Why Do We Love to Travel in Italy?

Italy is more than a place for adventures. She is full of life. She is a creature of grace and beauty, but also of mystery and danger. Her charms are many, and captivating to one who has left himself vulnerable. Yet the true magic of a special place flows not from geography, but from humanity. To truly understand the story of Italy, one must uncover her soul, which requires that we look backwards, across the gulf of time, to understand how she came to be as she is.

Individual lives pass quickly through the ticking meters of time, yet, like water upon stone, they leave their subtle marks, patiently shaping a place by the wearing generations in their passing, as the footsteps wear the stone. Italy is such a place, and the lives of those who have gone before still exist in the shapes and seasons of this land. It is both a living land and a place steeped in the rich history that has created it. Not only the modern nation cobbled together in recent history from a collection of duchies and papal state, it is in a greater sense the lens through which we view the ancient world. It was there, in the empire of Rome, that the art, culture, and history of earlier civilizations were gathered, distilled, and refined.

“How can we become conscious of our national identities,” Carl Jung once asked, “if we have never had the opportunity to regard our own nation from the outside?” The useful process he advised may be equally applied to our individual selves.

It is only by removing ourselves from our homes and comforts that we are forced to abandon our dependency upon the defensive walls we develop around them, leave the battlements unguarded, and approach other peoples and cultures with open hands and eyes, seeking acceptance and safety within them. Then we may begin to see ourselves through their eyes. This process is thoroughly enriching, and may bless us with broadened compassion for the lives, loves, and trials of others.

The profound question of who we are provides motivation to escape our ‘normal’ lives, flee the familiar and comforting, and seek situations, people, and places that challenge us, in order to gain a better perspective of the various boxes we inhabit. Yet my minds’ eye failed to grasp to what I might cling amidst the powerful currents that swept the distant, sun-washed Mediterranean shore.

Often the very difficulties entailed in translating ideas into a different language makes their foundations plainer, stripping them of the familiar phrases that tend to cloak our raw and more powerful concepts. Those whose paths we cross, who interact with us, and who share our days, inevitably leave parts of themselves within us.

Our First Encounter with Venice

…Our first encounter with Venice had been put off as long as possible. Fear of disappointment perhaps, or fear that the stories might be true, made us hesitate. Was there any fact behind the rumor that it was a dirty, smelly relic, jammed with tourists and kitsch? We were afraid that our dreams of a lovely city afloat in the blue waters of the lagoon would be rudely and permanently extinguished like so many tooth fairies.

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We knew a bit of the history of the place, of course, and had fixed images of the famous Rialto Bridge and the expanse of the piazza, featured in so many television commercials hawking credit cards and diamonds. Venice was a republic for centuries, and had long styled itself as home of the “Serenissimi,” the most serene. We thought we knew what we might find, and the time had come to introduce ourselves, to strike up a conversation, and see if we might come to be friends, or at least admirers, of this elderly Grande Signora of the Adriatic.

Instead, our fantasy was suddenly replaced by the tangible reality. Venezia exploded to life as a multi-color, living creature. One that breathed in clouds of pigeons, exhaled legions of boats, and, like a queen, bathed in Adriatic tides four times a day. We were charmed, entranced, almost overwhelmed by the city we have since come to know almost as well as our home towns.

Venezia is a world unto itself, the antithesis of a modern freeway with its speeding traffic or interminable stoppages. In Venice, boats are the natural adjunct of life. In a boat one travels, shops, and receives goods. The morning fruit and vegetable boat is the source of evening’s dinner. Cars are things of the mainland: foreign, useless, and filtered from circulation at the Piazzale Roma. Not even a dire emergency would permit a vehicle to enter the city proper, for there are no facilities to bear one across the waters. The ebb and flow of the tide makes an effective roadblock, protecting a city without a whit of care for such affectations.

Most visitors arrive by train, over the long railroad bridge which had first linked the city to the mainland in 1846, or more often by bus or automobile over a parallel causeway called the Ponte della Liberta, built out from the mainland in 1933. Arriving at Venezia in a private car after weaving through the traffic on a long, high-speed autostrada drive across the plains of the Veneto is a bit like reaching an oasis after a trek across a desert. The shock of contrast leaves you a bit breathless. The effect is only slightly lessened arriving by bus or train. Whether parking your car in one of the multi-story garages or simply descending from your chauffeured chariot, you are at the threshold of a world at once foreign and fantastic.

