Monday, June 20, 2011

Flowers, Flowers Everywhere

It's June and it is a floral paradise in Cervinara. Gardens are resplendent with color and texture and people take care of their plants and flowers as if they were members of the family. Pots of geraniums, beds of lillies, bushes of hydrangeas all abound. But my favorite way to appreciate the flowers of Cervinara is to find them in fields, growing as weeds along the roadsides or sprouting out of rooftops and ancient walls.
Earlier this month I enjoyed a trek up the mountain to visit the remains of our old castle. The walk was challenging but it was so pleasurable because of the quiet of the pathway and because of the variety of flora that surrounded me. I took dozens of photos, of Scotch broom and poppies, daisies and jasmine, and many with names unknown to me. That experience turned my eye to other places to find flowers and, in spring, there are many! Sitting on our front stoop, we enjoy purple blossoms on the roof of the garage next door. Walking through Piazza Trescine, I saw old pillars with the same purple blooms. Flowers adorn our pathways and side streets and make for a concerto of colors and scents.
As summer progresses, the wild flowers die down and become dormant in the hotter, drier climate. Then as we come into fall, a new set of floral delights await. Asters, chrysanthamums, and other late bloomers are ready to adorn the cemeteries on November 1 & 2.
Spring, summer or fall....the flowers of Cervinara make this a most beautiful spot to enjoy.

The Piazzas of Cervinara

Cervinara, like just about every other Italian town, large or small, has its share of piazzas. In Italian culture, the piazza represents communal life at its most vibrant. It is the place where children gather to kick a soccer ball around, where teens strut their stuff for members of the opposite sex, where parents watch their children run around freely, and where senior citizens sit on benches and talk over the good old days. In short, the piazza is at the center of every neighborhood and it plays a vital role in everyday life.
In Cervinara, there are several piazzas. The one nearest our home up in Ioffredo, is in front of the Chiesa di San Nicola. After the floods of 1999, the church, surrounding homes and the piazza were either damaged or destroyed. Now, in 2011, the town has begun reconstruction of the piazza, making it into the pleasant place to hang out that it used to be. Repaving, using small paver stones, has been completed. We are awaiting the finishing treatments....lamp posts, benches, fences that will protect little ones from falling into the river, etc. We can't wait to see the whole project finished, but we're not sure when that will be!
A short walk from our neighborhood takes us to the Ferrari section of town. The centerpiece of this neighborhood is Piazza Elena, named for one of the queens of Italy. It is, in my opinion, the prettiest of all of Cervinara's piazzas. There are lots of benches for sitting while enjoying an ice cream from one of the two bars that are located here. There is a lovely old fountain from which young and old alike take refreshment. There is the Palazzo Marchesale, the old palace of the Marchesa, which fronts up to the piazza. And, most importantly, are the trees....centuries old yet still offering shade to the tired pedestrian.
Further down into town is Piazza Trescine. This is the political center of town. Here we find the Municipio or town hall, banks, newspaper stands, bars and restaurants, etc. There is a new fountain that was put in a few months ago, not nearly as charming as the Ferrari fountain, but still a nice addition. The town has worked hard to make this piazza a welcoming one, adding benches and planting trees too.
Finally, another brief walk from Trescine is the Villa Communale. This is the largest piazza in Cervinara and offers something for everyone. It is a gated piazza, so children are free to run around through the playground and parents don't have to worry about them darting into the traffic. There are trees, statues, shaded paths for strolling, and most importantly, a great gelateria. Micione makes some of the best gelato anywhere. Their menu is limited to usually eight flavors, but that is because they make it fresh daily. Any sunny Sunday afternoon will find the Villa Communale bustling with families working off their dinner, children scampering through the monkey bars, lovers strolling hand in hand, and people like us enjoying a gelato.
Without its piazzas, Cervinara would not be the same. Without its piazzas, Italy would not be the same. These areas allow for a gregarious and lively people to meet, play and talk together as few places in the United States do. Tutti in piazza!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Weddings in Cervinara

