Yesterday Sandy and I were lucky enough to get lost yet again.
The plan was this. We were back in Roberto Pellecchi’s wonderful book, The 100 Wonders of the Cilento and Vallo di Diano, determined to knock out three more. So far we’ve hit a cool 50 of the 100, and we’ve discovered to our sadness that we’ve seen more of this incredibly beautiful area than probably 70% of the natives, but, hey, we’re teachers, which means we’re what one of my former students called ‘squeeges,’ and we’re always bucking for that 100% on the quiz. So we settled on an itinerary which would take us first to the Grotta di San Michele at a town called Olevano sul Tusciano, about 40 miles north of Agropoli. Then we’d either eat lunch and then go to a World Wildlife Federation wildlife reserve about 20 miles east of Olevano, or the reverse, depending on time. After that we’d hop on the A-3 Autostrada and zip over to a beautiful little Medieval church perched up on top of a mountain in front of yet another cave, Santa Maria di Sperlonga. Then home for a shower, some rest and some good pasta.
We headed out fairly early by our standards, a little after 9:30 am, accessed the Superstrada 18 northward, and alternately zipped, crawled and crept the 30 miles to Battipaglia in the usual bumper-to-bumper. We exited in Battipaglia, as instructed by Roberto, zigged and zagged through downtown Battipaglia looking for the signs to Olevano, as instructed by Roberto, and finally access SP 29, a provincial road. No disrespect intended there, Italian roads are either federal, state, provincial, or communal. I suppose provinces are roughly equivalent to counties. And one of the almost totally unnecessary levels of government which have so bloated Italian bureaucracy, contributed enormously to deficits, and provided a fertile manure heap for the dung beetles in the mafia down here. But that’s another story.
Now, Roberto had told us to follow the signs for Olevano and then for the Grotta. What he didn’t bother mentioning was that there IS no Olevano, at least not a town of that name. Olevano is a confederation of towns, the three main ones being Monticelli, Ariana and Salitto, all in the Parco Regionale Monti Picentini, the regional park of the Picentine Mountains. If you Google Picenum you’ll find it located on the east coast of Italy, way north of here. What gives? The Picentines of Picenum rebelled against the Romans and the ones they didn’t slaughter outright the Romans rounded up en masse and deported to this area. Charming folk, those Romans. Anyway, we crept along, ever higher into the mountains, looking for this phantom town and not finding it. Well, okay, we’ll just look for the signs directing you to the Grotta, as Roberto said. But what Roberto forgot to mention is that there ain’t no danged signs! This region desperately needs tourist dollars, so obviously their plan is to make reaching tourist destinations as difficult as possible. “Hey, if you have to ask, you got no business being here anyway. And, you’re welcome.”
Now, we had done our research in advance and knew that the grotta, a huge cavern in which were constructed no fewer than seven whole chapels, complete with roofs, was located directly behind and partially blocked by a Basilian monastery. Eureka! There’s a sign for Convento; maybe the monastery had become a convent. Ascetic orders in Italy are having a tough time surviving under the best of circumstances. Plus we knew that the grotta was on the flank of a mountain, and, by golly, there was a very imposing mountain right ahead. So up we went, through Ariana and into Salitto, where a sign pointed us up a steep, partially paved and partially graveled byway and past what appeared to be an abandoned convent. But no grotta. Nothing for it but to continue up this one-lane road, there must be a parking lot up here where we can at least turn around. Up, up, past the farmer looking at us like aliens from another planet, along a stretch of road where the views were spectacular but the drop-off on the passenger side was hairy, till the road dead-ended at a huge, locked gate in front of a large modern building with milk cows lying to the left, casually chewing the cud and looking at us like...well, you know. Dang, the monastery’s closed. But, can that be right? A sign on the gate warns of extreme danger to any who enter. Killer monks?
