Sunday, November 3, 2019

From ‘Vroom by the Sea’ by Peter Moore



It is not the done thing to directly confront people in Italy. The concept of saving face is as strong there as it is in Asia.

……the Rally 200 marked the moment when Piaggio abandoned Italian families and went after the burgeoning youth market instead.
It was a move driven by financial necessity. By the end of the 1960s Italy’s standard of living was high enough for people to consider buying a car as the family vehicle rather than a Vespa. Indeed scooters became an unnecessary reminder of the tough times after the war. They were hidden in barns or shoved at the back of the garage, making way for the shiny new Fiat or Lancia.

Italy has one of the highest levels of organically grown crops in Europe………wasn’t just for environmental reasons….chemicals were expensive.

Elba is the third largest island in Italy after Sicily and Sardinia. It is a distant third – the island is only 28 kilometres long and 19 kilometres wide – but its mountainous, heavily wooded interior and stunning white sandy beaches make it one of the most beautiful. Legend has it that Venus the goddess of love, was strolling through the Tyrrhenian Sea one day and accidentally lost a precious jewel from the necklace she was wearing. The stone fell into the water and became Elba. ……..the highest point of the town was crowned by Villa dei Mulini, Napoleon’s residence when he was exiled to Elba in 1814. ……….Iron ore was mined here until the Second World War. And the Romans were partial to the wines that were produced there. But the regularity with which control of the island passed between Pisa and Genoa, then the Medici, Spain, Turkey and France, seems to suggest that no one was really bothered if they kept it or not.
Napoleon only stayed on Elba for nine months but in that time he revamped the legal and education system, modernized the economy and built a network of roads……..According to legend the first thing Napoleon noticed was about Portoferraio was the stench. On Elba the locals still emptied their chamberpots straight into the streets. One of Napoleon’s first acts as sovereign of his new domain was to build latrines, employ refuse collectors and institute large fines for people who continued to soil the streets.

He was an embalmer………It turned out that the worst part of being an embalmer wasn’t sticking your hand up the orifices of a corpse as I had guessed. It was coming home smelling of embalming fluids.

……first sight of Sardinia….looking craggy, wild and empty. Elsewhere in Italy a stretch of coastline like this would be crammed with lidos, apartments, gelataria and pizzerias. Here, on the north-east coast of the second-biggest island in the Mediterranean, there wasn’t a single sign of human habitation.
Sardinia has always been a world apart. D.H.Lawrence described it as ‘lost between Europe and Africa and belonging to nowhere’. The Phoenician, Carthaginians, Romans, Pisans, Genoans, Spanish and Austrians all tried to get a foothold before abandoning the island to malaria and the fiercely independent locals who lived in the mountainous interior. Its been part of a unified Italy since 1861. Indeed Giuseppe Garibaldi used it as a base for his military campaigns. But it has steadfastly retained its own dialect, costumes, cuisine and tendency to resolve differences with the odd blood vendetta or two.

Italians, it seems, invest their holidays with the same manic energy that they do all other aspects of their lives.

……..Porto Cervo, the town at the northernmost tip of Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast), a 10-kilometre stretch of pristine coastline that is one of the most exclusive in the Mediterranean. Originally uncultivable farmland, the entire region was purchased in 1962 by a business consortium headed by the Aga Khan. Back then the local farmers were glad to sell. It was back-breaking work just to scratch an existence from it. Now it is home to some of the most expensive properties in Italy and the tiny bars in the hinterland are propped up by grizzled, bitter shepherds who claim they were duped out of their land…….the marina in Porto Cervo is regarded as the best in Sardinia, with berths for 650 vessels.

Italy table service can double, even triple, the price of a cup of coffee.

……..La Maddalena……a waterfront avenue lined with date palms, but the island’s charm lay in the little rocky coves that decorated the coastline, each with white sand beaches and turquoise waters so bright, so perfect, that they looked like they had been touched up by using Photoshop……..La Maddalena was one of the most beautiful places I had ever been to………

Santissima Trinita di Saccargia is a stunning Pisan church that sits alone in a pretty valley 15 kilometres south-east of Sassari. Built in 1116, its zebra-striped fa├žade and belltower are all the more striking for being set in such splendid isolation.

The Nuraghi were a society of builders, metallurgists, shepherds, farmers and fishermen and their culture was the predominant one in Sardinia from 1800 BC until the Phoenicians and Carthaginians started sniffing around in 900 BC.
Nuraghic settlements were always set around a nuraghe, a distinctive circular tower made from the square basalt blocks that gave the culture its name. The nuraghe at Santu Antine is considered the most technically perfect of all the nuraghi on Sardinia, set in a triangular bastion with smaller towers on each point. Archaeological finds suggest that it might have been a royal palace. It sits alone now, but in its heyday it would have been surrounded by the hundreds of homes, stables and workshops of a thriving community.

