Saturday, July 17, 2010





POMPEII REDUX


Yesterday we returned for a second visit to Pompeii. It seems that vines are growing there again after 2,000 years.


I mentioned earlier the work of American academic Wilhemina Jashemski, who perfected the technique of making plaster casts of root cavities and thereby dramatically altered our understanding of the landscape of Pompeii. We now know that market gardens were planted in many places in Pompeii, right there in the middle of this bustling little commercial center. Market gardens and vineyards. Lots of vineyards.


So in 1996 the Superintendency of Pompeii, the agency which oversees the site, gave the word to Mastroberardino, a large and well respected winery with headquarters near Salerno, to bring wine back to Pompeii. The natural way.


So detailed were Jashemski’s castings that we can see not only the pattern of plantings of vines but also the little corridors between blocks of vines, just as the Roman writers Columella and Pliny the Elder recommend, and the vine stakes used to trellis the vines. Not to speak of the fruit trees which were interplanted in the vineyard, again, just as the ancient agronomists recommend. We even have a pretty good idea of the types of wood used as vinestakes (mostly chestnut) and the canes used to bring the cordons across from one stake to another. Larger post holes indicate where taller pergolas were created as, for example, they often were over the lanes to take advantage of this space (the lanes were needed to move farm equipment about) but also, I believe, just to create a pleasant, green, shady place to stroll. For all their practicality the Romans had a soft spot for nature and they loved to create beautiful landscapes where they could enjoy a pleasant walk or dinner. So do their modern descendants. One of my favorite meals in Italy was in the little town of Chiusi in Umbria at a small trattoria where we were seated under just such a pergola out back. The food was good, but it tasted even better as we listened to the buzzing of bees and chattering of birds, felt the cool breeze and watched mamma birds tending their chicks in the nests they had nestled into the vines.


But the experts at Mastroberardino were in a bit of a quandry: what to plant? We know that the wild grapevine, Vitis vinifera silvestris, has grown all over Italy for millennia, but cultivated forms of Vitis vinifera vinifera were probably introduced accidentally (humans create a lot of garbage, including grape pips and vines used as dunnage, packing material for ships) by Mycenaean Greeks as well as Phoenicians, Etruscans (maybe), and archaic Greeks. And scholars for years have debated which ones of the 10,000 plus varieties of the cultured plant are original. That’s not an easy thing, since the vine is so adaptable and since propagation of cultured vines is by cloning, that is, by rooted cuttings.


The linguists have had their say, as usual, trying to recreate history from tthe dialectal forms of vine names. For example, Greco is supposed by them to be the Aminea Gemina so famous in antiquity, responsible for Falernian, the Chateau d’Yquem of its day; Fiano is supposedly the ancient Appiano, recommended for the raisin wine that Italians still love, and the name Aglianico is just a deformed version of Hellenico, 'Greekish', underlining its Greek roots.


The problem is that it’s darned hard to recreate ancient history from historical records, scanty as they are, and trying to do so from linguistic records, in my opinion, is a fool’s errand. Perhaps it is significant that the vaunted Aglianico, which I was really pulling for because I love that little grape, has been shown by new DNA testing to be about as far from modern Greek varietals as is possible.


In the event the winery decided to go with Piedirosso and Sciascinoso, two workhorse grapes here in the south which are dependable if uninspiring producers. The first harvest was in 1999 and the first bottling appeared in 2001 and was named “Villa dei Misteri” after the famous villa right outside the Herculaneum gate of the city. Quantities were so small that they were reserved exclusively for the bigwigs, but production has increased since then, so someday I might bag a bottle. They still hover around $85 per bottle, way out of my price range.


In the meantime, I needed to see the main sites in the city where vineyards are attested. The biggest was the so-called Forum Boarium, once thought to be a cattle market, which we now know was nothing of the sort; given the right context, we can clearly see the little pressroom facilities where the wine was made on site and the two outdoor pergolas, complete with triclinia or dining couches, which could be rented by those going to or leaving the nearby amphitheatre for private dining (How about a nice Fiano with that slaughter, gentlemen?).