Well, the road was so narrow we had no choice but to back little Hans down a good 600 yards till we could make a five-point turn and glumly make our way back down toward the convent. About halfway down, however, there was a Mercedes sedan blocking half the road, and not much room to inch around without falling over that cliff, but Sandy noticed that the owner working in his olive orchard had seen us and was heading our way. I’ve long ago gotten past that natural male tendency not to ask directions, especially in Italy where I’m lost about half the time, so I popped out of our car, met the young man as he reached his car, and asked where was the Grotta di San Michele. Which elicited a huge laugh. “Not even close, huh? (in my bad Italian). Stupidi Americani.” Well, that elicited another laugh, a beaming smile, a hearty clap on the back, and an introduction to one of the nicest fellows you could ever meet, Gerardo Caruccio. Gerardo explained that the building at the top of the road was a hydroelectric plant, that the convent was and always had been exactly that, that the Grotta was several miles away, on the other side of Salitto, and then insisted on calling the local tourist office where he discovered the Grotta was closed in any case and required a reservation for a local guide when open. He then insisted on leading us back down to his home in town, after he had rounded up some farm equipment and his beautiful nonna, so that he could give us some tourist brochures.
Which he did. And then, would you believe, insisted on leading us up to the Piazza whence the Feast of San Michele commences in May and makes its way down the valley to the Grotta. He stopped once along the road and motioned us to get out of the car so he could proudly show us beautiful Salitto, its mother church, its royal Bourbon palace, and its panoramic views across the Paestum Plain to Salerno, the Sorrentine Peninsula, Paestum, and Cappaccio. He then continued to the Piazza, actually a large parking area, getting out of his car yet again to show us the sweeping panorama, the monastery and cavern, the little Tusciano River meandering through dense forest 500 feet below, and the mountain behind us where, he explained, a large Lombard castle perched. One that could be reached on foot.
I’ve said it so many times in this blog that it probably sounds gratuitous at this point, but the most enjoyable part of traveling in Italy has always been meeting wonderful people like Gerardo who go miles (literally) out of their way to accommodate strangers. Which do you think we would have enjoyed more, seeing the Grotta or meeting Gerardo? No contest. As Gerardo left us we exchanged e-mail addresses and he noted that there was a large military cemetery in Salerno where thousands of British and American soldiers, killed in the invasion of mainland Italy in World War II, lie buried, and that every time he passes it he says a silent ‘thank-you’ to those Americans. That’s another sentiment we hear repeatedly here, but I still get a catch in my throat every time.
We bade a fond farewell to our new friend, and headed up the road around the western flank of Monte Cannabosto to the parking lot, then followed a footpath up, up, up, through a beautiful grove of maritime pines where there were picnic tables and a playground, then scrambled up many switchbacks to an abandoned village, and at last we had found Olevano, ancient Olibanum, ‘Olive Town’. This whole region has been inhabited since Paleolithic times, and Olevano per se was once a southern outpost of the Etruscans who were such a presence in the area and who gave their ‘Tuscan’ name to the river Tusciano. There is evidence of Greek, Lucanian and Roman habitation as well (there was numerous surface scatter of ceramic shards everywhere, and one was clearly a fragment of a Roman amphora). When the dark times of the Saracen raids came, this naturally fortified place was a refuge, one that was made even more secure when the Lombards in the 6th and 7th centuries built enormous bulwarks connecting two huge vertical rock towers on either end of a saddle at the top of the mountain, and the roughly rectangular wall constructed around this saddle was the third and innermost of two other huge bulwarks further down. Hence Castrum Olibani, the Castle of Olevano.
Sandy and I left the village and scrambled up a narrow path around the southern tower and into the ‘keep’, at the top of which was a huge, arched triple gate. But a gate to where? Twenty meters outside the gate the slope is so precipitous that I simply cannot imagine so much as a footpath coming from that direction. On the other hand, the portal has spectacular, 270° views over the Tusciano valley and southward into the heart of the Diano River Valley which was the commercial gateway to Basilicata, Calabria and all other points east and south. Perhaps for the Olevanesi this was a sally port, from which they could keep an eye on their territory and bring artillery when they spotted trouble in the valley. For us the views were simply breathtaking. Looking in the opposite direction, they could have spotted Saracen pirates on the rampage from 30 miles away and brought the local population within the castle in ample time to repel a raid.
By this time, dearly as we wanted to stay, it was close to 1 pm and we were both weak from hunger, so we scrambled and ambled back down to the car, pointed Hans southward toward Monticelli where we found a cafe open and savored some delicious hand-crafted pasta while we ogled our pictures and chortled over our incredible good luck in getting lost yet again. I hope you have the chance to travel in this amazing country someday, gentle reader, and if you do I hope you become thoroughly, hopelessly lost. And if you are so fortunate, my advice to you is to relax and smile. The best part of your trip has just begun.