When Alghero was captured by the Spanish in 1353 they dispersed the local population to nearby Villanova and replaced them with Catalan settlers.…..Date palms were planted along the avenues. And new immigrants traded directly with Catalonia rather than other parts of the island. ……Alghero became known as Barcelonetta – Little Barcelona. It retains much of that Catalan character today.

…….in Alghero……I was particularly taken by the old town, a jumble of cobbled lanes, stone buildings and terracotta roofs……. The Spanish influence was never far from here.

The bay at Porto Conte is one of the most beautiful places in Sardinia.

Bosa sits 3 kilometres inland on the banks of the Temo River, Sardinia’s only navigable river of any length. It is encircled by mountains and its tight, narrow streets press against a hill crowned by the atmospheric ruins of Malaspina Castle.

……the only thing that set Nuoro apart from any other Italian town of its size was its setting. Monte (Mount) Ortobene sits on its north-east corner, and beyond that the Sopramonte massif, a sheer wall of granite that looked positively otherworldly.

…….Sardinia……the island is as close to Africa as it is to Italy.
‘Masks are a very important part of Sardinian life,’ explained Mario. ‘They allow the ordinary peasant to aspire to something more mystical and extraordinary than their dreary, everyday life.’

I headed south from Nuoro through the wild mountains of Barbagia……..its legendary ‘dark heart.’……They were the only region of Sardinia that had never been subdued by foreign conquerors. And the fiercely independent locals still liked to indulge in a bit of petty banditry and the odd blood vendetta.

……..Cagliari is actually quite a pretty town…..set on a wide sweep of a bay, backed by mountains, and flanked by lagoons dotted with migrating flamingos from Africa. And beyond that, a stunning coastline dotted with some of the most beautiful beaches in Sardinia.

A gallery of locals watched from the balconies and windows of their home overlooking the square. This being Italy, each one of them had an opinion on what should be done and weren’t afraid of expressing it.

Palermo’s golden age began in 831 AD when it fell under Arab rule. For the next 200 years, and then under the Normans who followed, it was regarded as one of Europe’s greatest metropolises. It rivalled Cairo and Cordoba in beauty and its educational institutions were considered the greatest of the era. The Arabic influence is still apparent in the architecture of the churches and in the palm trees that grace the parks and streets.
The city again flourished in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, during the Baroque period……..
Palermo’s strategic position in the middle of the Mediterranean saw it bombed heavily during the Second World War. Only pockets of its former glory remain and the rest of the city was rebuilt quickly and shoddily. The funds that had been earmarked to rebuild it were siphoned off by the Mafia. Now, 60 years later, people were still living in their patched-together homes next to the craters created by Allied bombing over half a century before.

‘People here think of themselves as Sicilians first,’ explained Sergio. ‘We are also very suspicious of outsiders.’

Most of the houses remained half built with rusty reinforcement rods sticking out of the top for extra storeys that would never be built. Sergio had told me that as long as a house remained unfinished  in Sicily the owners didn’t have to pay tax on it.

In that way, the Sicilians weren’t any different from other Italians. They’d use any excuse to take a break and have a drink.

I backtracked …..to Erice, an ancient stone town that crowns the mountain that towers over Trapani and the bay. Known in the ancient world as Eryx, it was the site of a temple dedicated first to Aphrodite, then Venus under the Romans. Some say the temple was home to sacred prostitutes who carried out sacred prostitution. And it is interesting to note that it was left to its own devices by every invader who took the town. The Romans actually stationed 200 soldiers to protect it.

I ….wanted to visit Segesta and a Doric temple that many believe is the most magnificent in Sicily…….The Elymians started building the temple of Segesta in 430 BC and, it has to be said, they knew how to pick a building site. The temple enjoys a setting as dramatic as Erice, one of their earlier projects. It sits beside a deep canyon…..

…….headed….up…..to the remains of the Temple of Hercules. In its day it was regarded as one of the most beautiful temples of antiquity. Now all that remains are eight broken columns of different heights put back in place by the Englishman Sir Alexander Hardcastle in 1924.

I’d come to Piazza Armerina especially to see the mosaics in Villa del Casale. Set in the hills 3 kilometres south-west of Piazza Armerina, the villa was at the heart of an immense Roman rural holding and built some time between the third and fifth centuries AD. Its fame – and UNESCO listing – comes from the mosaic that decorate every one of the 62 rooms. They are regarded as the most outstanding Roman mosaics in the world and were preserved thanks to a flood that buried them in mud in the twelfth century. They were discovered again in 1950………..The level of detail is so extraordinary, archaeologists have built careers around analyzing the footwear, hairstyle and clothes depicted. ………
Perhaps the most famous room is the Hall of Female Gymnasts in Bikinis. It features a mosaic of female gymnasts in bikinis. Archaeologists claim it is a ‘rare and precious record of fashions at the time’.

