Friday, December 15, 2006

from the sole of Italy: from sea, to other shining sea, to table

[cautionary note: it's long, to make up for yesterday. and on dial-up, no less!]

In Italy, between Puglia (the heel) and Calabria (the toe), there is Basilicata – a stretch of sole.

When I moved to the States to finish my studies there, I took the language (so impractical!) of the country I loved from afar – Italy. In my last semester, the teacher gave us Carlo Levi’s Christ stopped at Eboli (the point being, he neglected the south), to read in Italian. It describes the once greatly impoverished (and still significantly more so than elsewhere in Italy), the distant and forgotten land. It describes Basilicata.

This is the region that I have wanted to travel to for a long time. This is where I am right now.

The Wednesday flight, leaving Warsaw, through Paris, through Milan to Bari gets us here after dark. I have good directions on how to find the Agriturismo, the farm stay that I have chosen, but an email explains that Maria (the owner?) is out for the evening. Her dogs will greet us when we arrive, I’m told.

We get out of the car in front of a massive, flower covered building. No fewer than five dogs come bounding toward us, barking wildly. I say hi? rather tentatively. That is enough to put them into fits of ecstasy. They are all over me, they are a welcoming committee on speed, they are insanely friendly.

All fine. Dogs greeted. Now what? On the front door, there is Maria’s cell number in case I have forgotten it. Maria assumes, correctly, that civilized beings will have a cell. Ed’s not a cell person, but I am. My cell works well in the States. My cell is not intended for human use in Europe.

Ed takes out the flashlight and we explore. The dogs follow us. We are the hunters and gatherers with our pack of hounds, in search of…bedrooms. We speculate how long an evening out might be for a Maria from southern Italy.

We hear a car. A man comes forth (who is he? don’t know…), says many things in rapid fire Italian, takes out his cell and now we know we will be taken care of. We will not be abandoned to camp on the doorstep. A Basilicata soul is looking out for us.

Within minutes a young woman – the maid and cook and general keep-us-agriturismo-guests-happy person comes to show us to our room.

The room with a view toward the orange grove…

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…and grape vines

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(I have yet to find the farm’s olive trees.)

We ask about eating places. You will find something five kilometers down there road, in the small town of Marconia.

It is their cold spell now. Temperatures are dipping to the forties at night. Daytime highs are in the upper fifties. People are bundled up as if fierce arctic winds were blowing through. But they do not give up on their evening on the Square.

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It’s a guy thing at this hour. The women are fussing with food. Later on, gender balance will be restored.

Up the street there is a small pizzeria. We sit down to bowls of salad and a mushroom-artichoke-wonder pie. For it is magnificent. Best pizza ever, says Ed. His first reflection on southern Italy. I’m all smiles.

We are incredibly fussed over. The cook brings us a calendar to take home, with huge photos of the pizzas he is tossing in his fists then shoving into the oven. The waiter presents us with a pen with the name of the place and as we leave, he puts down a drink, on the house – a regional herby liquor that warms your entire digestive tract for five hours at least.

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the calendar image

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the real thing

Welcome to Basilicata.

The next morning we are driving, driving, trying to cover the land between the Ionian Sea and the Adriatic – Puglia, the big fat heel of the shoe that is Italy.

We make too many stops. I know it, but I cannot help it.

In some insignificant town, a market draws a huge crowd. It’s not the cheeses, the shoes, the rugs that make me reach for my camera again and again, it’s the people. Italian animation cannot be photographed well. But I never stop trying. And no one minds. For once, I get the smiles and encouraging shouts.

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There isn’t much for the foreign tourist here, in Italy’s heel, at first blush. The land is rocky, dotted with olive trees and nondescript towns built vaguely along Greek lines. The beaches on the western coast are a draw for the locals in the summer season. Now, they are empty of people, not so empty of the litter they left behind.

We stop for a walk in Gallipoli – an ancient city whose old town was once an island.

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The timelessness of fishermen mending nets during the lunch hour! I'm hooked. So to speak.

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The maze of streets confuses me. I think I am heading one way, but no, I am not. It’s the kind of place where around the corner you are always surprised. Not infrequently, with holiday trimmings.

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At two, we understand that we have only a couple of hours of daylight left. When you are rushed, you get lost and so we get lost. It is almost dusk when we reach Finibus Terrae (Land’s End), the very tip of the Italian heel.

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Santa Maria di Leuca, the port

There is a monastery, offering terrific views of the water on both sides. We cannot pause for long. I am determined to drive along the reputedly splendid Adriatic coast before you lose sight of all but twinkley lights. But still, will I ever not pause for a cappuccino when the urge strikes?

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Outside, the priest shouts a greeting, then turns to chat with a workman. A nun hurries into the church building. The feeling of remoteness is exacerbated by the presence of these three individuals in an open piazza.

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At the end there is a single column, with, I am guessing, Santa Maria di Leuca looking as if she cares about this tip of Italy after all.

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The drive up along the Adriatic is worth the trip. No beaches here, just rocks and more rocks. The villages are better tended than those on the side of the Ionian. Still, they are off season, empty. The only people we see are the occasional olive grove workers, shaking out the last olives of the season.

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The scent of burning twigs and olive leaves is powerful.

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But as the sun sets, we turn away from the coast…

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Our dinner is at a remote restaurant a few kilometers away from our farm. We are there before nine. Only two other tables are occupied. Is this a bad sign? So many restaurants here are empty. Is it a seasonal thing?

Cassimo, our waiter, takes charge. He puts three bottles of regional wine and asks us to choose one. That is the last choice we are asked to make. We never see a menu or a price. Cassimo just brings food. Small plates of antipasti, a dozen of them, come in from the kitchen, one by one. We cannot finish even half.

A sample:

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Next, a tray of raw vegetables with a spiced olive oil and Balsamic for dipping.

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Ed asks me to intervene, to suggest mildly that we are full, but I cannot. Cassimo is on a roll. Out comes a huge bowl of spaghetti with clams and prawn. Absolutely delicious.

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Cossimo, loading it on

Ed is insistent. If I wont tell Cossimo basta! he will.

Fine. Cossimo, we are full, we cannot eat another course. He nods his head. Americans must not eat much, he is thinking. But when I mention that we will entertain a little sweet something, he perks up. And it begins again:

A bottle of sweet sparkling wine, a plate of fruit…

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A plate of cookies…

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Cossimo, enough!

I have offered to pick up the tab for this meal and I am slightly concerned. The wines, the foods, the bad rate of exchange, debtors’ prison, what am I in for?

I look at the bill. Two fixed price meals, it reads. 35 Euros each. The beauty of Basilicata.

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the chef

We head back to Agriturismo San Teodoro Nuovo.