Unfortunately, when I arrived I confronted another of the unwritten rules of Italian bureacracy. Let’s review, kids:


1. It’s always open...but just not today!

2. It’s all open...except the part that you really want to see.


Number two is the reason I had to return in the first place; some of the sites I most needed to see were off limits on our first visit. No problem, I was told I just needed to procure some kind of documentation to establish my bona fides as a legitimate researcher and present it to the Director of the site. That’s reasonable, we’re loving some of these ancient sites to death with our tramplimg, pawing, even our hot humid breath, and conservation is a huge issue in Italy. Plus, these were working vineyards and there’s no end to the unwitting mischief tourists can do there. So my friends at the University of Salerno were nice enough to provide me with the proper documents, and Sandy and I were off bright and early to try to beat the brutal heat of midday. That’s when I confronted Unwritten Rule Number 3: The Director/Superintendant/Custodian (you fill in the bureaucrat) is always delighted to see you...but not now! The Director, it seems, didn’t bother to show up for work until noon. Which in Neapolitan terms means 1-1:30.


Fortunately, I remembered trusty Rule Number 4, given to me courtesy of a dear friend who shall remain anonymous: “It is strictly forbidden! But that's just a formality.” I’m not admitting anything, I’m just sayin’.


Two of the sites were cauponae, ancient Holiday Inns where you could get a room, a hot meal, some wine, and some nighttime companionship. One of my favorite tombstones from Pompeii depicts a dialogue between an innkeeper and a very cheap guest who spends the equivalent of $8.00 for a prostitute (bet she was a looker, don’t you?) but begrudges fifty cents for hay for his poor old mule. These inns actually had small working vineyards on premises to produce some of the wine they sold. Stamps on the wine jugs found on site show they also had to bring in more wine from local negociants, but it still must have helped the bottom line to cut out the middleman for some of the wares.


To me the most affecting of all the sites is the Garden of the Fugitives, a beautiful atrium house with a nice peristyle and a large garden out back that included a sizeable vineyard with a nice central pergola which Mastroberardino has recreated. The vineyard is enclosed by a wall, as are all the others, so the Roman urban vineyards are what the French would call clos, walled plots. And there at the very back of the garden, huddled up against the wall where they could run no further, are the plaster casts of the thirteen poor souls who tried their best to escape the searing gases of a pyroclastic surge and could not. From their position at the southern end of the clos, it is perfectly obvious that they had seen that black wall of death rushing down the mountain at 65 miles per hour, pregnant with the deadly gases that would tear at their lungs and snuff out their lives. Men, women, small children, all huddled together, the agony of their demises clearly evident in their tortured poses and even some facial expressions. What terror must those poor little ones have been undergoing in those awful moments?


Not fifteen feet away are the glorious vines basking in the warm sun of the Mezzogiorno. Vines and humans perished together on that horrible day in 79 CE. But because of the same kinds of plaster casts, we can now, in a sense, resurrect the vines and, sadly, we cannot the people who planted and tended and enjoyed them. I think of those vines as a beautiful monument to the anonymous lives and deaths of those Pompeiian citizens. And this is holy ground.

Friday, July 16, 2010








RISTORANTE CALYPSO

I have met the reincarnation of Ancel Keys, the now-sainted guru of the Mediterranean Diet. Even better, we had dinner at his restaurant.

His name is Roberto Paullilo. Roberto is a compact, intense fellow in his fifties with blue eyes, steely gray hair, and a smiling demeanor that belies the intensity of his passion for food. It’s entirely appropriate that Roberto has taken the mantle from Keys; when General Mark Clark disembarked with the Fifth Army on the beaches of Gaudo, near Paestum, back in 1944, the first man to meet him and shake his hand was Roberto’s grandfather.

