Wednesday, May 17, 2017


The Tower of Rutino

    So, here we are back in the Cilento, partially recovered from the rigors of travel, and eager to start our new adventure.  Tuesday we had big plans to visit ‘The Valley of the Orchids’, about two hours away on the lower slopes of Monte Cervati, the highest peak in the Cilento.  The Valley is a vale between two spurs of the mountain where some 215 species of wild orchid have been found so far, out of some 315 that have ever been found in all of Europe.  And mid-May is peak season for orchid blooms.  But Tuesday morning brought a forecast of thunderstorms in Sassano, the little town that serves as a point of departure for the route, and four hours of drive time is a chunk of time to have wasted on an aborted excursion, especially when we have the rest of the month.  So we decided to reschedule for Thursday.

In the meantime, though showers threatened closer to home as well, our perennial wanderlust demanded satisfaction, so we headed down the superstrada and onto a lower spur of Monte Stella and to the promising little village of Rutino.

The medieval village of Rutino seen from the south

We had been to the outskirts of the village six years ago, on our way with Fernando to the imposing castle of Rocca Cilento, further up the ridge.  But Fernando just had to take a short detour to show us the panoramic views out over the Alento River valley and the mountains of the interior.  Plus, there was this strange little tower right along the road, a sort of whimsical tower whose upper floor is a fantastic condominium for birds!  Definitely a charmer.

Views from the 'Tower of the Birds'

But we never really entered the village itself, and one thing we have learned in our travels here is that practically every little village here is a medieval gem.  And Rutino is only 20 minutes away.  Irresistible.

We entered the village by the same road as before, agog at that panorama and smiling at our old friend the birdie high-rise, ambled into the Centro of the little town, parked, and began our stroll at the mother church, La Chiesa di San Michele Arcangelo. 
Chiesa di San Michele Arcangelo

The church was unusually large for such a small town, reminding us that during the reign of the Sanseverino family, Rocca Cilento was the capitol of the Barony of Cilento and Rutino an important satellite town.  The church was pretty in the typical provincial Cilentan way, but sadly, was closed, as so often.  But behind it we found a huge abstract sculpture which seemed completely incongruous until we discovered it is a ‘Totem of Peace’, a symbol of the yearning for world peace designed by famous Italian sculptor Mario Molinari.  This is one of some 200 such sculptures installed in cities around the world, and here was one in little Rutino!  Molinari himself explains the symbolism:  “The red sail symbolizes the voyage.  This Sea of ours, the cradle of our civilization, theatre of struggles and battles between the peoples who have lived here but also of trade, of commerce, and of the advances of knowledge.  The sea celebrated by the myth in which Ulysses is lost and continually wandering in a desperate search for the way home.  It is red to symbolize the quest, the sunset, and the return of the immutable rhythms of the universe.”

Molinari's 'Totem of Peace'

Rutino is one of those hill towns strung out along the crest of a ridge, in this case the ridge of the spur, and so is about three miles long and a hundred feet wide.  Eventually it scrambles up the ridge all the way to Rocca Cilento.  We could go up or down, but we figured the oldest part of the town was the upper, and so headed up.  Good call.  We wandered up narrow streets, completely immersed in a medieval world, what with the stone houses on both sides with their lovely old doors, seductive little courtyards, and the portali, the massive stone archways which mark the entrance to ancient palazzi.  Eventually we came to the gate of the Palazzo Cuoco, otherwise known as the Palazzo dello Colombaio, the palace in whose courtyard the ‘Tower of the Birds’ is located, and there saw the stairways that provided access to its upper floors. Easy to imagine some baron and baroness on some warm summer evening climbing to the top of the little tower to gaze at that spectacular view and enjoy the cool breezes and the twittering of the swallows that inhabited the tower’s top floor.
Medieval street scenes

For, you see, these little bird houses had a very practical function to go along with the whimsical side.  Swallows eat a tremendous number of mosquitoes every year, and down below in the Alento valley in medieval times the land had become swampy and malarial.  So what we are so charmed by is also a natural mosquito control!

