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Romancing Through Italy: an introduction

by Robert J. Connors

©2013 Robert J. Connors

Anacapri chairlift to Monte Solaro

Anacapri chairlift to Monte Solaro (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Capri floated above the Mediterranean, a green beacon above the slate-grey-and-foam-white world of manic movement that was the Bay of Naples. Our traghetto slogged noisily and determinedly against the wind and waves, bearing its load of automobiles and plucky passengers through a Good Friday squall. Napoli had long since disappeared behind, along with the high, brooding bulk of steaming Vesuvius, patiently pondering the fate of all around. As we advanced, Capri seemed to detach itself from the long Sorrentino peninsula as if fleeing our approach.

The brisk spring winds, carrying a slash and sting of rain before them, had held this island refuge concealed within their steamy prodigy, wrapped tightly within the folds of their burdened cloak of clouds. Now the thrumming of the engines had produced a progress  that had thinned this veil, and all aboard our warm cocoon, save the most jaded, had turned to introduce their eyes to our destination, to caress her muscular flanks with their gazes, to glean a bit of her mood from a safe distance, before she had an opportunity to appraise them in return. Somewhere upon her luxuriant, rocky folds she held the two idyllic towns of Capri and Anacapri, and we strained to make out the first signs of them through the mists.

Life has been kind to me, and given me the opportunity to travel with a most-wonderful companion. I had come to Italy with my wife and best friend, Susan, drawn to spend more time there after our brief but enchanting visit to the far northwest during some weeks in France the previous year.

The glamor of Nice and Monaco had suddenly seemed pretentious when compared to the simple warmth and hospitality of the bustling, expressive commotion of San Remo. The sharper edges, warmth and volatility of the Italian tongue had touched me in a way that the smoother, demure syllables of French had not. Now we had come to dedicate some time to this romantic southern beauty we wished to know better.

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Italy has since come to mean much more to me than a place for adventures. For me, it was love at first sight, or at least at first visit.

The light and colors of this ancient land drew me into a whirling love affair, and I felt myself immersed so deeply that I knew I would never escape her embrace. 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

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of a special place flows not from geography, but from humanity. Individual lives pass quickly through the ticking meters of time, yet, like water upon stone, they leave their subtle marks, patiently shaping many ancient places by the wearing generations in their passing. Italy is such a place, and the lives of those who have gone before still exist in the shapes and seasons of this land.

Italia’s charms lie not in one quality, but many. She captures within her embrace the world-weary and the starry-eyed alike, and numbers among her beguiling wiles the magic of her history, the warmth of her people, the flavors of her foods, the delights of her wines, the serenity of her landscapes, the majesty of her art, the glory of her architecture.

In the days and months to come, within the pages of this blog, you will find food for your imagination, warmth for your soul, and perhaps inspiration to match your dreams with your accomplishments.

I invite you to come along with me as I relate tales from the months and years we have spent wandering through this land of dreams.

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-Robert Connors

-to be continued-

Venice, Part Three: Uncovering Mysteries, Discovering Romance

We lingered in Venice for many days, exploring the quiet residential districts with their friendly dogs lapping from trickling fountains in hidden, flagstone-paved campi, and quiet, narrow ‘viali’ where our footsteps echoed to the geranium-filled window-boxes above.  It is a place that evokes many different emotions, where rusting wrought-iron gates enclose private gardens full of museum-quality trees. Modest neighborhood churches built of brick, or finished in painted stucco, always feature their towering campanile ready to sound the hours. A colorful macaw on a balcony perch eyed us closely as we passed before voicing a loud greeting. 102_0390

We returned time and again to the Piazza San Marco, exploring the interior of the Doge’s Palace, with its incredible architecture, great halls, painted ceilings, and marble and mosaic floors. We crossed the Ponte di Sospiri, or Bridge of Sighs, from which condemned prisoners may have caught a final glimpse of family and friends as they were led to the tiny dungeons across the narrow canal. The iron bars seemed less threatening than they must been to those hapless offenders  hundreds of years ago.

