Southern Italy


by John & Souheir Rawlings

We are sitting in our room at the Ginestrelle Artist Retreat in the mountains that rise behind the beautiful little town of Assisi.  It is a quiet Sunday morning and a soft rain is falling on the spring flowers that are everywhere in this green landscape.  We are wondering how the past couple of weeks slipped by so quickly and are aware of the fact that we have not found the time to report on our adventure…and of course, this is an attempt to do so.

We left Montana early on the 27th of April and made an easy connection in Seattle for New York–A couple of hours there and another connection to Malpensa, Milan where we had an 8 hour layover while we waited for a plane to Bari in Puglia.  Neither of us were up to staying in an airport lounge for such a long time, so we found a little hotel across from the airport, rented a room, and slept for 6 hours!

We went back to the airport, ate a snack and then boarded an EasyJet flight to Bari.  For the first time, we had decided to primarily use “AirBnB” apartments to stay and we weren’t sure what to expect…or even how it worked.  This decision turned out to be one of the best of our trip so far.  The apartment was right in the middle of the city center and was truly amazing.  We picked the keys up at the airport and rode a taxi right up to the door, which of course opened onto a busy street and gave no indication of what was behind it…

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A truly remarkable space in a converted stone storage room that actually opened out onto a hidden garden!  We spent two nights in this amazing little apartment and wandered around this ancient city.  Friendly people, excellent food, cheap wine…what else could you want?

On our third day, we took a taxi back to the airport, picked up Souheir’s luggage that had been “delayed” somewhere, and rented a car.  We drove down the coast to a little town called Polignano a Mare and had lunch with Judy & Dale–friends from Whitefish–who were spending a few days there, and then drove on to the tiny village of Cisternino, which is not far from Alberobello.  This is the center of the area where the distinctive Pugliese houses called “Trulli” are found.  We have long wanted to see these structures and were filled with wonder and surprise by our experience.

This would be a good place to insert a little “side story”.  The car we rented was a new Ford Focus with GPS, that when turned on greeted us in a rather “plummy” female Briths-accented voice.  What began as “authoratative” dire3ctions quickly became dowright “bossy” instructions and so egan a 10 day relationship that was in tatters at its completion.  Souheir was reading an article that discussed words in the english language that people don’t like–and to our surprise, the word “moist” is universally disliked.  We decided that it must be more than its meaning and thought it was probably the way it sounded…anyway, it wasn’t long before we named the woman on the GPS “Moist Moira”.

The first time she took us entirely around the block only to end up where we started, we knew she could not be trusted and in Cisternino, after following her into some frankly ‘stupid’ places, we capitulated, parked in a little lane, and called the people at the B&B who agreed to come and find us.  So we met our host, Peter on the side of the road and followed him through a maze of tiny lanes, walled on both sides with dry stone fences behind which, fields of wild red poppies nodded in the wind. Then we arrived at our very own Trullo–what a treat!  Our small cottage had five roof structures so distinctive that they are not easily described, so please look at the photos.

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The next day we drove to the town of Alberobello, which is literally a village of these structures, and even though the weather was rather rainy, we had a wonderful time wandering through narrow streets among these amazing houses.

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We drove from the “trulli” country to the town of Matera using quiet backroads, passing through rolling hills of wheat fields and pastures.  We crossed the border into the state of Basilicata, and arrived in the crowded streets of this town that is also famous for distinctive architecture.  The surrounding countryside is dominated by large outcrops of limestone which is very soft and can literally be cut with a saw.  All of the local structures seem to be built from blocks that are simply cut out of these cliffs.  In times past, poor peasant folk cut blocks from the hillside, which they sold and then made houses in the cliff holes from where the blocks came.  These houses are called “Sassi” and we were on our way to stay in one!

After yet another fight with Moira, we parked the car and walked to a cafe to meet the owner of the “Sasso B&B”.  Matera is a hilltop city with commanding views of the local countryside, but at its ancient center, there is literally an enormous quarry–that is now completely filled with “Sassi”.  Following our host Leano, we began to descend winding streets that consisted mostly of stairs and steps.  Our Sasso was two vaulted rooms, thankfully not too “deep” in the Sassi area, and we spent two quiet days exploring this unique and beautiful place.

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Moira then “bossed” us down to the coast which we followed west into the state of Calabria, looking for an Agriturismo in Albidona–a little coastal town.  She couldn’t find it…and fools that we were, we followed her uphill and away from the coast (why??)!  11 kilometers of ‘goat trail’ later, we popped out into a small village precariously clinging to a precipitous ridgetop.  Then it actually got worse!  Narrow, winding streets that were wet from rain eventually narrowed to a place where the car obviously would not fit.  Moira said “Turn left Now!”–which would’ve placed us in the front room of the house 2 inches from my sideview mirror, where an old lady was looking (scowling) out of a door that she now couldn’t open because some fool (Moira…not us) has a car wedged up against it!

Backwards up this windy street–and then of course, a telephone call to the Agriturismo–we were exactly 11 kms away from it–Moira demanded that we retrace our way back down the goat trail, but we SHUT HER OFF and found our own way back down.

