Sicily Part 2: To Cefalu and Palermo – Wandering Through the Centuries

The weather in mid-November was still nice; most of the days were sunny, but cooler.  Sometimes a damp dreary, grey day snuck in and reminded us that winter did come this far south as was the occasion when we started our drive to Cefalu. It was honestly just plain yucky! On the wet roadtrip south, we passed two men selling roasted chestnuts and plastic, one-liter bottles of Vino Novello, young wine, or the Italian version of Beaujolais Nouveau, made from an accelerated fermentation process that eliminates the aging normally associated with vinting wines. With a quick u-turn and purchase our spirits were immediately lifted, as the aroma of the freshly roasted chestnuts filled the car. They took the chill off the day.  The bottles of wine would wait until Palermo.  This continues a tradition started years ago, stopping at roadside stands for any type of food, craft or wine purchase.  Some days we made very slow progress indeed.

Heading inland from the coast road we followed the A19 west across the desolate, mountainous interior of Sicily past sporadically placed hilltop villages of various size.  Calascibetta was particularly impressive from the road; its recorded history dates to its Arabic settlement in 851 AD. An area of 300 rock-cut tombs, Necropoli di Realmese, and a warren of cave dug dwellings at the Byzantine Village of Vallone Canalotto called for further exploration. “Next time,” we agreed as we raced to spend the afternoon in Cefalu.

On the Sicilian list of most beautiful villages, it is also thought to be one of the inspirations for the coastal village “Vigata” where our favorite fictional detective, Salvo Montalbano, created by Andrea Camilleri, enjoys quietly eating his beloved Sicilian dishes on his patio overlooking the beach. A step above the typical crime novel, Andrea Camilleri’s inspector Montalbano critically confronts Italy’s difficult political and social issues.

A graceful, curved beach, with ancient stone homes built to the Tyrrhenian Sea’s edge, under a bold headland defines Cefalu’s beauty. Offshore lie the Aeolian Islands, a volcanic archipelago.

The town’s first settlement was atop the nearly inaccessible 1200ft tall promontory that dominates this spur of land that protrudes into the ocean like a bent knuckle. A new town was established on the coast under the cliff face when the Normans captured it from the Arabs in 1063 and proceeded to anchor the new village with a cathedral that was built to fulfill a promise to the Holy Savior by Roger II, the King of Sicily, upon his survival of a vicious storm at sea that cast him ashore at Cefalu.  Started in 1131, the fortress-like church, with Arab influenced architectural elements, took over 100 years to construct and was finished in 1240.

A handful of tourists sheltered under the tent of a café on the plaza in front of the Cefalù Cathedral, trying to ward of the November chill with coffee or wine.  Unfortunately, the church was closed and we were unable to view its Byzantine mosaics. A trailhead on Via Pitre leads to the top of the massive promontory that towers over the town.  Paths connect the ruins of a Greek temple dedicated to Diana that dates to the 9th century BC, as well as a Saracenic castle.  The panoramic views of the Cefalu and the Sicilian coast are phenomenal.

A plastic curtain at the restaurant shielded us from a sudden downpour as we sat enjoying pizza, just above the gentle lapping waves.  By the end of lunch, the rain had lessened to a misty drizzle and we ventured forth, with our umbrellas at the ready, down slick cobbled lanes to a wide, curved stone staircase.

Legend says the waters of the Cefalino River that feed the The Lavatoio Medievale, a medieval washhouse, were created from the tears of a nymph mourning the loss of her lover.  The waters originate six miles away in the Madonie Mountains near the village of Gratteri and flow under the streets of Cefalu before reaching the sea. Lion-headed spouts filled a series of stone basins that the town’s women used from their construction in 1665 until the last traditionalist scrubbed clothes there in the 1990s. An ancient stone plaque at the top of the stairs is inscribed with the saying “Here flows Cefalino, healthier than any other river, purer than silver, colder than snow.”

Our stay on Via Bara All’Olivella, a street known for its Opera dei Pupi, puppet theatres, was on the edge of Palermo’s historic district and near the classical Massimo Theater. Craftspeople carve and dress the puppets with fine cloth and metal armor, and their workshops can still be visited along the lane. The shows, which can last two hours and have three acts, re-tell the legends of medieval Christians kings, chivalric knights, damsels in distress, and Saracen nobles, with a supporting cast of sorcerers, witches, dragons, giants, and various other evil doers. Sicilian puppetry is a dying art and has been recognized by UNESCO an “Intangible Cultural Heritage.”

Sicily and Palermo have a long, convoluted history with the city as the capital of the Kingdom of Sicily when the Normans ruled.  Later it was a sister city to Naples when it was part of the Kingdom of Naples. Eventually the distinct regions finally agreed to be called Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in 1816, until the unification of Italy in 1870.  The prestige of both cities is seen in the wealth and the number of their churches.  And there really are a lot of them.

Like Naples, this large urban center has fallen on hard times in recent decades.  In the historic center the landmarks have been maintained, but the remaining residential areas have been allowed to deteriorate to the point where the crumbling buildings seem to cry out for restoration.  With oases of beauty scattered about between gritty and raw neighborhoods, Palermo stands in stark contrast to the experience of Cefalu and Taormina.  This doesn’t mean that it wasn’t enjoyable and interesting. On the contrary, along with being fascinating and different, it was a very urban experience!  Plotting our routes between churches exposed us to high culture and art along with the rough-and-tumble ambience of the city, sprinkled with graffiti, as we wandered the streets.

Only a few blocks away from our lodging, we started our morning at Chiesa di San Domenico. It has under undergone many incarnations since the Dominicans commissioned the first church in 1280. The Baroque façade and interior are the result of an expansion in the 1700s. With the burial of many notable Sicilian artists and politicians within its wall, it is recognized as the “pantheon of illustrious Sicilians,” and continues this tradition with modern heroes, most notably the tomb of anti-mafia prosecutor Giovanni Falcone, who was assassinated by organized crime in 1992, and which still receives tributes.

Somehow, we ended up on the top floor of the department store next to the church. Surprisingly, it had a nice café and patio with a view of the Colonna dell’Immacolata on the piazza and the gateway to the La Loggia quarter, one of the original Palermo neighborhoods.

The colorful Vucciria Market on Piazza Caracciolo and the decaying remnants of past glories on the surrounding streets led to the fountain on Piazza Garraffello.  Built in 1591, its beauty was overshadowed by the street art on the grim encircling buildings and haphazardly parked cars that nearly obscured it from view. The area was very quiet when we strolled through but is known for its raucous nightlife that lasts until morning. 

Across from the port a heavenly aroma emerged from a small storefront that was doing an active business. The place got its name from its specialty, Pani câ Meusa – Porta Carbone, a street food sandwich famous in Palermo that is made with boiled and then fried cow spleen and cow lung, grated caciocavallo cheese and lemon, served on a sesame roll.  We thought its strong and rich flavor was a taste that might take a lifetime to acquire.

Two blocks away, the Giardino Garibaldi’s stately centuries-old specimen trees anchored a neighborhood of fine palazzo now functioning as museums and university buildings. 

Around the corner a large, tall-wheeled float shaped like boat, called a Carro Trionfale, was on display in front of the municipal office. On top was a statue of Santa Rosalia, a 12th century hermit who is credited with saving the city from the plague when a relic of the saint was paraded three times around the city in 1624.  The highlight of her weeklong festival, held every July, is the procession when the carro is pulled through the streets by teams of men from the Cathedral of Palermo to the waterfront.  Every year a different district gets the honor of hosting the carro until the next festival.

