Friday, July 8, 2011


Wow, two castles in two days! But this one surrounds, not a derelict palazzo, but a beautifully restored abbey.

We had been to Castellabate several times last trip, but either in the late evening or at night, when it was difficult to explore. So yesterday afternoon we took a break from establishing our ancient Roman vineyard and loading pictures and video and headed for this nearby town. Actually, there was some concern this time we might not see it again until night; at a roundabout I managed to take the wrong turn four out of three times! That’s a record so far! But, as so often in Italy (and in life), it’s the wrong turns that often lead to the most interesting places. We ambled through the little town of Santa Maria all’Castellabate, the little seaside village below the mountain on which the main town is located. Now very touristy, but most of the hordes from Naples are back home now, so there were lots of locals getting off work and heading to the spiaggia for a nice swim and a rest before tackling that 9 o’clock dinner. We came upon a shipyard with a huge davit on wheels at a local pier, a monster which could be driven (two separate cabs with controls) down to and astride the pier so that slings could be run under seagoing vessels and powerful winches gently hoist them out of the water and they could be taken to dry-dock for repair or cleaning.

We tootled down the shoreline to the south, admiring a series of beaches created by breakwaters formed by huge concrete blocks. Lots of caffe bars, restaurants, pizzerie, all at the foot of the little village.

Finally we found the main road again and the juncture to Castellabate and zigzagged our way up a series of switchbacks to this gem perched on the rocks. Castellabate is a little medieval town located on the headland of a ridge, some 900 feet above the sea. The town was founded as an abbey by Costabile Gentilcore, a Benedictine monk who began a new monastery in this gorgeous but austere place in 1123. Abbeys in Medieval times were repositories for considerable wealth, and a castle was built around the abbey to protect it from pirates. Hence Castrum Abbatis, Castle-of-the-Abbot, Castellabate. Costabile died and was sainted before he saw the abbey completed by his successor as abbot, Simeon. He would have been proud. Last year we happened to be here when the abbey was opened to the public for a concert and we could explore to our hearts’ content. The abbey is a large, four-story rectangular facility surrounding a beautiful cortile, courtyard, with passageways that lead to the Aragonese towers at the corners of the surrounding ramparts. Perhaps it was this building that gave me the forlorn hope that the Palazzo in the castle at Agropoli might someday be restored. This one has been lovingly refurbished to a polished gem and is now a cultural center for the little town. When we were there last year a New Age group was performing in the cortile and, though I have to admit some of that style music drives me batty with its sonorous repetition, here amid those ancient stone walls with a half moon floating overhead, it was hauntingly pretty. Much of the third floor was devoted to exhibition of local art and there were some stunning sculptural pieces at the time. I admire anyone who works in bronze, it’s such a demanding medium with such an ancient pedigree, and there were several bronze pieces that, to my untrained eye, were on a par with anything we’ve seen at our state art museum. But they were being upstaged! Every ten feet or so was another window, open to admit those delicious maritime breezes we usually have at night, and the lure was irresistible: that panoramic view of the mountains or the bay..or both! And that moon! What artist could compete with that?

This time we parked near a little piazetta on the lower side of the town, grabbed caffe from a bar across the street and sat and admired the views over the mountains. Monte della Stella, one of the two highest peaks in the Cilento, was immediately before us. This piazza had been donated by Francesco Matarazza, a local boy who emigrated to Brazil at the beginning of the last century, made a fortune as an industrialist, and became a patron for this area. He had also bought and donated to the lower town a palazzo which is now a cultural center for the whole area. I don’t know why I think of the United States as the great melting pot but other new-world countries as homogeneously Hispanic. Huge numbers of Italians, not to speak of other European nationalities, immigrated to all those South American countries, and folks from this area seem to have chosen Brazil as there ticket to a better life.

After idling in the piazza for a while we deliberately made our way up through the center of the old Medieval town. Not a street in the whole area that would legitimately be called a street in America! Tiny little viali meandered sinuously, leading to cul de sacs or wee little courtyards. And above us those gorgeous old sandstone and limestone buildings, rugged, austere, but everywhere adorned with window boxes of geraniums, bougainvillea clinging to the corners, oleander in huge terracotta pots. And all the little volunteer flowers. To say that flowers love this climate is a ridculous understatement.

We came to the Church of Santa Maria de Giulia, built in the twelfth century, rebuilt and expanded in the late eighteenth, and promoted to a papal basilica in 1988. The padre was outside in the piazza taking a reading break, which added a nice touch of authenticity, not to speak of humanity, to the scene. The interior of the church is that pretty early gothic style with the simple nave and side aisles and wooden trussed ceiling. But there was an impressive cupola above the altar and the altar piece was a pretty wooden triptych in the Byzantine style, obviously preserved from the Medieval church. One of the side aisles housed a chapel with a rather kitschy illuminated bust of a pope, I presume the one who gave the church its promotion, but above him on the ceiling of the apse was a brilliant mosaic depicting the adoration of Madonna and Child. Outside we strolled on up past the church and admired the roof of the cupola, cleverly built with compression rings like the Pantheon, but this time the compression rings were festooned with rings of roof tiles which gave the whole thing a frilly effect. Perfect in this environment.

After reaching the Abbey and paying our respects to St. Costabile and ogling those spectacular views of the coastline from the belvedere we made our way back down through the old town by a different route, just to savor more of that incredible Medieval flavor. And I found my dream house! Oh, it’s a fixer-upper for sure. Most of the front part of the ground floor is pretty much gone, including part that has collapsed into the basement. And, truth be told, much of the upper floor of the back of the house looks none too safe, including two insanely tottering chimneys. And what a nightmare to repair it would be, hauling building materials by handcart through those impossible streets. But, oh friends, that top floor opens to a terazza which runs out for a good thirty feet along the southwest flank of the town. And the views from up there must surely be spectacular! If I had running water and a kitchen and I could sip my morning espresso on that terazza overlooking the sea and those wooly old mountains, I’d probably be so distracted I’d be content to let the rest of the house collapse.

