Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Into the Heart of the Mountains


City Hall in Ottati

Country life in the Cilento

Student art at the elementary school

Beautiful Ottati

Sandy with Signore Biagio

The Monti Alburni

Karst formations on Monte Panormo

Driving through a meadow

Tagliatelli con funghi porcini

Sinkhole with a sea of ferns

Hiking toward the summit

Back to Hans and the Alburni cattle

View from Monte Panormo

First gallery of the Grotta di San Michele

Maria Immaculata

Shrine of San Michele

The church in the rock

The abbey's bell

Terrace accessed from the belltower

Ruins of the abbey, Sant'Angelo and the Fasinella Valley

The Grotta

Last Friday we took care of some unfinished business in a most enjoyable way. Last year we had traveled to Castelcivita to explore that labyrinthine little town with its Aragonese tower perched saucily on the uppermost crest of the hill.  We wandered through the town, a little Medieval gem, almost completely inaccessible to cars, and then moseyed back to little Franco in a lower piazza and headed back down the mountain to a crossroad that would take us to two other noted sites.  Unfortunately, the road to Ottati, our first stop, was closed.  But by now we have become skeptical of such signs.  The message usually is, “This road is closed officially because a section has partially caved off, but if you’re a local and know the score, come on through and go slow at the frana.  (Wink, wink!)”

So we skirted right around that barrier, which covered only half the road anyway, suggestively, and zipped down the road for about 8 miles.  And there we encountered a huge fence, easily 10’ tall and 30’ wide, completely blocking the road from one side to the other.  Oops!  Looks like they’re serious for once.  We discovered afterwards that a bridge had been washed completely away.  With any luck at all, it will be replaced within the next 30 years.  But that was the end of our little giro. The detour to Ottati was a good 40 miles out of the way.

Back home we learned that the best way to go, under the circumstances, was to follow the flank of Monte Soprano to the south, then across the valley of the Calore River to Corleto Monforte on the slopes of the next range to the north, the Monti Alburni, ‘White Mountains’, and backtrack westward to Ottati.  Which we did last week.  We wound through the little village of Roccadaspide, “Rock of the Shield” or "Rock of the Viper” depending on which etymology you choose to believe, nodding to its own beautiful Aragonese tower and castle, then on past Bellosguardo, the aptly named “Good Lookout”, on a spur of the Alburni and overlooking the whole valley, to Corleto and down the road to Ottati, where we parked in a parcheggio at the eastern end of this tiny village (c. 800 inhabitants) and ambled through the town, splayed out along the flank of Monte Panormo on three levels.  Ottati is one of three so-called ‘Painted Villages” in the Cilento, towns where local artists are encouraged to display their work on the sides of buildings.  The paintings in this little village were all suggestive of local life, with scenes of harvest, of winter fun in the snow, of summer lazing, of farm life.  All quite charming, but, frankly, pretty underwhelming to me.  Sandy, on the other hand, seemed intent on capturing a photo of every last picture.  To me the most delightful picture of all was that of the 'Three Little Pigs" posted in a window of the town’s elementary school.  Kids and fairy tales are natural mates worldwide.

After an hour of meandering, we headed back to the car park, but decided to stop at a local bar-café to grab a quick cuppa and inquire about paninni.  It was still fairly early, about 11 am, but our next stop took us to the top of Monte Panormo, high above, where Roberto’s book informed us there was an excellent restaurant.  Now, Roberto is a friend, but I’ve grown a bit skeptical of some of his claims, and a round trip to Monte Panormo was easily a three hour jaunt, minimum.  Better safe than sorry, I say.  Pack some sandwiches and bottled water in the backpack and have a picnic as we hike the mountain trail, if need be. But, as so often has happened in our travels, when we asked about a local paninneria in the café, a kind elderly gentleman named Pietro Biagio stepped up, and in beautiful English, informed us that there was a bar just down the way that could help us.  Pietro explained when we remarked on his wonderful command of our language that he had worked for some 20 years in London, had come back to his native town to retire, and was comfortably ensconced in this peaceful, charming little village with his wife of many years. But that he always welcomed a chance to practice his English.  Pietro insisted on buying us coffee, and when we explained why we needed paninni assured us that the restaurant was indeed open every day and was well worth waiting for.  Then he insisted on hopping in his car and leading us back toward Corleto to the cutoff which led up to the top of the  mountain.  We thanked Pietro profusely, especially since we would never have noticed the small sign which announced the road to the top, and bade our new friend good-bye.