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For many visitors their first unfortunate experience is the diesel-choked vortex of the Piazzale Roma, where buses and taxicabs circle like so many metal vultures, swooping in to gobble meals of exhausted visitors before dashing away to their refuges on the mainland. This expanse of asphalt, lined with hotels, parking garages, cafes, and the transportation ticket office, is a potent reminder of the world outside, a world soon to be left behind. Once across the first bridge, one steps into a different realm.

In Venezia, it is not only that there are no cars. There are virtually no wheels. It may take a first-time visitor a few days to notice the complete absence of even bicycles, skateboards, or roller skates. One wonders if Venetian children have ever played with toy firetrucks or race cars. In this watery domain of gondole and motoscafi, youthful fantasies run more to sleek wooden speedboats. Their imaginations are fired by the looming cruise ships, white as soap against the moody blue of the lagoon, that seem to arrive twice daily in the warmer months. If one discounts the tiny rollers on the suitcases led by invading tourists, only the occasional delivery carts make use of one of humanities’ most basic invention. The carts themselves are as unique as everything else in Venice, and feature long handles and an extra set of small extended wheels so they can be levered up the steps of countless bridges.

Vaporetto pilots guide their large public transport boats around the myriad islands and through the Grand Canal, deftly threading the bewildering maze of nautical traffic. Avoiding each other and the thick flow of commerce, they dock briefly at floating piers on alternating sides of the Canale Grande to disgorge passengers. During summer, piles of luggage heap the center deck, their owners jostling for space along the rails. Visitors stand on their decks to gawk and photograph the boldly-colored ‘palazzi,’ homes built centuries ago by wealthy merchant-traders, that line the waterway. Locals wedge into seats in the lower decks fore and aft to chat on their cell phones or concentrate on their newspapers, snapping up the early-morning copies of the free journal, ‘Oggi,’ which have disappeared from the racks in their thousands long before 9:00 a.m.

Some first-time visitors arrive from long international flights and find themselves two hours later completely lost. Confounded by scribbled directions that point them toward reservations and much-needed sleep, they stumble along the fondamenta and through the twisting vicolo on their own feet, as if paying the required penance for the sin of arriving in the midst of such beauty. “It’s got to be around here somewhere!” they mutter, barely glancing at their surroundings. They will awaken from their naps to find themselves still immersed in a dream.

We arrive like most, but with a determination not to fall into the predictable patterns. Ignoring the vaporetti, we walk with our luggage, threading our way across Santa Croce and San Polo. We pause for heaping cookie-cones filled with creamy gelato, Susan’s the chocolate-streaked vanilla ‘straciatella,’ and mine the darkest ‘cioccolato’ available. We stroll with a confident air, certain that our infallible map, concealed in a handy pocket with landmarks circled, will guide us straight to it. Yet Venice is never short of tricks. We stop to laugh and photograph, as thousands have before, the Per Rialtomultiple arrows pointing toward Rialto or San Marco, often facing in opposite directions one above the other. There are many ways, it seems, to arrive at one’s destination. and we sometimes choose the road less traveled by. We find our hotel after only a couple of turns around a wrong block, having crossed a different bridge than intended.

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Tourists can be easily forgiven for succumbing to the mysteries of Venezia’s twisting rabbit-warren of streets, which might have been planned equally well by following the drunken stumblings of a Medieval sailor on leave. They narrow to choking straits that require passers-by to angle their shoulders to pass each other between rough, tottering walls, then twist and turn, and widen into broad places called ‘campi,’ before suddenly ending blankly against walls. They jog suddenly around corners, cross bridges, and then turn back the way they came as if designed for the purpose, not of connecting places, but of dividing them. In truth, each of the dozens of islands that make up the city had it’s own pattern of paths and buildings before the bridges began to link them. Bridges are twisted, angled, and distorted to make the connections between unrelated passages…

The Heroes of Giglio

It was a chilly evening in January in the quiet village of Porto Giglio (pronounced GEE-lio). A nearly full moon shone upon the waters of the Mediterranean, the sea that sent its undulating waves lapping at the breakwater that enclosed the small harbor. A pair of lighthouses, one painted bright red and the other a vivid green, guarded the entrance. Beyond them, anyone peeking from behind their shuttered windows could see distant lights twinkling across the water on Monte Argentario, a large promontory connected to the Italian mainland a dozen miles away.