PS: I'm sure it's obvious that these little ramblings are just a way for me to clarify my thoughts about this amazing experience and perhaps serve later as a reminder of it in my rapidly approaching senility. But I'd still love to hear some feedback from any readers. What do you like, what do you not like, what has intrigued you, what have you wondered about. Really whatever you'd like to say.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


We are lucky here in Agropoli to have a real, honest-to-goodness castle. Yesterday Sandy and I were out having a piccolo paseggiato (short stroll) through the centro of the town and made our way to Il Castello and found it open to visitors. Last year we managed to come once when it was open, but large portions were closed to public viewing, under restoration, so this was a real treat for us. And we were not disappointed.

First of all, the views are spectacular from the castle, as you might expect, since castles were sited to provide a lookout over as much territory as possible. It was easy to see why Agropoli was an almost inevitable spot for settlement; the Bay of Salerno spreads out in a semicircle below you, providing shelter and calm waters for marine vessels. But the rock on which the Castle sits, along with a small point at Trentova further south, creates a smaller bay within the bay and a perfect harbor. Today these waters are some of the cleanest and most crystalline in all of Italy, consistently earning the Blue Flag with which Europe’s best beaches are graded. There were beachgoers as far as the eye could see.

The Castle itself is a beauty, though one showing the ravages of time. I’m cribbing here from the tourist brochure that a lovely and very helpful signorina provided us. The first castle here was built in the fourth century CE by Byzantine Greeks. You’ll remember from that Western Civ class that Constantine, first Christian emperor of Rome, had founded a new capitol for the eastern part of the Empire on the site of the small commercial town of Byzantium, located strategically on the Bosporus between the Dardanelles and the Black Sea. And modestly renamed the town Constantinople after guess who? And the center of power shifted eastward. Even as early as the fourth century the Western Empire was crumbling inland under the ravages of Vandals, Goths, Lombards, and others, but the Byzantines were able to control much of the coastline of southern Italy and large parts of the Adriatic because the barbarian invaders had no navy. It was these Byzantine ‘Greeks’ (who, by the way, thought of themselves as Romans) who gave the town its modern name, Acropolis/Agropoli, ‘High City’.

The real threat during this Byzantine phase and for many centuries thereafter were Saracen pirates, fearsome Islamic raiders, based primarily in Spain, who ravaged the Mediterranean coasts from France to Macedonia. It was natural that Christian abbeys, strongly built and often in inaccessible places, would become redoubts for the Christian populace of the West. In 599, under the pontificate of Gregory the Great, one of the greatest of the early popes, the diocesan seat was transferred from Paestum to Agropoli, so much more defensible. Later the Castle was transferred to the bishop of Capaccio, the town on the flank of the mountain which overlooks Paestum, another defensible site.

In 882 the Saracens successfully besieged the Castle and it was in their hands until 915, when it was retaken, first by the Normans, then by the Swabians, then the Angevin French. In 1110 a treaty was signed in the Castle which formalized the parts of the territory of the Cilento which would belong to the Benedictine monks of Cava dei Tirenni (northeast of Salerno) and which to the Bishop of Paestum. In 1116, during the reign of King Manfred of Sicily (this whole area was part of the Kingdom of Sicily off and on, right up until the time of the creation of modern Italy), the Castle was taken into lay jurisdiction and an indemnity paid to the Bishop. Later the Castle fell to the Bishop of Capaccio again.

By now the Angevin French and the Spanish Aragonese were fighting for supremacy of the west, and the Castle was rebuilt in Aragonese style. A new technology had forced the change: gunpowder. The Castle in its current form is basically triangular, with three towers at the angles. Today these towers have the classic conical bastions at their bases which we associate in our minds with castles. But these are actually later additions. Stone balls shot from catapults and trebuchets, some of which have been used to decorate the sides of the Corso in Agropoli, will not penetrate a cylindrical wall, but an iron cannonball will. The conical profile of the towers deflects a cannonball, sending it ricocheting over the ramparts.

In 1443 King Ladislav of Durazzo, who had bought the Castle from Pope Gregory XII at a knock-down price (partial settlement of war debts), ceded it to the powerful Sanseverino family, who owned it for the next hundred years.

By now the piratical threat was from Turks based in North Africa, as interested in human booty (slaves) as gold. Their last raid occurred in 1630, when a large contingent of the locals managed to defeat the Turks decisively. After a short occupation by the French, the Castle at last was left in peace.

Today it is a delight to visit. Two of the towers are almost completely accessible, and you can make your way down the ‘escape route’ from the ramparts of the castle to ground level, climb the spiral stairs to the three levels of gun ports in each tower, peer out the gun ports, on hands and knees, over the Bay or the mountains to the south of Agropoli, and make your way up to the crenelated top of the tower for an especially spectacular view. A cylindrical hole in the middle of the tower reaches all the way to the ground, providing air and light and an easy way to hoist arms and ammunition to its upper levels. Stroll along the northern rampart and look along the coast to the west to see the Torre del San Francesco and to the east the Torre San Marco, watchtowers from which the alarm could be raised that attack was imminent. In the Castle’s keep you will now find beautiful gardens, a large salon which is rented out for wedding receptions and was being fitted out when we were there for a showing of some impressive modern art. Along the northwestern rampart, tiers of seating have been created for a small amphitheater for lectures and concerts.