The Agriturismo was spectacular–in the center of large fruit orchards with unobstructed views of the sea in front and mountains behind.  It was off-season and we and one other couple were the only guests.  Such a wonderfully, peaceful place.

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The next day was designated the “day of our BIG drive”–and would be the longest time in the vehicle for our trip.  We continued along the coast and then cut across Calabria to the (northern) Tyranean coast of Italy and then westward to Reggio Calabria.  We feel a bit uncomfortable criticizing…but this city does not “lend itself easily” to much else; It is congested, overfilled with cars and people, a city of few colors and blocks of buildings that simply fill space with utilitarian sameness…And of course, Moira was useless.  Turned her off and called the B&B host (again)…sigh.

The local dialect is really something and we were aware that our Italian was probably not well understood.  Antonio wanted to know the make and color of the car, and tells us to drive toward the hospital…we had to turn Moira back on.  The traffic was horrendous and John was dodging around cars parked in the middle of the road, when some guy on a motor scooter began to harass him–he drove up alongside and started yelling!  Who was this guy?  What did he want?

Souheir ‘got it’ first…He wanted us to follow him!  It was our landlord!  He zoomed off weaving up the road, periodically looking  behind and waving for us to follow–even up a oneway street the wrong way.  And then we turned a corner onto a quiet road, the cemetery looming above a block of apartments…and we were there.

So…Why Reggio Calabria?  Why all this?  Because, in the National Museum, about a 15 minute walk from our apartment, reside the Riace Bronzes, and we have come to spend time with them.  These huge, ancient Greek statues were discovered by a diver in 60 feet of water near the town of Riace, only a few miles from this city.  Their beauty and presence are beyond our words and again we ask you to look at the photos.

On the way back to the apartment, we stopped at a local pizzeria and discovered the hidden beauty of this city–Wonderfully warm, friendly and patient people!

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The next morning we drove even deeper into the ‘bowels’ and arrived at the docks where we caught a ferry cross to Sicily; arriving in Messina.  It was a warm, sunny morning and we traveled west along the coat to the small town of Taormina.  We have not been there for 30 years and could not really remember the layout of its streets and piazzas.  Which of course, is another way of telling you that we wandered around for quite some time before arriving at our apartment.  It was high on a hillside with views of the entire bay!  For two days we joined the tourist throng, ate excellent food, took long walks…and washed our clothes.

We then drove northwest through wide open agricultural spaces.  Sicily was referred to as the ‘bread basket of the Roman Empire’ and that wheat is still growing!  The countryside reminded John a great deal of his childhood in Australia.

For reasons that neither of us can remember, we had decided to stay in the little town of Castelbuono; not far from Cefalu.  We drove easily through the tight medieval streets and found our host waiting for us…we had given up on Moira entirely, and went straight to the map and phone at this point.  We had a lovely stay in a very large, quite beautiful apartment that had a rooftop terrace overlooking the town (where we had breakfast the next morning).

Castelbuono is a quiet place with only a few tourists, and we were largely by ourselves as we walked through its streets.  Our host was happy for us to stay a little longer the next day and it was after lunch before we drove west (again) through Palermo to the Falco Borsolino airport where we delivered the rental car and switched OFF Moist Moira for the last time.

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We caught a taxi to Terrasini where we arrived to a completely empty B&B that was locked! After speaking to a man at the trattoria next door, he made a phone call and then produced a key with our name on it, and said that we should let ourselves in…the host would turn up later.  The Sicilians we met were so easy, comfortable and friendly–they seldomly seemed bothered by much!

We immediately headed out for a ‘passeggiata’ around the piazza, arriving at an outdoor cafe where we sipped the best Spritzes of our lives and later that evening we ate an excellent dinner at the trattoria next door to us.  In the morning we were back at the airport, leaving southern Italy for our return flight north.

From the Milan train station we caught a fast train to Florence and made our way to the Hotel Casci where we have stayed in all of our Florentine visits.  They received us warmly, drank some wine with us, and then allowed us to “wander off” for the afternoon.

The Opera dell’ Duomo, which is just minutes from where we stayed, has been renovated over the past few years and opened last October as the “Grande Museo dell’ Duomo” and we wanted to see it in its new incarnation.  It is truly magnificent…perhaps the finest museum in all of Florence now.  The refurbishment done under the direction of Timothy Verdon–one of John’s professors from his studies here in 1985, is simply stunning.  We have not stopped talking about it since.

We spent the evening at an old friend’s trattoria where he cooked John a special ‘Bistecca Fiorentina’–a giant chunk-o-meat that was consumed with many smiles and great Tuscan wine!

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The next day we took a 2 hour train ride to the town of Assisi and were met by the director of the Ginestrelle Artist Retreat, where we will spend the next 3 weeks.  Ginestrelle is a 19th century farmhouse about 12 km from Assisi.  It sits on a hillside that is densely covered in a forest of oak and elm with the occasional pine.  The road to it is not much more than a gravel track.  It is truly remote and our time here so far has been the most tranquil of all our trip.

We will describe the entire Ginestrelle experience in another letter, and for now send you this to let you know that we are well, warm, rested and creating in the land of St. Francis.

A Prossima Volta,

John and Souheir

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