Venetians were mostly reserved, used to the masses of tourists chatting in foreign languages. We broke the ice with our growing vocabularies of Italian, and found them ready to respond, and quick to make friends. The barrista at the cafe, the hotel doorman, the vendor at the vegetable stand, each was ready to suggest a favorite restaurant, or a special place to take a photo.

We watched the Venetians gather quietly at the secluded landings of the traghetti, places where slightly over-sized gondole have ferried the locals across the Grand Canal since long before there were any bridges. The boatmen quickly carry each small group to the opposite shore, deftly cutting through the maze of boat traffic to deposit them closer to their schools, homes, or offices. Within moments they had collected a new group for the return trip, saving each passenger several minutes of walking to the nearest bridge.

We explored famous art museums, including American heiress Peggy Guggenheim’s collection of modern art, and the boggling litany of heavy religious paintings at the Accademia. We were delighted to find, in a quiet upper level of the world-famous Correr, next to the Campanile di San Marco, a marvelous museum of the history of the city, complete with dioramas, thousands of fascinating artifacts, and a portion of a preserved galley.

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On another day we bought tickets for the vaporetto, and took the long ride to the island of Burano, making a tour of stops throughout the northern lagoon in the process. The town of Burano is famous as a center of lace tatting, and we watched skilled hands swiftly working in silk and linen threads, and bought samples of their quality work. We walked around the island, which features rows of houses painted in bright and primary colors, a dazzling complement to the setting. So similar to Venice with its canals and boats, it is yet a world apart by nature of its modest-sized houses and distinct small-town feel. Here, away from the larger boats, which cannot navigate through the shallow waters of the lagoon’s channels, tourists are fewer, and the atmosphere more relaxed. Each house on the island glows with a vibrant primary color that gives the entire village an otherworldly, remote feel. When I take up painting, this is where I will come to begin.

Returning to Venezia, we stopped at the Lido, the long strip of barrier island that separates the lagoon from the waters of the Adriatic. Here are the famous beaches lined with hotels that had formed a magnet for visitors in the 1950′s and ’60′s. We find the place looking a bit subdued, having been cast aside by the ‘glitterati’ in favor of the trendier Italian Riviera, Corsica, and other destinations.  Like Venice itself, but lagging just a few centuries behind, the Lido seems charmingly out of date. Here is held the Venice International Film Festival, a fixture for more than six decades.
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We dined in out-of-the-way places, always watching for those that drew the local crowds. Venice has long been the target of some who complain of bad food and bad service, but we found much to counter that reputation. We enjoyed fine dinners in the basement level of a converted sacristy in the San Marco district, and become enamored of the ala-carte platters of calamari, buttered spinach, and crispy fried artichoke hearts served in a quiet courtyard in the Dorsoduro. We watched the Moon rise over the Giudecca, and the lights of the Redentore church reflecting as little sparkles in the wakes of passing boats. We tossed coins into the guitar, accordion, and violin cases of street buskers adding their musical spice to the magical elixir of a Venetian evening. We wove our way through darkened alleys and quiet campi back to Piazza San Marco many nights, enjoying the sounds of competing but happily alternating restaurant orchestras playing to patrons seated under broad canopies to dine ‘al fresco’ in the cool of the evening.

We strolled one evening along the Zatteri, the waterfront along the broad Giudecca at the edge of the city. We watched the constant parade of boats that enlivened the surface, the lights of the Giudecca island in the distance illuminating as the sky darkened. A departing cruise ship glided slowly past, ablaze with its own lights, competing with the new Moon hanging low in the eastern sky. The slender crescent cradled the darker face, which glowed softly with reflected Earth-shine. We stopped to lean against the balustrade to watch the scene, listening to the water lapping gently at the stone breakwater. Susan turned to me and smiled, and her face seemed lighted with a mysterious inner glow. I knew, at that moment, that we were exactly where we should be.