Farther afield, our wanderings took us down blocks that seemed to retreat further back in time with every step. We saw contemporary street art on urban housing projects within steps of a ghostly unfinished renaissance cathedral, the Santa Maria Dello Spasimo. Started in 1506, it was never completed and now is used as an open-air theater and concert venue.  The juxtapositions of the treasured and the forgotten in Palermo are stunning.

The warren of narrow lanes off the Il Capo district between the Massimo Theater and the Cattedrale di Palermo were ripe for exploration.  Off Via Volturno, two stone columns with decorative capitals, Porta Carini, grace the entrance to the Mercato del Capo, one of the oldest outdoor markets in the city.  Built before 1310, the columns symbolize the neighborhood’s grand past that’s difficult to visualize amidst the colorful canvas awnings of the raucous street vendors.

Nearby is the site of the brutal assassination of Carabinieri General Dalla Chiesa, an anti-mafia investigator, his wife and a police escort. They were murdered by AK47 wielding gunmen on motorcycles one night in 1982. This vicious event epitomizes the Mafia war or Mattanza, the Slaughter, that gripped Palermo and the whole of Sicily from the 1970s to the 90s with thousands of homicides of rival mafioso foot soldiers, journalists, politicians and judges.  Fortunately, things are vastly different now.

Farther along, the street narrows enough that from their balconies, neighbors can easily talk to one other across the lane. At Piazza Domenico Peranni haphazard stalls, some with trees growing through the roofs, house a permanent flea market filled with dusty curiosities.

Every seat of power in antiquity had a triumphal arch to signify its greatness, and Palermo’s is certainly unusual with its columns depicting turbaned Arab slaves. The Porta Nuova gateway was reconstructed in 1570 to celebrate the 1535 triumph of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, over Ottoman forces in Tunis. Landing in Palermo after his victory, the monarch paraded 14,000 Arab slaves through the city. Standing next to Palermo’s Royal Palace, the Palazzo dei Normanni, the 140ft tall monument was part of the defensive wall that once surrounded the city.

When the Normans won Palermo in 1072, it is believed they found 300 mosques in the ancient city and proceeded to change them all to churches, many sponsored by baronial families. Grand, lesser and forgotten, it was nearly impossible to avoid the churches as we walked through the historic district. Many were closed, but the larger ones still open to tourists were all different and magnificent.

The Cathedral of Palermo is definitely one not to miss. It was constructed by the Normans in 1184 over a mosque that was built atop the ruins of an earlier Christian church.  It’s undergone many architectural alterations over the centuries, embracing Arabic, Gothic and Renaissance influences which have combined to create a visual compelling architectural façade with numerous interesting details. 

The cavernous inside is rather plain in comparison to some of the richly decorated interiors of other Palermo churches. The piazza in front of the church is perfectly scaled for viewers to appreciate the grandeur of the church behind it.  The roof, tombs and treasury of the cathedral are all accessible for a fee, while entrance to the church is free.

If you are short of time head to the Quattro Canti (Four Corners) intersection of Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda. It is the heart of Palermo’s historic district.  A short walk took to us to the fanciful Fontana Pretoria, a tiered fountain from the 1500s, which is bedecked with mythological figures.

Beyond it three ancient churches ring Piazza Bellini, and back-to-back visits of all three then required Bellini cocktails to loosen our stiff neck muscles afterward to reground us after this celestial bliss.  The Church and Convent of Santa Caterina d’Alessandria was originally built as a hospice in the 1300s.  Its caverneous, highly decorated Baroque interior, with every surface sculpted or painted with cherubs, angels, saints and martyrs celebrating the heavenly kingdom, was built for the cloistered Domenican nuns from wealthy and noble families who arrived a century later, only to close the hospital and open a bakeshop, “i Segreti del Chiostro – the secrets of the cloister,” instead. Hey, everyone enjoys a good cookie, and the nuns are still turning out traditional Sicilian baked marzipan sweets like frutta di Martorana today, from the convent’s original recipes. Near the entrance to the convent its original ruota, a small wheel-like door, is still in use. Through it the cloistered nuns can pass baked goods while remaining unseen, and poor mothers could anonymously leave babies for adoption. The last nuns left the monastery in 2014 and it was opened to the public in 2017.

Across the piazza stands Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglion, named after the Norman admiral, who commissioned it in 1143.  Its exterior is a hybrid of Baroque and Romanesque styles with Arab influences. Inside, golden Byzantine mosaics cover the walls, arches, and domes.

The Arab-Norman architecture continues next door with the fortress-like Church of San Cataldo. The smallest church on the square, its austere block shape has three red bulging domes of Arabic style on the roof.  During the 18th century it was unceremoniously used as a post office until its façade was restored in the 19th century and the building annexed to Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglion.  Without clues to its original interior decoration the inside has been left unadorned, just bare stone.

We only scratched the surface of places to explore on an island that we found enchanting and fascinating.  It could take a lifetime to experience all it has to offer – an interesting idea. We hope to return one day. 

The wing of the plane dipped one last time to reveal the turquoise waters along the Sicilian coast as we headed for Northern Italy.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Sicily Part One: Taorima and Castiglione di Sicilia – Sunny Ancient Lands

The clickity clack of our suitcase wheels reverberated through the Porta Catania, the ancient gate through a defensive wall that once encircled the town, as we pulled them past the 14th century Duomo of Taormina, over cobblestones polished smooth by centuries of use and time.  Adorned with crenelations, the church looks more like a fortress than sanctuary and seems at odds with the playful Baroque fountain in the plaza across from it.

Lined with colorful shops Corso Umberto, barely wide enough for a horse cart, connects the two old entrances to the city and is pedestrian only. The adjoining steep, staired alleys were sized just right for the width of a donkey.

Meeting us at the corner, our young host graciously carried our bags up the passageway and to the third-floor room we had rented in a newly renovated guest house.  It was a compact space, but it would work if we sucked in our stomachs. Effortlessly, he trotted up two more flights to the rooftop where he showed us the kitchen, as well as distant views of the Teatro Antico di Taormina, the castle above town, and Mount Etna, all bathed in the last of the sun’s rays. 

The next morning, before the day became too hot, we followed a steep switch-backed trail up the side of Mount Tauro to the Chiesa Madonna della Rocca and the Saracen Castle.  The Arab fortress is believed to be built over an ancient Greek acropolis. Unfortunately, it was closed due to disrepair, but the panoramic view of Naxos on the coast with Mt Etna in the background was phenomenal.

Sicily’s history follows Mount Etna’s turbulent eruptions – quiet for long periods then thrown into turmoil by foreign invasions.  Hanging off the toe of Italy, its large land mass pinches the Mediterranean Sea to the point that the island is only 372 miles from North Africa’s Tunisian coast. For ancient mariners sailing East to West or South to North it was unavoidable, and they collided with it.  Its easy location at the crossroads of the Mediterranean brought Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, Germans, British, and Spanish for varying lengths of conquest and cultural influence. It’s an interesting gene pool for sure. 