Roberto is a true Renaissance man: architect by training, hotelier and restaurateur by birth, landscape artist by inclination, and food guru by all of the above. Roberto doesn’t just create food, he sculpts it, as a work of art.

His partner and muse, Rafaela, a pretty woman, quiet and warm, did the actual cooking from both traditional dishes to which the two have added their own flair, and from completely original recipes using the best local ingredients. Rafaela didn’t talk that much, even when she was not in the kitchen, but if anything, she spoke even more than the effusive Roberto; Rafaela let her cooking do the talking, and, let me tell you, the lady can flat out throw down in the cucina.

Roberto and Rafaela are the proprietors of the Calypso Hotel Ristorante Lido on the shores of the Tyrrhenian at Paestum. The hotel had been founded by Roberto’s grandfather and he grew up in the business. The hotel and Roberto’s landscape architecture pay the bills, but “slow food” is his passion. The Slow Food movement was started by Carlo Petrini in Torino back in 1986 and now has chapters in countries all over the world. If you care about good food and/or sustainable agriculture and are not a member, betake thyself to the website and join; it’s cheap and we need all the help we can get.

Roberto spoke in his near-flawless English of a philosophy of food that included elements of Taoism, of homeopathy, of the virtues of organic foods and of the sacredness of local food traditions. His restaurant bespeaks that philosophy: part art gallery, part food library, part lecture hall, part demonstration kitchen. Roberto showed us a demonstration he had set up for local school kids where they can mill their own grain in a simple mill with real millstones and spoke of the possibility of doing the same sort of thing with a miniature frantoio. It seems that thousands of cultivated olive trees are being abandoned in Italy as more and more Italians settle for the crap that the huge conglomerates sell for less in the supermarkets. But what if tour groups could be brought to the Calypso in the fall, taught a bit about traditional foods, and then sent out to the olive groves to hand harvest their own olives, bring them back and produce their own oil, which they could take back home with them?

Fernando tells me of an incident which pretty well summarizes what Roberto and Rafaela are all about. Several years ago the regional director of NAS, the Italian equivalent of the FDA, came to inspect the Calypso. He was puzzled about the absence of a walk-in cooler at the restaurant. Roberto explained that his food went straight from the farm or sea to the table so there was no need for much refrigeration. The inspector, at first incredulous, stuck around for a few hours and saw for himself. He then went home and promptly booked the restaurant for his daughter’s wedding reception.

The meal itself was a revelation, perfectly balanced and filling without being excessively so as so many Italian restaurant meals can be. The antipasto was one of our favorites, a simple bruschetta all’ pomodoro, of the sort that so many American restaurants manage to murder. It was composed of the best bread (in this case made from grain the Paollilos mill themselves every morning and naturally leavened to create a sourdough bread), perfectly ripe little grape tomatoes which are in season right now in the Cilento, a bit of basil and garlic, salt and pepper, and fruity olive oil. Not even any Parmeggiano. And, forgive my rant, but too many Americans slaughter the name along with the dish; in standard Italian it is pronounced broo SKET tuh, not broo SHET tuh, with the hard k sound. Some of my friends of Italian extraction insist they pronounced it with the soft s sound as kids. Fair enough, that could be dialect, but I’ll insist in that case that you have your brooshettuh with spajetti; the only purpose of that h in Italian is to make the c and g hard. The dish itself was everything we love about good Italian cuisine: the absolute best local ingredients, simply prepared and allowed to speak for themselves.

Along with the antipasto and our primi we enjoyed a local sparkler, Caprarizzo Greco, a ‘garage wine’ (that’s a good thing) made near Capaccio on the flank of the mountain overlooking Paestum. The name of the winery derives from the converted goat stable which now serves as the press room. This is a tiny estate, about six acres (another very good thing), which produces only about 12,00 bottles per year, the sparkling frizzantino that we enjoyed as well as a still wine, both using the Greco grape which is really starting to strut its stuff in this region.

