I have travelled to Italy on five previous occasions. For a variety of reasons, I never visited the extreme south known as the Mezzogiorno. This region includes the Italian provinces of Puglia (the heel), Basilicata (the instep), Calabria (the toe), and Sicily (the football like island about to be kicked by the mainland boot). For the sixth visit, I determined to rectify this. Here is a synopsis of my thoughts and observations: a kind of travel diary with attitude.
Part I: The South of Italy
Ostensibly, this latest trip to the land of my ancestors was a celebration of thirty years of marriage. My first trip had been when I was young, single and nineteen. This last trip in late May, with my wife, was when I was three score and something years. I would like to state that I am not a professional travel writer, although I surely know as much as many of the travel volumes I have read. This is a personal history of a love/hate relationship with the land known as Sunny Italy.
Flying into Rome during the millennial Holy Year takes guts. Pilgrim travel to that city is expected to increase tenfold this year. If you have ever visited the city of Rome, you know how difficult it is to find actual residents. They are usually well hidden among the wall to wall tourists. For this trip, I trumped the problem by flying into Rome but not actually entering the city. This was accomplished quite easily as Fiumicino Airport is situated well outside the city limits. Also, I presumed the eternal city had not changed much since my last visit.
Before heading due south, I had to make a short stop to visit my relatives in the Marches, a province that sits on the Adriatic coast north-east of Rome. After picking up our pre-booked rental car, an Alfa Romeo, we headed out of the airport to the autostrada.The Italian autostrada is similar to the American interstate. In some areas, there is no highway speed limit or a token 100 km (60 mph). The government guideline is “speed as fast as safe travel will allow.” Now, there is not an Italian born who does not consider himself a superb driver (read super fast under any/all conditions). Let me warn the unaware: the passing lane, strangely enough, is for passing only. No left lane bandit dawdling is permitted. Drivers in high powered German sedans to Italian mini putt-putts will be howling up your tail pipe like the proverbial bat out of hades with lights flashing and horn blaring. And here I’m speaking of the women drivers! The men are worse – an obvious over-saturation of testosterone. All bridges, tunnels and viaducts are politely named as if they are part of the family. Bridges span rivers. Tunnels dive under mountains or are drilled out of solid rock and viaducts are high links on slender supports of concrete that extend across valleys, or connect tunnels. Tunnel length may be a few metres or many kilometres long and very likely will contain sharp curves and minimal lighting. When passing one of the many truck transports on a curve in a dim tunnel, I found that it helped to hold the steering wheel tight and to keep my eyes shut (kidding). Since many viaducts connect ribbons of highway while traversing deep gorges or valleys, the engineers have built-in wind deflecting baffles as part of the side rails. If you suffer from fear of flying, you may also find speeding aloft on one of these viaducts in the sky will induce the same phobia. The engineering of the Italian autostrada system, with its many natural obstacles, is a feat unparalleled anywhere in the world. It is a fitting tribute to the road building abilities of the ancient Romans.
From the Alps in the north to the Ionian Sea in the south run the Appenine mountains. The largest mountain in the Appenine chain is the Gran Sasso, literally the Big Rock. It is 2912 metres high (9560 ft) and located in central Italy just east of L’Aquila. The autostrada route A24 has a tunnel that burrows under the Gran Sasso. I have travelled this route before, and the tunnel is a high point (pun intended). On this occasion, our trip leaving Rome was uneventful, until we passed L’Aquila, where the sky turned from overcast to threateningly black. To add suspense, road signs warned we were entering a severe storm area. In fact, shortly thereafter, we were deluged with hail the size of golf balls which beat down so heavily that I began to worry about damage to our rental car. The multi-lane roadway quickly became covered with the large ice balls and traffic speed in both directions was reduced to a very un-Italian slow. We eventually reached the safety of the tunnel where we travelled the 13 km length (8 miles!) When we emerged, we were practically on the shores of the Adriatic and a full sun beamed down. The sun would follow us relentlessly for the remaining twenty-odd days, reinforcing the adjective sunny when linked to the noun Italy.
