This is a guest post by a friend whose ability and sensibility in describing his Italian experiences I greatly appreciate.
I am quite sure that Mr. Elliot Grant will want to start up his own blog site but meanwhile I could hardly let this example of how to write both an evocative and informative post pass by and, incidentally, show that Italy can never be described as one country but, instead as a multiplicity of the most disparate lands.
The post arrived without any photographs of which I am sure Mr Elliot must have a plethora. Just for the guidance of the readers, and to break up the text a little, I have included a few public domain ones but the responsibility in including them is entirely my own.
Happy reading and happy travelling too! You’ll want to visit ALL these places after reading Mr Grant’s brilliant post.
TRIP TO THE MEZZOGIORNO 7-14 APRIL 2014
1 We’d planned to stop off, en route to Naples, at Palestrina near Rome, in order to see the famous Nile mosaic. But as the journey had gone well, and we were near Tivoli, we decided on impulse to fit in a quick look round Hadrian’s Villa too, encouraged by the description in Penelope Hobhouse’s book on Italian gardens, which enthused about carpets of spring flowers. As the guidebooks say, it’s not so much a Villa as an enormous palace complex, rather like a Roman Versailles, built to impress and for lavish corporate hospitality. A surprising quantity of the palace remains intact or at any rate recognisable and capable of visualisation without inordinate imaginative effort. It was certainly most impressive, imbued with a slightly melancholy combination of serenity and departed grandeur. It was a gloriously warm and sunny day; and Stella was happy to lollop about. There were few other visitors, mostly French – a taste of things to come. At every Classical site we visited there were groups of French teenagers taking notes, or at any rate giving the appearance, as they were lectured on ancient building materials and styles of pediment. Spring flowers, however, were nowhere to be seen. We always seem to be either too early or too late. My suspicion is that, whenever they appear, the Italian gardeners immediately strim them into oblivion because they look untidy.
Then on to Palestrina: like a thousand other small, sleepy Italian hilltop towns. Except that the Barberini built themselves a palace at the top of the town on the site of what was first an ancient cult and then a Roman temple. For which 2nd century craftsmen constructed two huge mosaics. One of the Barberini decided to take them to Rome so that they could be shown off to better effect. When they were eventually returned, one was in a few large pieces and could be reconstructed. Of the other only a few fragments remained. The surviving piece shows a variety of scenes from the Upper Nile, showing real and fabulous animals; hunting, feasting, combat and so on, all connected by the mighty river flowing through the mosaic. The whole piece ripples with movement and colour. It is just delightful. It is housed in the archaeological museum, which occupies half of the Barberini palace and enjoys a magnificent view over the Tiber valley. The museum seems to be little visited. One of the staff gave us a personal tour round; while another sat with Stella outside(and then insisted on giving her some water from the ancient sacred spring – now emerging from a hosepipe!). All very friendly and obliging: we felt that they were pleased that visitors appreciated the place.
Then back in the car – I’m afraid that our general philosophy is to do too much, on the principle that we can always come back again if we want to linger – to find our B&B on the lower slopes of Vesuvius above Ercolano (i.e. Herculaneum). We were fortunate to arrive while there was still a bit of daylight, as the area was a warren of tiny unnamed lanes, some with rusty open gates. It was mixture of evidently upmarket houses, gated and guarded by barkaholic dogs, and abandoned building sites. There were piles of rubbish everywhere. But the view over the Bay of Naples was superb. The woman who greeted us completed her task within 10 seconds, pausing only to hand over a remote control for the gates and the suggestion that we eat at a restaurant up the hill. We walked up to it, to find a huge room occupied by one miserable-looking family of holidaymakers and an overpowering stench of stale cooking oil. We hastily retreated, and found another, where we were the only diners but where they made a decent effort. In daylight it became clear that there are dozens of restaurants in the area, but they were all closed up, presumably waiting for the season to begin.