We enjoyed two primi, or pasta courses, one an invention of the Paullilos and the other from a family recipe. First up was a sort of roulade made with homemade sheet pasta from a traditional grain whose name I never could understand, wrapped around the classic pasta verde, pasta hand-made with bits of spinach to give it color and flavor, wrapped around a suffrito of veggies, all topped with a homemade marinara and a sprinkling of goat cheese. The second, traditional pasta was cavatelle, little hand-made gnocchi, not of potatoes but of hard wheat, with a smoked swordfish. Both delicious.

Next we were offered two entrees and a contorno, or vegetable dish. The first was a torta d’allici, a sort casserole made with fresh anchovies gratineed and served with a pepper ragu, also gratineed. The second was thinly sliced cutlets of pork loin topped with peppers. I should explain that these were Italian bell peppers allowed to reach their full, glorious ripeness so that they are so sweet you can eat them like apples. These had been gently sauteed and bathed in good olive oil. With the entree we had a wine we had enjoyed before, Kratos Fiano, made by the winery of Luigi and Rafaela Maffini at Castellabate, on the flanks of the mountain about 20 miles south of Paestum. Not a garage wine, but definitely artisinal; the Maffinis have about 47 acres and produce about 45,000 bottles per year.

Forgive a brief digression about the wines of the Mezzogiorno. Some of the most exciting wines I have tasted in recent years are coming out of this southern region and they are still largely unheralded and therefore reasonably priced, both here and in the States when you can find them. They are a far cry from those produced en masse fifty years ago, when about the best you could say about them was that they were potable. What gives? In a word, controlled fermentation temperatures. It’s damned hot down here in August and September when the grape harvest occurs, and a hot fermentation is inevitably a bad one, one which absolutely strips the wine of flavor and aroma. Enter Robert Mondavi and the idea of fermentation in stainless steel tanks with cooling jackets, and viola! the fermentation climate of Bordeaux! Many of the wineries here have taken the next logical step and now also harvest at night under halogen lights. Does that really make a difference? Absolutely! As far back as Roman times vinegrowers knew that a cool harvest was essential, and so they recommended harvesting only in the early morning.

For dolci, or dessert, we had cannoli, the classic dessert of Sicily, but there was nothing classic about these except the taste. The pasta rolls were crisply fried but small and delicate, unlike the huge honkers you often get in pasticcerie here. That meant more crunch per bite. Further, Rafaela used local ‘ricotta’, the full-fat version popular around here, instead of the sheeps’ milk ricotta of the classic. This was flavored with lemon zest and a touch of brown sugar. These we had with more of the Caprarizzo sparkling wine, and sparkling wines and Italian desserts, in my opinion, are a match made in heaven.

As I read back through this entry it suggests that we stuffed ourselves, but nothing could be further from the truth. The portions were small and perfectly balanced and we left the Calypso sated but not logy. Somewhere in a better world, Ancel Keys is smiling on you, Roberto and Rafaela!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010







TOiLING IN THE VINEYARDS

Yesterday was incredibly hard work and we were so exhausted when we returned we cooked a simple store-bought pasta and fell into bed. But before you expend much sympathy on us, it was also incredibly fun. We were toiling in the vineyards of archaeology.

Yesterday morning about 8:30 Fernando showed up and we rounded up Fabio, who loaded us into Rolando’s Jeep, a Russian-made Lada Niva 4 X 4, and we headed out to the Bay of Trentova, down the coast from Agropoli. We left the coast road after several miles and it immediately became clear why we needed the Lada; this was a road in only the most generic sense of the word. Thankfully it has been dry here for at least two weeks (the proverbial Mediterranean climate), so there was no serious danger of being stuck, just of bouncing off the ceiling. But then, suddenly, there we were on a beautiful little Roman road, pavers perfectly fitted, well-wrought curbstones, the camber in the middle to shed water just like I tell my students, and straight as an arrow. Most impressive of all, it was in near perfect condition after some 2,000 years. And we in America are lucky to get 40 out of ours.

