Friday, July 10, 2015

Heat Wave!

Our favorite no-cook dinner, or at least we-don't-cook dinner

The terazza, usually shady and breezy, but not for the last 10 days

No-cook lunch

Thank God for good old fans

Cioppo knows the right way to spend the afternoon.

These guys love the heat and humidity

Part of Agropoli's beach

Or, there's always the hose.

“We’re having a heat wave, a tropical heat wave, the temperature’s rising, it isn’t surprising that it’s hot as Hades.” You oldsters will know the tune, though I must apologize to Irving Berlin for desecrating his lyrics.  Things have been toasty here in the Cilento of late.  We are on the periphery of the third major European heat wave of the last 15 years.  Based on the last hundred years of climate data, the chances of that happening are astronomical.  You draw your own conclusions about climate change from that.  As far as I’m concerned, anyone who is still in denial is either an idiot or is willfully ignorant.  Strong emphasis on the ‘willfully’.

The heat wave in the Continental Zone (we are in Mediterranean Europe) is quite impressive.  On Monday, June 29, Madrid hit 104°F.  The previous day Cordoba, down in the south of Spain, reached a mind-boggling 111°.  Wednesday of the same week, a temperature of 98° was recorded at London’s Heathrow Airport.  In London!  So far, three all-time highs have been reached in France, at Boulogne-sur-Mer (96), Dieppe (101) and Melun (a balmy 103).

Just this week, Madrid reached 104°.  Germany reached an all-time high in that country, 104.5 at Kitzingen, and last weekend Berlin reached 100.2, Frankfurt 102.2.  In Rome, temperatures have not been quite so extreme, but last week and this they have hovered in the low to mid 90s.

I shouldn’t complain.  Here in Agropoli we have flirted with 90 all week, though this is the first day we’ve actually hit it.  But the breeze has been consistent in the morning, and that helps tremendously.  Sadly, our typical evening breeze has deserted us on several occasions, and that’s when we need it most, after the heat of the day.  Perched as we are here between the mountains and the sea, we typically have a morning breeze, the venticello, ‘little wind’, which blows down from the hills, and an early evening breeze, the ‘across the mountains’ tramontana, which blows off the sea.  And in the summer here in the South we still believe in the traditional early afternoon rest, the riposo.  Another smart idea we owe to the Romans, by the way.  The fancy Latin term is meridienation.  The next time your spouse complains that you’re napping, just tell them you’re simply meridienating.  That’ll shut ‘em up.  Stores open early, usually by 8 am or earlier, depending on what they sell, and stay open till 12:30, when everyone goes home for some pranzo and perhaps a brief snooze, and then the stores open again around 4 pm and stay open till 8:30 or so.  Total sanity, in my opinion.  And folks are serious about their riposo in this part of the world; a neighbor town, Controne, about 30 miles north of here, recently passed an ordinance banning barking dogs during the sacred afternoon nap.  Dog owners can now be fined up to 200 euros if Fido doesn't keep his yap shut between 2 and 4 in the afternoon.  The ban evidently resonated with lots of Italians; the story made the national news.

In Continental Europe, where the bulk of that monster high pressure system resides, the heat has been absolutely deadly, especially for the old and infirm.  You must remember that large portions of Europe, even in Italy, and even down here in the Mezzogiorno, are not air-conditioned or at least not widely so.  I have not seen statistics  for this wave, but in the deadly 2003 heat wave, some 30,000 Europeans died, 14,000 in France alone.  The Weather Channel fixates on hurricanes and tornadoes because they create ratings, but even in the States, heat is far and away the greatest killer in nature.

So I’m very grateful for several things.  First of all, the heat wave stayed away from Italy until after our tour.  I had practically promised those good folks some delightful weather in mid-June Italy, and Italy delivered:  temperatures in the high 70s and low 80s during the day, mid to low 60s at night.  We had one brief rain shower when we arrived in Rome, a pretty steady downpour the afternoon of our last day in Venice, and otherwise the skies were blue, the humidity low, the breeze delightful, and the sun shining.  Whew!