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In the village it was a winter night like many others. Porto Giglio has been a sea-faring town for generations uncounted. Although home to some 1500 people, only 800 residents remained through the winter months. The evening chill had sent them home to dinners and warm beds. Tomorrow would be another day of fishing, repairing boats, or tending to the small enterprises that made up the island economy. Yet this particular January night would be one that they would never forget.

I recently visited the island, part of the Tuscan Archipelago, to learn first-hand about the events of that fateful and historic night. I found the people friendly and open and the town itself charming. Yet there was a certain reserve about the traumatic events which had changed it forever. Some were hesitant to speak about it, yet they had banded together to share their memories in a book, entitled “quella notte un anno dopo,” or “that night one year later.” The book is a collection of intimate memories, as personal as a diary, but they have shared it with the world.

Shortly before 9:00 on that fateful evening, a glowing array of lights was approaching from the south, from Civitavecchia, the bustling port of Rome, a few score miles away. The lights belonged to a ship known as the Costa Concordia, the pride of the line. Only six years old, gleaming white, and filled with dining passengers, the Concordia was heading north to Savona, the first leg of a week’s cruise around the central Mediterranean. The ship’s course would take it between Giglio’s rocky shores and the mainland’s mountains, a familar passage it made some 25 times a year. This time, however, the captain planned a closer approach, in order to salute the tiny islet, home to one of the ship’s officers. That maneuver would lead to disaster, and change the people of the island forever.

At 9:45, as most of the island’s residents were heading off to bed, the Costa Concordia made it’s closest approach. Passing within a mile of the harbor mouth, the ship was a moving mountain. More than 950 feet long, and bearing more than 4,200 passengers and crew, it dwarfed the tiny village. Anyone watching from shore would no doubt stop to watch its passage. Would they have noticed the sudden shudder of the vessel as it encountered the rocks of the well-known reef of “Le Scole?” It seems unlikely. Even many of those aboard failed to recognize that the ship had struck ground, yet as it continued northward, it bore in its torn hull a huge boulder ripped from the sea-bed, wedged into the end of a long gash sliced deeply into the steel of the hull.

As water began pouring into the lower levels of the ship, Captain Francesco Schettino at first seemed in denial about what had happened, as were some of the other officers. The engine room was flooding, shutting down power generation. When electrical power began to fail on the ship, passengers were re-assured that the situation was under control, and told to return to their cabins. Some did.

Losing power, the ship gradually slowed to a crawl. As the situation became clear, the captain turned the ship toward the tiny port town, seemingly unsure of how to react. More than 30 minutes after the impact a general alarm had still not been raised, no assistance had been requested, and the captain was assuring the authorities that the ship had only had an electrical blackout.

At 10:26 p.m., as the people of Giglio slept, came the delayed admission that the ship was in trouble. The call was passed to the local men of the Guardia di Finanza, the local Italian authorities. At 10:44 the coast guard boat was launched from the harbor, and found the ship settling on the rocky bottom only a few hundred yards from the town. Hearing the word, the staff of the tiny Giglio newspaper rushed to the scene, and soon a photograph of the darkened ship, listing heavily, was being flashed to news outlets around the world.

Aboard the huge vessel, conditions were confused, and the slanting decks made walking ever more difficult. As the ship continued to list farther to starboard, passengers, without clear instructions, were beginning to panic. Many were climbing into the lifeboats, and some of the crew were assisting them. Some had leapt into the chilly waters in an attempt to swim to the steep rock face of the shore. Finally, at 10:48 came the signal from the captain – seven short blasts from the ships horn, followed by one long one – the order to abandon ship.

Some in the town heard the ship’s signal, and knew immediately that trouble was afoot. Others, awakened by the commotion in the harbor, peered out windows at the apparition of the massive ship, and sprang to their boats. Within minutes, every able person in the village had rushed to help. Some of the ship’s lifeboats were lowered and cast off virtually empty in the dark and confusion. Others, overloaded, careened hard into the water. More than 90 people were tossed into the inky sea. Those aboard the boats worked to rescue them from the waters.