The Roman road quickly disappeared and we endured more carnival ride, but soon enough arrived at the site of a Roman villa maritima, one of those luxury villas the Romans built all up and down the southern Italian coast to get away from the stress of life in the big city, to enjoy the pleasant year-round weather, and to luxuriate in the spectacular views for which this area is so rightly famous.

Unfortunately, the Roman villa was superseded by a Medieval villa which still stands, though in a state of perilous ruin and now used as a cow barn. The Roman villa is some 4 meters down, and only a small test dig has been conducted, four meters square, to establish the existence of the villa. What remains visible is still impressive. The villa was surrounded by a huge stone wall, apparently some 16’ tall and several meters wide. This site is thought to go back several centuries BCE, and the assumption is that the wall was built during the Punic Wars when the fearsome Carthaginian fleet caused such fear along these coasts.

Elsewhere Fernando showed me a huge stone into which had been cut two parallel cavities, about 2’ wide and 5’ long, which the original discoverer had suggested were tombs. Not very likely; no other such tombs exist and cuttings on one end seem to be for the wooden stanchions to support a superstructure, and another scholar has suggested a press bed for olive oil instead. Then we saw a spring which issued from the hillside behind the villa, for which the Romans had wrought a well crafted reservoir complete with a painted wall in front; the Romans adored the aqua minerale of this region as much as their descendants now do. We followed the continuation of the Roman road as it made its way down to a small bay, a port for the facility, and Fernando pointed out places on the hillside where the local stone had been quarried to be shipped from this harbor.

Unquestionably the most impressive thing about the site was the sheer volume of items, Roman as well as Greek, which were clearly visible on the ground. It’s what the archaeologists call surface scatter. Fabio has an incredibly sharp eye for such things and he pointed out fragments of Greek drinking cups, of Roman plates and bowls, of marble fragments beautifully cut to create an intarsio floor, probably for part of the bath complex that Romans included in their villas, of fragments of Roman glass, clear and of the brilliant cobalt that the Romans first made famous. All this in an area the size of our house lot back home. This is an extremely rich site, just screaming to be excavated. So why not? Lack of funds, of course. There are just so many sites in Italy and so little money to support such research. But Fabio and Fernando call this “another Paestum, just waiting to be discovered.”

After a brief excursion to the top of the hill for a panoramic view of the area and of Paestan Plain, we headed home for some lunch and a brief riposo. Then we were off to chase more archaeology. Fabio had to work, but we were joined by Sandy’s new best friend, Katuscia. We love being with this young woman. She is beautiful, bright, funny and warmhearted. And she seems to be quite smitten with Fabio. The problem is that Fabio has a mistress, one he has adored, according to Uncle Luigi, at least since he was eight. Her name is Archeologia, and she is stiff competition indeed.

We were headed for the mountain town of Perdifumo, but we stopped in Vatolla along the way to see another cantina, this one in the basement of a medieval palazzo that belonged to the Spanish family of Vargas. Fernando had made arrangements to meet the custodian of the palace—it has become an inside joke with us that Italian cultural attractions are siempre aperto...ma non oggi!, ‘always open...just not today’!—but in the event he was nowhere to be found. Two hours later Fernando was able to track him down (he’s a volunteer for the Italian Red Cross as well) and we made a brief tour of the carefully refurbished palazzo, which is now a center to commemorate a local boy who made good, the famous philosopher and educational reformer Giambattista Vico. But no cantina, the very thing we came to see! It seems a different custodian had the key to the cantina, and he, too, was nowhere to be found. Oy!