Unfortunately, the crowning glory of the Castle’s retirement years, the Palazzo of the Sanfelice family, a Renaissance gem lavishly decorated and furnished, is now in a state of complete disrepair. Abuse by soldiers and scavenging by local farmers for building materials have left the old palace gutted. But the walls are still there, as solid as ever. And in my imagination I see it restored and reused as a civic center for the citizens of our little town. It seems only appropriate that this architectural gem which owes its birth and life to centuries of human suffering should reinvent itself as a bastion of culture.

Sunday, July 3, 2011


Sorry, guys, but there’s nothing fluffy about this one. But I hope you’ll read on. One of the benefits of travel, especially travel in a foreign culture, is that it forces us to re-examine our presuppositions and prejudices. And there is a presence lurking here in Southern Italy which few Americans think about, a presence lurking in the distant background but always here, like some eminence grise. And his name is Benito Mussolini. The legacy of Mussolini here in the south is profound, it’s ubiquitous... and it’s mostly good.

Please don’t misunderstand, practically everything bad you’ve heard about Il Duce is true, and even his ardent supporters here are perfectly aware of that. But there is a reason Mussolini gained and kept power for 21 years. Part of the reason was sheer hokum, but part was absolutely comprehensible.

A little background. Benito Mussolini was born in a small town in Emiglia-Romagna, the area of Italy north of Tuscany which includes the city of Bologna. Mussolini was the son of a blacksmith who dabbled in radical politics at a time when, basically, the feudal world in Europe, including Russsia (Bolshevism), was giving way to the modern world. That was certainly true in many parts of Italy where families were still bound, for example, to landlords in a custom that practically reduced them to the status of Medieval serfs. The young Mussolini, intelligent and ambitious, completed a high school education and began teaching, at the same time dabbling in socialist politics.

He moved to Switzerland to work on a socialist journal, was arrested for stirring up trouble, jailed for several weeks, deported to Italy, returned and stirred up even more trouble, and was finally deported for good under threat of instant arrest if he returned. By this time he had gained a reputation as a socialist firebrand, but began leaning more and more toward a nationalist form of socialism at a time when most socialists deplored this devotion to a particular country.

Mussolini served in the First World War and became convinced that it was the socialists themselves through their idealistic folly who had led Italy into a disastrous position. He turned violently against his former allies and formed the National Fascist party, deliberately evoking the nationalist fervor of the Roman Empire. The symbol of fascism, for example, the bundle of rods bound around the ax, was the symbol of political sovereignty and martial powers of a Roman dictator, an elected office which gave the holder unlimited powers of martial law for a limited time during national crisis. Julius Caesar had been elected dictator several years in succession, then for five years, and finally for life.

Mussolini was elected prime minister of Italy in 1922 and began to cultivate a cult of personality as a focus for extreme nationalism. In 1925 he adopted the title of ‘Il Duce’, ‘the leader’, an obvious reference to Julius Caesar and the revolutionary change that Roman leader had effected. At a time when radical change was desperately needed in Rome, it must be said. Rome at the time of Caesar had basically the government of a city state when she controlled most of the Mediterranean basin. I think of it as a model-T Ford supercharged on jet fuel (the vast sums of money pouring into Rome from her provinces), careening down a mountain road at breakneck speed while a half-dozen men fight for control of the wheel and the poor kids in the back seat are about to die. By 1936 Mussolini styled himself emperor and espoused nationalism, corporatism, anti-socialism, and social progressivism.

It was this last element that earned Mussolini the lasting devotion of millions of Italians. We’ve all heard the old saw about how Il Duce “made the trains run on time.” Mussolini not only made them run on time, he practically invented a modern transport system in Italy. He poured money into public education, public health, and most importantly public infrastructure. For example, many coastal areas of Italy had been abandoned because bradyseism (the volcanically induced rising and falling of land masses) and neglect had made them swampy and malarial. Mussolini devised schemes for draining, channelizing, and irrigating these areas and thus opened up literally thousands of square miles for settlement and agriculture. For example, the Pomptine marshes in southern Lazio had been drained and channelized by the Romans in the first century BCE, but neglect had returned this land to swamp. Mussolini reinstituted a drainage scheme that put some 300 square miles back in production, not to speak of the health benefits to the local inhabitants who persisted there. If you look on the map of Italy in the vicinity of Terracina, you’ll see a grid system of roads, improbably straight, that he built to service the farms.

And the same thing was done here in the Cilento. The Paestum Plain just north of Agropoli was another malarial backwater after the fall of the Roman empire. Today as you drive through the countryside you see everywhere irrigation channels, levees, dykes along the river Sele. All Mussolini. And today the Paestum Plain is one of Europe’s premier produce baskets, due to this incredibly rich land and the temperate climate for which Campania has been famous since antiquity. The town of Battipaglia where our friend Rita lives was practically built from scratch by Mussolini, in that unmistakable art deco Fascist style that you see everywhere in this area. Rita’s mother is a public school teacher who until recently, when it became too decrepit to repair, taught in a school that Mussolini built.

Mussolini also solved the ‘Roman Question’ at long last. For 80 years the status of the Pope and the former Papal states was an intractable problem. Before the Risorgimento, the church had owned huge parts of Italy, but the revolutionists were virulently anticlerical and all those lands were arrogated to the Italian state. Such was the rancor, according to our tour guide Oshri, that the state tore down anything remotely connected to the church across the Tiber River in the vicinity of St. Peter’s, and deliberated oriented new streets so that it is impossible to see this huge basilica from any distance. Mussolini strong-armed a final resolution which recognized the Vatican as a sovereign nation and made token restitution for the loss of papal property.