Venice, Part II: A City of Riches, and a few Mysteries

©2013 Robert J. Connors

In our exploration of Venice we wanted to go far beyond the curious surface beauty that makes the city so unusual, and understand how things had come to be as they were. The magnificent public buildings and churches were augmented with a number of things that seemed a bit out of place. We soon realized that many of them were from other, far older, civilizations. Our curiosity tweaked, we put on our sleuth hats, and began to research the whys of what we were seeing.

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Any visitor wanting to understand what they see in Venice today must look into her history. She doesn’t offer the typical dry story, either. The great wealth that made Venice the most important city on earth came from her command of the seas. Venezia grew from a tiny fishing settlement built upon tidal mud flats before 400 A.D. Newer arrivals to the growing town were refugees from invading Goths and Germanic tribes that flooded into the Italian peninsula after the fall of the Roman Empire. Living on the soggy flats of the tidal islands gave the refugees a natural defense as many older cities were sacked and looted. The growing population needed space, and they soon began to dredge up soil from the bottom of the lagoon, adding small amounts of earth to raise and enlarge their holdings, digging canals in the process. Originally too soft to support permanent structures, the silty ground was fortified by cutting alder trees, (preferred for their dense, water resistant wood), removing the branches, and driving the trunks upside down into the mud to depths of as much as six or eight meters. More trees were wedged into any gaps until the entire mass became a tightly-packed bundle. Then the pilings were cut off level, and covered with more earth and, later, stone foundations. Locked in an anaerobic environment, the trees petrified rather than decayed. Upon those foundations rose the remarkable assemblage of palaces, churches, and monuments that make Venice a world treasure today.

Born and bred on the water, Venetians grew to be expert boatmen and creative naval engineers. Their skills and craftsmanship allowed them to assemble a powerful navy that dominated the Mediterranean for centuries. Long galleys were powered with a combination of sails and oars, and grew to include powerful metal rams at the prows, encouraging the navies of other realms toward calm consideration of differing views, and leading to significant trade concessions. Those who opposed Venetian fleets quickly regretted their error. Venice came to control trade with the far eastern world of silks and spices that had been opened by her native son, Marco Polo, in his explorations. Her monopoly grew as the city became the clearing house of trade for all points from China to the British Isles.

Venice became a republic, and leading citizens participated in a council that elected the ‘Doges,’ or dukes, who had varying levels of autonomy over the centuries. It was an age of enlightenment and prosperity that made wealthy men of thousands involved in the shipping trade as captains, merchants, ship builders, or shipping owners.

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Now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Venice features the art and creativity not only of its own cultural talents, but those assembled from the known world during its centuries of hegemony. As their thousands of ships visited far-flung ports, good captains and crews sought out the great treasures of those places, and, by skillful negotiation or skulduggery, shipped them back to Venice, where they ornament homes, churches, and palaces. The monuments of Egypt, Byzantium, and the Levant found their way to Italy, to the glorification of the Most Serene Republic. Among the most enigmatic and controversial is a tomb that, some researchers aver, holds the remains of none other than Alexander the Great, missing for centuries, smuggled back to Venice disguised as the relics of a renowned saint. (But that, as they say, is another story, to be told soon…)

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.