The Monti Alburni appear to be one long mountain, extending for some 20 miles almost due west and east, but are actually a series of connected peaks.  They receive their name from the dramatic white limestone cliffs at the top, up above the Mediterranean scrub and the subalpine forests.  We meandered the 11 kilometers to the top of Monte Panormo, the highest peak in the range at a respectable 5,390 feet.  These cliffs just soar up above the lower slopes, quite dramatically.  But as we made our way to the top, we discovered a bit of a deception on the part of our mountains.  This whole area is dominated by limestone rock and karstic formations, which explains the dozens of caves, many of which are religious shrines (and tourist attractions), including a huge one we have explored at Castelcivita that extends for some 3 miles into the mountain.  That also explains the towering pillars of limestone which create those dramatic cliffs.  But as we reached the higher elevations we discovered that those imposing cliffs were actually a series of stairstepped karstic formations, and on the ‘tread’ of each stair, in fact a plateau, were beautiful oak, beech and chestnut forests amidst which were lovely little alpine meadows.  The cliffs only appear to be monolithic because the eye looking up at them is deceived by the angle and insists on seeing a solid wall of rock instead of a series of walls.  And everywhere in those meadows are grazing herds of a characteristic breed of Alburni dairy cattle, as white as the mountain cliffs for which they are named.  They are a variant of a famous breed called podolica.  And Fernando had informed me that milk from these girls makes a particularly good form of cacciocavallo cheese.

Roberto’s book informed us that the road was well tarmacked until the last 500 meters, and he was correct...mostly.  Winter torrents had washed huge gullies in many places, and one little stretch had reverted to gravel, but we just slowed down to a crawl and little Hans made it fine.  We parked in a meadow among cattle and ambled over to a large complex with rental cabins and a restaurant with ample outdoor seating where there were probably 24 people hard at work at the serious Italian business of eating pranzo.  Now, neighbor, if that many people are willing to drive 7 miles up the side of a mountain over a road that left quite a lot to be desired, to me that’s a darned good recommendation for a restaurant.

There was no menu, but a very nice woman informed us of four different pasta dishes on the menu that day, all made from scratch from local products.  It was when she mentioned tagliatelli con funghi that our ears perked up.  “Porcini?”  “Si, porcini, non da qua, ma locali.”  Jackpot!  Homemade pasta with local porcini mushrooms, the king of all the funghi.  And don’t even go there with your rant about morels, I’m not listening.

Sandy ordered bottled water and I an Italian beer and we just relaxed and enjoyed the cool air and this scenic environment, nestled on a hillside among the beech trees, with a small herd of those local cows corralled at the top of the hill and a huge sinkhole surrounded by limestone pillars off to the left.  Soon enough, out came food, not our entree, but rather a beautiful plate of antipasti, in this case slices of the famous aged cheese from those very cattle, and a delicious hard sausage which the waitress informed us was made by the proprietor of the restaurant, a burly fellow named Francesco busying about among the diners.  Both cheese and sausage were absolutely stellar; I’ll say it a thousand times, you can make food cheaper and more efficiently using industrial processes, but in most cases you can never make it as well.  Then out came plates of steaming tagliatelli, dressed simply with olive oil and chunks of those luscious little beauties.  Not honking plates, piled high with mounds of bad sauce, which seems to be most Americans’ sense of good pasta, just a perfect portion of highest quality food cooked and dressed to highlight the goodness of the natural ingredients and not the manipulations of some chef determined to disguise the food with fancy technique.

We lolled over that pasta as long as we could, but we had trails to hike, so we reluctantly called for the conto, which Francesco presented.  A whopping 17 euros, including drinks.  We almost felt guilty.  But when he brought my change, Francesco apologized profusely; it seems he had charged me 2 euros for a large beer instead of 1 euro for the small size.  So, in fact, our bill was all of 16 smackers.  Food is incredibly cheap in this part of Italy, if you stay away from the tourist traps.