So down the road we went to Perdifumo, where we parked the car and strolled through the little town, asking periodically where was the famous palmento. It’s one of those ironies of Italy that in the midst of such cultural wealth very few people really know or care what they are living amidst. Finally some gentlemen playing penuchle in the piazza who sent us off to the suburbs, followed by more confusion and several more puzzled locals, before a little nono came walking down the road and pointed to an olive orchard right beside us... and there was the palmento, largely obscured by olive nets and vine stakes, not 50 meters away. Without his help we would never have found it. The owner of the orchard kindly offered permission to explore, and we finally bagged the big one.

At least big to a couple of classical geeks. Palmenti are large treading vats cut into native stone, with one, two, sometimes three separate but connected vats. This was a single vat, but the more typical form has two, an upper and a lower one, connected by a small hole in the adjoining wall. The best guess is that grape clusters were harvested and dumped into the upper vat where they were trodden by naked feet, still the absolute best method for gently extracting grape juice, called must, without extracting too much tannin from the skins and seeds. The grape solids would settle to the bottom of the upper tank and when the tank was full the aperture between the vats, probably plugged with wet clay, would be opened and the pure must allowed to drain into the lower vat, to be racked into fermentation vessels. Remaining juice might be left on the marc, the solid parts of the clusters, to obtain color, flavor and a bit of tannin, all of which derive almost exclusively from the skins of the grapes. After perhaps 24 to 48 hours the juice would be racked off the marc and the marc put under a press of some sort to extract more of the precious liquid.

So what’s the big deal? It has to do with the history of wine. There is a debate in scholarly circles as to when exactly wine was first systematically produced in the Old World. To explain, wine is a food product that will essentially make itself, since colonies of yeasts are lurking on the grape skins just waiting for that barrier to be broken so they can have a regular sugar-eating orgy, in the process of which they will fart out CO2 and pee out ethyl alcohol. You’ve all seen those little colonies—they appear as grayish coloration on dark grapes—and perhaps didn’t even know what you were looking at. The point is that making wine, at least bad wine, is a fairly simple technology. The problem is that wine very quickly and inevitably turns to vinegar unless oxygen is excluded from the product. So the development of pottery in the late Neolithic was a very big deal.

But what about Middle Neolithic or even Paleolithic? We simply don’t know, but it’s fun to speculate. Are the palmenti that cluster along the Apennine regions of Italy, from Aemilia-Romagna all the way down to Calabria, neolithic vats? Probably not, although it is difficult to say. How do you date a native stone? The most knowledgeable scholar in this area, the Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Brun, thinks they go no further back than the Roman period. The point is that theoretically they could have provided winemaking in the Neolithic, at least in the so-called ceramic period after there were jugs to store the wine in. And we are in the process of developing the analytical tools such as chromatography and mass spectrometry to determine many things about such vessels, so someday we may have a more definitive answer to the question. In the meantime Dave just had to hop in this palmento and do a bit of imaginary grape treading. Katuscia was a good sport and helped me out. And later that night at home I raised a toast to our ancestors, whoever they were, who developed the wonderful technology of wine. And half the night I dreamed, not of sexy Italian girls, but of sexy Italian palmenti!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010





STORIED WATERS


I mentioned earlier how immediate the distant past is for Catholics in this country because of the many elements of paleo-Christianity that are immediately at hand. But the same is perhaps truer for a classicist; the classical world is everywhere in southern Italy, not to speak of the pre-classical, neolithic and even paleolithic world. Sandy and I have been hop scotching along the coasts for several days, and we’ve been bumping into a whole lot of history.


Last week, for example, we accompanied Fernando to one of the many conferences he participates in, this one to help launch the new book he and his friend and distant cousin Amadeo La Greca have published on Licosa and Ogliastro, two seaside towns along the Cilentane coast. Fernando's talk was accompanied by slides, and we were able to follow most of it. The Punta di Licosa is one of those points along the Tyrrhenian coastline that mark another bay, which spell a measure of safety for a hard-driven sailor. But of course to reach that safety you have to pass by the points, the most dangerous, shoaly places along the coast. It’s one of those ironies that the danger is what creates the safety. I suppose there’s a life lesson there, though I’m not sure what it is.