Mussolini’s role in archaeology is incalculable, if ambivalent. Millions of dollars were poured into Roman archaeology at a time when most archaeologists went begging. The Roman Forum was excavated, the imperial fora, the Roman port town of Ostia Antica, the beautiful Ara Pacis along the banks of the Tiber River was excavated and brilliantly restored. All so that Mussolini could evoke ‘Romanitas’, the glory of the Roman Empire which he claimed to have restored as well. But, at the same time, if scholarly considerations interfered with his grandiose schemes, he was relentless. One of his most heinous crimes against human knowledge, for example, was the construction of the Via dei Fori Imperiali, The Street of the Imperial Fora, from the Colosseum to the Capitoline Hill so that Il Duce could celebrate a real Roman triumphus, not a victory as the name would suggest, but a victory parade voted to successful Roman generals. Most ironically named, as one scholar has wryly pointed out, since, in the process, Mussolini destroyed huge parts of the Forum of Julius, of Augustus, and of Vespasian. La Via dei Fori Distrutti, as it were.

About Il Duce’s final years in power, there is no ambivalence at all among my southern Italian friends. His antisemitism in collaboration with Hitler's 'Final Solution' is universally reviled, not to speak of his brutality, indeed murderous impulse, in eliminating anyone who stood in his way. Mussolini even had murdered his first-born son and namesake.

So it was with relief and anticipation that Southern Italians greeted the Allied forces during the invasions of 1943. For one thing, many families here had relatives in the states, including sons of brothers, sisters and cousins who served in the invasion itself. For another, the Germans, especially after Il Duce was formally deposed in 1943 and they had propped him up with a puppet government in the North, imposed a brutal regime which was deeply resented here. But perhaps most important was simply the conviction that the Allies would inevitably win the war, and the sooner they gained victory in this area, the sooner the shooting war would be over for these long-suffering people.

People who feel politically powerless have always turned to forceful leaders. You can't understand Berlusconi until you understand Mussolini, and ultimately Julius Caesar. I suppose many older Italians look back to those times with a combination of nostalgia and embarassment. Especially since Italian democracy is, if possible, even more dysfunctional than our own.

Saturday, July 2, 2011


Wednesday at 11 am, Fernando and I headed down the ridge to the little frazione of Agropoli, Madonna dell’Carmine. We were going to see Giovanni the Pizza Man. Giovanni had agreed to show us the secrets of making good pizza dough. And good pizza dough, friends, is the secret of making good pizza.

There was a bit of a problem, though. It seems that Giovanni was out buying ingredients and would be back ASAP. In the meantime Fernando took me to his favorite local paneficio, bread bakery. Madonna dell’Carmine is Fernando’s town, and Italians are obsessed with good bread, so his recommendation carried considerable weight. And then there was the name of the place: Il Pane di Nonna Rosa, Granny Rosa’s Bread. How could it not be good? The bakery is operated by Raia Ciro and family, who were kind enough to let us take a look around in the work room. Pride of place went to a huge forno a legno, a wood-fired oven. But not just any oven. This one, Raia told us, belonged to his grandfather, a baker in Ercolano, some 80 miles north on the Bay of Naples. When the Ciros decided to open a bakery in Agropoli they had this old beauty laboriously hauled south and ensconced in its new home. Traditions are important here, and Raia told me he was the fifth generation of bakers in his family. And a handsome ragazzo, Raia’s son, obviously took every bit as much pride in the tradition as he showed me around the workshop.

The family treasure is supplemented by another huge oven, but this one burns little reconstituted wooden pellets sold in 20 kilo bags. More eco-friendly, so I am told. And doubtless also cheaper. Wood is expensive in Italy. But Ettore showed me the cupboard where oak logs are kept for the star of the show.

We bought several styles of bread and headed down the street to U’ Cirillo, where Giovanni was just starting the day’s dough making. Giovanni is Giovanni Cirillo, and he too is proud of his family’s tradition. Giovanni explained that his grandfather founded a famous pizzeria up in the Centro of Agropoli, very close to Dave’s mother church, La Chiesa delle Pizze Squisite, otherwise known as the Ristorante-Pizzeria Barbanera. Giovanni’s nonno’s place is called U’ Sghizz, and I’ve noticed that strange dialect name a half dozen times but have never tried it. Giovanni’s own place is relatively small, a walk-in arrangement with a wraparound counter behind which the action takes place, and off to the side a seating area which looks to be large enough for about 20 people. Giovanni has been in this location for eight years. Behind the counter Giovanni and his wife Ciccia, who is a talented pizzaiola in her own right, keep an array of toppings at the ready. Dominating the work area is, you guessed it, a forno a legno, this one a rectangular affair about 6’ X 10’, with a gable ‘roof’ on it topped with ceramic roof tiles, the front decorated with red ceramic tiles so that the whole thing looks something like a little red schoolhouse from the 1800s.

Giovanni had a large stand mixer on casters so it could be rolled around the floor. It was equipped with a corkscrew dough hook, much like some of those expensive stand mixers you can buy in the states, only much larger. In it was a loose ‘sponge’ with lumps of dough in it, to which Giovanni added a bit of olive oil and salt. I asked what the leaven was and Giovanni quickly corrected me; no lievito (yeast) here but crescito, a starter from the previous day’s workings. Commercial yeast, according to Giovanni, has a chemical preservative in it that he doesn’t like.

When the mixer had broken up the lumps of dough from the starter sufficiently, Giovanni took a 25 k bag of Antonio Amata 00 flour and poured about 15 pounds of it into the mixer. Flour marked ‘00’ here is what we would call ‘all-purpose’ flour, but it is actually somewhere between all-purpose and bread flour, the latter made from winter or durum wheat, having a stronger protein structure and therefore better for breads. Giovanni let the mixer do its thing for about five minutes, eying the pasto (dough) carefully from time to time till he saw what he wanted, then took a plastic pitcher and poured in about two liters of water. After the mixer had thoroughly mixed in the water, more flour again, more mixing, more water, and a final load of flour. By this time Giovanni had used about two-thirds of his 25 k, so about 40 pound of flour. I asked him what exactly he was looking for and he simply nodded toward the dough. Not a surprise, of course, but the whole process is completely empirical; Giovanni has done this so many thousands of times that he just ‘knows’ when it’s right. I, on the other hand, noticed that the dough by now had taken on a smooth, consistent texture which the dough hook was looping into beautiful spirals, and was just beginning to pull away from the hook in the center of the mass.