We returned to Hans, donned our sneakers and the backpack and accessed a trailhead from the restaurant into the heart of the mountain.  Those karstic formations were even more dramatic up close.  You’d round a bend in the trail, and there would be a huge sinkhole, maybe 40 feet deep, surrounded by 20-foot limestone pillars doing sentry duty.  Another sinkhole, shallower, would be surrounded by a small sea of ferns, testimony to the fact that the ample rainfall that these mountains receive in fall and winter finds its way into the belly of the mountain.  Some of the pillars formed walls, in one case a wall so perfectly straight and tall and at such a perfect right angle to an intersecting wall that we had to stop and look closely to make sure this wasn’t a man-made creation.  And all around were those huge old spreading beech trees and little pastures.  It was like a parkland designed by the hand of God.

We hiked for about an hour, up toward the summit of Monte Panormo.  Time and bad knees would not allow us to take the two hours to reach the top, however, so we strolled back down to little Hansi, who took us down the mountain to the provincial highway.  We headed back east, toward Corleto.  We had planned to stop in the tiny village of Sant'Angelo di Fasanella to visit one of those famous grotte, but knew that it would probably be closed and were quite prepared after our success in Ottati and on Monte Panormo to face that prospect.  We made our way through the little town, following the signs to the grotta, and parked at the base of a long scalone, one of those Italian ‘stairways’ which is in fact a long ramp composed of a series of long treads.  We could clearly see the little bell tower and two huge, ancient wooden doors which marked the entrance to the grotta.  They were defiantly closed.  But, hey, we can at least have a peek and enjoy the panorama out over the Fasinella valley.  Hardly had we reached the top when we saw a little Fiat Panda, not the modern hatchback that we love so well, but one of those old models from the eighties which looks like a station wagon that was stunted in its growth.  And this little feller just bounded up that long scalone and  deposited a kindly older signora, key in hand.  I don’t know whether she lives so close that she can keep an eye on the shrine or whether our friends in Ottati had offered one more act of gratuitous kindness and called ahead to let someone know to expect us.  The kind signora who served us coffee there seemed very eager for us to see the shrine.  But we were very touched by the gesture, in either case.  Hubby made some quick arrangements for pickup, then bounced his way back down the scalone and homeward, while Signora unlocked one of those massive doors.

The grotta is actually a series of three huge galleries, two of which are at right angles to each other.  The shrine was originally part of an eleventh-century Benedictine monastery, remnants of which we could see down below the bell tower.  The cave itself has produced evidence of inhabitation as far back as the Neolithic.  As you enter, to the left is a series of large sarcophagi, tombs of two of the Benedictine abbots, a Neapolitan archbishop, and several members of the noble Caracciolo family.  But directly ahead is the real centerpiece, a little shrine of Mary Immaculate with painted wooden icon of Mary holding a cute little toddler Jesus and perched on a throne.  Above her throne is a wooden canopy, richly decorated as well.
But the part that took our breath away was a huge gallery perpendicular to this on the right, with a beautiful altar and a large painted icon of Michael Archangel.  This gallery was, in fact, a complete church, mostly natural but also carved into the living rock.  There was a choir loft to the left, below which was the sacristy, and in the ‘nave’ of the little church some 50 to 60 molded plastic chairs made it obvious that this church was very much a living church.  Can you imagine having a service in such an evocative place?  We were both deeply touched by a sense of reverence, even cynical Dave.

Outside again, the Signora asked if we wouldn’t like to access the bell tower as well, and of course we were enthusiastic, bad knees or no.  The campanile is built on three levels, accessed by simple wooden stairs up which it was necessary for us to crawl on hands and knees.  Eleventh-century Italians were apparently even shorter than their modern counterparts.  I made it to the top for a good look at the huge bell, cast in 1773.  But there were so many weeds growing in the windows at this level that there wasn’t much of a prospect.  Back down on the second level, however, a portal at the rear led to a small balcony carved into the side of the mountain, and this provided us both a panoramic view of the little town clinging to the side of the mountain as well as the Fasinella and Calore valleys and the little rivers meandering along between Monte Panormo and Monte Chianello, the eastward extension of Monte Soprano.  We scrambled down those stairs, thanked the Signora heartily (Sandy was so overcome with emotion she had to give her a hug), made a small and very inadequate offering to the shrine for such a wonderful experience, and made our way back down to the car.

Quite a full day:  a cute village and a new friend, a good dose of exquisite food and natural wonders, and a deeply reverential experience.  Both literally and metaphorically we had been into the heart of these beautiful mountains.

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