XLVIII – Lost in Puglia

The following is an excerpt from the upcoming book, “Romancing Through Italy”

© 2015 Robert J. Connors All rights reserved

Getting lost in Italy is not really very hard to do, we found, especially in the southern regions, which seemed to have less useful signage. Ready to delve into the mysteries of Puglia, we drove eastward along the Mare Ionio on the Strada Littorale.

We passed onto the tangle of roads that is the industrial port city of Taranto. Our immediate goal was to get through the city as efficiently as possible. Thanks to poor signage at a major rotunda, or traffic circle, we soon found ourselves off north-bound instead of south-east bound.

We reversed course, re-navigating the confusing series of roundabouts, and got on the right road, only to miss the subsequent and immediate exit because, once again, there was a lack of signage. Susan, acting as navigator, was increasingly frustrated, and not without cause.

Our goal, Lecce, is a significant city, but it was a case of “you can’t get there from here, you have to go somewhere else first.” The highway system engineers were apparently determined that one could only go to Lecce by going first through Brindisi, good distance farther northeast.

We decided to press on, hoping to cut across to our correct road at the next opportunity. Call that opportunity missed, because, once again, the sign gave references to other towns, some back along our track, but none of Lecce. As the highway headed still farther from our goal, we finally took the plunge, and the next exit.

There were no signs to anyplace that we recognized. The flat countryside offered no overviews that might provide any encouragement, but we forged ahead. The midday glare washed out the colors of the landscape.

Following my nose, I drove southeast across remote farms as the road narrowed, eventually reaching the width of a single car, although still paved. I pressed on, fearful that we would run out of asphalt, but confident that the country lane would eventually reach a secondary road, at least.

After about twenty kilometers, we found a road which clearly turned south, although still lacking signage of any sort. Amid thousands of acres of other, more modest farms we passed a magnificent estate surrounded by alberi di ulivi, the ancient, gnarled, olive trees thick with fruit ready to be harvested and crushed for oil or pickled in their curing brine.

The countryside of Puglia remained as sere and dry as that of the coastal Basilicata we had left behind, but here we crossed no rivers to offer cool refreshment to the eye as we passed. Nor there were mountains to sweep the clouds of their moisture, to pull that liquid bounty down upon the baking earth below. Only the silver-leaved olives seemed to thrive in the harsher climate and baking sun.

At last, we found a wider roadway that seemed full of promise, and a few kilometers southeast, we came across a sign pointing toward the town of Oria, shown on our map as an intermediate point, but only a relatively short distance from the highway we had left far behind. We took comfort in the fact that we were creeping in the right direction, and had no time restrictions. We would get there eventually.

At last at Oria we found an organized and logical by-pass loop with sequential roundabout exits leading to each of the surrounding towns. We continued south toward Manduria, where we finally re-connected to the SS7ter, the road that we had once been on, and had lost way back in Taranto.

We stopped once more when a large sign indicating the exit to Lecce led instead to the town of Campi Salentina. We passed through an industrial park, spotted a bar, and took the time to absorb a couple of cappuccini and the details of our road map.

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We stopped again during the remaining fifteen kilometers to picnic in the shade of ancient olive and pine trees flanking the gate of a sprawling estate. No sign marked the property, and the ornate iron gate stood invitingly ajar. Two rows of trees flanked the straight entrance drive beyond, which ended before the imposing facade of the seemingly-abandoned building. Although tempted to explore, we resisted, and satisfied ourselves with pictures of the imposing entryway taken through the bars of the gate.

Onward at last we passed into the city of Lecce, and drove an orienting loop around the centro, the old city within the modern. Here the Baroque of the late Renaissance mingles with the ancient architecture of the Roman Empire.

We checked in at our quiet apartment just inside the walls, delighted to see the ceiling of tufa stone arching over each room, and the delightful, shaded terrace on the roof, set amidst large pots filled with flowering shrubbery and palms. “The building is fairly new, only two hundred years old,” our kind hostess informed us. “The city is much older.” Indeed, the walls that encircled us were built in the 13th Century.IMG_1129

We set off on foot to explore the city center, walking through narrow streets festooned with more balconies than a New Orleans dream. Richly-decorated churches and the venerable Duomo drip Baroque decorative motifs. The fronts of most of the private buildings echo the city’s love affair with the style. Gargoyles leer from high walls, and elaborate details dazzle and delight the eye.