Appreciating a good beach when they found one, the Greeks rowed ashore and established their first colony, Naxos, on the island in 734 BC.  Later siding with the city state Athens in a war against Syracuse, upon defeat the city was completely destroyed in retaliation. The survivors fled to the high ground and founded Taormina.  Visitors continue to be dazzled by their vision to dramatically construct an amphitheater on the edge of a cliff towering over the sea with Mt. Etna, an active volcano, in the background.  

Finally, Piedmontese volunteers, the red shirts of Northern Italy, invaded to unite Italy. Commanded by Giuseppe Garibaldi, the army defeated the Kingdom of Sicily whose territory extended across the boot of Italy and North to Naples.

But before that Taormina with its multiculturalism was a required stop on the “Grand Tours” of the 18th and early 19th centuries once it was mentioned by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his Journey to Italy. Paris, Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples and Pompeii, Athens, Istanbul, Cairo and Seville were also treasured destinations.  Remember, this was the time when all land travel was by horse-drawn carriage and water crossings by sailing ships. Think of it as an extended gap year, when young aristocrats were sent abroad for two to four years to sharpen their sensibilities and further their knowledge of the arts, antiquities and the classics.  Taormina’s big draw though, over those other sophisticated cities, was its clifftop location high above the Mediterranean that caught the cool breezes blowing in from the sea during the summer.

The Nordic invasion continued with landscape painter Otto Geleng. Exhibitions of his paintings in Paris and Berlin left critics saying such landscapes couldn’t exist and that he had an “over-active imagination.” He encouraged all his doubters to see Sicily for themselves, then returned to Taormina and opened the town’s first hotel, Timeo, in a renovated palace. His vision inspired a wave of artists, writers, and actors to visit.  In the 1920s D.H. Lawrence lived there. The books In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s were written by Truman Capote during his stay on the island.

The town can really name drop some famous visitors: Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Cecil Beaton, Jean Cocteau, Rita Hayworth, Greta Garbo, Elizabeth Taylor, John Steinbeck, Cary Grant and Tennessee Williams have all worked on their tans in the golden rays of the Mediterranean sun here. 

The Taormina Film Festival, now in its 67th year, still premieres movies every June on a large outdoor screen set up in the 2300-year-old Greek amphitheater.  It attracts a new generation of sunscreen-wearing A listers: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crow, Leonardo DiCaprio and Salma Hayek. Imagine watching Spiderman: Far from Home there, as Mt. Etna sputters trails of lava into the night sky in the background. Aside from the film festival, the amphitheater hosts a vast number of concerts and stage productions throughout the year.

Not being on any lists, including Interpol’s or the FBI’s most wanted, we enjoyed a still warm early November day as we wandered through the Giardino Storico Ex Villa Trevelyan, now the town’s public formal garden, but once the grounds of a villa owned by a Scottish noblewoman. Lady Florence Trevelyan fled rumors of an affair with King Edward VIII, settled in Taormina and eventually married the mayor.  During our visit, intricately stoned paths along the cliff edge, with views of the sea, were still lush with blooming bougainvillea and hibiscus. Eventually they led to fanciful, ornamental architectural constructions called Victorian follies.

Rambling on, we passed an antique Rolls Royce being readied at the Grand Hotel Timeo to whisk the bride and groom away after their destination wedding. 

From the top row of seats at Teatro Antico di Taormina, the views continued to be enthralling; Mt. Etna was perfectly framed by the ancient columns of the stage. 

In the other direction, the coast toward Spisone dazzled in the afternoon sun.  Inland, the homes of Castelmola were precariously balanced to avoid sliding off their treacherous slope. 

A stay isn’t complete in Taormina without multiple strolls along Corso Umberto in the mornings for café and pistachio pastries, and later in the day for pistachio Aranchino or gelato.

The broad expanse of Piazza IX Aprile, adjacent to the Porta di Mezzo clock tower and the elegant Baroque Church of San Giuseppe draws a large crowd at sunset to admire the view, and is the perfect spot to enjoy a classic Aperol spritz. 

Located in the foothills surrounding Mt. Etna, Castiglione di Sicilia is on the list of most beautiful villages in Sicily. Less than an hour from Taormina, it beckoned us to visit. The scenic drive along SS185 through the Alcantara Valley was uneventful.  The fields were dormant now and farm tractors were parked to await the spring planting season. The multiple arches of Ponte San Cataldo, a historical railway bridge, graced one curve of the road.  It was now a bridge to nowhere, the train tracks at both ends long ago removed for scrap. Villages we passed showed barely any signs of life beyond a barking dog or two. 

Numerous signs for campgrounds and agrotourism farms along the route promised outdoor enthusiasts escape from city life.  Turning onto SP7i we eventually passed the rustic 12th century Norman Chiesa Di San Nicola, then crossed a small bridge over the Alcantara River, within sight of Castiglione di Sicilia.  Fed by snow melt from Mt. Etna and Nebrodi Mountains, the Alcantara River is one of the few rivers in Sicily that flows all year-round.  Over the millennia the cool waters of the river have carved a dramatic gorge through lava fields left from Mt. Etna’s volcanic eruptions.  Hiking trails above the gorge and swimming in its cool natural pools are popular summer activities in the region.

Commanding the high ground helped increase your chance of survival in the days when pillaging and plunder ruled the land.  Defenders hoped that attackers would tire and move on to an easier target. From the road in the valley, Castiglione di Sicilia looked formidable, with Castello di Lauria commanding the promontory like the rock of Gibraltar. 

Driving into the center of the village, mid-week in the off-season, we nearly had the whole village to ourselves. It felt deserted, almost as if the village had been sacked and the residents had been taken captive. We followed a warren of narrow alleys and stairways around the upper village until we reached Castelluccio, the ruins a of Byzantine tower, in a small park with an overview of the village. 

From here we spotted the belltowers of six ancient churches and monasteries that dot the hilltop. The oldest, Chiesa San Pietro, dates to 1105. Castelluccio, slightly lower than Castello di Lauria, would be our highest point in the village, since the castle was closed in the off-season. That’s the one disappointment we experience when traveling in the off-season – many points of interest are closed due to a lack of tourists.  It’s the old double-edged sword, less crowding versus less accessibility.  For the most part we are okay with this and enjoy wandering to soak up the ambiance of a locale.

A looping around the huge monolithic rock, Via Edoardo Pantano brought us to the foot of Castello di Lauria, the 12th century Norman fortress built upon earlier Greek and Roman battlements. The views of the Alcantara Valley were beautiful from this vantage point. Farther on the Basilica of Maria Santissima della Catena stood atop a wide staircase at the end of a quiet plaza. The patron saint of the town, she is believed to have saved Castiglione di Sicilia from the wrath of Mount Etna on many occasions.  Her feast day is celebrated every May with a procession through the village. 

It was mid-afternoon by the time we were ready for lunch, and our options had dwindled dramatically since arriving.  Only La Dispensa dell’Etna was still open with all the inside tables taken by a large party.  Interestingly, part of the floor of the restaurant has glass tiles that allow you to look down onto artifacts discovered during a renovation. It was a little chilly for outside dining, but we enjoyed, with the guidance of our waiter, several specialties of the Alcantara Valley. The addition of wonderful home-made house wines from the regional grapes, Nerello Mascalese and Carricante, native to the slopes of Mt. Etna, combined with the delicious food made this one of our most pleasurable meals in Sicily.  Following the Etna Wine Path might be the catalyst for future visits to Sicily. 