In any case, this point is associated in myth and history with two goddesses, Leukosia, one of the fabled Sirens who lure sailors to destruction, and Leukothea, a sea goddess. Imagined either in wholly anthropomorphic form or as harpies, that is, creatures with the upper bodies of women but the lower bodies of birds of prey, the Sirens brought ruin either by singing so sweetly that sailors became enraptured, forgot about business, and crashed on the rocks and died. Alternately, they shrieked so loudly that sailors became distracted in their terror...and crashed on the rocks and died. Choose your poison. By far the most famous hero to encounter these gals was Odysseus, the great hero of the Trojan epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Odysseus has been warned in advance and so he has his crew plug their ears with beeswax so they can’t hear and has himself tied to the mast so that he can hear the fatal songs. Odysseus has a real problem with self-control, but at least he’s beginning to learn after a mere 18 years.


Alternately, the point is associated with the goddess Leukothea, “The White Goddess”, savior of sailors (and ultimately of our guy Odysseus). Two letters difference, nemesis or savior. But which one? There’s a solid tradition in the ancient sources for both. Nobody ever accused the Greeks of being unsophisticated in their thinking, so I’m going with both. Hey, it’s a gorgeous little harbor, as Sandy’s pictures will attest. But when I look at that point, especially on Fernando’s aerial view that shows the shoals and reefs, even I as a jackleg sailor get the fantods. And when you consider that ancient sailors habitually coasted, that is, ran along the coasts instead of in deep water, it’s easy to see how some poor fellow desperate for refuge in a storm might discover his plight too late.


Two days later we headed for two other fabled towns, Policastro Bussentino and Palinuro, further down the coast.


Policastro was the site of an important Roman town but is more interesting to me because a famous Roman wine was produced there. To reach the town we headed away from the coast and through the heart of the Cilentane mountains along the superstrada that follows the old Roman Via Annia. We passed near to Monte Bulgheria, whose dramatic profile had us believing it was eight or nine thousand feet tall, although it is in fact less than four. I suppose it’s because the road at that point is close to sea level and the mountain just erupts out of the valley and shoots straight up above dizzying precipices. In any case, I’ve never seen anything else so much like those peaks in Yosemite.


The mountain derives its name from Bulgarian colonists who settled there in the 500s CE, and there’s a little town, Celle di Bulgheria, that commemorates the event. The locals think the mountain looks like a recumbent lion, something like a sphinx, with it’s haunches to the west and head to the east, and that this leone like any good sphinx guards the valley and protects them from harm.


The little town of Policastro itself is underwhelming. There’s a beautiful beach with lots of little lidos, the businesses along Italian coasts that have showers and rent cabanas and/or umbrellas and beach chairs, as well as offering snacks and sandwiches. The Greek town was Pyxintos or some such, but after the Punic Wars it was refounded as a Roman colony and renamed Buxentum, and became an important seaport. Unfortunately, that made it vulnerable to the constant depredations of invaders and pirates during the next 1300 years. Again and again the little town would be sacked and destroyed by Byzantines, Saracens, Aragonese, Bourbons, Turks...you name it. Again and again the conquerors would recognize the strategic advantage of the town and rebuild and refortify it, only to be supplanted by the next group of thugs. Eventually most of the population wised up and moved up on the mountain to a new town, Santa Marina, more easily defended and less malarial.


And yet, there is a large and beautiful church in the old town, built over the site of the old Roman forum and probably right over the Temple of the Capitoline Triad (early Christians were not too subtle in their religious symbolism) and incorporating Roman architectural features such as columns. Down the center aisle of the nave are buried no fewer than three bishops, the ceiling is gorgeously ‘frescoed’ on wood panels, there are impressive paintings along both side aisles...the whole thing is most impressive, way too impressive for such a tiny village. Sic transit gloria mundi indeed. Most shocking of all to me is the fact that wine is no longer a big deal here. There’s no local DOC (the Italian version of a designation of origin) and as I fly my Google Earth helicopter around the environs, there is just no vineyard anywhere to be found! What happened to the famous wine?