ImageThe Costa Concordia lies on the reef just outside the harbor of Porto Giglio

In the town, blankets were hurriedly gathered and the church was opened as a shelter as a flotilla of lifeboats and small fishing vessels began carrying the thousands from the ship to the tiny breakwater jetty. It was after 4:00 a.m before the last of the survivors was removed from the vessel.

Giglio that night became the model for human compassion, for action beyond capacity. Outnumbered five-to-one by the victims of the disaster, the villagers worked through the night, through exhaustion, to pluck people from the rocks, pull them from the waters, warm them, dry them, feed them, and comfort them in their need. The night created many heroes, and there were few among the population of that village who failed to earn that commendation.

ImageThe author at Porto Giglio

Morning light found the enormous ship lying on its side, and a flotilla of boats arriving from the mainland to help ferry the survivors home. Of the more than 4200 aboard the Concordia, most escaped serious injury. Thirty-two lost their lives. Two have never been found.

On January 13, 2013, one year after the tragedy, the people of Porto Giglio held a solemn service in memory of those who were lost. They erected a small plaque at the town wharf, remembering them, and acknowledging the actions of their own at a time of great need.

ImageThe plaque erected “in memory of the rescue of over 4000 shipwreck victims from the ship Costa Concordia,” and recognizing the citizens of Giglio for making the island an example of citizenship.

Today, more than a year after the disaster, the Costa Concordia remains on the rocks. A small army of salvagers work toward righting and floating the vessel to be cut up for salvage. The boulder will be removed from the hull and placed at the port, a permanent reminder of the vulnerability of even the largest vessels to the dangers of the sea. That monument may eventually be one of few visible changes left in the town. But for the 800 people who live in Porto Giglio, things will never be quite the same again.

“At times there is a very thin line separating fact and faith, hope and destiny.” – Sergio Ortelli, Mayor, Comune of the Island of Giglio.

Exploring the “Park of Monsters”

The “Parco di Mostri” is an Intriguing Aspect of Italy.
©2013 Robert J. Connors

The mention in the dog-eared old travel book was brief, but once my eyes fell upon it, I couldn’t forget it: a “park of monsters” hidden in the woods of central Italy. This beautiful Mediterranean nation is popular for many reasons, what with its amazing variety of enjoyable things to eat, drink, look at, climb, drive over, float on, and gasp at, but never had we heard of anything like this. It had been hiding in the woods of central Italy since 60 years after Columbus sailed to the New World. We just had to see it. Four of us climbed into the car for the trip to northern Lazio.

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The “Parco di Mostri” is located just outside the town of Bomarzo, in a deep valley below the walls of its massive castle. The entire setting maintains an unusual mood over the area, a feeling of stepping back in time. Seen from below on the narrow country road that approaches the town from the north, it seems to slumber in a sort of Medieval dream. The sheer stone walls of the town seem forbidding, as if it were a cloister.

We followed small signs along a snaking lane, and entered a substantial parking lot that contained only three cars. We entered a large building, a sort of dining hall with rows of picnic tables. All were empty. At the counter was a woman who sold us tickets to enter the park. It seemed that we were the only visitors that day. We were handed the tickets, and told to go ahead to the “labyrinth.” I knew enough of mythology to remember what that meant. The slightly off-kilter feeling was delicious, just a bit of a spine-tingle to prepare us for what was ahead. Being very much into the adventure side of travel, we loved it.

We walked a short distance along a wooded trail, passing through a large stone gate, and encountered the first of the monsters. It brought me to a brief halt, and then I quickly moved to get a clearer view. The giant sculpture was chiseled from stone. A grotesque expression on a face that was almost, but not quite, human, stared back at me through hollow eyes. We climbed a flight of steps to approach the gaping round mouth of the beast, and stood in its unmoving jaws, struggling to understand the significance of the work. Who, or what, did it represent? We ducked inside its mouth, into a small space that received faint light from the two empty eye sockets above. No, it wasn’t designed as a pleasant sitting room, despite the small table perched upon its tongue.
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Nearby, we found a dragon battling lions, and one of Hannibal’s famed elephants bearing a rider and a stone castle on its back, crushing a Roman Centurion. In all we explored about 20 major pieces of sculpture, ranging from a leaning house to human figures in ‘compromising’ positions. Two giants fought a battle to the death as one dismembered the other. Too large to be moved, all these gigantic forms were created ‘in situ’ by the artists. Creatures real and imagined had been brought to light, for reasons difficult to fathom. The park represented an early form of ‘science-fiction’ in an era when such things were largely unknown.