We scrambled down a scala to the highway below to get another look at the tower and the elaborate alleĆ© that leads up to it, in this case a combination of ramps, balconies, and stairways on basically four levels.  I like to imagine some visitor to the palace parking their carriage in the piazza at the base and strolling up the ramps and along the balconies, stopping at each level to marvel at those views.  Some people know how to make an entrance; the baron knew how to create one.

'The Colombaio'

The dramatic approach

We ambled back down to the center of the village and noticed a large placard for the ‘Flight of the Angel’ festival which we had just missed last weekend.  Now, every little hamlet in southern Italy has a festival of its patron saint and every one of them is a must-see, but I have to say, we are especially heartbroken to have missed this one.

The church rigged for the feast

'The Flight of the Angel'

This is what we learned after the fact:  The procession starts in the usual way.  The church faithful place the cult statue of St. Michael, the warrior archangel, you will recall, on a platform and it is carried through the streets accompanied by the priest, a band, and various Catholic fraternities.  All pretty standard stuff.  But then the drama begins!  In Sandy’s picture you will notice a cable running across the street about 30’ above the ground, and a small stage at the front of the church at street level.  A young man decked out in full Michael regalia and brandishing a sword and shield is mounted on a harness attached to the cable and slowly pulled across the length of the cable until he reaches the stage, where there are several imps (village children) accompanied by Lucifer himself!  Michael warns the Devil that he must repent his rebellious ways or face his inevitable fate, but Satan blusters that he’s ready to mix it up any time.  Michael flies on, to give Beelzebub time to change his mind, and the procession with the cult statue proceeds through the streets of the village in song and prayer and slowly returns to the church.

Then commences scene II.  Michael returns, flying in the opposite direction, and gives Lucifer one last chance to repent.  Spoiler alert: He refuses, and the fireworks begin!  And I am not just being metaphorical; the commencement of the battle is marked by a huge fireworks display (we saw the evidence behind the Totem of Peace, ironically).  Michael flails away at the Devil and his minions.  Lucifer falls to the ground, dazed and confused!  He admits his humiliating defeat and returns to the underworld!  Good triumphs over evil!  St. Michael flies in triumph to the balcony of the parsonage, is unharnessed, and receives the adoration of the crowd.

Saint Michael battles Lucifer

And all this in a tiny village with a population of less than 900 souls!  But that’s the Cilento for you.  We have seen gorgeous little hill towns in practically every region of Italy we have visited.  The thing which marks this unknown and uncelebrated part of southern Campania as special is simply that there are so many achingly, heartbreakingly beautiful little medieval gems.  We can easily name 50 every bit as charming as Rutino.  And the reasons for that are both fortunate and tragic.  The sad history of this area, blighted by wars, invasions, famines, malaria, plagues, and the pestilential depredations of the local aristocracy has meant that the area has been economically deprived for centuries and there has simply not been much financial incentive to tear down and modernize.  A happier reason I learned only recently, thanks to my seismologist friend Andrea.  We are located smack between two of the regions in all of Italy most vulnerable to earthquakes.  Basilicata to our east and Calabria to our south have been devastated repeatedly by tremendous temblors.  An earthquake in 1908 in Calabria, for example, killed well over 100,000 people (nobody knows the exact number).  And if you’ve seen the sad news recently about Amatrice, you know that every time a major quake occurs, several medieval towns lose a precious part of their historical essence.  Meanwhile, our fuzzy old mountains are in the Apennine Peripheral Zone, 60 km west of the upthrust zone, and there has not been a tremor here above 3.5 on the Richter scale since records have been kept.

The Cilento has it all:  spectacular scenery, with gorgeous mountains, a sparkling sea, crystal-clear to depths of thirty feet and more, and with more shades of blue than you can count.  Incredible people, incredible food, incredible history…. And another little medieval jewel, I swear to you, reader, every five kilometers!