Saturday, 28 June 2014

TERROR EN ROUTE TO HEAVEN ON EARTH

My wife and I left Arezzo at around 5 o’clock in the afternoon for the Amalfi Coast. We were in no hurry. Judging from my map, I figured we would reach the Coast at around 10pm. In fact as we drove down the expressway, we seemed to be making good time. We hit Rome two hours after we left Arezzo and took the off-ramp to the Coast another two hours later. Unbeknownst to me though, we had overshot our target.

The staff of the hotel we were staying in had given me instructions on how to get there. The instructions were fairly accurate except for some confusion with the exit. I called them when I realized I was lost and was told not to go back to the freeway but to stick to the road that we were already on. Well the road was a narrow, winding one which zigged and zagged for miles on end. We finally reached our hotel at midnight after two hours of slow driving excruciatingly compounded by the death wish of Italian drivers. Dozens of them would zoom past me at every hairpin turn and each time I would cringe in my seat waiting for a piercing screech, a thunderous crash, a blinding explosion, and body parts falling all over me. Happily there weren't any, but I was a nervous wreck when we got to our hotel and completely unaware of the extraordinary beauty that we'd driven through on that highway of terror.


One of many tunnels along the road

An excruciatingly blind turn, one of many
“Suspended between sea, sky and earth, state road 163, which twists and turns along the full length of the Amalfi Coast, offers stunning views at every corner. Until the 19th century, this stretch of the “divine coast”, isolated and regarded by many as barren, could only be reached by going up difficult mountain paths on mules. In the mid-1960s, this very isolation attracted visitors in search of an alternative, remote lifestyle. Travelers, artists and writers came. Ironically, the Amalfi Coast has since become a very popular resort area.”* So there you have it: pot smoking, barefoot, long-haired hippies put the Amalfi Coast on the map just like they did Phuket, Bali, and Goa.


Negotiating a hairpin turn necessarily involves praying while admiring the spectacular scenery

The road perched on a crag along the coast

A typical stretch of 163


The next morning, we woke up at around nine and for the very first time got a good look at our room, the hotel and its surroundings. It was glorious. Spread out before us was the azure expanse of the Mediterranean. The air was fresh and clean and had a hint of lemon in it; the sky was a cloudless blue; and the sunlight was so brilliant that it put a hard glint on everything around us. We proceeded to breakfast and were ushered into a veranda with white awnings and more spectacular views. Our breakfast was delicious and was a portent of the excellent dinner that we enjoyed there later in our stay. Our hotel definitely earns the imprimatur of my hotel guidebook:

“You may be impressed by the classical fa├žade of the Belvedere, or by the fact that it is built into a cliff over the sea, but what is truly extraordinary is its view of the entire Amalfi Coast with its steep hillsides and beautiful lemon tree orchards. The rooms are modern and very comfortable, with either a balcony or a terrace overlooking the sea. An interior elevator will take you down to the pool on the rocks and to the walkway to the sea. The Belvedere is a singularly professional hotel, the cuisine excellent, and the service impeccable yet friendly. And the welcome afforded by the Lucibello family adds that atmosphere of warm, unimposing hospitality that makes a true hotel of character and charm.”**


The Hotel Belvedere 

View of the Amalfi Coast from the Belvedere

The view from the Belvedere's gardens

A private terrace


The hotel's salt water pool

The activity of choice on the Amalfi Coast is to do nothing...except to while away the time lying on the beach, taking in the views, reading a book, relaxing. For the more skittish and adventurous, driving up and down the 163 exploring the small towns that hug the coast is the thing to do. 








Driving along the coast, the first sight is one of numerous orchards of lemons, oranges and grapes. The lemons grow so plentifully here that, from afar, they look bunched up like grapes. There are lemons, lemons, and lemons everywhere; so many that the coastline takes on a yellow hue in my imagination. There are lemons of every size and shape (the largest ones look like wizened pomelos). The average size of the lemons is so large that, when cut through its thick rind and squeezed, the juice will fill up a glass. Due to the abundance of lemons, there are lemon products everywhere; lemon cake, lemon cookies, lemon pastries, lemon candies, and, best of all, limoncello. Open up a bottle and you get an instant whiff of the Amalfi Coast.