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Medieval sensibilities were undoubtedly less jaded than our own society’s, awash as it is in bloody video games, films, and television. Although these creations were in a park, it was clear that they were not intended to be beautiful, or even neccessarily pleasing to the eye. This was a park designed to disturb you, to challenge you, perhaps to warn you of the presence of unknown things. Given the superstitions embraced by so many humans, it has surely achieved its goal.

The park was commissioned by Prince Pier Francesco Orsini, known locally as Vicino, which means ‘neighbor.’ The prince had been held captive for years following a war that took the life of his best friend. After no doubt years of longing for his wife, he returned home, only to have her die. In what was apparently an early form of post-traumatic stress, the prince seems to have been a bit unhinged from his earlier life. He hired a famous architect, Pirro Ligorio, who had designed the famous water gardens at Villa d’Este. He had been fired by Pope Paul V for having criticized Michelangelo‘s work in St. Peter’s Basilica. He had a reputation as a “Mannerist,” a style of surrealism, and did not fail to achieve that strange expression in the amazing Parco di Mostri.

Even the uniqueness of the site could not protect it from time. The monuments were eventually neglected by the prince’s descendants, and swallowed by the forests. Only in 1970 did new owners begin the job of uncovering the strange behemoths and show them, once more, to a wondering world.

Discovering Positano

Love Blossoms with Spring on the Amalfi Coast

(an excerpt from the book “Romancing Through Italy”

© 2013 Robert J. Connors

Unwilling to remain another night in our accidental hotel, and driven by the desire to see the famous ‘Costiera Amalfitana,’ the Amalfi Coast on the other side of the Sorrentino Peninsula, we checked out and walked the short blocks along a leafing urban park to the Intercity bus stop. Within minutes we had parked ourselves in the coveted (at least by us) and quite comfortable front row, right side seats of a large modern motor-coach. From there, we knew, we would have the best possible views of the scenery along our route. I whistled a bit of the familiar “Return to Sorrento” and got a “bravo!” from the bus driver in response. We bid farewell to Sorrento, knowing that we, too, would one day have to return. We looked back down upon the town from lofty heights as we climbed the switchbacked road south, until it and the beautiful blue of the bay were lost behind the forests and the mountains that held them up to the sky.

After a brief ride over the narrow ridge, threading our way between the row of knobby peaks of the Latteri Mountains, we suddenly caught sight of the open sea. Only about four kilometers wide behind Sorrento, the peninsula rises to more than 1100 meters, or more than 3700 feet, at its highest. The view of the sea across the hills abruptly changed to one that seemed to be terrifyingly straight down. We both exclaimed at the sight of the sheer cliffs below us, without so much as a guardrail between our bus and a drop of at least 1000 feet. Our camera came out to capture the sight of a fishing boat leaving a curving wake through the deep blue of the water, pulling a clearly-visible seine net. It was as if seen from an airplane. Unlike the northern side of the mountains, which slope to the sea more gently, this south coast seems to totter perilously above them, affording the most stunning views. Our knuckles whitened as we gripped our armrests, the bus swaying around heart-stopping curves. We were goggle-eyed at the scenery.

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True to form, Italy was about to serve us up a reminder of its enchanting ways. As our bus snaked along the narrow roadway, few intrepid drivers took the rare opportunities to pass us. No doubt we were leading an entourage as we approached a narrowly-arched tunnel ahead. Cut through the solid rock of the mountain years earlier, when motorized traffic was no doubt uncommon, we realized that the arc of the gallery could accommodate the square of our bus only if we took to the center, straddling the center line. That’s exactly what our driver proceeded to do, clearly comfortable with this often-repeated maneuver accompanied by the loud blaring of the busses’ distinctive two-note horn. “OoookAnnnnng” reverberated through the very seats, only to be echoed by a returning two-note sound. No, it wasn’t an echo, but another bus approaching from the opposite direction, using the same center-of-the-road technique. Both busses came to a stop near the middle of the tunnel, with warning flashers on. Craning his neck, our driver promptly put our bus into reverse. Of course, our trailing entourage was still back there, and passengers dutifully leapt from their cars, waving their arms and shouting to stop the approach of more cars, in a scene so evocative of Italy that we marked it down in our memories as a peak experience. The entire line of traffic began snaking backwards like a giant inch-worm, a couple of feet at a time, until we found ourselves out of the tunnel. The opposing bus, trailed by its own entourage, quickly squeezed by us, and we resumed our journey with the horn blaring as before.