Before we left for Italy, I had become sort of addicted to a strange show, "Say Yes to the Dress". The show is centered around a bridal store in NYC where women come from around the world to pick the dress of their dreams. It is sort of like driving by an accident on the highway, where you feel guilty watching the mess but you can't turn your eyes away. I am always appalled at the crassness of some of the clients, sometimes mothers and daughters coming to blows over price points, wow factor and all the other cliches that are thrown around on the show. It is a sad display of some of the worst of American culture.
Weddings in small Italian towns tend to be different, a little more modest and more restrained, yet with their own charming traditions. While I have seen some pretty horrendous dresses advertised on TV here, for the most part things are fairly tasteful and geared to family and close friends. Bridezillas don't usually rear their ugly heads here!
This Sunday there was a wedding at the Church of San Nicola, our local parish. Just about every home in Cervinara is within easy walking distance of a church, so when a wedding takes place it involves the whole neighborhood. While we didn't know "Salvatore and Angela", the bride and groom personally, everyone is welcome to participate in some aspect of the celebration.
Balloons were tied festively to the railings on the bridge over the river and to any pole or door knob that was available. After the church service the bride and groom, as well as the guests and wedding party proceed on foot through the streets, usually to the bride's home. Along the way, well-wishers shower the couple with confetti, rose petals, sugared almonds and other treats. Sometimes a bottle of champagne is opened and poured for anyone in the vicinity. Fire crackers are de rigueur for a wedding celebration. After the procession, either the family or a hired pyrotechnician will set off a fireworks display. There will be many episodes of booms and explosions throughout the rest of the day, not to mention the continual honking of horns as the wedding party eventually drives to the reception.
The day after the wedding, evidence of the revels lingers. Stray candies litter the streets, along with confetti, deflated balloons, rose petals and bottle tops. Very often the host family will share their leftover biscotti with folks at the bar or will hand out bombonieri (small packs of sugared almonds wrapped in lacy fabric) to anyone who passes by.
By their very nature, weddings are happy but emotional events, shared with those we love most. In Cervinara, as in most other small Italian towns, they are also shared with everyone along the way, and we are all happy to join in the celebrations!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Unexpected Italy 2

Unexpected Italy

In case our life of retirement in the hills of Cervinara was too stressful, we decided we needed to get away from things and enjoy a few days in Ischia. Once again, it’s a bit of Unexpected Italy that isn’t often on our traditional itineraries.

Ischia is an island off the coast of Naples, bigger than Capri but far smaller than Sardegna. It is about an hour by traghetto from Pozzuoli to the island, and it is well worth the trip. When we arrived yesterday it was pouring rain, everything was gray and sorry and depressing. I wasn’t happy! As the day wore on, the rain stopped and the clouds parted and we could see some of the beauty that was hidden behind the drizzle. By evening, we were in love.

Our hotel, while not much to look at, is in a nice location in the town of Forio. It is right next door to some wonderful gardens, I Giardini della Mortella. These gardens were started by William Walton, an important English musician and composer of the 20th century, and his wife, an Argentine woman who loved flowers and plants. My niece, the cultural expert, highly recommended that we visit these gardens and, since there was a concert there that night we decided to kill two birds with one stone. The evening’s entertainment was a recital using two pianos, the musicians a young Russian woman and an equally young German man. We were enthralled from the first notes.

The program consisted of music from Bach, Mozart, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, and Gershwin. It was thrilling to watch the communication of these two fine pianists as they wended their way through their repertoire. The room was packed with music lovers and the response to the performances was positive and enthusiastic. We felt so lucky to have found such great entertainment in such a beautiful setting.

After the concert we walked through the gardens, enjoying the fountains, flowers and fragrances that surrounded us. It was so nice to have this quiet interlude as the sun began to set over the water. It is so important to leave yourself open to opportunities such as this, to find the unexpected that awaits around the corner, and to take advantage of these moments when they present themselves. It is far too easy to get bogged down in our daily lives or to get so tied up in our “bucket list” that we fail to see the gifts of the unexpected. La dolce vita!