The next morning we drove to Pompeii, armed with the official map and Mary Beard’s book (entertaining but rather discouraging in the sense that she demolishes almost all theories about what Pompeii was like without supplying any alternative suggestions). Both turned out to be of little help in deciding how to navigate our way round what is a very large area, because large chunks of the site are closed off to visitors altogether; some of the “must-see” houses are also closed; but on the other hand they have opened up some houses that aren’t mentioned at all in the guidebooks. However, we had a very good tour round, and felt at the end that we had seen just about everything of note that we could. As so often, though, what matters – in my view at any rate – is not so much the individual paintings or decorations but the overall impression; and we certainly could see very clearly how a Roman town was laid out, with its raised pavements and narrow streets. Some of the rooms in the houses were elegant and grand; most were surprisingly cramped. It’s still noteworthy how Italians seem to lack the concept of personal space. Again there were few other visitors: good in most ways though of course not conveying the hustle and bustle of the town when it was alive.
We were there the whole morning, and by the end we felt that that was enough. After a quick lunch we decided to drive on to Sorrento for something completely different: a stroll on the beach and a pizza. We stopped en route at the Villa of Oplontis, apparently built by Poppea’s family. It is very well preserved and very interesting: a luxury holiday home complete with pool, but not on a grandiose scale. It’s on the same combined ticket as Pompeii and Herculaneum, but much less visited. Highly recommended, though.
The drive into Sorrento was a painful crawl, and we found ourselves, baffled by the one-way system, down in the old port requiring an eight-point turn to escape. We went on to the Marina di Puoli for our walk. It’s a charming little bay with a few restaurants. But all were firmly closed, and we were alone apart from some ancient fishermen and their wives mending nets. By now quite hungry, we stopped at what turned out to be a rather posh restaurant on the clifftops outside Sorrento, with a stupendous view of the sun setting over Capri as we downed our Camparis. Or was it the sun setting over Campari? I was rather glad not to have been breathalysed on the way back.
The next morning we took the train into Naples, and were pleased to have decided to leave Stella behind. The train was immensely crowded, as was the Naples metro. Janet was a little apprehensive about Naples, as everyone we knew had warned us about the risks and stressed how unrelaxing a place it was. Our experience may well have been unrepresentative, because we limited ourselves to two sights: the archaeological museum and the Church of Saint Anne dei Lombardi . But the city seemed wholly unthreatening; and people could not have been more friendly and helpful. Several times, when we just pausing to orientate ourselves, people came up to ask if we needed help or directions.
The museum is huge and full of the best art excavated from Pompeii and the other local sites. But it is laid out in a very old-fashioned way. So there is one big section containing frescoes; another containing mosaics; another containing glass and so on. It’s hard to put them together in one’s mind. In this respect it became clear how brilliantly last year’s BM Pompeii exhibition was conceived in recreating a notional house and furnishing its interior. It is such a missed opportunity when all the goodies are stuffed into a museum far from the site itself. In the former you get a surfeit of goodies and no context; in the latter context but hardly any goodies.
One intriguing discovery: the man in charge of the Bourbon excavators decided that what was not good enough to be preserved in the royal collection should be destroyed, to stop it falling into the hands of foreigners and bourgeois collectors. It was hard to decide whether he had destroyed too much or too little by the time we staggered out into the street.
We then raced on to the Church. I know that this was an idiosyncratic choice; but it was impossible to have visited Naples without seeing the stupendous tarsie of Fra Giovanni da Verona, a match for those he made for his home monastery of Monte Oliveto Maggiore in Tuscany and the church of Santa Maria in his home city. Typically the Church said nothing at all about them, instead puffing the mediocre frescoes by Vasari in the Sacristy that houses them. Bliss to have seen and admired them.
Then back to the B&B on a crowded and sweaty train to rescue Stella and take her to Herculaneum. A much more compact site than Pompeii, in many ways better preserved and fuller of atmosphere.
We then wandered round the centre of Torre del Greco, enjoying the evening passegiata. We stopped for a drink at a little bar in the middle of a little street market, and then noticed that people were popping in and out of a pizza bakery nearby, manned by two sweaty blokes in front of a roaring oven. The man at the bar suggested we buy a piece of pizza and eat it with a drink at the bar. Which is what we did; and for 2 euros had what I think was the best meal of the trip.