The secret to leavened bread is fermentation, as I’ve explained in a previous blog, fermentation which produces carbon dioxide gas. But unless there is something to trap the gas and make the dough inflate, you’ll have a very flat, dense product. Wheat flour contains two proteins, glutenin and gliadin, which, when mixed with water and physically manipulated, form a protein matrix which we call gluten, and gluten makes the dough elastic. A really good dough can be stretched till you can literally read a newspaper through it.

By now Giovanni was eyeballing the dough even more intently, and he took first one handful, then two more handfuls of flour and sprinkled them onto the surface of the pasto. And suddenly, for reasons only Giovanni knew in the room, the dough was ready. The mixer went off, Giovanni brought out a bottle of vinegar, sprinkled a bit on one of the marble work counters, and vigorously scrubbed the counter with a cloth. Good, organic sanitizer! Taking what can only be described as a large putty knife (I’d be willing to bet it came straight from a local hardware store), Giovanni cut into the mass of dough, took chunks of it which he placed on the counter and, with the fingertips of both hands, pushed the dough into a roughly rectangular mass about three inches thick and about 2’ by 4’ in area. This, Giovanni declared, is the panetonne, the ‘big bread’. The last bits of dough Giovanni scraped from the hook and sides of the mixer, quickly kneaded into a ball about 4” in diameter, dropped into the bottom of the bowl with a satisfied ‘plop’ and declared simply, “Crescito.” This was the starter for the next day’s pizzas, so Giovanni covered the bowl of the mixer with a large kitchen towel and pushed the mixer under the counter so the little yeast cells could multiply.

Then something happened which I’m still not sure I believe. Giovanni had scraped any remaining bits of dough from a series of white, stacking, plastic proofing trays, about 18” X 24” X 4” and he placed one on the counter down from the panetonne. He quickly ‘pinched off’ a mass of dough and, working so quickly that my little camera could not catch the action, pulled the edges of the dough over into the center of the mass from all sides to form a ‘skin’ on the outside, pinched off the place where the bits of skin met between his the knuckle of his index finger and thumb, placed this orb on the counter beneath his palm and, curling his fingers and thumb gently over it, rotated his hand to work the dough into a perfect orb which he placed on the proofing tray. And repeated the procedure. Again and again. It could not have taken more than 15 seconds to create each dough. He neatly placed them in seried ranks in the tray, three abreast and four down.

But I was puzzled. No weighing! I guess you just get whatever size pizza luck sends your way. As if reading my thoughts, Giovanni declared with authority, “Trecento grammi.” Three hundred grams. Seeing the slightest hesitation on my part, Giovanni brought out a scale from the back, placed it on the counter, formed a dough and plopped it into the the tray of the scale. Three hundred grams on the nose! I could not believe my eyes; we went through eight little orbs of goodness and Giovanni nailed it every single time! I don’t mean got close; there wasn’t so much as a two-gram difference in any of the doughs! So of course Giovanni had to prove a point making making old Dave try his hand, while Fernando chortled in the background. I sweated with concentration, eyeballing Giovanni’s little doughs with intense concentration, and finally, the perfect dough! Plop! Two hundred forty-seven grams; the Americano goes down to ignominious defeat. I cannot imagine the sort of ‘muscle memory’ that allows this young man to do this, but I saw him, so you make your own decision. Giovanni explained that our panetonne would make between 48 and 50 pizzas, enough for one night’s service.

As it happens, we had met and ordered pizza from Giovanni the night before, so I can tell you the rest of the process. You order your pizza at the counter and stand while it is made on the spot. Giovanni and Ciccia spring into action, Giovanni grabbing a now-risen dough from a proofing tray, plopping it on the counter, working it into a rough circle, then stretching and rotating, stretching and rotating, until he has a dough about 14” in diameter. The whole process takes well less than a minute. Meantime Ciccia has the toppings for the first pizza at the ready and while Giovanni forms another dough she spreads them on, moves aside the metal door from the throat of the oven, takes a long pala (pizza peel) and deftly flicks, flicks, flicks the formed pizza into the center, spins and deposits it on the opposite side of the oven from the brightly glowing embers of the oak, giving an assertive tug backward to clear the pizza from the peel. By this time Giovanni has formed another dough and Ciccia repeats the process with news toppings, aided by Giovanni. And into the forno it goes!

But don’t sit down! My first experience with Italian pizza was back in Perugia many years ago where I was foolish enough to ask the pizzaiolo what my ‘number’ was. He laughed uproariously and said simply, “Aspetta!” (“Wait!) And three minutes later, out popped our pizzas. A forno a legno generates 300° C; that's almost 600° F. Plus the direct heat of the brick floor. Can we talk about ‘fast food’? And I’m happy to report that the pizzas prepared by Giovanni and Ciccia were every bit as incredibile as the people who created them.

Friday, July 1, 2011


Sunday after we had a chance to recover a bit from our long trip, from the rigors of the tour, and from the excitement of just being here, Fernando came by to visit, to give me a list of possible ‘adventures’ for this trip, and to invite us to ‘La Chiena’. Through the rigors of our bad Italian we were able to deduce that this was a festa in a local town that was analogous to the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. Only this was the ‘Running of the Water,’ when torrents of water were released from two small rivers in the town into the streets and the populace raced ahead of it to escape the coming flood. Fernando mentioned there was the problem of proper footwear—what to wear to your local Chiena?—and gestured with his hand to mid-thigh and said that he would, for the first time in our experience, be wearing short pants. How could we resist all that spectacle?