Unexpected Italy 1

One of the best reasons for living in a place rather than just being a tourist is the opportunity to take advantage of the lesser known places and events that are known only to the locals. I think of this as the “Unexpected Italy”, and one never knows when it will appear.

Last week our daughter Marta and her fiancĂ© Dan arrived for their visit to Italy. They spent four days with us before leaving for their own tour of the big sites. On their first day here, we did the expected Italy; Pompeii, Sorrento and the historic center of Naples. On Sunday, we did the Unexpected Italy; a tour around Lago d’Averno, a visit to a vineyard with Neapolitan entertainment, and then a walk across an active volcano!

My niece is a member of Siti Reali, a group dedicated to protecting and promoting the amazing gifts that southern Italy has to offer. They planned the day’s activities, which started with an adventurous drive out to Pozzuoli to get to the Lago d’Averno. This is a crater lake, formed in the crater of a now extinct volcano. It’s quite small, a pond by our standards, perhaps even a puddle, but it is very deep and quite lovely. It’s an easy walk around the entire circumference, with ruins of a temple to Apollo and lots of vineyards and terraced hillsides. Our guide explained some of the ancient myths and stories linked to this place, including the belief that it was the entrance to the underworld. There is a good sized hill right next to the lake called Monte Nuova, new mountain. This “mountain” sprang up out of nowhere in three days almost a thousand years ago, a testament to the instability of this whole area.

After our walk around the lake, we were treated to some entertainment in the traditional Neapolitan style. A trio of singers, two women and a young man, sang some old songs from this region, in the old Neapolitan dialect. The music was lovely, even though the lyrics were hard to understand. This dialect is challenging! After that brief interlude we proceeded on to the vineyard where we were going to have lunch. We were greeted with lots of bottles of their wine and some water, plates of local cheese and salamis and were given the opportunity to relax in the shade of their arbor. This was followed by a tour of the vineyard where we saw vines over 200 years old, fig, peach and pear trees and, my favorite, nespole trees.

I, like most of you, had never heard of nespole before moving to Italy. My husband was thrilled to be here at a time when they were in season, because they were one of his favorite fruits as a child. But every time we bought them at the market or from our green grocer, I found them to be overly tart and just not worth the effort. The nespole that we picked at the vineyard made me realize that he was indeed right and that this little fruit is an amazing tasty treat. These had the consistency of an apricot but the flavor was more that of a pear/peach combination. They were sweet and juicy and made me crave more and more of them! As we toured the vineyard we continued to pick these lovely little nuggets off the trees until we were sated.

After our tour we went back to our arbor for baked pasta (cooked in a wood-burning oven fueled by grape vines, grilled sausages and salad, and finally more nespole for dessert. The wine that we drank was light and refreshing and we were happy to buy a case to take home.

At that point we were tired and full, but our day wasn’t over. Another piece of Unexpected Italy awaited. Pozzuoli is, as mentioned before, a very unstable area, with a history of earthquakes and eruptions. The last major earthquake was in November of 1980 and at that time much of the city was damaged and many of its residents were forced to evacuate. One of the remnants of that instability is “La Solfatara”, an active volcano that is the smelliest place imaginable.

La Solfatara is a volcano that has a relatively thin crust of earth plugging it up. As we walked across this barren moon-scape, the smell of sulfur was at times overwhelming. When you take a rock and throw it hard onto the ground, the sound is not one that you would expect. Instead of the dull thud of rock hitting solid ground, there is more of an empty hollow sound, similar to knocking on a big pumpkin. That is because it is empty underneath that crust of earth….walking across the Solfatara is like walking across an island, floating in a sea of lava and hot gasses!

There is a large area where mud bubbles up to the surface, boiling hot. Another area is filled with hot steam that works its way through fissures in the earth. It is nature’s sauna. Then there are the “stufe”, the ovens. One is called purgatory and the other is inferno. They are small tunnels dug into the side of the mountain. One can walk in a foot or so and can stand it for maybe five seconds before being overcome by the smell and the heat. These spots are not for the faint of heart.

All in all, our day in Unexpected Italy was a joy. It provided us with beautiful views, good food, wonderful company and lots of new experiences. What more could we ask for?