The next day we drove off towards our next stop- Paestum – making a scenic and very windy detour via Amalfi. A very touristy sort of place – I infuriated Janet by endlessly saying that I couldn’t imagine what such-and-such must be like in the height of summer – with a big tour ship moored offshore and people being ferried in and out on motor launches. But very charming, and a magnificent cathedral with a Moorish-style cloister built in the town’s glory days as a trading power before being reduced to a tiny shadow of itself by an earthquake. Another day of glorious sun, where a cappuccino looking out to sea is perfect bliss.
Paestum is a very special place. Three huge and well-preserved Greek temples standing almost alone: all that’s left of the town they were built for is a great expanse of low broken-down walls. They are very beautiful and evocative – quite of what is not clear, but the thing about cliches is that they have the merit of being true. The museum is on the site, and the exhibits are very well displayed. There are some beautifully painted pots; but best of all are some startlingly vivid and immediate tomb paintings, done apparently in haste and therefore paradoxically full of vitality.
Our B&B was a couple of miles away, very tranquil and elegant. When we arrived there was nobody about, and we helped ourselves to the best part of a bottle of wine, from our host’s own vineyard. He eventually turned up, rather flustered. Janet had envisaged him as a gay, environmentalist designer. He turned out to be a fat, bald, henpecked retired bank manager. Which just goes to show.
The nest day: a drive to Lecce, in the heel of Italy. We wanted to go there for two reasons. First, it is described in the guidebooks as the Florence of the south i.e. an artistic powerhouse. Second, to pick up for sculpting as much of the soft honey-coloured limestone as we could cram into the car.
Lecce is certainly a very attractive town. We stayed, astonishingly cheaply, at an institute for the blind inside the old walls; and could happily wander the little streets. Florence it ain’t; but the old town has real style, is all of a piece, and that piece is OTT baroque. The stone is so workable that it allows the most extraordinary excess. The local philosophy was emphatically not: less is more.
Getting stone proved surprisingly hard. The right yards were either closed, unfindable or stocked every kind of stone under the sun other than the local. But in the end we found a place where a most charming and generous young man made us a present of some nice chunks. We were left at the end of the trip with the feeling that the southerners’ reputation for warmth and generosity is well-founded.
We also made a short visit down to Otranto, almost the most easterly point in Italy. A delightful small town, with a working harbour and an old town with little lanes and a big church whose floor is almost completely taken up with a naïve 12th century mosaic depicting the tree of life. The castle of Otranto is not a Gothic presence looming over the town but a squat Aragonese fort closed for restoration.
It was time to set off for home. The drive was long and – until we got to the Marches – frankly tedious. Puglia may be fertile but is mostly flat and unvarying. We stopped briefly at Ostuni, to get some altitude. It’s quite pretty but very touristy – heaven knows what it would be like in summer – and surrounded by dreary-looking holiday villages, caravan parks and the like. It is reputed to be the fifth most English town in Italy.
We love the Marches. The countryside is wonderfully attractive: patterned and hilly. We stayed outside Macerata, in a little hotel converted from an abbey. The abbey church is still in use, and is claimed to house Charlemagne’s tomb (though there is absolutely not the slightest sign of it). The place was full of Palm Sunday worshippers and Sunday lunch consumers and old boys foraging for wild asparagus; but after dark it was very peaceful. Beautiful views of the snow-capped Apennines; and into Macerata for a glass of wine (all right, two) and some nibbles.
Last day: picking up wine from a garage outside outside Cupramontana and olive oil from our friend Franco at Cartoceto. Sun, wine, oil, warmth, welcome: that’s how life should be.
Home on the motorway: dull but efficient. We had a really good trip: full of every kind of interest. We did a huge amount in a short time. But it was wonderful to be home, amongst the chestnut forests and mountains of the Garfagnana.