The Mezzogiorno – the impoverished south
After a whirlwind visit to my relatives, we were on our way south to Campania near Salerno. We visited my wife’s relatives in the Alburni high mountain region and then headed into Calabria. My cousin had given me strict warnings to avoid certain areas because of bandit operations (shades of the wild west) or Mafia activity (this ain’t New York). However, I am not one to get paranoid when visiting new places. We were deep in Calabria nearing the city of Cosenza, when I thought it might be advisable to cash some travellers cheques. We drove into the city and around in circles for a while until I became frustrated at not locating a simple thing like a bank. I pulled over to the side of the road, stopped a man entering his own car and explained in my rusty Italian with heavy Canadian accent that I was a tourist and could he direct me to the nearest bank. He thought for a moment, shook his head and then suggested that it would be easier if I just followed him as he led the way in his car. I did. We turned left, then right, went up one street and down another, made more turns, and I looked nervously over to my wife. My cousin’s warning rang in my ear. I told her half-jokingly that either he was taking us to some outlaw hideout where we would never be seen again, even if the ransom of our life savings had been forfeited, or we would end up at some bank. A few minutes later at a busy downtown intersection with double and triple parked cars, he stopped, got out and pointed down the street to the bank. Both my wife and I thanked him profusely. Were we happy not to have been kidnapped? Were we glad we found a bank? Were we ashamed that our trust in mankind had lapsed? Perhaps all of the above, but mostly the last.
The automobile is king
If there is a downfall to Italy as we know it, it is not because of the multiple changes of governments that occur sometimes monthly. It is something much simpler and much more sinister. It is the automobile. Shortly after our arrival in Italy, we soon came to realize that the number of motor vehicles in the country exceeded the number of parking spaces available by a factor of 100. In other words, for every parking space there are 100 automobiles ready and waiting to pounce on that spot. Now, Italians are very crafty by nature, and to overcome this minor problem they have found several solutions. The simplest is to double park. Another solution if the parking spot is too small is to park diagonally, even if everyone else is parked normally. It is not the parker’s problem if a portion of his car juts out into traffic. It is also not unusual to have triple parking. Picture a two way thoroughfare of four lanes with double parked cars on each side. Because the cars are mostly smaller in bulk there is still room for one narrow lane of traffic. The width of the lane is usually about 3 cm (1″) wider than your car width. Of course, there may be some difficulty if you try to enter this narrow area as a vehicle approaches from the opposite direction. In that case, the normal Italian driver usually leans on his horn and bullies his way through.
Odysseus and the Sirens
The 180 km (112 mile) run from Cosenza to the ferry terminal just outside of Reggio was a pleasant autostrada drive, the rugged mountains a continuous and impressive backdrop. The terminal is at the tip of the toe of the Italian boot. The lineup of autos waiting to cross the Strait of Messina was extensive. I had visions that we would be waiting for hours. In fact, the line moved surprisingly quickly. The facilities included three docks and a ferry waited at each dock. As one ferry was loaded and departed for Messina another moved in and took its place. This procedure was repeated at each dock. The trip from the mainland to Sicily was about 20-30 minutes. It gave us a welcomed “brake” (ouch!) from the non stop autostrada driving. During the crossing, I thought back to the story of Odysseus of Greek mythology. When passing the island of Anthemoessa, in this very area, the three sirens would lure passing ships with their music. Odysseus blocked his men’s ears with beeswax and had them tie him to the ship’s mast. For our short trip, no such drastic recourse was required, as the only sound heard was the ferry’s steam whistle.
We landed in Messina, a large industrial port and left quickly for our destination stop of that night, Taormina 60 kms (37 miles) to the south. All the travel literature describes Taormina in hyperboles of rapture – the natural beauty, the setting, the view, the architecture, the Greek ruins, everything was perfect. Or so the travel brochures proclaimed. Our hearts lifted as we saw the highway sign and began our ascent up the steep winding road. The view of the sea and the smoking cone of Mount Etna above was a lure as strong as Odysseus’ sirens. We couldn’t wait to stroll the quaint streets of this magical town, like lovers on the second day of our honeymoon. We decided to stop at the first spot we found. However, it was not to be. The love/hate dilemma of the car vs parking spot reared its ugly head. As we climbed ever higher through the narrow streets, the once picturesque road took on a darker, more foreboding aspect. Not a parking spot to be seen. Not a space to be found to stop a moment to breath in and savour the beauty. We reached the centre of town. It was a maze of cars, strolling tourists (had they all walked from Messina?), and diesel-belching tour buses. The town’s central parking lot was a mass of bumpers and headlights with not a spare tire of room left. We continued up the mountain through the town, beads of frost-like sweat condensing on my forehead. To add to this earthly Purgatory of travel, the gas gauge on our Alfa was flashing an ominous yellow warning light of low fuel.