We wandered along the narrow streets through a busy stream of local residents and a scattering of tourists. A tram pulled by a tractor offered tours of the old town, complete with multi-lingual narration from ear-buds worn by the passengers, for a fee of ten euros. We preferred to walk and rely upon our own guide maps and the wealth of information we could readily access on the Internet. The churches and the impressive Duomo offered interpretive signs as well.

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We eventually reached the Roman Amphitheatre at the heart of the city. Rediscovered in 1901 during a construction project, subsequent excavation revealed the horsehoe-shaped amphitheatre, which originally might have seated 15,000. Here, playwrights from Rome, Lecce, and elsewhere across the empire once staged their dramas and comedies, and today’s audiences expect no less. Although the tall galleries that once surrounded it are now reduced to low arches and fallen stones, the well of the theatre is still the scene of many productions. Workmen busily load and unload the scaffolding, lights, and sets for each, offering a romantic setting for a relatively small number of guests for an evening’s entertainment.

We strolled away from the busy corso of Via Giuseppe Libertini and onto the side streets, away from the bustle of the crowds. There we found a small square, called the Piazza Carlo V, with an eponymous pizzeria. The small space was quiet but still busy enough to enjoy people-watching as we sampled excellent wood-oven pizze and local red wine. The southern varieties of Primitivo Salentino and Pinot Nero are rich and delicious, with flavors concentrated by the warm Puglian sun.

As we lingered we studied the doorways and facades of the buildings facing the small piazza. I’ve become a fan of the unique and strangely-formed doorwayIMG_1156s that decorate thousands of Italian homes and buildings, so I was especially struck by one that instantly became my favorite. Off-center above the peculiar doors, a lop-sided pediment carried a small balcony. The entire facade of the building had been twisted and distorted, as though designed by some mad architect

Overhead, hundreds of rondini, the tiny swifts, swirled and whistled in the evening light to play their mysterious circle games of aerial tag, dipping low into the tiny piazzale along the cobblestone streets. We were charmed.

Horror and Redemption in Basilicata

Author’s note: The following is an excerpt from the upcoming book, “Romancing Through Italy” by Robert James Connors. © 2015 Robert J. Connors

Basilicata is an ancient land, with traditions and superstitions that date far back into the dusty pages of history. Here, long before the arrival of Christianity, people were aware of the close connection of both men and animals to the land. The stories of terrible beasts and dragons were passed down from generations long past.

People carry much of the animal world in themselves, and in the beliefs of these remote people, animals also know much of humans, and have abilities that they keep hidden.

In this shadowy land of imagination creatures may live partly in each of these worlds, perhaps inhabiting the world of man in daylight, and the world of animals at night. They may manifest strange abilities, or simply shift their shape to become something else entirely. Men became bears, or boars, manifesting their deepest characters.

For the people of the hill towns and isolated villages of Basilicata and neighboring parts of Italy, those beliefs still have force. The legends and stories of the shape-shifters are held close, and are not normally shared with outsiders, with those who might mock them or disbelieve. For the people that have inhabited these rugged and isolated places, though, the stories have power to affect their worlds, and their lives.

We drove north from Basilicata’s Jonica coast with a special mission in mind: today we would see if ghosts still haunted the crumbling ruins of isolated, half-forgotten Craco. In that exceptional place we found all that we hoped for.

We arrived on a sunny afternoon, winding through the dramatic and changing landscapes of Basilicata. The sun, broken only by scattered clouds, played upon the rolling golden wheat fields and rocky crags, the deep-green of the pine forests, and the walls of the high city of Pisticci.

Our well-maintained road climbed and dipped, and the beautiful views caused many a pause as they manifested the varied land-forms in turn. Then, as we rounded the top of a hill, we got our first, startling view of our destination.

Like a distant view of the castle in an old horror movie, the dusty grey town stood high upon a sharp pinnacle, and appeared as if part of the stone of the mountain itself. Not built by human hands, it seemed to have been thrust upward from the very bowels of the earth, exposed perhaps to attract its unwary prey, a lure of a city on a mountain.