Till next time, Craig & Donna

South to Sicily: Part Two – Maratea to the Toe of the Boot

Normally in November we’d head to warmer climes south of the equator, but it was payback time for an extended stay in Africa, and the Italian homeland of Donna’s ancestors was calling.  We’d realized for awhile that Italy was going to be the most expensive part of our two-year journey.  Even with a very favorable exchange rate, traveling through Italy in the off-season was the best way for us to afford this portion of the trip. We’d keep our fingers crossed about Italy’s rainy season. Grey clouds hung low and were as thick as tiramisu as we neared Paestum.  Known for its ancient Greek temples dating from 550 BC, we had planned to stop there, but the day was just too damp and dreary. We drove on to Maratea.

The weather improved, with the sun occasionally making an appearance as we turned off the E45 and headed west, through a rural hilly landscape covered with trees and olive orchards, to the Tyrrhenian coast. Here again most hotels and restaurants were closed for the season, but we found a very nice, four-room Bed & Breakfast in Acquafredda, just above Maratea.  This part of Basilicata resembled the Amalfi Coast with its narrow cliff-hugging road and rocky coves.  It’s one of the regions where Italian families head to escape the crush of foreign tourists that descends on Italy during the summer months. It also makes Basilicata one of the few Italian provinces that borders two seas. The road narrowed to a single lane as we entered the old village.

Fortunately, Donna spotted the traffic light that dictated the direction of traffic flow through the narrow passage before an oncoming bus would have forced us to back down the lane.  We had a little difficulty finding La Giara until we realized it was down at the end of a rutted farm lane more suitable for a tractor than a sedan.  Run by a gracious older couple who patiently dealt with our rudimentary Italian, the inn was wonderful, with our upstairs room having a view of the distant sea. We were the only guests. The turquoise waters and the pebbly, black sand beach of Spiaggia Acquafredda were a short walk away from the inn. We had the shoreline to ourselves one crisp morning as we walked along its frothy surf.

The sun’s golden rays were now shining on the sea as we drove along the serpentine road into Maratea for dinner. We’ve found that even though many tourist establishments are closed in the off-season there is always someone who stays open year-round to cook for his friends and neighbors.  And with their reputations online with a discerning community we’ve found that these very local places are inexpensive and great.  Ristorante Pizzeria Sapore Di Mare did not disappoint us with its variety of fresh seafood and pasta dishes, and we ended up having three meals there over two days.  Blame it on the off-season.   There were not any streetlights or shoulders along this cliff hugging road. Fortunately, there was a solid stone guardrail and no oncoming traffic when we rounded a curve and our car’s headlights lit up a man and woman raking hedge cuttings into the middle of our right lane.  A quick zig zag avoided catastrophe as screams filled the night air inside and outside of the car. Our hearts were pounding after such a close call!

Breakfast the next morning was delicious though a little strained by our lack of Italian until the husband’s eyes widened when we expressed interest in the olive oil that was served with the homemade bread. Pridefully he brought us small tastings of different olive pressings. A large olive orchard was their true livelihood, and this time of year they were busy harvesting the first olives of the season and pressing them for this coveted golden liquid.

We hadn’t done much research on this part of our trip, only knowing that we would encounter some stunning coastline, so we were pleasantly surprised when we found ourselves in the picturesque, man-made harbor of Marina di Maratea.  A small port, with an assortment of pleasure craft and fishing boats, it embraces the coast under a towering 2113-foot-high Monte San Biagio. The mountain is topped with a statue of Christ the Redeemer that is visible for miles along the Tyrrhenian coast.

The day was brilliant and with café on the quay at the aptly named Bar Del Porto we planned our ascent of Monte San Biagio. We were relieved to find we could drive to the top of the mountain, a revered pilgrimage site that celebrates the fourth century martyr San Biagio who is credited with several miracles in Maratea, the most important of which was shielding the town from Charles VIII’s French cannon fire during an attempted invasion in the 1400s. As proof of his intervention, next to the altar in the basilica there is a cannonball with a mysterious fingerprint pressed into the iron; it is believed to be San Biagio’s, left there when he deflected the shot with his hands. Legend states that his relics arrived in Maratea in 723 when a ship carrying them from Turkey to Rome for safety was mysteriously stopped by a bright beam of light from the sky; the vessel was unable to sail forward until the relics of the saint were removed from the ship and brought to the mountaintop. A church was then built over the ruins of an ancient Greek temple dedicated to the pagan goddess Athena.  Maratea celebrates San Biagio’s feast day every May by carrying his silver statue from the basilica in a processional, on the shoulders of teams of men, down the steep mountainside trail. It is a journey of 4-5 hours into the center of town, through streets filled with the faithful, to Maratea’s oldest church, Saint Vitus, built in the 9th century. 

During the high season you are not permitted to drive all the way to the basilica. Instead, for a small fee, a shuttle bus delivers you to the church. In November luck was with us and we were able to zoom up the elevated switchbacks that seemed to float ethereally above the steep slope to the parking lot.  The only other vehicle in the lot was a truck belonging to workers repairing the church roof. Regrettably, mid-week, the church was closed.

A gentle sloped walkway led to the summit past the stone ruins of old Maratea. Founded by Greeks over two-thousand years ago, they occupied the hilltop for centuries before the lower village was built in the 11th century to accommodate an expanding populace.  The landscape around the ruins was dotted with fragrant wild fennel for which Maratea got its name (from the Greek word marathus, wild fennel.) In the mountains behind the church the clouds were almost low enough to cover the tiny Hermitage of Our Lady of the Olive Trees that sits isolated in the rugged terrain.

In 1963, Italian sculptor Bruno Innocenti was commissioned to create a statue of Christ to crown the summit.  His youthful portrayal of Jesus without a beard, made from poured concrete mixed with crushed marble from the famous quarries in Carrara, faces East, inland toward the rugged mountains and the church that holds San Biagio’s relics.  Standing 70ft high with an arm span 62ft wide, it is the fifth tallest statue of Christ in the world.

The views up and down the rugged coastline and inland were spectacular. Maratea is also known as “the Holy City of Southern Italy,” so named because the small town has 44 churches. We were excited when we spotted several tiny bell towers in the distant village from the overlook.

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the newer village which lines the slope of a valley that leads to the sea. Archeological evidence found in local caves reveals that the area has been inhabited since the Stone Age.

Far below the Statue of Christ the Redeemer, steep cobbled alleys branched off the main road and wove their way up the lower slope of the hill, past centuries-old homes worn by the elements.

Occasionally trees and vines sprouted through the cracked sidewalks and clutched the walls. It felt like the village was deserted. Nearing the end of the day we found a wonderful vantage point to capture the silhouette of the village and the valley against a colorful sunset.

Only a two-hour train ride from Naples, Maratea, Basilicata’s “pearl of the Tyrrhenian Sea” has stayed off the radar of foreign tourists and remains “the Amalfi without the crowds,” and one of “Italy’s best kept secrets.” It’s definitely an area worth exploring in greater depth.

The next morning, we contemplated driving 2.5 hours along the scenic coast to Lamezia Terme, where we would connect to route E45 and continue south through the Calabria region to the ferry port in Villa San Giovanni, on the toe of the boot, across from Sicily. 