Onward and ever upward we drove, our unrelenting quest to find the elusive parking spot dissolving faster than an ice cube on a McDonald’s grill. In my anger and exasperation I had lapsed into the nether world of four letter profanity. My wife was astonished at my proficiency and turn of phrase, as this was a side of me she rarely saw. She was also not amused and said so in a much simpler and less descriptive manner. In desperation, I decided to turn back but, before I could do that, I had to make a 180 degree turn on a narrow winding mountain road with cars parked on one side and a precipitous sheer drop on the other. In spite of my coarse language, the patron saint of Sicily must have felt pity for us and somehow I managed to turn the car around.
The only gas station in town was doing a brisk business. No doubt all the tourists who could not find parking for their cars were there. This was the only time the car was stopped and not idling in Taormina. With a full tank of gas (at approximately $4.00 U.S. per gallon), we headed out of the town and down to the coastal beach area. We stopped at Giardini Naxos for a well deserved and restful stay. It turned out to be the perfect paradise after our hell in Taormina.
Naxos (It’s Greek to me)
Naxos, named by early Greek settlers, was a pleasant town . The ocean road and promenade were lined with small hotels, shops and restaurants. Idyllic views of sea and mountain surrounded us and the beach was sandy and inviting. We used Naxos as our base for the next two days. One of our goals on this trip was to see some of the Greek ruins in both Sicily and Greece. We took the autostrada south to Syracuse to see the ruins there, passing along the base of Mount Etna which dominates the area. This active volcano is constantly emitting plumes of white smoke. It all looked rather peaceful, belying the fact it could turn ugly and deadly. Later, in a lighter moment, when my wife was writing a post card to a friend she wrote,”Etna is rumbling and Ralph is grumbling.” Syracuse, both ancient Greek and modern Italian, was a delight. Probably because this was the first of many Greek sites, it made a strong impression on us. Particular highlights were the Temple of Apollo on the island of Ortigia in the centre of the old town and the Ear of Dionysus at the archaeological site. Ironically, because of the fiasco in Taormina, we missed the Greek theatre ruins at the top of the mountain.
Agrigento – The Valley of the Temples
The drive through central Sicily, from Giardini Naxos on the east coast to Agrigento on the south coast was a splendid mix of mountain ruggedness and fields of grain. At the end of May, the first harvest was well underway with bales ready and waiting to be carted away. On the highway, the Oleanders burst forth with a vitality just awakening on the mainland. In truth, Sicily was alive with colour and the scent of growing things. Nothing, however, could have have prepared us for that first glimpse of the Temple of Concordia perched on the top of a high cliff and appearing to be a miniature because of its height and distance. It was a vision that an ancient Greek pilgrim might have seen. Built in 450 BC. it is considered the best preserved Greek temple in existence today. The vastness of the Valley of the Temples was astonishing and the wealth of history incalculable. Interestingly, a site of the ruins of a Roman town was nearby. It was closed when we visited but, from what we could see from our vantage point at the gate, it was a poor rival to the magnificent Greek ruins.
Palermo – Can you spell M-A-F-I-A?
The road from Agrigento to Palermo again emphasized the farming heritage of the island. In Roman times, Sicily, was considered the food basket of the Empire. The mountains seemed less rugged and the land was covered with fields of cereal crops. Indeed, no farmhouses were seen, only the occasional small storage building. It appears that the Sicilian farmers and their families prefer to live in the small surrounding towns. This is in part for social as well as safety reasons. Palermo, the capital of Sicily, is a large bustling metropolis with heavy traffic congestion. A standard driving technique on roadways is that there are no “lanes” of traffic. A driver simply aims his auto where there is an open spot in the traffic and goes for it so cars are constantly swirling about you. They dart in from the left or the right, within a hair’s breadth of your vehicle. We witnessed several mishaps where either a car or scooter was sideswiped. It did not matter who was at fault; it was always the other guy.
We enjoyed the city although it was one of the dirtiest that we had visited. The large Botanical Gardens attached to the equally beautiful Villa Giulia were a quiet respite from the noisy traffic. The Norman fortifications were striking, as well, and we would see many of these castles throughout our tour of the south of Italy. All were from the time of the Crusades. It always amazed us to see what looked like something out of King Arthur’s England, complete with moat, in what we considered an unlikely place. We visited the monastery of the Capuchin Monks. Here are found catacombs with over 8000 mummies from babies to seniors in full dress which date from the 17th to 19th centuries. The figures are set side by side in rooms and areas segregated by gender and occupation. A fascinating, if somewhat macabre, experience.
Travel Comments will continue next month with Part II, the journey from Palermo back to the mainland. We will follow the southern coastal route to the port of Bari, with a couple of interesting side trips. From Bari, join us on a cruise to several Greek islands, Dubrovnik in Croatia and finally Venice.
Ralph J. Luciani