The route slowly descended in a series of sharp curves, gradually growing closer to the sea, until we were no more than a few hundred feet above the water. We both marveled at restaurants and cafes cut into the rock face of the mountain, sometimes perched on spires of stone that seemed to lean out over the abyss. Hotels somehow found perches, too, their iron feet driven into solid rock, their rooms shouldered one above the other in a vertical echo of the mountain itself, each suspended balcony an engineering marvel. Narrow rows of stone steps led directly over the cliff face, to what would seem to be certain doom, but were no doubt comfortable passageways for mountain goats and the local residents accustomed to such terrors.

Without firm plans or reservations, we plotted to escape the bus at the first likely-looking opportunity. Questioning the driver, and with the beneficial comments of other passengers who joined in a brief, incomprehensible debate, we were advised to descend at the first of two stops in Positano. Within minutes we had arrived, and found ourselves looking over a low metal railing at a cliff-hugging, colorful postcard image of a fantasy vacation spot, rooftops holding primary-colored automobiles above pastel houses, descending in terraces toward the sea below. At the busy crossroads behind us was a bar, a series of small shops, and roads that seemed to advance almost vertically up the face of the looming Latteri Mountains above.

Here, in the southern-face sunshine, protected from the north winds by the heights, we found ourselves shedding layers of jackets and sweaters as we stopped to ask directions to “un’buon’albergo” in our practiced phrasing. We were directed to follow a downhill side street which composed part of a long, one-way loop through the town below. We walked down the sloping street, entranced by the views. Gulls circled overhead, and songbirds serenaded from the trees that leaned over the street from above. A high wall corralled yet more brightly-colored stucco houses that seemed to join the trees in leaning toward the sea. On the downhill side, due to the steepness of the mountain, the houses stood well below the road, so that our view into the valley was largely unobstructed.

The original fishing village below had grown up within the confines of a narrow valley that slopes to the sea. The two walls of what might be called a canyon faced each other across a gulf of only a few hundred meters. At a casual glance the opposite side resembled a layer cake with colorful icing, or perhaps a town created of toy models for a holiday display. Its reality was confirmed primarily by the traffic ascending across the valley on a steep, snaking road, built partly on pilings, dangling from the face of the mountain. The familiar two-note horn of a bus warned other drivers of the approach of its road-hogging bulk.

The canyon of Positano

We continued our walk downhill, stopping again and again to admire the changing views on the curving street. After only 100 meters or so, we found ourselves at the top of entrance steps leading to a small inn called Villa Verde, the green Villa. It perched precariously, like everything else in this town, on the edge of the precipice. Leaving our luggage at the top, I descended to inquire the price. In this post-Easter lull, we found it pleasantly affordable. The room was clean, neatly furnished, wider than it was deep, and equipped with a balcony offering breath-taking views over the steep terraces of the town, and a small slice of the seafront below. We stood on our balcony in the evening and watched the lights come on, like strands on a Christmas tree festooning the opposite cliff faces. Bats emerged from a gap-walled house down the hill, and deftly darted in pursuit of insects both above and far below us, the very image of aerial agility. A bright moon slipped above the mountain, pouring a soft, pancake-batter yellow light upon the entire visual feast laid out before us. From our perfect private perch on the mountain, the world seemed a soft and wonderful place indeed, and sharing made it even better. We were deeply in love with Positano, and with each other.

The Soul of Italy Lies Concealed

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When most Italians hear the word “Florida,” they immediately think of Miami, the way Americans hearing “Italy” think immediately of a particular city. In both cases, the imagination would be failing to capture the wealth of variety contained there. The Americans would be missing the best examples of what Italy is built upon: its people.

Strangers in cities may find them beautiful, but rarely find them personal. The root of Italy is in its lore; it lies in the tales and superstitions, the beliefs and traditions that bound people to their neighbors for millennia. To find real roots, one must look beneath the mountain.