Fearing I would insist on stopping too many times along the coastal route to take pictures, we opted to head inland for the drive instead.  The day got warmer as we proceeded further south through a verdant landscape of rolling hills covered with olive trees or freshly tilled fields.

Spotting the seaside town of Scilla from the highway, we decided to detour for awhile since we were making good time. Famous in Greek mythology for its legendary sea monster, Scylla, the town is set dramatically high on the cliffs that front the sea. Castello Ruffo commands a hooked promontory below the town.

Its defenses that once protected the village from invasion are now just a historic backdrop for a wide crystalline beach that sparkled brilliantly in the afternoon sun.

Back on the highway we stopped to refuel and have lunch before boarding the ferry in Villa San Giovanni to cross to Messina, Sicily.  Back in the states we would only eat at a highway rest stop if we were desperate. In Italy, we eagerly searched for them, since there we found them to be gourmet havens for travelers. They serve delicious plain or grilled panini, pizza, and of course good espresso.  They also usually have an interesting assortment of snacks for later, as well as the usual assortment of souvenirs. Yes, magnets and coffee mugs. But also a candy known as Pocket Espresso! After making our purchases, we picnicked under a tree on the edge of the parking lot which overlooked the Strait of Messina.

The powerful currents that race through this narrow strait have been legendary since the time of Homer, when Greek sailors first started to explore the unknown waters around southern Italy.  The dangerous opposing currents on either side of the strait personified in the Odyssey as the mythical sirens Scylla and Charybdis who lured unwary mariners to their deaths in their turbulent waters.  The phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis,” refers to being stuck in a difficult situation with poor options, similar to the common expression, between a rock and a hard place.

After stopping to get our ticket stamped, we drove aboard the Giuseppe Franza, operated by Caronte & Tourist, and parked on the car deck amidst a variety of large commercial and private vehicles. We stood outside on the passenger deck as the ship’s powerful engines easily pushed the 308ft ferry, capable of carrying 600 passengers and 120 cars, off the dock for the forty-minute crossing to Messina.  So different from the ancient Greek bireme that Odysseus’s men would have rowed on their journey.

Our destination was the coastal town Taormina. Fortunately, we didn’t have to row there.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Driving South to Sicily: Part One – Herculaneum to Sorrento, or “They Have You by the Coglioni!”

The car rental agent across from the Naples train station enthusiastically informed us that we were the first drivers of a brand-new Peugeot. Leading us to a shiny set of wheels, parked on busy street in front of the office, he offered a rudimentary description of the car’s technological features, a collision avoidance system and satellite navigation that would show every radar speed camera on the Italian highways.

With our luggage in the trunk and a friendly wave we were off, or so we thought.  Just barely moving forward, the collision avoidance system screeched alive with alarms and red blinking threats on the dashboard display.  It happened frequently as we worked our way through heavy Neapolitan traffic. Scooters, cars, trucks and pedestrians getting close to our bumpers set the system into a frenzy of piercing alarms and flashing lights.  Nerve wracking – it felt like I was Luke Skywalker thundering along in an X-wing fighter while R2D2 whizzed with anxiety, as we tried to evade the Empire’s eradication. In reality we were in bumper-to-bumper traffic.  Fortunately, the congestion eased, and Herculaneum was only a twenty-minute drive from Naples.

We had visited Pompei years earlier, one June when Italy was having an early heat wave and the temperature was over 100F.  As interesting as Pompei was, the size of the site and the heat dampened our enthusiasm for it. This day was quite a different experience, as the weather in November was very agreeable for visiting Herculaneum.

We descended into its excavated ruins, which were destroyed and covered with 53ft of ash on the same fateful night as Pompeii in 79AD.  The towering black walls of solidified ash surrounding the site reinforced the magnitude of the catastrophe. The coastal town was popular with wealthy Romans who built Domus style homes which were richly decorated with frescoes and mosaics.  Arched workshops of boatbuilders lined the shore and were the last refuge of citizens trying to flee, their agony now eternally preserved in casts of their bodies.  The massive amount of ash and volcanic rock that fell created a new shoreline on the Bay of Naples, 2000ft farther west. 

Only a fraction of the size of Pompeii, the Herculaneum archeological area doesn’t draw the immense crowds of the larger site, but is just as interesting and in some ways more so. Unlike Pompeii, which was engulfed in a scorching lava flow which destroyed most of the wood and decorative elements of the homes there, the cooler ash and poisonous gases that killed the populace of Herculaneum preserved the homes to a greater degree, leaving the wooden internal structure of buildings and their interior décors intact.  This combined with an earlier visit to the Naples National Archaeological Museum to see the finest examples of relics recovered from the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii provided us with deeper insight into the opulent lifestyle of the 1st century AD Roman Empire.  Herculaneum was easily explored in a half day and enabled us to continue to Sorrento in a timely manner.

With fond memories of the serpentine Amalfi Coast from a trip a fifteen years earlier, we decided to base our new weeklong exploration of the Sorrentine Peninsula in Sorrento.  The route into town along SS145 didn’t disappoint us when rounding a cliff-hugging bend of the road revealed a view all the way out to the Isle of Capri. By staying in the largest town of the region we didn’t have to worry about seasonal closures, which unfortunately were beginning to happen in mid-November.  Only a short walk from the center of town and the waterfront with Mount Vesuvius commanding the horizon across the Bay of Naples, the lovely Villa Rosa Sorrento with its modest off-season pricing and free parking was a terrific value and perfect for us.

With our attempts at immersive travel, we avoid scratching off a list of designated tourist highlights; rather,  we explore a place seeking how to experience how folks live, the everydayness of a place, and whether we would enjoy living there. “Walk a little, then café,” is our slow travel approach as we soak up the ambience of a locale.

La Tana Del Vino on Via Parsano was a delightful find. This small enoteca features regionally produced wines that they decant for you from large stainless-steel vats into your own glass or plastic bottles.  A variety of red, white and rose’ wines were available, most between 3-4€ per liter.  Samples were freely poured and we very pleased with our selection of these table wines. 

Sorrento with its ferry service to Capri gears itself to the high season.  There were still tourists out and about, but the large tour buses and groups were absent in November, the beginning of the rainy season.  We ran between rain drops the best we could on several occasions. 

With the port as our destination for lunch, it was a pleasant stroll along near empty sidewalks to Chiostro di San Francesco, a 14th century convent with a lush, greenery-filled cloister that now hosted other activities and concerts.  On the top floor Raffaele Celentano’s photography school and gallery had a marvelous patio shaded by the canopy of stately tree. A wooden swing hanging from its branches brought smiles to the faces of many gallery visitors as they playfully took a turn.

The panoramic balcony in the public garden across from the convent is a magnet for sunset worshippers.  In the garden the city operates the Sorrento Lift, two elevators that take tourists and residents down to the harbor level where hydrofoils and ferry service is available to Capri, Ischia, Positano and Naples, along with access to the beach clubs and the city’s public beach. 

After washing our clothes in various sinks for two weeks it was time for a thorough laundering, and we lugged our bundle to a laundromat in town. It was a very clean facility. We were amused to notice that the vending machine that dispensed soap products also offered a very broad selection of marijuana products as well, presumably to allay the tedium of the task.  The selections weren’t inexpensive, with many items costing over twenty euros.  This was something unique that we had never come across before in our travels.  The world is changing so quickly, but we can’t imagine dropping a twenty euro note into a vending machine for anything.

