank from a beautiful fountain fed by the river, only to look up and see a sign that read “Aqua non potabile!” A local nonno, seeing my look of consternation, laughed and assured me, “If you drink that water you’ll live a hundred years!” So far, so good. Like many another Cilentan town, Perdifumo has seen a variety of overlords, from the Normans of the 11th century, to Ladislav of Durazzo in the 12th, to the Aragonese in the 14th, and finally became the feudal possession of the powerful Sanseverino family. Today it is a pretty little Medieval gem which cascades down the ridge of one of Monte Stella’s spurs, from the 16th-century Church of San Sisto, whose pretty five-story belltower dominates the town, to the lower reaches.
A few kilometers eastward along a narrow, twisting mountain road brings us to the aptly named Mercato Cilento, ‘Cilento Market’, not much more than a crossroads. But a crossroads of no fewer than five local roads and therefore a logical emporium for all the little towns encircling the middle slopes of the mountain. Mercato, frankly, is rather nondescript, but I can never see it without a smile as I remember that my dear friend Fernando, when he was in college at the University of Salerno, used to take the train back home to his home on the mountain on weekends, collect produce from local farmers, and bring it to Mercato in a trusty little Api, those adorable little “Bee” trucks which look like an old Cushman golf cart attached to a small truck bed. Fernando would deliver most of his produce to local markets, sell the rest in the street market at Mercato, then take the train back to school on Sunday night. One of the many ways we are brothers born of different mothers, since I worked my way through college as well, although in my case as a jeweler.
From Mercato we take another provincial highway southward along the western flank of the mountain, around numerous switchbacks which make Sandy feel right at home, and arrive in the quaint little town of Serramezzana. We park in a lower Piazza, then wander up toward the mother church along the main street, in this case little more than a lane, past the majestic eighteenth-century Palazzo Materazzi where we are greeted by a deputation of the town’s canine element, one of whom, a cute little bandy-legged mutt with an adorable underbite, offers to accompany us to the church. There a little nonno on a mission to the hardware store stops and engages us in a conversation which is, sadly, in such thick dialect that we understand perhaps a fourth of it. But it’s the human interaction that matters anyway, and we think we hear that he is 87 years old, was born in Caserta north of Napoli but married a local girl and has lived here ever since. He’s had four children, two of whom are now dead, along with his wife. He has two grandchildren, one a young woman who is a college graduate, another, a male, who is in business in Napoli. He never smoked or drank (hard liquor, we assume; wine is not considered drink but food in these parts), but still had lymphatic cancer five years ago, from which, thank God and Santa Maria, he recovered. He doesn’t know our friend Marco Marrone but knows the family, though he corrects us by insisting the correct dialect pronunciation is ‘Marunc’.
We reluctantly say goodbye to our new friend and make our way back down to the car where a different canine delegation greets us, and then we’re on the road again, this time through the little village of San Mauro Cilento and on to Galdo. Galdo is famous (at least in our minds) as the birthplace of one Fernando La Greca. Another town cascading down a ridge spur, but this time we park at the top, above the beautiful little church of San Rocco, with its amphorae in the two pedimental niches where the bells used to be. Now it sports a handsome, separate campanile. Galdo’s name derives from the German wald, ‘forest’ and is a reminder that the village was also under Norman control at one time. We stroll down the steep corso toward the residence of the Galdi barons, noting the eerie silence of the place (Galdo now has less than 100 inhabitants) and the fact that many of the buildings have been stripped of their stucco, a concession to practical necessity, we suppose, but also a way to show off the beautiful local stone from which these old walls of the Cilento are constructed. Not to speak of giving the town a pleasing homogeneity, with the sepia tones of the stone walls and the grayish-oranges of the roof tiles, now often fuzzy with lichens and moss.
Back up the steep corso we struggle, slipping on the flags of the street worn smooth by thousands of feet, most now long since dead, and we’re off to nearby Celso, in some ways a twin of Galdo. We wind our way up the narrow corso, past the little park clinging to the cliff where we’re happy to see lots of bambini playing, a sign that Celso still has a chance to survive, and up to the imposing Church of the Assumption, from whose piazza we enjoy a spectacular view out over the Sea. We wind our way up through the main piazza, again, lively with people, and note yet another huge palazzo of the family Mazzioti, baronial lords of several of these towns. All around, defensive walls, turrets, strong gates on even rather modest buildings, remind us of the tragic history of the area and how beautiful, ironically, that history now makes these towns.
Back in Francesca we head eastward along our winding provincial road to the town of Pollica. Situated on yet another spur, some 370 meters above the sea, of which it has yet another spectacular vista, Pollica probably owes its name to Greek Basilian monks who settled a monastery here in the ninth century, escaping the iconoclastic inquisitions of the Byzantine empire during this time; pollicne is ‘small town’ in Basilian Greek. In 1183 it was granted to the Sanseverino family by the Angevin Robert Guiscard. The town (and its inhabitants, n.b.) was sold as feudatory to several baronial families over the centuries, ending with the Capano barons, who built in 1610 the massive square tower that dominates the upper town. Lower down we see the huge Palazzo Cortiglia, reminding us that there were Spanish overlords here as well, and make our way to the lovely seventeenth-century Church of San Nicholas, lovingly restored in the last century, whose bright yellow walls and campanile can be seen from the road miles away.
From Pollica we wind our way down a series of tornanti (switchbacks) to the coastal town of Acciaroli where, you will remember, Papa Hemingway may or may not have written the first draft of Old Man and the Sea but whose cerulean waters he definitely fished and where he definitely consumed massive quantities of Cilentan wine. Off we go down the coast road to Agropoli where we’ll encounter other beautiful coastal villages. But I note that your eyes are glazed and your lids heavy, so I will bid you a buon riposo and wake you when we’re back at the villa and I’ll have ready for you your own glass of Cilentan wine, in this case, nectar of the gods, otherwise known as Chateau Rolando.