Lemons

Lemons

And more lemons

I wonder if they serve lemons here

Another aspect of note as one drives along the coast is the surfeit of spectacular hotels – the Hotel Santa Caterina, Hotel San Pietro, Hotel Poseidon, Hotel Palazzo Murat, Palazzo Confalone, Palazzo Sasso, Villa Cimbrone. But above them all, the Le Sirenuse reigns supreme. Considered one of the top spa hotels in the world, it is in a class all its own and is located in the town of Positano.

John Steinbeck once wrote that Positano “bites deep. It is a dream place that isn't quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone”. The town climbs the hill in steps, with the oldest houses in its upper reaches. The street going down to the sea, Via Pasitea, penetrates the heart of town with its narrow stepped alleys, houses with vaulted roofs, terraces and tiny gardens. Snuck discreetly among the alleyways is Le Sirenuse. The descent ends at Marina Grande, a pebble beach used by fishing boats and lined with bars and restaurants.


Positano as seen from the sea


Le Sirenuse

Another town to visit is Amalfi, which lends its name to the entire coast. Tucked in between mountains and sea, Amalfi is at sea level and is a favorite with visitors for its scenic beauty and original architecture. It was once a powerful maritime republic – a rival to Venice and Genoa in the 11th century. Amalfi’s cathedral, Duomo di Sant’Andrea was founded in the 9th century and rebuilt in the 11th century. Its carved bronze doors were cast in Constantinople around the year 1000.  Across it is a piazza filled with shops, bars and restaurants.


The town of Amalfi

Duomo di Sant' Andrea

Interior of the Duomo

On our last night in the Coast, we visited Ravello. Off the beaten track and very high up, it is for those who love peace, quiet and stupendous views. Moorish details are evident in the buildings, in the inner courtyards and gardens and the churches. Two highlights are the Villa Rufolo and Villa Cimbrone (now a hotel). Villa Rufolo is famous for its double arched courtyard and its tropical gardens which inspired Richard Wagner’s Parsifal.


View of the coast from Ravello
The Villa Cimbrone
Villa Cimbrone's Terrace of the Infinite
Villa Rufulo's bell house
Villa Rufolo's garden

View from the Villa Rufolo



We asked the concierge at our hotel to recommend a restaurant in Ravello. He recommended two restaurants. The first one, which was perched precariously on a cliff, overlooked the entire Amalfi Coast as far north as Naples and as far south as Salerno. Unfortunately it was closed for a party to celebrate the owner’s birthday. We then looked for the second one, Cumpa Cosimo, a trattoria hidden deep in the alleyways of the main town. We entered a warm and joyous place, the walls of which were plastered with pictures of the many celebrities that had preceded us. We had an excellent meal. At the end of it, we were regaled with stories by Netta, owner, chef, and raconteur par excellence even if we could barely understand her English. It was a great finish to a great stay on the Amalfi Coast - a slice of heaven on earth.


*From DK Eyewitness Travel Italy.
** Hotels of Charm and Character Italy
Photos from Google search and the Hotel Belvedere website.

Monday, 16 June 2014

WAYLAID ON OUR WAY TO THE TRUE CROSS

About an hour's drive south of Florence lies the city of Arezzo, one of the twelve capitals of the Etruscan League described by the Roman historian LivyArezzo was conquered by Rome in 311 BC and became so absorbed into the fabric of the Roman empire that Maecenas, friend of the Emperor Augustus and famous patron of the arts, was actually of noble Aretine Etruscan stock. 

In the centuries following the fall of the Roman Empire, Arezzo became an episcopal seat and a city-state. As a city-state however, it was too weak to compete with its stronger neighbors and was eventually subsumed into the duchy of Florence. It was during this period that the early Renaissance artist, Piero della Francesca, painted a famous suite of frescoes known as the Legend of the True Cross in Arezzo's Basilica of San Francesco. Naturally I had to see it. But obstacles lay in the way.


If one were to rely on the photos that one sees of the Renaissance cities of Italy, one may be forgiven the impression that these cities are largely untouched by time and remain as pristine as they were 600 years ago. But life goes on and time moves forward. The modern continually impinges on the old. Beyond the borders of these ancient cities, there exists an Italy which is very much a part of our world today. Nothing renders this fact in bolder relief than that modern phenomenon - the outlet mall.