So early the next day Fernando came by and picked up the Sleepyheads and we were off to Campagna. No, not the region of Campagna, in which Agropoli is located. Nor the plain south of Rome which is such an agricultural treasure for the city (the Italian word campagna simply refers to a plain; think of camping in the fields). This was the little town of Campagna, about five miles northeast of Eboli, just the other side of the A-3 autostrada. We headed up Highway 18, cutting across country before we reached Battipaglia, to the outskirts of Eboli, where we hopped on the A-3 toward Reggio for less than three miles, then took the exit and traveled north to the flanks of the Monti Picentini. Along the way Fernando pointed out a huge Palazzo at Pasana which had once belonged to one of the kings of Naples but now served as an outpost for the Italian army.

Now, whoever came up with the name of the town was seriously demented; if ever there was a place that does not qualify as a plain, Campagna is it. The town is actually located up a steep gorge formed by the confluence of two small rivers, the Tenza to the west and the Atri to the east. The rivers crash down on both sides of a rocky outcrop, and there, clinging to the triangle formed thereby is the pretty little Medieval town of Campagna. These rivers are what the Italians call torrente, torrents, swift-moving mountain streams which come crashing down the sides of precipitous gorges. In fact, we discovered that it was this geography which gave birth and life to Campagna. Campagna was a mill town. Not ‘mill’ as in ‘factory’, but ‘mill’ as in ‘water mills’. The rivers provided something all too rare in the ancient and Medieval worlds, a free and unlimited supply of power. At one time there were numerous mills for grinding wheat, for pulping olives, for sawing wood, you name it. Whatever could be done with rotary motion, you could find at Campagna.

We parked at the bottom of the town and met one of the local organizers, a stylish middle-aged woman with elaborate glasses, a huge pendant with a fake bronze bust of Minerva, and a huge purse which featured Cruella DeVille. Hey, you can’t make this stuff up! The event was sponsored by the local Rotary Club. I think of Rotary and Lion’s Clubs in America as pretty much moribund, which is a shame because they did so much charitable work when I was a kid, but they are both very much alive and kicking in Italy and do all kinds of charitable and cultural work, even publishing books. We joined with a group of Italian tourists and worked our way up through the streets of the town. Be assured that the local organizers were going to make sure we had the grand tour of the town. First we came to the church of Saints Salvatore and Antonino. This church was a parocchia, not a chiesa or basilica. I had to wiktionary that one to find out it’s a parish church, not one directly governed by a diocese. It was a pretty little local church, a nave and side aisles but no transept, statues of saints in the niches along the aisles, an elaborately gessoed and painted ceiling, handsome Doric-style columns along the aisles, a gorgeous intarsio choir loft with a small pipe organ. But the focus of worship was a Corinthian-style column which looked as if it might have been Roman in origin, about 8 feet high. We were told that legend had it that insane people were manacled and chained to this column and underwent a miraculous cure. Doubtless the most famous cure of all, though, was Saint Antonino himself, a local boy who was orphaned early in life and left, as was the custom in the old days, as a ward of the local monastery. St. Antonino was said to have done so much mischief in his early years that he got the pazzo treatment and went on to become a priest and ultimately the bishop of Sorrento, where he died and was sainted.

Next stop was the Fountain of Justice, a cute little pedestal fountain with four spigots at the cardinal points of a labrum, only one of which was still functional. But the water was delicious. Sidebar: All over Italy the water is perfectly safe to drink and it is generally absolutely delicious. My recommendation is to drink as much of it as you can. The real charm of this fountain for me was that the fountain heads were carved as Sileni, those goaty little helpers of the wine god Bacchus with their snub noses and pointed ears. Think of a chubby middle-aged Peter Pan. Next we stopped in the tiny courtyard of a local palace, the Palazzo Tercasio, pretty, but hardly an eye-popper. Next we cruised up to the town’s cathedral, the Basilica di Santa Maria della Pace, completed in 1683. It was definitely an eye-popper, but Mass was being said and so we had to admire the exterior only.

Not a problem for Dave and Fernando, the classical nerds. We were taken, single file, through a mill on the flank of the Tenza, currently under extensive reconstruction. This beauty had formerly housed both grain mills and a frantoio, an olive processing facility. At one time scholars thought that the Romans had barely discovered the concept of the water wheel as a source of power, despite the fact that the Roman architect Vitruvius gives us a detail description of just such a mill. But in the last thirty years we have come to understand that water mills were everywhere in the Roman world, even along the Tiber River in the environs of Mater Roma herself. During the siege of Rome by the Goths, the barbarians destroyed many of these mills in an attempt to starve out the Romans. The brilliant Byzantine general Belisarius simply floated water mills in the middle of the Tiber and allowed the current to turn the wheels.

But these mills were unusual, though hardly unique, in being side-shot wheels. A bit of explanation: water wheels come in three flavors, the overshot wheel familiar to many of us, where a flume directs water from some distance upstream across the top of a wheel with vanes, and the force of the water and its dead weight turn the wheel, a motion which is transferred to a spindle and ‘geared up’ with a crown-and-pinion gear to make the stones above rotate. The second configuration sends the water under the wheel to turn the wheel in the opposite direction. Slower and less powerful, since it is simply the current of the water that moves the wheel, but much simpler since it requires no flume.

And then there are those situations where the force of the water is so great that a short, closed flume directs a jet of water to the side of a turbine and thus eliminates the need to transfer the vertical rotary motion of the wheel to the horizontal rotary motion of a spindle, as well as any gearing. I’ve only seen one such mill back in the states, a beautiful if decrepit old mill out in the boonies of Greene County, Tennessee where we used to live. The facility in Campagna had three such mills in series, one of which apparently was used to process olives. You see, before olives are pressed to remove the juice, they have to be mashed up, and long before the Romans, the ancients were using rotary mills with massive vertical millstones to effect this process. There are many places even today where such mills continue to be used. But I have never before heard of one operated by a water mill.