Off the well-worn path, away from the crowds, one may begin to encounter those living in, not the high-speed, caffeine-fueled, commuter-oriented buzz of  modern Italian cities, but the ancient ways of the farmer, the tradesman, and the merchant. In Italy, it remains common to see the shops of shoemakers, blacksmiths, and neighborhood bakers. Farmers bring their produce to their own market stalls for weekly sales. The craftsman quietly explaining his skills in trade to a visitor is sharing the accumulated knowledge of perhaps 10, 20, 50 generations of his family. Tending the grapes and olives, building and rebuilding the fortifications of their city, deepening the well after 500 years of use: these things tend to lie deep in the Italian psyche.

Italians are proud, very proud, of their history. Yet, there were times, a thousand years ago, when the already ancient relics of the Roman Empire were scavenged, stripped of marble cladding, and disassembled for new uses. The properties of the church, basilicas and chapels alike, were protected, but the monuments, even the Coliseum, were picked over and pillaged. Times have been hard many times before. For a thousand years after the fall of the Empire, trade and communication were reduced, education was the dominion of scattered abbeys, and those who could assemble land-holdings, by marriage or by war, rose to become powerful rulers. Wars followed invasions, and death would quickly overtake the unwary. Walls were necessary, even essential for survival.

During that long millennia, Italian cities and towns were swept up in the espionage of a perpetual swirl of changing alliances. Allies became enemies virtually overnight. No stranger could be trusted. Cities and towns were isolated independent civilizations, enjoying only a modicum of the cross-pollinating of outside cultures. The unifying force of ancient Latin evolved into dozens of dialects, thousands of new words and expressions used only among  isolated populations.

Italy had not been a single nation for well over a thousand years until the ‘Risorgamento,’ the ‘reorganization,’ that brought on the establishment of the Kingdom of Italy in 1961. America was fighting a civil war of division when the Italian duchies were being stitched together in a war of patriotic fervor.

Nowhere do the roots of this diverse nation become so apparent as in the small towns and villages, where the old ways are still adhered to. There, among the ‘paesani’ who still sharpen the hoes to tend the crops, a visitor may begin to sense the depth of these traditional sources of strength.

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Traveling back-road Italy, it’s easy to find signs pointing to ‘vendemmia,’ and visitors will find them typically welcoming, and intensely authentic. I recall one near Castellina in Chianti. There was a steep, rocky driveway through a forest off a narrow country road. We crossed a narrow culvert over a brook, and began to climb. Tires slipped slightly on the loose gravel. At the top of the rise we emerged into vineyards and olive trees, then passed a row of slender Italian cypress trees, so emblematic of the central region. There beside spreading oaks stood a substantial, upright house, and a couple of outbuildings. The building labeled cantina had an arched doorway with a thick oaken door. It was locked up tight. Being new to the country, we didn’t realize that it was siesta hour, after 1:00 p.m., and the family was likely napping. We were beginning to get back in the car when a woman of about 60 strode quickly toward us, smiling and jingling skeleton keys on an iron ring. We were soon gathered around the thick slab of oak with stout legs of which they made a tasting table.

Our hostess, Giusepina,  spoke no English, and we very little Italian, but that didn’t seem to deter communication. She proudly showed us various wine vintages from past years, and some finer productions that were still good after 25 or 30 years. Glasses and bottles of wine were produced, and samples were poured. Thin slices of bread were cut, and little cups of olive oil were passed around. Both wine and oil were what is called ‘produzione propria,’ meaning they were all produced on their own land.

I watched her hands as she quickly rolled each purchase in a wrapper, and assembled the bottles into a bound package. She had done this a thousand times; no, a thousand times a thousand. Her hands were as the hands of generations.

Romancing Through Italy : Why Do We Love Travel Adventure?

© 2013 Robert J. Connors

Many Romans of 2,000 years ago thought the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus was ‘pazzo,’ crazy, to trade the verdant and secure pastures of his beautiful and fertile island of Ischia, an island refuge only a few dozen miles away, for the steep and rocky outcrop of Capri, good for little more than goats. Capri, in fact, means ’goats,’ and it was easy to see why the name had adhered to this place.  Evergreens and shrubs clung to sheer cliffs. Enormous spires of rock flanked the rocky coasts, pierced by caves including the famous “Blue Grotto,”  half-filled with sea waters.