A generic mall outside of Florence

Gucci, Prada, Pratesi and Dolce Gabbana all have outlets just south of Florence and stood tantalizingly close to the path to Arezzo. Upon the blandishments of my wife, and wanting to snatch a few bargains myself, we made a detour to the Prada outlet. 
This is Prada?!?!
For some strange reason, it was hard to find. It was in some hard-to-reach corner in the middle of nowhere with nary a sign to warn you that you've arrived. It was tucked away like some dirty little secret - the secret being that these retail behemoths actually have unsold inventory that they are reluctantly selling at 'bargain' basement prices. So there is a slightly desperate quality to it all - both for the seller and the buyer.

Upon entering Prada’s unnamed, enormous and shockingly pedestrian warehouse, I quickly realized that everyone inside was playing a game - a game where you walk around dazed, with eyes glazed and in a slight panic, and grab as many bargains as you can. After three hours of hunting for the right fit, the right size, the right color, the right prize, we finally surfaced for air and re-entered the world of the living. We were now in the supremely enviable position of having spent lots of money in order to save it. We were ready for Arezzo.


Arezzo from above

Arezzo is one of the wealthiest cities in Tuscany. It has a manufacturing industry, especially of gold jewellery which is sold to shops all over Europe. The Second World War damaged a great deal of the city and this has led to much rebuilding – broad avenues have replaced many of the medieval alleys and a modern city has grown up around its historic centre, just like Florence. As a consequence the approach to the Centro Storico, going through nondescript modern neighborhoods as it does, does not prepare the visitor for the mad jumble at its heart. The Centro Storico is a maze of narrow streets which, if driven through, essentially leads nowhere. One must walk it to appreciate it.


Arezzo's Centro Storico


The unadorned facade of the Basilica di San Francesco

Arezzo’s jewel is the Legend of the True Cross by Piero della Francesca, his masterpiece and one of Italy’s greatest fresco cycles. The frescoes are in the 13th century Basilica of San Francesco, a rough hewn and obviously unfinished structure. The frescoes (which have been damaged over time) depict the story of the cross starting with Seth, son of Adam, who plants a cedar sapling from the custodian angel of Paradise on Adam's tomb. It is a sapling of hope, hope for the salvation proclaimed by the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. Centuries later, the Queen of Saba stops to pray before a small bridge made with the trunk of the same tree and declares it an instrument of suffering, a foretelling of the Crucifixion. Eventually, the timber of the bridge that the Queen of Saba had adored is now raised for the crucifixion. The sapling of Adam had borne its fruit, the cross on which Christ was crucified. 


Interior of the Basilica

Above and below, sections of the frescoes











The frescoes then go on to depict the rediscovery and verification of the true cross by the Empress Helena whose son, Constantine, wears it as his emblem during the battle of the Milvio Bridge. The story ends with the exaltation of the Cross and the Annunciation to Mary of her death and assumption. 


The Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation

Mary doesn't look too pleased at what she's hearing.

The frescoes have been sumptuously rendered by della Francesca who was a master colourist. Even in its damaged state, the frescoes manage to awe and impress and one leaves the Basilica invigorated by the beauty of his masterpiece.


Above and below, close-ups of various figures in the frescoes





We stepped out of the Basilica in the late afternoon. The sun was about to set and we still had six hours to go to our next destination, a region of Italy that we had yet to discover – southern Italy and the Amalfi Coast.

(Images taken from Google Search)

Sunday, 1 June 2014


TEMPLES, KITSCH, AND IMAGINED LIVES
 
Ninety kilometers south of Naples lies the ruined city of Paestum. Originally known as Poseidonia after the Greek god of the sea, ancient legend had it that the city was founded by Jason and the Argonauts during their search for the Golden Fleece. That is certainly what I would like to believe. But dour archaeologists insist that it was founded by Greek colonists around 600BC. These Greek colonists were conquered by an Italian people called the Lucans two hundred years later. In 273BC, as Rome came into ascendance, the city was assimilated into the Roman Empire and was renamed Paestum.
 
The new Roman colony flourished. Its local pines, which made for excellent ships, gave rise to a shipbuilding industry so successful that the area surrounding the city was deforested. It gradually turned into a marshland and became a source of malaria. The spread of the disease, a rising water level, and seismic disturbances caused a long and irreversible decline. But the city lived long enough to witness the rise of Christianity; one of its temples was converted into a church by the newly Christianized citizenry. The advent of Moslem raids in the ninth century sounded the death knell for the city. Paestum was deserted by its citizens and remained buried and largely undiscovered until the 1950s. It is now considered the finest preserved Greek temple complex in the Mediterranean world. With such a history and reputation behind it, I could not resist dragging my wife to see it.
 