We approached it slowly on the lonely road, passing not a single car, not a sign of a living creature but the starkly-black birds that soared overhead or croaked hoarsely from the dry shrubbery at the roadside.

The road itself, formerly smooth and well-marked, took on a look of neglect, with crumbling and broken concrete guardrails and patches upon patches. It climbed higher and closer to our destination, the town appearing and disappearing behind the sere ridges.

We stopped twice more to take in the views of the city. It was enough to give one pause, and fire the imagination. At each new vantage point the distant, empty windows appeared more and more like the vacant eye-sockets of so many skulls, weathered by time to an ashy grey. A sheer precipice on one side spoke of the extreme position it commanded.

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It is an appropriate setting for connections to the otherworldly phantoms that many believe still haunt these hills. Even the name Craco has a haunted feel, rhyming as it does with Draco, the constellation of the dragon that spins in the night sky above.

There, among the abandoned ruins, the stories of the past might seem especially tangible. There one may still grasp the pith of the force, the power that remains potent despite the advent of science.

Craco was an ancient city, with documented human habitation dating back at least to the iron age, and in all likelihood, long before. Like many of the old tufa-stone cities, it is a place where early man might have been drawn, with caves in the soft stone and views over broad plains where wildlife and enemies could be seen from afar. Almost half a mile above the sea, it is a commanding presence, visible from a great distance.

The town was well known to the ancient Greeks, who were aware of the fertile valley of farms that lay at the foot of the city. The agriculture of Craco’s Valagri, irrigated by the appropriately-named Agri river, fed many of the Greek colonies that flourished for 500 years on the southern shores of Italy.

The human population of Craco grew slowly over the millennia, and persisted through a series of ruling regimes. Like much of the region, it had been fought over by invaders many times. Christianity took hold slowly in this land of competing gods and spirits representing both the underworld and the sky. A thousand years ago it was referenced in a Papal bull addressed to the priest and people of Craco. By the 1950’s the town boasted thousands of residents, a cinema, several bars, restaurants, and at least two churches. The vibrant agriculture brought steady commerce to the town.

Yet today Craco stands abandoned, an eerie presence that many local residents take pains to avoid. Asked, they will advise you to go someplace more beautiful, leave that old town to its fate. Rumors abound that it is haunted, cursed, a doomed place built directly upon the gates of hell itself. It was those mysteries we wished to confront.

We drove on, at length passing a small marker at the edge of the town. There we were surprised to see signs that prohibited stopping or parking, and indicating the presence of an information center some distance ahead. We crept forward until we were passing the very foot of the town. To our right, a huge pile of rubble cascaded from high above, and the broken walls of houses spilled their rocky souls. To our left, a deep valley awaited them like a grave, already partly filled with the stony remains of the earlier landslides. The earth which had thrust this promontory upward now seemed determined to swallow it whole.

The modern promenade which once offered citizens a place to take an evening’s passegiata and enjoy the striking views now lay twisted and broken, broad slabs of concrete tipped at angles too steep for any but the small grey lizards that basked there. The city walls were also part of the rubble, along with the fragments of a modern concrete and steel wall which had once pretended to have some power to control the forces of the very earth below. A herd of sheep wandered over the broken detritus, gnawing at the sparse grasses that survived there.

We paused briefly near a few trees, gazing up through the fence which had been erected by the commune to keep the unwary from sudden death in the ruins. The unearthly silence was broken only by the sound of the wind whispering over the broken stones. It was the very essence of desolation.

Although the steep slopes of the mountain had long offered a sense of security from enemies, it turned out that the thing citizens had most to fear was the mountain itself. It had awoken and wreaked a terrible vengeance upon the interloping city on its back.

At first no one noticed that the mountain was stirring. After thousands of years of life on the pinnacle, they assumed they were safe. Yet the time had finally come for the earth to reclaim its own.

The first few cracks in the walls of houses and public buildings were patched up and forgotten. Then in the early part of the 20th Century there were some sudden collapses. They were problematic, but not serious enough to cause panic.

But the earth would not be ignored, and began to make itself heard. No doubt the groaning emitted from below must have alarmed the citizens of Craco, and the sticking doors and windows, the shifting of walls, might have worried some. Yet even in a land not unused to earthquakes, few could have realized the terrible wrath that would soon appear.