A jaunt to the other side of the piazza led us to yet another mill, much smaller, but here part of the actual wooden turbine was still preserved, complete with its canted vanes. (Look in the background of the picture.) Dave and Fernando were in heaven.

A quick tour through the lower level of the Basilica for a nod to the Monte delli Morti, Mountain of the Dead, and we all raced up to the corso of the town to await the big event. It seems that in olden times, several of the flumes which operated such mills could be closed off and diverted to direct their powerful jets through the streets of the town. Considering the general level of sanitation of Medieval towns, this was a cheap and effective way to clean the filth from the streets. A banner would be hoisted above the town to alert the populace to the coming torrent, a signal would be given, and the flood would follow. So you can imagine our anticipation when we saw a trickle of water round a curve further up the corso and head our way. We tore off our shoes and braced ourselves for the onslaught. The trickle became a flow, the flow grew to two inches, three, four....and there it stayed! And the fun began. The good citizens of Campagna, men, women, and bimbi of all sizes and varieties, waded through the street, laughing delightedly, kicking water on friends and strangers alike, scooping up water in plastic buckets to more effectively soak their neighbors. It was hard to tell whether adults or kids were having more fun. The three of us waded up the hill to see where the water was burbling up through a large grate in the street and then slowly waded back down till we came to a local trattoria selling delicious fritters, pezelle, made with zucchini flowers, and little homemade pizza pockets, sciurilli, along with a refreshing nonalcoholic aperitivo containing fresh fruit.

So, go on with yo bad sef about that Pamplona business. Sho nuff, now! Dave and Sandy have faced the terrifying onslaught of the mighty waters of the Tenza and lived to tell the tale. Were we disappointed that our excursion didn’t involve a bit more danger? Let me put it this way. Where but in Italy could they turn street-cleaning into a festival, and one fun for the whole family? “L’aqua e vita a gioia” says the flyer for the festival. “Water is life and joy.” Indeed it is. I do have one small regret; I’m convinced that if the good citizens could have generated just two more inches of water, we could have experienced the world’s longest water slide. And coasted half way home to Agropoli.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


Friday was our day to complete our jobs as tour sponsors and travel southward to see our friends in Agropoli. Considering all the glitches we might have encountered, it was about as pleasant as it could be. And the end result was everything we had hoped and more.

The day started early. Very early. The flight back to Munich and then to the states for the group left at 7am, so we were up and out of the hotel in Florence by 4:30. We said some sad goodbyes to our wonderful guide Oshri and boarded a local commercial bus to take us to Vespucci, Florence’s airport, located surprisingly close to the city. No sooner had we entered the terminal to check in than a fire alarm sounded and we were all herded into the lot in front. I don’t mind saying, my mind was racing with all the possibilities for delay, missed flights, etc., but it was a false alarm, quickly resolved, and we re-entered and were helped by a friendly young lady to check in and receive boarding passes. Sandra and David Abashian had generously offered to shepherd our group through the Munich and Charlotte airports, so we said our farewells to our friends before they headed to security and boarding. Sandy and I grabbed a quick caffe and capucino at the airport Autogrill and found seats in the terminal to endure a long wait.

A very long wait, as it happens. We had reserved a car through AAA with Hertz Italia, whose Florence office did not open until 9:30 am. Every other agency, even some no-name from Sicily, of all places, was open by 8:30 at the latest, but dear old Hertz stayed defiantly shuttered. It seems it was a holiday, the Feast of St. John, in Florence, and Hertz was keeping holiday hours. This was a religious holiday, mind you, not a state holiday, but apparently the good people at Hertz are all devoted Catholics.

Finally the office opened, and since I was third in line, I anticipated a quick release from purgatory. Nope, more penance to be done. The two Hertz reps managed to serve one customer every (drum roll, please) 25 minutes. So after almost an hour I made my way to the window. But, give the devil his due, since we had a confirmation number the paper work was all done and the young lady had me finished in less than 10 minutes.

Sandy had given me her smartphone which had the confirmation number and other documentation and had left our luggage briefly to ask if she should begin rolling it out. But since the cars were in a lot some distance away, I told her to stay put and I’d drive up to the terminal. Big mistake. Vespucci is under extensive renovation and enlargement and accessing the right lanes is a nightmare, so, predictably, knucklehead took the wrong turn, wound up on the access road to the A-3 autostrada, limited access you understand, and was halfway to Sesto Fiorentina before I could turn around. No problem, let’s try again. But if you’ve never experienced Italian signage, you have no idea what total confusion is. I missed my turn twice, wound up on yet another interstate, going, you guessed it, the wrong way, asked directions three times, and was finally so confused I was contemplating life as an illegal immigrant.

My primary worry was that Sandy would wonder what in the world had happened to me and be frantic. No problem, just call, right? Oy, I had her cell phone. Since she had the computer, I finally called two friends back in the states and asked them to message her on FB. One slight problem. In my addled state I had managed to convince myself that the States were six hours ahead of Italy, not the other way around. Barb and Audrey, if you happen to read this, mea culpa! Mea maxima culpa! A phone call at 4:50 am from an idiot in Italy is no way to start your day.

And as it happened, Sandy is now so used to Italian, shall we say, ‘efficiency’, that she was only now beginning to become concerned and was leaving the terminal to look for me at the very moment I pulled the car into a no parking zone, as close to the terminal as I could get without searching for that darned access lane again. We loaded the car, a cute little silver Lancia Upsilon whom we haved named Rocco, and we were off.