Secondly, I’m thankful we really are on the periphery of the high system.  In many places the heat is a danger; here it is just an inconvenience, more of an irritation.  And finally, I’m glad I grew up in the Mississippi River swamps of West Tennessee in an era before air conditioning, so I pretty much know the drill.  

First of all, you just have to slow down and make some concessions to the heat.  Want to get out?  No problem, just plan on doing so before 1 pm or after 6 pm.  And remember, people will be abroad until at least 1 in the morning.  Want to cook?  Don’t even think about it until about 8 pm.  Better, enjoy the incredible fresh bounty of vegetables and fruits here.  A slice of prosciutto on melon, or a Caprese salad with the local mozzarella di bufala, basil and the plum tomatoes that are so impossibly red and sweet, and you have a dinner fit for a king. Or how about aqua sale, a dish composed of chunks of bread that have been dipped in brine, then dried till they're hard as a brick.  You run them under the faucet and count, "One Mississippi, two Mississippi," and the put them on a plate, wait about five minutes to let the bread rehydrate, and then cover them with those same cherry tomatoes, maybe mixed with a little olive oil and torn basil leaves or oregano. Trust me, it sounds strange, but it's delicious.  A little vino, preferably mixed with ample water and maybe even served over ice, and you’re all set.  And absolutely, feel free to refrigerate your red wine.  Better yet, just go out for a good pizza.  And remember that the dining hour at restaurants starts at 9 and goes to 12, when the coolness of the night allows for the best sauce of all, meeting with your friends and celebrating life.

Of course, we were strictly spoiled when I was a kid.  Thanks to TVA, we had cheap electricity in Martin, Tennessee, and that meant fans.  Good old fans!  I still remember the monster window fan that was parked in a window at the western end of the house at 204 University Street, drawing a nice breeze through the open windows in the bedrooms on the east end and through the kitchen and living room, which back then was really a room where the family lived.  Then there was this crazy little fan housed in a cylindrical, sturdy plastic cage which sat on the floor and blew the air up, sucking in the coolish air off the floor and stirring that hot air up near the ceiling.  It looked like a cylindrical ottoman or hassock and I seem to recall that in the spring and fall we sometimes threw a circular pillow on it and used it as such.  The top was composed of a grid of tiny plastic squares through which the cool air rushed.  Until someone yelled at you to scram, you could crouch on the floor, lean over that little guy, and just let the cool air rush across your burning face. My poor, gullible sister nodded off on it one time and woke up with the grid impressed on her cheek; her mean old brother told her it was permanent, after which she went wailing to mama, as usual.

If the house fans were not cutting it, there was always the fan on wheels, also known as our 1962 blue Plymouth sedan.  You packed the whole family in the old girl and headed out through the sweltering countryside as fast as you dared go—and Doctor Thurmond dared to go darned fast—with all the windows down and the air whistling through.  Even better, cars back then came equipped with a small, triangular vent window at the front of the square roll-up in the front.  This little guy was hinged and could be swung clear around to channel the air into the car.  If you were lucky enough to ride shotgun and had access to the vent window, why, that was luxury.

And if all else failed, there was the trusty municipal swimming pool or, barring that, just a good garden hose.

Actually, those skills have come in handy here.  Monday the air was so still and sultry that we had real difficulty sleeping, an anomaly in this place where we can totally relax.  So Tuesday we headed out to the Electrozone and purchased a nice little oscillating fan.  Sleeping with a fan kissing your face with a gentle breeze and bringing in the cool air from outside is sheer heaven.  Our municipal swimming pool is the beach in Agropoli, and it is a beauty, but the intensity of the sun makes it dangerous at midday for all but those who enjoy that gorgeous olive skin which we so associate with southern Italians.  So I don’t mind admitting that several times, especially when we’ve been out exploring in the morning and come home sweltering, I’ve donned the old swim suit, come out on the terazza, and hosed myself down, then sat and let the breeze do its magic.  But the first time there was a rather steep learning curve; I forgot that the hose had been sitting in the hot sun for five hours and almost scalded myself before I dropped that hose like a hot tater.  Five minutes later I was soaked and cool and sat on the terazza in the breeze and just luxuriated as evaporative cooling did its thing.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Lost Again!

     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.

Sunday, July 5, 2015


    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.