Thursday, July 17, 2014

Walk on Down That Roman Road

     Today Sandy and I took a break from photography and Roman wine and headed around the port road to the Bay of Trentova, a popular place for swimming and beach flopping.  Ah, but your intrepid reporters were not slacking, we were off to look at a Roman road in a very unlikely place.

Four years ago, our first summer here, Fabio and Fernando corralled us and packed us into a four-wheel-drive vehicle to take us out to see the site of a Roman villa, upon which had been built in turn a large eighteenth century villa, then in a perilous state of decrepitude and commonly referred to as “The House of the Cows” because a local land owner used it as an ersatz barn.  We turned off the road immediately before the drive down to the beach facility and headed up a ridge trail which rounds Monte Tresino, a headland which more or less defines the western terminus of Agropoli’s bay.  Now Fabio had borrowed a jeep, but not just any jeep.  We were riding up what can only be described as a pig trail in a genuine Russian Lada jeep.  Which had, I am convinced, no suspension whatsoever.  As we wallowed through mud holes three feet deep and over boulders, our heads were literally bouncing on the roof of the Lada.  And then, suddenly, out in the middle of the boonies, we were zipping down a real road!  Fabio whistled and pointed out the window and as I craned my neck out the rear window my jaw almost hit the pavement.  Yep, I said pavement.  We were out in the middle of nowhere on a beautiful little section of Roman road!  So naturally I wanted to come back and take a closer look.

A little background:  the Roman road system is rightly famous, but its status reminds me of that old gag of my favorite comic, Henny Youngman.  Henny sees a friend on the street and in the course of conversation his friend asks, “So, Henny, how’s your wife?”  To which Henny replies deadpan, “Compared to what?”  You supply your own rimshot. Compared to what had come before it since the dawn of civilization and after as well for many centuries, the Roman road system was stupendous, consisting of some 50,000 miles of highways all across Europe, the Levant and northern Africa, and perhaps as many as 250,000 miles of improved roads.  That was a record that lasted until the 19th century, believe it or not.  But compared to the road system of most modern European countries, much less of the whole of Europe, that’s a rather paltry number.  For comparison, the U.S. has something on the order of 4 million miles of improved roads.  

On the other hand, Roman roads were designed to last.  There are roads all over the Old World which are merely widened and paved over their Roman forerunner.  And literally hundreds of Roman bridges are still being used, even by motorized traffic, 2,300 years after they were first constructed.  Not too shabby when you consider the effective life of a modern bridge is about 70 years.  The secret of the Roman bridge was the arch, and the secret of the Roman road was that it was designed to shed water as quickly and efficiently as possible.  First the soldiers (Roman roads, like America’s interstate system, were really built for military transport) grubbed out vegetation for 20’ on either side of the center line of the road, then they dug a concave trench some 8’ to 15’ wide, depending on the importance of the road, and 6’ deep, and began stacking layers of fill, big stones on the bottom, then smaller stones, then gravel, then a layer of sharper’s sand which they mounded in the center to create a crown, then placed curbstones—which were literally curb stones—along both sides and carefully fitted onto the upper surface of the road large, usually polygonal slabs of basalt or some other hard stone which they fitted together with incredible precision so that water was forced to run to the sides of the road where it was carried by the curbs to small drainage channels which connected to large ditches at the edges of the road’s verges, and these in turn were channeled into streams and rivers.  Same concept as today, but the Romans had it nailed a long time ago. What little water seeped through the road surface quickly percolated through the fill.  Every Roman mile they placed a milestone which was—you guessed it—a real mile stone, complete with carved mileage to the two closest cities and to the Golden Milestone in the heart of the Empire in the Forum Romanum in Mother Roma.  Imagine the psychological effect if you’re a Celtic hick out in Gallia who’s never seen a road before and some wise ass Roman tells you you’re exactly 1,348 Roman miles from the center of power.