In 1963, almost without warning, a massive landslide carried away the western slopes of the town, including the road, the principal piazza with its war monument, the bar, cinema, and a number of houses.

The citizens of Craco gathered themselves, and still clinging to superstitious beliefs in the power of the land and the legends, began to repair their damaged houses. New walls with deep pilings were erected to ensure that the slope would be stabilized.

Despite their efforts, the land continued to creep, and more houses began to crumble. Large cracks appeared in buildings throughout the city. People began to realize that Craco, for all its history and ancient faith in the earth, was doomed to die. Some fled, claiming that the town was cursed. A few stubborn residents, perhaps tied to the mountain by thousands of years of tradition, too stubborn to relinquish their ancient roots and unafraid of the demons of the underworld, held out.

We parked beneath some wizened old olive trees just off the broken pavement of the main road. Fruit hung heavy upon their stout limbs, just as it had done for centuries. Would anyone now return to claim it?

(excerpt from “Romancing Through Italy” © 2015 Robert J. Connors)

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…

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.

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Romancing Through Italy: in the Heart of Tuscany

Many towns, such as San Gimignano, were enclos...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our rental car bore us faithfully northward, toward the heart of La Toscana. We followed a beautiful, broad route that led from Grossetto to Siena, passing romantic views of the verdant countryside of forests and farms. We were aiming at the charming Mediaeval town of San Gimignano, famed as “the Manhattan of the Middle Ages.” Located only about 30 minutes from either Firenze or Sienna, we thought it might provide a good central base for exploring the heart of Tuscany.

We arrived in San Gimignano on the winding, hill-climbing road that threads through the green, camel-back hills  from the town of Poggibonsi, in the Val’d’Elsa just to the east. That road passes through a mile-long ‘zona industriale’ full of warehouses and factories looking every bit like something one would see in Atlanta, Los Angeles, or Cleveland. Amidst the rural beauty one comes to expect of Toscana, it shocks the senses, but restores a comparative sense of value to the other sights. The road quickly winds its way out of town, passes over several hills covered with pastures and vineyards, and then one is suddenly stricken by the unexpected silhouette of distant skyscrapers juxtaposed behind the landscape of stone walls and farmhouses. Then, as the perspective changes with the light and distance, the scene more clearly becomes a Mediaeval town topped by more modest, spindly towers.

San Gimigniano during the Middle Ages was one of many small towns caught up in the rivalries of the larger cities that surrounded them. Pisa, Firenze, Volterra and Sienna often fought for dominance over each other, and the surrounding lands. Political intrigues ran thick, and allegiances shifted with the rise and fall of wealth, or success in battle. In this unique town, those outside rivalries were reflected and amplified by the wealthy town leaders, who began to fortify their homes by building private ‘keeps,’ or safe towers from which they could observe the happenings around, and be forewarned of approaching dangers. Neighbors loath to be looked down upon competed by building their own towers, often edging a bit higher. Soon the rivalries were out of control, and more than 60 towers rose within the walls of the small town, only a few narrow blocks in length.

We wandered from the shady maze of parking lots under an overarching canopy of leaves, up the hill and through the looming walls by way of an imposing gate. It was easy to see how daunting it would be for attackers to approach the city while arrows rained upon them from above.

Once inside the gates we strolled uphill through an alley-like main street paved with cobblestone. Buildings with 800 and 900 years of history obvious on their stone facades housed modern shops offering wines, coffee, bread and pastries of every description. A window full of the latest shoe styles was framed by hand-carved stones. The wafting aromas mingled into a distinctive and tantalizing signature of the town before being swept up by the breeze swaying the colorful canvas awnings.

People hurried about their business bearing white paper bags of half-concealed loaves of crusty brown bread or leafy vegetables. Some examined the deep redness of the tomatoes and apples and bright orange carrots piled in front of the fruttivendolo, the green grocer. The proprietor alone handled what the customers pointed at to select, adamant that his produce was ready to eat, never shop-worn by handling. We munched on luscious pears as we threaded our way through the growing crowd of locals sprinkled liberally with tourists.