Driving in Italy. I don’t necessarily recommend it if your nerves are shot. But it’s not that much worse than driving I-40 in the Triangle during rush hour. Only rush hour lasts pretty much all day. And extends from one end of Italy to the other. At least the part that we drove, which was Florence to Agropoli, from the thigh of the boot to a hickey on the lower shin. I just try to sit in the right lane, middle lane if there are three, find the speed most of the maniacs seem to be driving, and pray to St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes. But what about the speed limit? Basically, there is none on the autostradas, except in construction zones or on mountain passes. Cars drive up on you doing 90, 100, 110 mph, macho males dart from one lane to another with reckless abandon—it’s a circus.

But you can’t beat the scenery...if you dare take your eyes off the road. Italy is a gorgeous country from one end to the other, and we traversed some of the most beautiful areas of all: Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio, Campagna. Mountains to left and right, another picturesque hilltown every ten miles or so, the green Tiber meandering back and forth below. It really is a treat just to ogle the scenery. And despite the frolics of all the drivers, we made excellent time. Understand, we had gotten about two hours of sleep and Dave was gased up on high-octane Italian espresso. One hit in Florence. One outside Rome. Another 20 miles or so before Napoli. Sandy worried that I would nod off. Not a chance.

Fortunately, the last leg of the trip was far easier than I had anticipated. I dreaded driving through Napoli traffic late on a Friday afternoon. But, whereas before we had always taken the coastal route, this time the interstate took us around the eastern side of towering Vesuvius, through a series of tunnels at the tail end of the Monti Lattari, the mountains that define the Sorrentine peninsula, and suddenly, there we were on the Bay of Salerno! No real traffic at all! Not home free yet. Salerno is plastered up against the side of a mountain, the port far below, and the coast road undulates around one mountain buttress after another. Two hundred feet straight down, you see the Bay, if you dare look. I’m telling you, guys, there are several miles where the cliffs are so steep that the southbound lane has to be built a good 40 feet above the northbound in order to eke out the 18 feet of width required to build two narrow lanes. But, again, I was delighted that the A-3 now takes you an inland route, away from traffic and those vertiginous curves, and we were past Salerno so quickly that we worried we had merged wrong. But there were the exits for San Mango, who, I must suppose, is the patron saint of tropical fruit, so we knew we were on the right road. And zipping along!

More good news: At Battipaglia, one takes the exit to state highway 18, but the junction has been under construction for years, and the temporary access is a nightmare. Coming from the south, for example, you must merge to the right across two lanes one-quarter way around a roundabout, then merge to the left across two lanes on the access ramp. And I had no expectation that the new ramps would be completed, considering that They-who-must-not-be-named have been siphoning off money from the project for years and allowing only minimal progress. But, mirabile dictu! the ramp was completed, it was actually quite stylish, and it worked like a charm.

We had the usual hair-raising frivolity on the two-lane highway south of Battipaglia, but by now we were seeing places we have come to know and love, and nothing could quell our growing excitement. There the Greek ruins of Paestum, drowsing in the distance, there the beautiful towns of Capaccio and Trentinara, clinging to the western slopes of austere Monte Soprano. And , look! There the colossal statue of St. Francis, blessing us from the ridge above the villa! And soon, oh so soon, there it is! The Bay of Agropoli, its cerulean waters smiling under the sinking sun in the west. And there, Bell’Agropoli, its lower reaches embracing the sinuous curve of the Bay, the upper city, dominated by Il Castello, perched like a gem on the Rocca which gives the little town its name, “High City”.

A fortuitous call from Fernando. “Where are you?” We are on the access road to Santa Maria del’ Carmine, the frazione where Fernando lives. “Do you need directions?” Surely Fernando is joking; every minute detail of this beautiful place is etched on my memory forever. Now we’re taking the diversorio under the train tracks and around the rump of a hill and we’re on the Via Fuonti, the county road which the villa overlooks. We turn the little Lancia up the Via Ludovico Ariosto, put it in second gear, and climb up, up, up the ridge, around a curve and up, up, even more, almost to the crest, where the road is so steep I must shift to first gear and gun the little motor just to keep it from stalling. And there, just as we left it, the Villa Astone.

We drive the little Lancia up the steep driveway, slam it in park, jump out...and there are all our dear friends gathered to greet us with handshakes, the wonderful Italian kiss-kiss, right cheek-left cheek, and more hugs, accompanied by excited shouts of “How are you?” “Come stai?” "It’s so good to see you!” “Uguale! (Just the same!)” We make the rounds, greeting in turn Fabio, his wonderful parents Filomena and Rolando, gentle Fernando, and Katiuscia, impossibly, more beautiful than ever and just as excited to hug Sandy. Fabio and Katia are in the uniforms of the local police, having taken off from work briefly just to be there to greet us. More excited shouts and conversation, only a fraction of which is understood consciously, but it doesn’t make the slightest difference because it’s the love expressed that’s important. Exchange of gifts and oohs and ahs. And Sandy and I look at each other and know that we are truly back in our second home.

A brief riposo and a scrub, a change of clothes, and Fernando is back to pick us and Fabio up to take us and Katiuscia to Barbanera for the world’s best pizza and more excited conversation. We park in the lot of Il Castello and wind through the narrow streets by now so familiar, stop briefly in the Church of Saints Peter and Paul to pay our respects to the patron saints of the town and allow Fabio and Fernando to examine two Roman artefacts in the rubble of a renovation, which doubtless they are the only two in the town to notice. Up past the medieval portal on the corso and we stop in the little piazza to gaze below at the twinkling lights of the harbor and its boats, just as pretty as we remember. And before we go for dinner, I duck into the beautiful little church of Maria Stella Maris, Mary Star of the Sea. I am not a conventionally pious man, although I still haven’t given up on solidifying my fragile faith. But I have to kneel for a moment and say a silent prayer to Maria and everything else divine in the universe for keeping us safe and leading us back, beyond all expectation, to this magical place.