With our clothes in the dryer, we decided to head to lunch, and immediately got drenched to the bone in a sudden downpour.  Looking like water rats, we sought shelter under the awning of a pizzeria. Seeing us, the proprietor of Master Hosts (not a very atmospheric name) ushered us inside and kindly insisted we warm ourselves in front of the pizza oven.  Even if we hadn’t been so extremely grateful for his hospitality, this was some of the best pizza and wine we had in Italy, while our fingers de-wrinkled. His graciousness turned a gloomy day into a wonderful afternoon. 

Another rainy night we made our way early to La Cantinaccia del Popolo, a rustic neighborhood restaurant that stays open all year to cater to its loyal following.  Part deli, part gourmet restaurant, the open kitchen is fronted by a glass charcuterie case with an exotic display of dried meats, cheeses, pates, terrines, and olives. The gastronomic delights from the kitchen are plated in their signature deep dish pans.  Packed and noisy, with a friendly staff, delicious food, and a good house wine, this was a cozy place to enjoy the evening. Fortified with a great meal and drink, we faced a cold November rain as we walked back to our inn.  If you prefer to dine later in the evening, reservations are suggested after 8 PM.

Lemons, lemons everywhere!  Regional seafood, pasta, rice, chicken, pastry, and gelato recipes all use this tart fruit in delectable ways. And remember limoncello! The cool breezes of the Mediterranean that blow against the steep mountains of the Amalfi coast create a unique microclimate where lemons flourish and are harvested multiple times of the year, though the most desirable crop is picked between March and July.  This is a strenuous labor-intensive activity as the steep terrain requires all the fruit to be picked by hand and the heavy grates are carried out of the orchards on the backs of men. 

A morning drive along the sinuous coast and a turn into the mountains brought us to Ravello in time for lunch at a small restaurant with only six indoor tables.  Fifteen years ago, as a wedding present to each other, we splurged and purchased a dinnerware set of ceramics featuring the iconic Amalfi lemons, set against a rich blue background.  Over the years everyday use had taken its toll on our plates.  Fortunately, Pascal Ceramiche d’Arte was still painting our pattern and they ship internationally, so we were able to fill in a few gaps in our service.

After coffee we wandered the town’s narrow, high walled lanes down the hill towards the Monastero Di S. Chiara.  Along the way we encountered a construction worker leading a team of donkeys with rigid saddlebags full of sand to a worksite, the ancient alley too tight for any vehicle to maneuver through.

There’s no way around it, “they have you by the coglioni!” when you are trying to find a parking garage in Positano.  In this most beautiful village on the Amalfi Coast we paid through the nose for the privilege of parking.  Water, café, food and parking, even in the off season, are exorbitantly priced.  But on a sunny day, when the sky clears after a morning storm, the dramatic setting of the terraced village is at its best. Positano rises steeply into the mountains from the sea sparkling like a spectacular Byzantine mosaic, radiating light and color.  It’s well worth the splurge even if you have to eat Ramen noodles for the next three days to get back on budget.

To our delight we found a wonderful, affordable spot for a late lunch in Agerola called Jerla as we navigated our way across the mountaintop on the way back to Sorrento.

Getting there required a breathtaking drive through the numerous switchbacks of Strada Statale 366, also referred to as the Via Panoramica, that climbed through the terraced vineyards of San Michele and had incredible views of the Amalfi Coast below.

We each wanted to be in control on this treacherous road. We argued about who got to drive as we sped around the curves, and who was relegated to digging their fingernails into the dashboard.

Til next time, Craig & Donna

Naples – Historic, Gritty and Wonderful

The Italian countryside seemed to extend forever, a wonderful accomplishment for this region of southern Italy that has supported civilization for several millennia, though it ended abruptly when we rounded a highway curve and came to a halt in traffic. Naples, we had arrived.

It wasn’t until we saw Naples from above that we realized the extent of this metropolis.  From our apartment in the historic center of Naples, near the Piazza del Gesù Nuovo, we walked to the daily market along busy streets lined with ancient 17th and 18th century palazzo, once noble homes of the Neapolitan elite, now subdivided into apartments, their fine architectural details often hidden under graffiti, that lined Via Pignasecca.

Vegetable, cheese, meat and especially bountiful seafood vendors were in a constant state of motion readying their stalls and calling aloud what was available.  It was fascinating and gritty with an underlying character of toughness that street life in Naples demands.

Everything looked wonderful as we planned dinner in our minds and agreed to return later after our day’s activity; how disappointed we were to find the street all tidied up and swept clean by mid-afternoon.  We consoled ourselves with a purchase of a bottle of Piedirosso Campania, a red Italian wine grape that is a specialty of the region. For two euros it was a good everyday wine. Later in the week we purchased a fresh tuna fillet that was excellent.

The funicular at the Montesanto train station saved us from a long and incredibly steep set of stairs that would have otherwise led us to Castel Sant’Elmo. Its six-pointed star design dates from Spanish rule of the Kingdom of Naples in the 1500’s, and is the highest point on Vomero hill.

The thirteenth century fortress dominates Naples’ skyline and has an incredible panoramic vista of the vast metropolitan area that hugs the Bay of Naples. Mount Vesuvius overshadows the scene that extends past Sorrento to the Isle of Capri.

Under the citadel walls in what was once a wealthy monastery the Certosa e Museo di San Martino exhibits a collection of art and artifacts devoted to the monastery’s and Naples’ history, in richly decorated cloisters. 

Outside the formal gardens, the paths along the cliff edge were a quiet retreat.  If you don’t feel the need to tour another fortress or monastery, the Belvedere San Martino scenic overlook offers the same views and is a very popular place to watch the sunset. 

After lunch we followed the stairs of Pedamentina a San Martino downhill to Corso Vittorrio Emanuele which cuts across the mid-section of Vomero hill above Quartieri Spagnoli, the old Spanish quarter. The district gets its name from the garrisons of Spanish troops housed there in the 16th century to quell any rebellions from the restive Neapolitan citizenry. From the sidewalk here we looked down upon canyons of TV satellite dishes and flapping laundry hanging from balconies that extended for block upon block, the sheer number of folks living above one another unimaginable.

Over centuries it has evolved to have the densest population of any neighborhood in Italy. After the second world war, post-war public housing was built for tens of thousands of displaced Italian families that fled the war-ravaged countryside, looking for work and shelter in Naples, though Naples itself was in near ruins, having been bombed over 100 times by Allied forces prior to the liberation of the Italian peninsula from Nazi occupation.  Before retreating from Naples, the Nazis destroyed all of the city’s port facilities along with the water, electricity, and gas infrastructures.  Thus began an era of poverty and destitution that was further fueled by neglect from the central government in Rome.  A century earlier, before fighting against Italian unification, the Kingdom of Naples was the most prosperous, wealthy and industrialized of the pre-unitary Italian states with the largest number of students enrolled in public schools along with the peninsula’s lowest infant mortality rate.  The city was a treasured destination of 17th and 18th century upper-class Europeans on their “Grand Tours.” The poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is credited with coining the phrase “See Naples and die” to reflect the city’s grandeur on one such tour.  Though I’m sure he never envisioned how a growing Mafia influence in the mid-1950’s co-opted the phrase.

