My train is more than one hour late, and the only other man in the carriage isn’t happy about it. After cursing the train company, he keeps complaining to somebody over the phone about his bad luck: “This is just unbelievable! I bet such things don’t even happen in Africa! I’m sure Libya has better trains than this fucking country!”.
While I’m pretty disturbed by the remarks, I find it conceptually interesting that the man has chosen a former Italian colony as a term of comparison, and I wonder if he’s aware of it.
I prefer to focus on the landscape outside, observing the coastline, watching several gulfs placidly pass by one after the other.
I’m joining my friends John and Claudio in Cilento, a region in the southern part of Campania, close to the border with Basilicata.
John, who grew up in Sapri, has often described his hometown with a certain degree of pride, and I’m starting to understand why.
Since the early 1990s, most of Cilento has been declared a national park, which has protected the area from building speculation and mass tourism.
Looking into the Thyrrenian sea, the volcanic shores of the region are often steep, with sharp rocks and hidden pebble beaches. Right behind them, the ground gets suddenly craggy, with verdant hills and snow-clad peaks.
It’s a mythological land. Virgil’s Aeneid tells about the sad fate of Palinurus, the helmsman of Aeneas’s ship, sacrificed by the gods to guarantee a safe passage to Italy for the Trojans. Capo Palinuro, the suggestive promontory I’ve just passed by, has been named after him.
When I finally arrive in Sapri, I find Claudio and John patiently waiting for me. We make a quick stop at John’s place where I met his father, Pasquale, who heartily welcomes me with a confident handshake before looking at my complexion and exclaiming: “Quanto sei bianco!” (“You’re so pale!”)
To thank him for the hospitality, I give him a pack of coffee I’ve bought from a very good torrefazione in Rome, and as a result he seems to forget the fact I’m not tan enough.
Few minutes later we’re in the car. Claudio drives along the curvy road that flanks the coast towards Maratea, a charming town known as “the Pearl of the Tyrrhenian”, until John points at a modest group of rocks emerging from the sea.
“Look over there!” he says.
“On those rocks, you mean?… is that a sculpture?” I ask after noticing the figure of a woman laying on a rock. It looks like it’s made of bronze.
“Yes, indeed. That’s the Spigolatrice of Sapri. It’s a rather sad story: she was a gleaner who fell in love with Carlo Pisacane, the Italian patriot fighting the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in the 1850s. She follows him, watching him from afar fighting against the Bourbon troops, until he gets killed”.
“… And she’s been on that rock, staring at the sea, ever since”. I can’t resist the temptation of closing the story. After all, Risorgimento is all about some good old drama.
Before noon we reach a small beach closed on each side by high cliffs. The crystal-clear water is of a deep hue of green from reflecting the vegetation nearby. The clicking and chirping noises of cicadas are all around us.
We spend the day in idleness, and in the evening we go to Scario, a charming town with a small port that looks exactly like everyone would imagine: terraced houses painted in red and amber, facing the sea; smartly-dressed people dining in the town’s little piazza; white boats docked in the harbour, floating at the gentle rhythm of the undertow.
I’ve just finished my tagliolini with mushrooms and prawns when Stefano, one of John’s closest childhood friends, joins us. Stefano lives in Rome but comes back to Cilento as often as he can. He is curious to know about my first impression of the area, so I tell him I find everything peaceful and delightful: “There’s so much to see here, I’ll have to come back!”
He observes me for a few seconds with his lively eyes, in silence, before replying: “Yes, you’re right. However, looking isn’t enough”.
Then, after a long, emphatic pause, he adds: “Devi anche ascoltare” (“You have to listen too”) “I know it sounds crazy, but do try to listen. Listen to what’s around you”.
Stefano’s advice is so unexpected and poetic, that I struggle to find anything intelligent to say. The rest of the evening goes by quickly, one amaro after another.
The morning after we’re reunited for breakfast in the big kitchen of John’s house.
Pasquale is in a very good mood, and he entertains us with family stories and jokes.
Pasquale seems to disagree about the fact Cilento is universally considered the cradle of the Mediterranean diet, which might explain the extraordinary longevity of people living in the area: “I’ll tell you what the Mediterranean diet consists of: nothing! That’s how you age so well. You eat nothing! What do you think people would eat around here? There’s no room to grow anything!” He exclaims, pointing at the mountains outside the window. “… little bread, some olives, and few tomatoes. That’s it!” he smiles.
“Cilento has always been a poor land, though beautiful. Look around you. Have you seen any ruins of ancient Roman buildings? The Romans weren’t stupid. They understood there was little point in building grand monuments over here. They would just come, disembark, load all the timber from our mountains, and go back home”.
I feel I’ve learned more about the area in just one hour over breakfast than if I’d have read ten books on the subject.
Another sunny day awaits.
Today we take a ferry from Scario and we reach one of the many secluded bays that make the Cilento coast so fascinating. The heavy heat has released some haze in the air, so the mountains have turned faded blue, the same colour of the sea.
We have lunch at the only restaurant around. After a couple of tasty freselle with tomatoes, anchovies, and olive oil, Saverio, the owner, entertains us by singing and playing the organetto. Soon his son and nephew join in.
Towards the night I take some time to observe the shore. The increasingly oblique rays of sun highlight every leaf of vegetation, animating the whole coast. It’s this endless sight of bays, mysterious inlets, and suggestive grottos that has inspired fantastic tales ever since the Ancient Greeks. After all, in these very waters, Odysseus defied the sirens, tied to the mast of his ship to be able to listen to their enigmatic call.
It’s one of the most popular episodes of the Odyssey, yet, like every great story-teller, Homer left some things unexplained. We don’t know what persuasive words the sirens would tell the poor souls passing by their cove to convince them to abandon their ships, crushing their bones against the rocks below.
Stefano’s advice from yesterday evening comes to my mind: “Looking isn’t enough. Devi ascoltare!”. And like Odysseus, I’ve decided to listen.
Restaurant hut on la Baia del Buon Dormire
Ristorante Maria Luisa, Scario
A law graduate, Daniele, the restaurant’s chef, was living in Luxembourg when he decided to quit everything and move back to Caselle in Pittari, his hometown in Cilento, to become a cook.
La Taverna del Lupo, Camerota — At Spiaggia del Marcellino.
Besides serving exceptionally good french fries, this taverna is pretty unique as it’s only reachable by boat.
If you’re lucky, Saverio – the owner – will play the organetto singing traditional songs from Cilento.
Pasticceria Mazzilli, Sapri
The best way to start the day in Sapri.
Santomiele, Prignano Cilento
Head to the inland near Agropoli for a unique, local experience
BAYS & TRACKS
Grotta Azzurra, Palinuro
“Appezzami l’Asino” Track, Sapri — A picturesque 10 km track (round trip) overhanging the sea. Until the 1910s this was the only path linking Sapri and Maratea.