Caltagirone has always produced ceramics. Farmers constantly unearth prehistoric pots as they plough fields ……The Arab name for the town, Cal’at Ghiran, can be translated as Castle of the Vases.
The city is famous for its distinctive polychromatic colours introduced to the local craftsmen with the arrival of the Arabs. The blues and yellows are particularly vivid………
The city’s most famous landmark is La Scala, the stone staircase built in 1608 to link Santa Maria del Monte cathedral at the top of the hill with the Palazzo Senatorio below. The risers on each of the 142 steps are decorated with hand-painted tiles, no two of which are the same.

Most Italian women seemed to have husky voices.

Ortygia has always been the focal point of Syracuse. Two and a half thousand years of history are crammed into a medieval maze less than 1 kilometre long and 500 metres wide. You’ll find the city’s most impressive buildings there, like the sixth-century Temple of Apollo and the stunning Baroque Duomo.

Italians visit pubs in packs. They laugh and joke raucously among themselves. And they use their mobile phones to coordinate their arrival en masse so that no one endures the shame of being alone.

…..the Aeolian Islands, a chain of volcanic islands sprinkled off the north-east tip of Sicily. They took their name from Aeolus, the ruler of the winds and master of navigation. Ancient poets described them as ‘rocky jewels set in an azure sea’ and the entire archipelago is a designated World Heritage Area.

………Mount Etna, Europe’s most active volcano; a day rarely passes without a shot of steam and ash or a rumble underfoot……..Mushrooms grow wild on the slopes of Mount Etna. The locals have their own secret spots where they find the plumpest and juiciest specimens……The slopes of Mount Etna were home to some of the most fertile farmland in Italy. The rich volcanic soil was what gave the mushrooms served in the restaurant their distinctive flavor.

Panarea is the smallest and prettiest of the Aeolian Islands…….Stromboli is the quintessential volcanic island. It is a perfect cone, 924 metres above sea level, and one of the most active volcanoes in the world, erupting continuously for over 2000 years.

The rest of Italy rarely has a good word to say about Naples. They regard it as a lawless and lazy city, full of people living off state funds paid for by their taxes. (Even if many of them avoid paying taxes themselves.)

………….Neapolitans are among the most fervent Catholics in Italy. …….their Catholicism isn’t the most traditional form of the religion. Miraculous cults have always been popular here and in the seventeenth century there was a brief obsession with worshipping the dead……….This populist approach to religion means that the churches are always full. Its as though the street life of Naples spills into the church. People continue conversations and even arguments as they enter, dipping their hands into holy water and then wagging them to  continue making their point.

Pizza was originally a peasant dish, made simply from dough, olive oil and tomato. It was sold from stalls on the street and was eaten at any time, day or night.
Pizza is inextricably linked to Naples that its surprising to learn that it was first introduced in the 1800s.

……Amalfi Coast …….the famous stretch of road just north of Salerno…………..The road easily lives up to its billing as the most beautiful road in Europe. …….Less than a century ago it was little more than a donkey track. It winds its way along the side of the mountains, following every indentation and crevice, the ocean a sheer drop of a couple of hundred metres below. ….so narrow and treacherous in places……….The road stretches 50 kilometres from Salerno in the south to Sorrento in the north.

………Positano. It was love at first sight………John Steinbeck ….wrote that ‘nearly always when you find a place as beautiful as Positano your impulse is to conceal it.’

Villa Cimbrone was built in the late 1800s by an Englishman by the name of Lord Grimthorpe. It is set on the furthest tip of Ravello’s ridge and boasts a clifftop belvedere that offers arguably the best view on the coast. It is known as the Terrace of Infinity, and sits suspended over the valley below.

……..The Blue Grotto…..a pool glowing the most astounding shade of blue.
The incredible colour and freaky glow are caused by the concurrence of two natural phenomena. The sun beams in through a large underwater entrance below that effectively filters out any reed tones. Then the limestone bottom of the cave reflects the light directly up.

San Giovanni Rotondo …..is the burial place of one of Catholicism’s newest saints – Padre Pio. ……….Padre Pio is one of the most popular saints in Italy. ……Seven million pilgrims visit the town each year, making it the most visited pilgrimage site in the world after Lourdes.

Sergio had told me that Italians make quite a big show of being religious but then instantly forget about it.