I am captivated by antiquity, history and legend. Sadly, my wife is more easily captivated by anything resembling a shopping mall, however small. After a two hour drive to Paestum from the Amalfi Coast, we parked our car right next to a small group of stalls selling curios and souvenirs. When she realized that prices here were lower than anywhere else we’d been to in Italy, no amount of pique on my part could get her to walk among the ruins with me. Fuming, I walked through the gate, stepped into a lonely windswept field, and came into a scene so lovely that my anger dissipated.

Greek symmetry and perfection immortalized in marble
 
There, gleaming white against an azure sky, stood three Greek temples – the Temple of Neptune, the Temple of Ceres, and the Temple of Hera. Big bold and dramatic, they were perfectly preserved. If there ever was a testament to the Golden Mean so beloved of the ancient Greeks, this was it. The temples were simple, harmonious, and completely symmetrical. The Doric columns, their simple vertical lines, and the pediments of each temple make you look skywards, the better to contemplate the absolute harmony of the universe and the power of the gods that created it.
 
The temple of Hera, jealous queen of the Greek pantheon
The temple of Ceres, goddess of agriculture and the harvest
The temple of Poseidon, god of the sea

What can be more evocative than viewing ancient ruins sitting forlorn and abandoned whilst one’s imagination fills the void and makes it all alive again. Who were the people that created these architectural marvels? What led them to the principles and beliefs that conjured up these wonders? How did they go about their daily lives? What were their life spans? Did they really paint all their temples in garish colors? Did they know the meaning of kitsch?  Did they really have a cult whose adherents had sex on the steps of the Temple of Hera to ensure fertility? Were onlookers allowed to enjoy such exotic scenery? Could they join in? Would this qualify as an orgy or merely a fertility rite? Did they make those distinctions? If it all ended up as a sexual melee, how did they determine which child was whose? All these thoughts were crowding my mind as I wandered about the ruins. My imagination was running wild. It was time to let go and rejoin my wife.

Ongoing excavations in the temple complex
 
I managed to find her knee deep in kitschy reproductions of famous sculptures, tourist postcards, bric-a-brac, super cheap Italian ceramics and tableware whose price betrayed its Chinese provenance, aprons with Michaelangelo’s David’s penis strategically placed where the wearer’s genitals would be, and all manner of must-haves for the taste challenged. After she bought every imaginable apron she could find (except the David one) to give away as presents, I managed to pry my wife loose and get her into the museum adjacent to the “shopping mall”.


David and his apron
 
We were unprepared for what the museum had to offer. In the innermost recesses of this small, provincial museum were a series of excavated tombs which had been pried loose from the earth and rebuilt within its protective confines. These were the tombs of the Greeks and Lucans of ancient Poseidonia. In them were frescoes of chariot races, religious processions, banquets, scenes of people enjoying themselves, scenes of people showing affection, scenes indeed of an idealized life which the deceased hoped to enjoy in the afterlife. Whatever the harshness of the lives they had to endure, they were not taking it with them!

Ancient Poseidonians enjoying a banquet

A rider leading his mount

A herald
A procession, no doubt religious
Painted Greek vase

A winged goddess
 
Upon returning to the Amalfi Coast, my wife and I decided to have dinner at our hotel and just relax in our room for a change. After a really good meal, we changed and relaxed in our terrace overlooking the Mediterranean while downing a bottle of Limoncello. It was a clear but moonless night. A few stars were out and the lights twinkled all along the coastline as far as the eye could see. The quiet was occasionally broken by a lonely ship coming to shore. I was listening to one of my favourite CDs “The Brazilian Project by Toots Thielemans”. Here I was relishing two of my favorite pastimes, traveling and listening to music. I realized how fortunate I was. I was enjoying the best that capitalism and globalization had to offer. I was a Filipino on the Amalfi coast of Italy, flown to these shores by a French airline, listening to Brazilian music played by a Dutch harmonica player which I had archived on a Japanese laptop powered by American technology. I certainly had it over those ancient Greeks and Lucans. No amount of imagination on their part could have conjured up the kind of lives we lead today. Of this there is no doubt – this is a fantastic world we live in!