Palinuro is bigger, more touristy, but equally pretty. We hustled to the tiny Antiquarium to beat the closing time. The site has seen human occupation since the dawn of man; remains of Homo erectus have been found in a nearby grotto. Then there were the Oenotrians, the native Italic folk who evidently impressed the Greeks with their winemaking (Greek oenos = wine). So much so that a colony from Phocea, escaping from the Persians who had invaded western Turkey, Greek at the time, was established here in 540 BCE. Once again we are in the land of a siren, this one Molpe, who gave her name to a tiny village about two miles from the main area of settlement. But it was not Odysseus who suffered at the dramatic headland but Aeneas, the future founder of Rome, a Trojan prince who had escaped the destruction Odysseus and his Greeks had wrought and was told by the gods to found a new Troy in “Hesperia”, the ‘western land’.


Imagine, Aeneas has struggled from one hardship to another for almost ten years, has lost his wife and his beloved papa and is finally within reach of his new home. But the wrath of the gods is not yet sated; as Aeneas rounds the point of Palinuro and enters the bay of Licosa, he is beset by a terrible storm and loses many of his ships and men. Even his trusted helmsman Palinurus is swept overboard and drowned, a fate commemorated in the name of the Greek and later Roman town.


From the town we wound our way to the top of the headland and the faro, lighthouse, possibly built over the site of its Roman analogue. The name faro comes from the famous lighthouse built in Alexandria, Egypt which was 430 feet tall and whose beacon could be seen 36 miles out at sea. The Romans thought that was a cool idea, so, ever practical, they built phari all over the Mediterranean and even out into the Atlantic in western Spain. Today the Egyptian word is not only an Italian lighthouse, but an Italain flashlight as well. Any port in a storm, right? As we stood on a tiny rock outcrop and stared down 650 feet to a natural arch and a pleasure boat, I learned for the first time the meaning of 'dizzy heights'; I literally became dizzy and had to sit down. Nothing short of spectacular.


Sandy and I learned the hard way why our heroes preferred sea travel, with all its attendant dangers, to travel over the rugged headlands of the Cilento. Coming out of Palinuro, we had wanted to take the road southeastward to pick up the superstrada again even though we were ultimately headed north. But GPS and the Italian Siren Bad Signage conspired against us and we were directed along the coast road instead. No problem, it’ll take a bit longer, but there is another breathtaking panorama around practically every bend, since the coast road is anywhere from 200 to 400 feet above the sea...straight down. But as we came out of the picturesque little Medieval village of Pisciotta and headed toward Ascea, some 30 miles out of Palinuro, we found the road closed and barricaded. No signs anywhere along the way to indicate upcoming problems, just concrete barriers and nowhere to go but back. Back down the road we went, but cut across over a local mountain road to San Nicola and Foria to pick up the susperstrada.


Unless you’ve lived in the mountains you have no idea how serpentine a county road can be, so I won’t waste my effort. But believe me, there were many times when we made such sharp switchbacks that we were able to kiss our own fannies. Coming into a blind curve we came upon a road sign, “Frana!” Then the monologue from Sandy went something like, “Frana? What’s a fra...aaaaaaahhhhhheeeeee! Oh ^^%$^&! Oh &&^%())*&*! Oh &&^$^&!” And so on and so forth for about another mile. I won’t spoil the fun, but I will tell you that Italian frana shares the same Latin root as English fragmentary. Fortunately, our Leukosia proved to be more of a Leokothea, and we made our way without too much further incident back to the superstrada and back to our welcoming little home away from home.