Saturday, July 12, 2014

What I Like about the South


The view from Castelabbate
The council of elders in the Piazza of Agropoli

The mountains of the Cilento

The Monti Alburni

Cicerale, one of the hundreds of beautiful hill towns of the South

A rustic campanile

Warm, friendly nonne in Stio

View from the Castello of Agropoli

The Chiesa di Santa Maria in Castelabbate

Roccadaspide, where the town encircles an archaeological site

The mother church of Stio
     We’ve been fortunate enough to see quite a lot of Italy.  Our first trip over, back in 1995, we lived in the little town of Malmantile, about 15 miles west of Florence, in a beautiful agriturismo made from a nineteenth-century villa and its farm buildings (our apartment was in the barn) and used it as a base for exploring Florence and the surrounding areas of Tuscany.  The last two weeks of our stay we rented a car and meandered about, over to the coast to Pisa and Lucca, up to Liguria to see the marble mines, down to Perugia where we stayed for several days and explored the towns of Umbria (Assisi, Gubbio, Orvieto among others) and then toodled down toward Rome, exploring along the way.  In subsequent  trips we’ve seen parts of Lombardia, the Veneto, especially Venice, the Aegean coast, that cute little independent country San Marino, quite a lot of Lazio, especially the mother city, Rome, and many of the towns of the Bay of Naples.  And everywhere we have found incredible beauty in this spectacular country.  Still, nothing quite prepared us for the rugged, untamed beauty of the deep south.  To my highly biased eye this is quite simply the most gorgeous part of Italy.

Part of that, ironically, has to do with the tragic history of the Mezzogiorno, the deep South.  We used to have a saying down home, “So far behind that you wound up ahead.”  Something like that has happened here.  A famous book was written about the backward aspect by a northern Italian named Carlo Levi.  Levi was a doctor, artist, and anti-Fascist who was ‘rusticated’ to the extreme south by Mussolini’s thugs back in the thirties for failing to toe the political line and wrote about the experience in a book called Christ Stopped at Eboli.  Eboli is a little town about 30 miles from here, right at the edge of the Cilento.  In the introduction he explains the title thus:  “But in this dark land, without sin and redemption, where evil is not moral but is a terrestrial pain that is forever in things, Christ did not descend.  Christ stopped at Eboli.”  My friend Robert Pelecchia comments, “Levi spent his exile in Aliano in Basilicata, but the heartbreaking passage expresses an idea that can be extended to all the lands of the South that have, until recent times, been cut off not only from Europe but even from Italy.  The lands of Lucania, Calabria, Sicily and Puglia, united by centuries of poverty, backwardness, and hardships of every kind.  Lands where everything arrived late and when it did arrive hardly anyone noticed.  Lands that have lived under the yoke of alternating masters, afflicted by wars and famine, sold along with their inhabitants according to the feudal customs that remained in force until 1806.  Too far away to catch the flashes of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and Romanticism.  Too uncomfortable for the first travelers who crossed Italy in the eighteenth century.  Too poor to erect wealthy cities and monuments.  Finally, stripped of any remaining authority by the unification of Italy, which gave the final blow to the slightest form of development under the Bourbon reign which, however questionable, fostered and favored the first businesses in the South.

“The South is the son of a troubled history, giving the twentieth century mass migration, leaving the most helpless and fragile part of the population behind, blocked by agriculture and a legacy that is centuries old, arriving up to modern times almost unchanged.”

And it is that last element which explains the terrible beauty of this land, a place where, in the words of the German writer Peter Amann, "Italy today is still Italy—an ideal destination for many tourists, both Italian and foreign, who are looking for the most authentic roots of a country that elsewhere is now far too globalized and transformed.”  Though even here the modern world is fast intruding, it is still possible to wander through whole towns which are essentially Medieval, with their tortuous streets, buildings clinging to the cliffs and leaning against each other for support, the beautiful little mother churches with Gothic interiors, often with traces of Medieval frescoes lovingly conserved and their rugged campanili soaring up above the town and pealing out the hours.  Here we can drive the little mountain roads and see nothing for miles but mountains and sea and the Italian scrub called macchia and the occasional farmhouse and village—no shopping malls, no neon signs and billboards, nothing but untrammeled beauty.

More’s the pity, then, that the Mezzogiorno, and especially the Cilento, this little western corner of Lucania, is still terra incognito, not just to Americans but to the majority of Europeans and even Italians themselves!  Our first trip over we were advised by a wonderful travel agent who was a retired shoe wholesaler and had spent many years traveling in northern Italy and so could offer us a way to live for a summer in Italy for about the same price it would have cost us for two weeks at Myrtle Beach.  We will be forever grateful to him for that.  But when I mentioned the possibility of seeing a bit of the south, especially Pompeii, he literally shuddered.  “No, no, no!  Don’t even think about going south of Rome!  You’ll be lucky to escape with your lives, much less your money and jewelry!”

So you can imagine that we were filled with a certain trepidation our first summer here.  Trepidation which lasted about a week.  This area reminds me of nothing so much as my little hometown of Martin, Tennessee back in the fifties—a bit provincial, yes, but full of warm, kind people and a safe, nurturing place for little knuckleheads like me.  Here in Agropoli people still sleep with their doors unlocked and the windows open, walk the streets all hours of the night in perfect security.  Yes, they can be reserved and even hostile to outsiders, but who can blame them when they have been beaten down and denigrated by those outsiders for so many centuries?

Even more tragic, perhaps, is the fact that many northern Italians harbor the same sorts of ignorant prejudices about the Italian South as many of the ‘Yankees’ did about my South when I was growing up:  Southerners are lazy, dimwitted, criminal.  I’ll never forget at a band contest in Virginia Beach encountering kids from Minnesota who were amazed that we Tennesseans wore shoes!  So it has been heartening to return to the beautiful little hill town of Castellabate and see how ‘touristy’ it has become in the last six years.  At the instigation, would you believe, of a very popular Italian comic film called “Benvenuto al Sud” (“Welcome to the South’).  The film centers on a Milanese postal worker who is scamming the system in hopes of a transfer to Milano by faking a disability and is finally caught out.  His punishment is to be banished to a tiny post office in a fictional town in the deep South.  He rages, he begs, he weeps, he threatens suicide, all to no avail.  And of course his callow, superficial wife simply refuses to go.  Finally he faces the inevitable and makes the move, fully expecting to be murdered in no time, and discovers...exacttly what we have:  a gorgeous little Medieval village filled with quiet, reserved, but wonderfully warm and generous people, and traditions of family, food, and faith that have survived unscathed for millennia.

Well, to make a long story short, this tender-hearted film was a revelation to most Italians, and when they discovered that the fictional town was, in fact, our pretty little gem, Castellabbate, the pilgrimages began.  And everywhere in the little town we see the signs of new prosperity:  tasteful but brightly painted signs, restoration, new pavers on the old streets, a pretty new terazza and parking lot on the eastern fringe of the town, lots of new shops and restaurants catering to the tourist crowd.  All done, I am thrilled to say, in a way to maintain the charm of this little newly discovered treasure.  

I can only hope that the discovery of Castellabbate will be an entrĂ©e to the discovery of the whole area.  The Cilento doesn’t have much going for it from a 21st-century perspective.  The terrain is so harsh that industrial farming is laughable, the roads keep sliding off mountains so transport is crude at best, there is really no large-scale industry, much less biotechnology.  But there are those traditions.  And that incredible beauty.  And those are assets that are more valuable by the day, as so much of Italy begins to succumb to the stultifying effects of globalization and commercialism and Italians begin to yearn for the disappearing essence of their fair country.