We worked our way along Corso Vittorrio searching for the Giardino del Claustro, a scenic overlook, but finally gave up when we realized it was behind the entrance to a university. This wandering led us serendipitously to the Church of St. Nicholas of Tolentino where a chorus of angelic voices suddenly filled the sanctuary as we crossed its threshold, stopping us in our tracks. Seeing no one, we listened intently to the anthem, trying to determine its unseen source, until we finally heard the bellowing voice of the choir director.  We were in the school’s chapel!

If anyplace is likely to induce a religious overdose it’s Naples. “The city of 500 domes,” reportedly has 1000 churches, five hundred of which have historical significance and I swear they are all in the ancient center of the city.  Starting at the Chiesa del Gesù Nuovo on the piazza that bears its name, we walked along Via Benedetto Croce in a large loop that brought us first to the majolica-tiled cloisters of the 14th century Complesso Monumentale di Santa Chiarato.

Continuing straight, we eventually came to a street mural of San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples. This large tribute was painted in the contemporary style of Jorit Agoch, a Neapolitan graffiti artist, in 2015, above the entrance to a bar that stands next to Chiesa Parrocchiale di S. Giorgio Maggiore on Via Duomo.

Earlier we passed a small memorial to Antonio Varvella, nicknamed O’Barone, a sometimes-gruff character, a beloved homeless man who was a fixture in the historic center for many years until his death one wintry night in 2014.

Backtracking, we turned onto Via San Gregorio Armeno, a street famous for its numerous workshops that craft unique, highly detailed hand-made presepi, nativity scenes.  

Almost lost amidst the store fronts of the crèche workshops, the Church of San Gregorio Armeno has a lavish gilded baroque interior. It is a 1500’s renovation of the original 9th century church built over a Roman temple of worship to Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. 

At the end of the lane, the Basilica di San Paolo Maggiore dominates the square.  

Back at our starting point we rested in front of St. Giuseppe Moscati’s statue, the hand of the sculpture shiny from parishioners holding it as they prayed for cures. A local doctor, he dedicated his life to serving the poor of Naples and is credited with many miracles. He was canonized in 1987.  

Facades of many of these churches pale in comparison to their rich interiors. If the door to the church was open, we entered. Some were grander than others, but all of them were interesting.  

Alternating with stops for café, gelato or the ever so refreshing Aperol spritz, we spent several afternoons ping-ponging our way from church to church through the center of a city that has been inhabited since the eight century B.C. when the Greeks named their colony, Neapolis. 

Subsequent civilizations buried the ruins of earlier ones.  The cobbled lanes and churches we toured had been built over Underground Naples, 120 feet of ancient detritus along with ruins of millennia old cisterns, aqueducts, Roman alleys and shops that spread extensively under historic and modern Naples. 

The reward for one of our daily explorations was a savory Margarita pizza from Di Matteo, recommended by our friend Marina, a lifelong Neapolitan, who affirmed, “It’s the only place my family eats pizza.”  A round pizza folded twice to form a triangle is the perfect street food, but when you order it inside and sit at a table to dine it is customary in Italy to use a knife and fork to politely carve these culinary creations that have become so popular the world over.

By the end of the week the hard cobblestones were fatiguing, and we decided to take a cab to Galleria Umberto, an old fashioned, glass domed shopping mall.  A five-minute trip according to Google Maps. It’s a landmark by the waterfront, near Castel Nuovo and Piazza del Plebiscito which we planned to visit afterwards.  

There were several taxis in queue at Piazza del Gesù Nuovo, all pointing in the direction we needed to go, a good omen or so I thought, as we hopped into the first cab.  Hearing our destination, the driver promptly did a U-turn, then another left turn taking us in the wrong direction. I spoke up from the backseat and pointed to the map, my question confidently waved away by the driver. “Donna, he’s taking us in the wrong direction.” “Give him a few more minutes. He’s local – maybe he knows a shortcut.” With a left turn out of the historic center the driver would have redeemed himself, and put us on a course to the waterfront. Instead, he turned right and floored it while ignoring my protest from the backseat. Finally, at a red light he rolled down his window and asked for directions from a police officer.  Oddly, the police officer made eye contact with me and winked.  A right turn brought us into a one lane road where traffic was at a standstill.  By this time what should have been a very reasonable fare was now approaching twenty euros and we were still over twenty minutes away, in the opposite direction from our destination. I believe he had intentionally taken us in the wrong direction to jack up his fee.  It was time to abandon ship. We got out in the middle of the traffic jam, and I handed him five euros.  An eruption of Italian we did not understand pursued us onto the sidewalk as we walked away, and I swear the buildings blushed from embarrassment. Never have I met a cabbie who didn’t know where a landmark was. 

A few moments later as we were walking down the sidewalk, voices called from behind. “Attenzione!”  Two smartly dressed female police officers were telling us to pay the cabbie. These officers looked serious, with handcuffs! My mind raced as I told them he was a thief, and no way was he going to extort more money from us!  Much of this intense discussion was hindered by our lack of Italian.  Twenty-three euros were now on the meter and the driver wanted to be paid.  I repeated, “no way!” multiple times.  Thank goodness for Google Maps.  With it we were able to show the officers our pickup point and what our original route should have been and the time it should have taken.  They immediately saw how deliberately off course we were. They agreed with us and reprimanded the driver and told him he was lucky he got the 5 Euros.  The police officers apologized for his behavior and were sorry that it happened to us.  From where we got out of the cab it took us an hour to walk to Galleria Umberto where two “caffé corretto,” espresso with grappa, were ordered to sooth our frustration. For this very reason we prefer to use the transparency of Uber or Lyft for transportation when traveling; unfortunately, those services were not licensed to operate in Naples.

With our Naples Pass in hand we headed to the National Archaeological Museum.  This was a wonderful museum with a fascinating collection of artifacts, ancient pottery, classical sculptures, and mosaics discovered across the Campania region.  There is also an extensive collection of antiquities from the ruins of Pompei.

Walking back to our apartment we stopped at a small bacari with a few outside tables for aperitivi, the Italian version of happy hour, to savor the golden hour as the sun began to brighten the historic buildings along the boulevard on our last day in Naples.

Sharing the afternoon with friends and sipping Aperol spritzes accompanied with small snacks called cicchetti is a ubiquitous activity in Italy and reflective of “la dolce vita,” the sweet life. It’s a tradition we plan to continue.

Cin cin! Till next time,

Craig & Donna

The Road to Naples – Driving Through Basilicata & Campania: Searching for Family History

To the south, the Ionian Sea sparkled in the distance as we left Alberobello behind and headed west along the E90.  Our destination in three days’ time – Naples. There was some family history to investigate before that, though, and we set the GPS course to Sassano on a journey to explore the ancestral village of Donna’s maternal grandmother. On the far side of Basilicata, the small hilltop village sits just inside the border of the Campania region.  This would be the culmination of a trip planned years ago, that was originally going to be shared with her mother, before her passing.  Nearer to Naples, we also planned to visit Volturara Irpina, the birthplace of her paternal grandfather. 

Our road trips rarely involved a direct route between destinations and this held true as we turned away from the coast and followed the E847 through the Basento River Valley into the rugged mountains of Basilicata.  Ancient hilltop villages crowned the ridges on either side of the roadway, each looking worthy of future investigation. The Basilicata region has been referred to as “Italy’s best-kept secret” by the New York Times, but it was once the realm of roving bands of brigands. Highwaymen of legend made traveling in the region notoriously unsafe after the unification of Italy in the 1870s.