Caesar was ruler of a vast Roman empire at the time of the birth of Christ, but like me, he was in love. His successor, Tiberius, was equally enthralled with Capri, and paid her tribute by building a crowning villa atop her highest peak. Now I would stand in that legendary aerie, command the same breath-taking views, and let my imaginings carry me beyond their old limits… but I digress. This story actually begins much earlier, and, as adventures often do, rather unexpectedly, in the warm light of a safe place.

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This is, at its heart, a book about travel, about the unexpected delights, mishaps and surprises that mark the explorations of the marvelous world we inhabit all so briefly. It contains stories of our own experiences, but like all the earth, it is built upon a foundation of history. It is not the product of imagination, but a story of present-day lives, as well as a tapestry made of  things which had come to pass before: events of war and peace, death and triumph, beginnings and endings. Such events as these were the currency of those days, leading to outcomes which then remained deeply in doubt, to be determined only by the actions of the people you shall meet. Like many such experiences, it includes moments of humor and pathos, the joys and sorrows that mark lives in their passing. It reaches back into the past to map the paths trodden by its participants, allowing them and the events of time to converge within these pages.

I am but the teller at this bank of memories, counting and recounting the experiences and memories created by others, but unavoidably tinting those precious human life-moments through the parsing of their stories, which became inextricably intertwined with my own much less-remarkable life. An accurate telling, however, will require that I include much of my own, though I trust that the reader may perhaps see beyond my efforts, remove the pleasant colors created by my assembled letters, and view the more powerful truths which drive those stories as they drove the lives of those who lived it. You may yet find some part of the living flesh and sinew of the bright and lively persons who created the warm and wonderful world of this account, and if so, I ask only that you glean what you may from their lives, from the heroes and witnesses, the refugees and the protectors, the mothers, fathers, fighters, lovers, and those who merely survived.

My first experiences in Italy reshaped my view of the world, which I had considered well-formed. The emotional echoes of those precious days and nights, which still reverberate through me, gave me precious glimpses into human nature that have proven invaluable, and I rue the day they will expire with my passing, for they are the intangible products of experience, and difficult to bequeath to another. Yet I will try to pass them along, as those who have preceded me have allowed me to sip from their wells of wisdom.

“How can we become conscious of our national identities,” Carl Jung once asked, “if we have never had the opportunity to regard our own nation from the outside?” This process may be equally applied to our individual selves. It is only by removing ourselves from our homes and comforts that we are forced to abandon our dependency upon the defensive walls we develop around them, leave the battlements undefended, and approach other peoples and cultures with open hands and eyes, seeking acceptance and safety within them, to see ourselves through their eyes. Often the very difficulties entailed in translating ideas makes their foundations plainer, stripping them of the familiar phrases that tend to cloak our raw and more powerful concepts. This process is thoroughly enriching, and may bless us with broadened compassion for the lives, loves, and trials of others. Love and life thus led me down many paths, to the doors of many wonders, and often astray.

I had arrived in Italy speaking the dozen or two ‘critical’ words and phrases that wise travelers practice before they arrive in a strange land, and along with the familiar lexicon of the Italian restaurant, I thought I could get by, as I had before in France, Mexico, Germany. I was wrong. Italia demanded more of me. In order to delve as deeply as I desired, I needed much more. It was not enough to be able to ask ‘dove un’buon albergo’ and be satisfied that a good hotel was what I sought. When confronted with a lover that takes one’s breath away, it is important to be able to ask more intimate questions. The questions that will unveil the secrets, the wonders, the beauties and magic that were known only to those who lived within her embrace, close to her bosom.

But again I digress.

Let me begin where I properly should, at the beginning, and introduce to you to a person around whom a portion of this story gathers.

Fortunato ‘George’ DeLuca was a remarkable man, more so for the fact of his diminutive size and unassuming bearing. Standing only about five feet and two inches, when I met him he was already grizzled with age, although sharp of wit and wisdom. Although he gave no outward sign, he had lived through difficult years. His hands, skilled in many talents, could no doubt remember darker acts than his lively eyes disclosed. His experiences form a significant part of this telling…

to be continued…

© 2013 Robert J. Connors