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© Copyright 2013 Robert J. Connors

Today the remaining 14 towers of San Gimignano create a unique fantasy atmosphere, and draw thousands of tourists, many of whom climb, as we did, to the top of the tallest tower, the Torre Grosso, now part of a city museum, and look down 154 meters at the Piazza della Cisterna, the piazza of the well. For unknown reasons we also wandered into the town’s most bizarre feature, a museum of torture, which documents the many ways, some hopefully only ugly imaginings, in which cruel leaders punished recalcitrant criminals, rogues, and rebels.

Hoping to make the town our base of explorations, we began seeking lodgings, but without success. Apparently every room, both within the town walls and along the row of modern hotels below, was already reserved for the night. We stopped at the handy ‘ufficio turistico’ to see if the tourist office folks could offer any help. No, we were told, every hotel is full. But perhaps… there may be room at an agriturismo just a short distance from town… No, we don’t have the number, but it is close, just down that way…

We followed the indicated direction, but found no evidence on the right, as indicated. However, at the foot of a gravel road ascending a hill we spotted another of the familiar brown-and-yellow signs with a depiction of a bed, so we took a chance. The road passed through broad pastures and meadows affording an excellent view of the town behind us, before passing directly under a substantial building, which seemed to have been built directly over the road. There was a small sign at the roadside bearing the name ‘Pancole.’ We continued another few hundred meters or so, and found a surprisingly modern-looking hotel-sized agriturismo, but again, it was fully booked. Our desperation growing, and dusk gathering, the clerk there suggested we try at the next place, only a another 100 meters or so. Perhaps they had a room.

We pulled tentatively into the unpaved drive of the Agriturismo Vagnoni, and were met by a pleasant middle-aged woman who told us that they really had no rooms. “Per piacere,” we said, we need a room for the night, are there no others? Seeing our desperation, and perhaps doubtful of the arrival of others who might have called ahead, she relented, and said she had a place that might be acceptable. It was. In fact, it was delightful. Only a basic room, it was on the lower level of a vintage two-story building that had been recently and thoroughly remodeled into half a dozen new rooms. It featured a beautiful brick-vaulted ceiling, and windows that opened toward the road with a view to the vineyards beyond.

We dropped our luggage in the room, and seated ourselves in the gathering dusk at one of the picnic tables in the yard, to make a meal of the array of Italian goodies we had accumulated during the day. Fresh mozzarella and aged parmesan cheeses, beautiful and delicious tomatoes, fresh basil, fresh breads, fruit, chocolate, and more began to emerge from our small cooler. Our delightful hostess, the Signora Vagnoni, reappeared with her husband, and presented us with a chilled bottle of wine. “Facciamo lo proprio qui,” she said, indicating that they had made and bottled the wine right there on their farm. Vernaccia di San Gimignano, the label read, and we were delighted that it was crisp, dry, and flavorful, a surprising new variety we had never tasted. Our unplanned wanderings had once again rewarded us with happy new discoveries.

After dark we snagged chairs from the courtyard, walked across the gravel road, and settled in among the vineyards, just bearing their early growth. There, with a commanding view over the entire Val di Pesa, we watched the twinkling lights of the distant traffic on the highway far below, and the yet-more distant lights on the mountains, some 20 miles away. The silence was almost total. We sipped the remainder of our wine, and listened to the soft hooting of an owl, and a dog that barked faintly somewhere in the valley far below. The distant sound of tires crunching on gravel came with the passage of a lone car through the village. We were content.

We made the pleasant place our base for a few days of exploration of the surrounding area, driving south 30 minutes to explore Sienna, with its great Duomo. One of the largest churches in Christiandom, the Duomo is a Rennaissance layer-cake of black and white stone both inside and out. Nearby is the famous Piazza del Campo that hosts, twice each summer, the frenetic and dangerous horse race known as the Palio. The piazza is a large, steeply sloping, brick-paved space, lined along the upper side with shops and restaurants, and flanked on the lower end with a magnificent Mediaeval town hall with a towering campanile, which beckons tourists to climb its hundreds to steps to observe the town and country from near the top of its 88 meter height. From that vantage point, the brick pavement of the Piazza reveals alternating patterns, nine in all, corresponding to the nine families which had shared in the governance of the city at the time of its construction in 1349.