Under the Royal House of Bourbon, southern Italy fought against unification.  After the war the residents were disenfranchised by unfulfilled promises; with support from Bourbons in exile and the church, which had much of its lands seized, many in opposition to the new government headed to the hills.  These brigands were informally comprised of people with different motives. Former soldiers, some nobles, criminals, peasants, and farmers filled their ranks. The most famous one, Carmine Crocco, aka Donatello, led a band of two thousand men. Your criminal is my guerilla-fighter hero. I guess it depends on which folksongs you listen to.  The region was remote, and severely poverty stricken. During the fascist era of the 1930’s and 40’s, the Basilicata region was used as an open-air prison, where political dissidents were sentenced to exile in remote villages – Italy’s Siberia.

With mountains deforested of wood for fuel, poor soil conditions for farming, an illiteracy rate of seventy percent, bleak employment opportunities in other industries and a central government dominated by northerners that ignored the region, four million Italians chose prospects for a better future and emigrated to the United States between 1880 and 1924.  Others headed to Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Australia and South Africa.  It wasn’t unusual for emigrants from the same village to head to the same new cities overseas where they continued the tradition of campanilismo, the spirit of “loyalty to those who live within the sound of your village’s church bells.” Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York all drew huge concentrations of new immigrants eager to prosper, and societies like the Italian Welfare League helped folks adapt to a new home in a foreign country.

Castelmezzano, castle in the middle, between Albano di Lucania and Pietrapertosa, was our first stop. Descendants of 6th century Greek settlers in the Basento Valley fled to safety in the jaws of the Lucanian Dolomites when Saracen invaders from North Africa forced the local populace from the river valley into the mountains. The smooth sides of the tall, steep tooth-shaped outcroppings that protected the villages of Castelmezzano and Pietrapertosa were perfect for villagers to roll boulders down onto their attackers. 

The same mountains offered safe haven to the brigands of the late 1800’s.  Today the area, only two and a half hours from Naples, is part of the 67,000 acre Parco Regionale di Gallipoli Cognato, a mountainous park with wolves, foxes, porcupines, and wild boar that is a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy camping, hiking, biking and rock climbing. 

The area is stunningly beautiful with its unique rock formations, lush forests, olive groves, vineyards, and pastures. During the spring and summer, the small villages of the region host colorful Marriage of the Trees Festivals that combine ancient pagan rites with Catholicism to celebrate fertility and hope. Mid-week in the middle of November the area was nearly deserted, and unfortunately there were not any cafes open. Hopefully, it would be different on the weekends. 

Back on the highway we speculated how interesting a future trip would be, zigzagging back and forth across the valley to explore every hilltop village, large and small. There were so many of them!  We still regret not stopping in Brienza to walk through the historic district at the foot of its 7th century castle, after its profile suddenly burst forth and filled the windscreen as we rounded a curve.

The sun was just setting as we pushed the button on the driveway gate to Affittacamere – Nonno Domenico, located in the valley below Sassano.  Check-in was smooth, but establishing our internet connection required first the involvement of the innkeeper’s teenage son and then his older sister. In the off-season, prospects for dinner were extremely limited. Though Google Maps showed many restaurants in the area, they were closed for the season. After driving around searching, we ended up having a delicious, no-frills dinner at the local pizza parlor. 

We scored big time the next morning for breakfast with our discovery of Pasticceria Tropiano Peccati di Gola & Dintorni. This bakery and café is run by two brothers, Cono and Franco, who are devoted to guiding their customers through the “consumption of sinful delicacies and coffees.”  They offer baked goods of a quality you would expect to find in Naples or Florence, not in the remote area surrounding Sassano. 

The village of Sassano rose sharply from the flat, flood plain of the Tanagro River in the Vallo di Diano, the lower slope of Monte Cervati checkered with the stacked profiles of dwellings built of stone and capped with red tile roofs. 

At the foot of the hill, the spring-fed communal laundry looked newly renovated, with updated washbasins and scrub racks.  Empty laundry detergent bottles indicated recent use.  Outside we refilled our water bottles from an ever-flowing fountain built into the terraced wall.  Basilian monks have been credited with the first construction of a fountain on this site in the 10th century when the village was founded. It’s difficult to believe in this day and age that such facilities are needed and still used. But it reflects the past poverty of the region and the plight of the elderly who still use it.  Just imagine the task of carrying a basket of wet laundry uphill, back to your home to dry.

The lane into the village rose slowly to the small central plaza, Piazza Giuseppe Mazzini, where most of the buildings looked permanently shuttered.  We parked in front of a long-closed butcher’s shop which stood yards from a war memorial that listed the village’s men that did not return from two world wars.  The only sign of life emanated from a tiny bar across the cobbled square, where the barista made small talk with an elderly pensioner sipping prosecco, while warming himself at a sunny table.  We ordered café and planned our morning. Could we find Donna’s grandmother’s home here? 

There are only steep, narrow streets called “carrare,” meaning only as wide as a cart, here. In the early 1900s they would have been filled with farm carts, donkeys, chickens, and a milk cow if you were well off.  Somewhere in the family archive, a photo exists of a young woman returning from the forest with a huge bundle of foraged wood tied to her back.  Water was gathered from the village well and carried home. Extremely hard work and no way to avoid it.

Via San Biagio was a short distance away from the plaza and as steep as expected; it curved its way uphill to a small neighborhood church bearing the same name.  Time has not been kind to the homes on the street. Many showed sign of neglect, with broken stairs and windows along with cobwebbed locks on doors that that looked like they had not been opened in decades. Donna had notes written by her mother, who had passed away only the year before our trip. The familiar clear handwriting stated that Christina D’Alessio DeGondea had lived at Number 10 San Biagio. But Number 10 didn’t exist, only Numbers 9 and 11. A mystery. Perhaps Grandma’s birthplace had been destroyed. 

With a copy of her grandmother’s baptismal certificate in hand, we backtracked past the café to the Church of San Giovanni Evangelista. The 16th century church that stands today was built atop the ruins of an earlier 11th century church destroyed by fire.  Unfortunately, the church and its office were closed during the midweek, the population of the village today only supporting Sunday services, and we missed the opportunity to view its preserved baroque frescoes.  We did catch a glimpse of its notable wooden crucifix by peering through the church’s keyhole. 

Only two hours from Naples and just one hour from the Mediterranean, parts of Sassano are showing signs of renewal with gentrification of some of the architecturally unique homes and those with views of the valley.

Walking along we came to a street named Hoboken, a city in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty only a short ferry ride away from Ellis Island and the promise of new life in America. At a small square we found a mural dedicated to those that emigrated from the village; we sat for a while and wondered about life here in the past. 

For a small village there was an amazing number of churches, but that is true of most towns in Italy. One of our favorites was the Chiesa San Michele. Located on a ridge across from the village, it had a panoramic view of Sassano and was a perfect spot for our picnic lunch. 

Cilento and Vallo di Diano National Park, the mountainous area around Sassano, is also known for its variety of wild orchids, containing 54 of the 120 varieties found in Italy. Earning the village’s second name “paese delle orchidee” – village of the orchids. It sounds so pretty, and it’s the perfect excuse to return when they are in bloom. Afterwards a caretaker at the town’s cemetery helped us search for family headstones.