Tuesday we got a call from our buddy Fernando, who was on a brief parole from duties at the University of Salerno as well as the seemingly endless list of tasks which he’s assigned at home by she-who-must-not-be-named. Fernando had been for a physical that morning and, just like the good twin he is, he was accosted by his doctor just as I had been last month with a stern injunction to lose some weight. Fernando wanted to know if we’d be interested in a bit of a trek, from the little town of San Marco, some 10 miles down the coast, along a coastal path to Punta Licosa, a storied place in antiquity. How could we resist?
Now, Fernando said the jaunt was about 30 minutes each way. We have learned that when Fernando suggests a picolo giro, ‘short trip’, we should anticipate at least a half day, so we should have been a bit suspicious of that estimate, but we needed the exercise in any case (these old bodies rebelled on us the first few days after the tour and have been incredibly lazy) and the scenery could only be spectacular along that stretch. Plus there was the promise of several hours with our dear friend, and in the worst of circumstances, that is a pure joy.
Fernando picked us up about 4:45 so that we could avoid the worst heat of the day. Understand, when we say ’heat’ around here, at least at this time of the year, we usually mean mid-80s, low humidity and breezy. But still, the Cilentan coast runs north and south, and afternoon sun bouncing off that glorious Tyrhennian Sea and those cliffs can be pretty toasty, so you need to be sensible. We toodled down the state road past Castelabbate and along the coast, parked in a Parcheggio and made our way through the cute little resort town of San Marco, past its beautiful mother church, to the southern end. As we headed up the sentiero, ‘path’, which was really a small road, we passed the marina and, looking down, we could see the traces of the old Roman harbor, with its classic formation: A long mole projecting out westward into the sea to act as a breakwater, a shorter, perpendicular one to close off the harbor and create a defensible entrance, and a small inner harbor where naval ships could dock. Roman triremes, their standard warships with three banks of oars, were long and skinny, which gave them the advantages of speed and maneuverability, but made them very unstable in choppy water. And my friends here think there is a reasonable chance that part of the southern Roman fleet was stationed at San Marco; my buddy Franco Castelnuovo, a talented scuba diver and archaeologist, discovered the tomb titulus of a Roman sailor, now in the Antiquarium here at Agropoli, in the waters right off shore here. The main fleet, we know, was stationed at Misenum, on the northwestern tip of the Bay of Naples, but that’s some 90 miles north, and it’s reasonable to assume that a smaller contingent at least was stationed farther south. The main purpose of the fleet in the first centuries CE, after piracy had been largely suppressed, was to keep these waters safe for the huge mercantile fleet that coasted northward to Mother Rome.
As we climbed upward and out of the town, the views of the sea became broader and more spectacular, and, not surprisingly, the coast was dotted with beautiful ville maritime, many owned by the rich and famous of Salerno, Naples, perhaps even Rome. This stretch is famous in Italy, if not the States, as a wonderful summer vacation spot. La Japanesa, as Sandy is affectionately called here (apparently Japanese tourists are notorious in Italy for taking way too many pictures) was having a field day. We passed a beautifully constructed arched bridge over a torrente, one of those wet-weather torrents that come crashing down from the Italian mountains. The embankment wall of the road itself showed repeated reconstruction, the bottom level of which appeared to be Roman or Greek. For what it is worth (practically nothing, but not absolutely nothing) I’m of the opinion we were walking along a Roman diverticulum, the Roman equivalent of a county road, and that this one was one and the same with the one that skirts Monte Tresino to the north. See a previous blog on Roman roads. We passed beautiful semitropical vegetation, including New World immigrants such as yucca, agave taller than I, and a prickly pear that was, I swear, literally a small tree, its trunk as woody as any oak.
On we trudged, expecting momentarily to turn a corner and see the beautiful Isola Licosa, the island off the Point where last year we were lucky enough to explore the site of a Roman villa. And on we trudged. And on. And...on. It seems Fernando had slightly underestimated the distance of our little trek. Poor Fernando was mortified and apologetic, and we had to tease him just a bit, even though we were perfectly fine and having a wonderful, if taxing, time. It’s just that between the two of us we have exactly one good knee, and somehow in the chaos of packing and unpacking in hotel rooms over the course of a ten-day tour we managed to lose not one but two knee braces.
At long last we spotted at the Point the Palazzo Baronale, a huge palace of a Napoleonic baron who controlled this area, and Fernando pointed out the fort up on top of Monte Licosa, behind us, also a product of Napoleon's conquest of this area. We explored the point a bit, especially the long modern mole. Fernando had kidded about thumbing a ride on a boat back to San Marco, and in fact, when he noticed one of the pleasure boats tied to the mole departing, he made a serious attempt to ask the skipper for a lift. Sadly, the young man was focused on backing off the rocks and the noise of his motor drowned out our voices, and by the time he noticed us he interpreted our frantic gestures as a hearty goodbye. Even his little nino and his moglia were smiling and waving back, as they left us bereft on the rocks.
Well, there was nothing for it but to hike the four miles or so back to San Marco, Fernando continuing to apologize profusely despite our assurances that we were fine, just slow, and of course we made it back a bit tired but happy...and maybe even a few pounds lighter. Fernando and I agreed that the medici, at least, would be satisfied with our effort.
Meanwhile, Miss Sandy had her radar working overtime and steered her little pleasure boat straight for the first bar/gelateria in San Marco. Twenty minutes later she was happy as a clam. Not much that a cappuccino and a cup of the world’s best ice cream won’t fix.