We visited the beautiful towns of Certaldo and Tavernelle Val di Pesa, before finally finding our Etruscan muse atop the heights at the darkly-brooding town of Volterra. We had driven across 20 miles of rolling green pastures filled with wildflowers and snow-white flocks of sheep, before approaching Volterra on a steeply-climbing road. We again parked at a municipal lot below the wall, and hiked up a steep slope to an ancient arched entry. Three faces, their features almost erased by the passage of time, stared down at us from atop and both sides of the arch. It was an oft-repeated theme of Etruscan art with an unknown meaning. The gate, we learned, known as the Porta al’Arco, or door of the arch, had stood in this place for nearly 3,000 years before Nazi occupiers proposed to implode it to block the street, in order to slow the advancing Allied armies. The townspeople almost rebelled at the idea, but hundreds gathered instead to tear the stones from the street before it, and block the arch with the rubble, effectively concealing the opening. The Germans accepted this solution, and the arch survived the war intact.

We found the entire town to be uniquely evocative, with a certain quality of remoteness that we had not found in other towns in the area. The thick walls of the Museo, filled with Etruscan art and artifacts, were typical of the massive stone construction that seemed far older than any we had seen. The walls, though no doubt reinforced during later years, were based upon those built by the ancient people of Etruria. The intervening years seemed to drop away, and we stood upon the battlements, as the Etruscans must have often done, and pondered the broad sweep of valleys that stretched in every direction, and the wonders and dangers of the wide world beyond their safe walls.

Each small town in the region had its own unique charm, and the rural, isolated feel of the scattered villages only enhanced the experience. Following the advice of the guidebook, we discovered the warm and sulfurous waters of Saturnia Terme tumbling over their famous waterfall, and doused ourselves in their sunny soak. Wealthier visitors dashed to the spa hotel built over the spring itself. Termi are hot springs, of which there are perhaps hundreds in Italy. Their waters, heated by the pressures of the earth and the volcanic activity that helped to create Italy, are widely believed to have medicinal and healing properties. We only knew that we enjoyed great peace of mind bathing in them, while any concerns of the world seemed as grains of sand a million miles away.

Our reverie was interrupted one evening as we returned to our agriturismo. Rounding a dark corner, the glare of our headlights suddenly illuminated a pair of Carabinieri, one of whom held the ubiquitous Uzi, while the other extended a circular stop sign on a stick. We quickly braked and pulled to a stop, the sharply-uniformed duo approaching us cautiously, their brass buttons gleaming and red sashes ornamenting their black uniforms. I rolled down the window.

“I suoi documenti,” the obvious leader said, while his partner stood ready with the enforcer.

“Buona sera,” I said cheerfully, and handed him the requested documents, including the auto-rental papers and my passport and US driver’s license. He glanced through them quickly.

“You are American?” he asked.

“Si,” I replied, only a bit nervously.

“Do you speak english?”

“Certo!” I replied, momentarily flummoxed. “Yes, certainly,” I corrected, still hoping to disarm him with my smile.

“Where are you coming from?”

We struggled, but under pressure failed to come up with the name of the town of Colle Val’d’Elsa. “Um, a restaurant, down there in the valley,” I told him.

“When you were there, was it raining?

“No.”

“Was it foggy?” he asked.

My brain did an immediate backflip. There were bright stars above, a crescent moon… He had stopped me to ask for a weather report? No, there had to be more to this…

“No, no fog.”

“Then why are your fog lights on?”

Uh-oh. Apparently, unlike the United States, where rude drivers seem to thrive upon blinding others with arrays of fog lights and other apparatus, in Italy this practice is, ‘ahem,’ strongly discouraged. “Are they on?” I asked innocently and honestly, trying all the array of switches, which sent the headlights angling up and down, and made them even brighter. “I don’t know how they work. It’s a French car!”

At that hint at the obvious superiority of Italian cars, the commanding officer calmly reached into our car and began to fiddle with the controls, while the second officer, still hefting his Uzi, repeatedly shook his head as the headlights swiveled, got brighter and dimmer, and exhibited several other mysterious lighting effects. At last he nodded that, yes, the fog lights were finally off, perhaps a bit disappointed that he didn’t get the order to shoot them out.

Apparently satisfied that we were indeed innocent of intentional felonious fog-light-shining, the commander gave us an abrupt dismissal, and waved us on our way. We laughed over the experience for the rest of the evening. Italy was, indeed, a different world.