Returning to Sorrento, for the First Time

© 2013 Robert J. Connors

The very bouncy boat ride to Sorrento ended at a long wharf of boulders, which jutted like a punch thrown from the shore. We could see a small fleet of private boats, some earning the title of ‘yacht,’ tied up in rows in the “Marina Piccola,” defended by a breakwater. Above a narrow strip of waterfront wharf and a single line of buildings we saw an imposingly sheer and rocky bluff. There, perhaps 40 meters above us, stood a line of venerable hotels which made up most of the seaward side of the city, offering their best-available views of the bay and the smoldering volcano. We were then still new to Italy, and a bit lost. Other passengers, no doubt more experienced with the ways of Sorrento, mobbed the eight or ten taxis that met our boat. Amidst the traffic we could see a lumbering city bus also making the climb. We had just missed it. Left with no obvious way to get from the waterfront up to the town, we eyed the snaking, switch-backed road that led there. It broke off to the right, then doubled back upon itself and circled sharply back to the left, ending almost directly above us. A line of expensive-looking waterfront hotels, all booked for the Easter holiday, stood at the edge of the bluff, their fancy-sounding names emblazoned in large letters on their facades.
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Other passengers were setting off to walk up the hill, so we followed suit, and began dragging our luggage up the steep half mile. We paused to take in the stunning view of the harbor and the bay of Naples, but spent those moments catching several deep breaths. Vesuvio stood out before a background of pale blue skies, a faint wisp of smoke still seeping from some heated fissure atop the blunted peak. Before the famous explosive eruption that buried Pompei and Herculaneum 2,000 years ago, the peak had been almost a mile taller, according to the history of Pliny the Younger. We were also aware that, in recent years, the floor of the bay itself had risen several feet due to the movement of magma beneath the ground; beneath our feet. We hurried on.

Reaching the promenade that marked the edge of the town proper after a 25-minute walk, we quickly realized that our climb was not over. The town continued to ascend up a hillside. Our hotel, we knew, was somewhere up there, hidden among the stone and stucco of the ‘centro storico,’ the historic center. We paused for cappuccini, breaking the Italian’s cardinal rule of reserving milky coffees for the morning hours, then resumed our walk. At least were getting plenty of exercise. Happily, we found the street name on a small sign, and turned to our hotel. We checked in eager to unpack and shower, and headed to our room. We found it was small and dark, featured ancient plumbing, a less-than-firm bed, and no view at all. It was not what we thought we were booking when we had called from Capri, but we were too ready for rest to imagine schlepping our luggage around the town in search of other accommodations. We showered and collapsed happily into one of Italy’s best habits, the siesta.

After a couple of hours spent napping, we gathered our laundry into a rolling suitcase and asked where we could find ‘una lavanderia,’ where we could restore our supplies of essentials, there having been nothing like a coin laundry in Anacapri. Following directions scratched on a map by the hotel clerk, we wandered down a main thoroughfare abuzz with traffic, and found ourselves at a dry cleaners. “Si, si,” they assured us, they could launder our small bundle of clothes, and would have them ready by the following evening. The price would be 60,000 Lire, about $29. We groaned to ourselves at both the steep price and the idea of being forced to spend another night in the hotel room we already didn’t like. We thanked them graciously before heading out to seek another option.

Asking, it seemed, at every shop we passed, we bought a piece of fruit, a loaf of bread, or slice of cheese to snack upon as a way of pardoning our intrusions. One genteel signora told us that, yes, there is “una lavanderia automatico,’ only a short distance away, underneath a particular corner store. Following what we understood of her instructions, we managed to locate the shop, which was entered from a side door on one of the sharply-descending side streets. It was tiny, smelled antiseptically of bleach and detergents, and offered three or four washers and a similar number of dryers. While our laundry turned, we took turns escaping to find treats, including gelato, and later a bottle of wine. We sipped discreetly from a paper cup as we, or at least I, tried not to ogle the stunningly gorgeous Italian goddess who arrived to refresh her own dainties.

Finished with our only chore, we wandered through the ‘centro storico’ admiring luscious displays of local art, and stunning furniture made with Sorrento’s hardwood inlay process. Tables, chairs, teacarts, platters, and dozens of other creative pieces showed off the extremely detailed decorative techniques of master woodworkers. Art Nouveau architecture flattered the shaded streets, and cafes and restaurants beckoned.

It was only that evening, when we sneaked past the dense line of doorman-staffed hotels, that we truly began to sense the appeal of this famed tourist destination. We strolled along the bluff through private hotel gardens to watch the sun set beyond the vividly-reflected colors of the bay. The spring chill drove us to cuddle close together on our stone bench as the sky grew dark. The luxurious semi-tropical gardens and blooming lemon trees lent a fragrant accent to the gleaming lights that lined the far shore of the bay like a twisted necklace of triple-strand pearls. Holding warm hands and admiring the view, we turned to each other and smiled, reminded of why we had come.