Actually, just a few days ago we traveled one of the most important of Roman roads on our way back from Policastro.  Today it’s a stretch of the A-3 autostrada, the interstate which hooks up with the A-1 and thus carries you from the Alps to the toe of the boot in Reggio-Calabria.  This stretch, which zips down the Vallo di Diano, the other main part of Italy's largest national park along with the Cilento, along the Tanagro River and through the valley of a Cenozoic lake, was the Via Annia in antiquity, though it is often misidentified as the Via Popilia.  But that’s 40 miles west of here.  So what was our little stretch of beautiful Roman road doing so far out in the hinterlands?  This will have been what the Romans called a via privata, a local road usually built at private expense by one or more landowners to connect with the larger public roads.  I can only imagine that SSP 572, the coastal road from Agropoli south to Palinuro and beyond, follows a Roman road as well. 

But what would justify such an expense?  Hard to see it from Sandy’s picture, what with all the macchia on the ridge, but to a Roman eye, this stretch along the coast must have looked like prime agricultural land.  If I were a Roman vigneron, I would drool just looking at it:  beautiful conformation, springs and year-round streams for irrigation everywhere, a perfect north-facing aspect in this toasty environment, and those cool, dewy breezes off the sea every night.  In short, this is prime location for Roman villas.

The literal meaning of villa in Latin is nothing more or less than ‘farmhouse’, but as early as the third century BCE the Romans were already farming on a commercial scale.  To put it concisely, the Romans invented agribusiness.  A typical villa farm grew wheat in the lowlands and olives, fruits and vines on the upper slopes.  What today we call polyculture.  Some also specialized in luxury products:  flowers, farmed fish, morays—I read today that escargot were even being shipped from this area to Egypt.  The Romans also invented the beach house, and, Sister, did these guys on Monte Tresino find a location!  The site of the villa is some 200 feet above the sea on a steep escarpment.  To create enough level space for what must have been a large villa complex, the Romans constructed a retaining wall around three sides, from 6’ to 10’ tall, and running out toward the sea some 60’ and then along the seascape a good 160’.  And we’re not talking dry rubble here!  Take a look at the picture and that gorgeous ashlar work.

So imagine yourself as the lucky owner of this villa maritima.  The Romans loved placing villas along these dramatic seascapes, and a 1st century CE eyewitness named Strabo says there were so many along the coast of the next bay north from here, the Bay of Naples, that it looked like one continuous city.  You have opted for a bit more quiet and privacy, here on the Bay of Trentova, but doubtless there are other Roman villas along the same stretch, as yet undiscovered.  Your house is equipped with a huge atrium with an ornamental pool, a tablinum or office where you can survey the public part of your house, a gorgeous peristyle courtyard out back with topiary and a small swimming pool, surrounded by summer bedrooms on two levels, service rooms, both a summer and winter dining room, as well as a spa complex with hot, warm and cold baths.  Some distance from the residential suite is the pars rustica, where wheat is threshed, winnowed and stored, where olives are processed into oil and where grapes are pressed and fermented into wine.  A spring some 60 yards from the back of the house provides delicious water, natural refrigeration for cheeses and other foods, and a shrine of the gods which has cultic pictures inherited from your Greek and perhaps Etruscan forerunners (Fernando showed me this little shrine and it is deeply moving).

But there may be yet another source of income for your luxury getaway.  Up on the ridge behind the villa is a seam of beautiful pink sandstone which has obviously been quarried at some point.  Sandstone which perfectly matches that used to construct the first Doric temples in Paestum, some 20 miles north.  Paestum, built on a limestone ledge where there is no sandstone for 20 miles.  Twenty miles south.  And 200 meters to the west of your villa is a small cove which defines a perfect landing for sea transport of bulk products.  It could very well be that our Roman agribusinessman was also a stone contractor as well.  If you were lucky enough to be that guy, that was about as good as life could get in antiquity.  A gorgeous home in a gorgeous setting in a healthful climate with a dependable income and a diet the quality of which exceeded that of a typical 21st-century American.

Sadly for Dave and Sandy, the ‘House of the Cows’ has been fenced off and gated, so we were grateful that our friends had taken us there earlier.  Happily, it looks to us as if the owners are now trying to restore the land and even the huge old farmhouse, perhaps as an agriturismo.  I truly hope so; they will have a spectacular location.  And happily as well, we decided to push our old muscles a bit and trek on up the flank of Monte Tresino to Punta Tresino where we were rewarded with the haunting remains of yet another torre, watchtower, this one the Torre Sarzana, and a panoramic view out over the azure sea.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Hill Towns of Monte Stella

 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.