Sunday, May 20, 2018

If Music Be the Food of Love....

People often ask what there is to do in Cervinara.  Aren't you bored?  What is the cultural life like there.  As with any small town, there are certainly moments of inactivity, days where the highlight is the passing of the fruit and vegetable truck or the cheese man.  But there are also moments of such beauty and richness, it seems impossible that they are happening in this small hill town.

We have been here for five days now, several of which have been spent tracking down our errant luggage, a situation which has fortunately been resolved.  So last night, when our neighbor invited me to join her at a concert at our small local church, I was happy to tag along. 

To be perfectly frank, I wasn't expecting a lot.  I knew that there would be some students from the local high school that specializes in music, some of their teachers, and some local talent.  And as is so typical here, the 7:00 pm start time was delayed by an hour to accommodate late arrivals and logistical issues.  But when the orchestra played the first notes of a Rossini overture, I and the rest of the audience were spellbound.  We were in for 90 minutes of spectacular music, both orchestral and vocal. 

The acoustics in our church allowed the voices and strings to fill every corner of the edifice.  The enthusiasm of both spectators and performers was electric.  The absolute beauty that permeated the space gave me "brividi", that absolute pleasure that comes from hearing a beautiful piece of music performed flawlessly and passionately.  The ninety minutes flew by and we were ready for more. 
After amazing renditions of Vissi d'Arte, E Lucevan le Stelle, Nessun Dorma, and Si, Mi chiamano Mimi, the audience begged for more.  So tenor and soprano came out together to finish the evening with a rousing version of Libiamo!  Let's Drink!

This wonderful program is part of the Festival di Maggio, a May festival that publicizes and presents the gifted students, teachers, and performers of this little village.  I've seen my share of great performances, including Pavarotti twice and many operas at the Met, but I swear that our local musicians in our local church provided a more memorable and moving performance than any of the others.  The intimacy of the setting, the fact that we were no more than 10 feet from the singers, that the orchestra was squeezed onto the altar...these all contributed to the magic of the evening.

There are more concerts coming up; a wind quintet on Monday, a string quartet on Tuesday, and student recitals on Thursday are all on the calendar.  I look forward to another week of tidying, planting, and shopping....and more fantastic music, on!

Monday, October 9, 2017

There's Gold in Them Thar Hills!

It's been several years since Cervinara has seen a good chestnut harvest.  Because of a variety of ills, including a Chinese worm and some bad weather, three years have gone by since there has been a good harvest.  We were worried about this year as well because our area as well as most of the rest of Europe suffered under an incredibly hot and dry summer.  Weeks of temperatures in the 100+ range and months that saw not a drop of rain had many worried that 2017 would be another washout Well, I can tell you first hand that those worries were unfounded!

Last weeks our cousins came down from Milan to check out their piece of the mountain.  We enjoyed several days of good company, nice hikes and great food.  Climbing up onto their property on a windy day, we were bombarded by dropping chestnuts, still in their spiny shells.
It's a tricky business, chestnut gathering.  If the nuts haven't escaped from the "ricci" when they drop to the ground, they have to be released by heavily gloved hands.  Then each nut must be examined for worms and mold before it can be added to the collection.  Every brown morsel is like a little voice calling out "Pick me! Pick me!".  It's impossible to walk by without scooping up as many as you can carry.  And that's a problem, because as pleasant as it is hiking up to the groves, it's not so much fun when you're toting 40 or 50 lbs of chestnuts in your backpack!  It always gives me newfound admiration for the women who for generations would hike up to the mountain, gather 100 lbs of chestnuts into their sheets, bundle them up and then tote them down the mountain....and not to a paved road where a truck would await but all the way back down to town, with that bundle balanced on their heads.  Those were strong women!
There were lots of women up there when we were and believe me, it was clear what dilettantes we were!  We strolled from spot to spot, looking for easy picking and mostly leaving the ricci behind.  When we'd filled a backpack we headed back to the road for our ride home.  But these women were there all day, filling bag after bag, hoisting them into the trucks or tractors that were awaiting, and even cooking the noon meal on the mountain.

There are huts and primitive lean-tos that have sheltered the mountain workers for generations.  During rainy days the work doesn't stop and these structures provide some measure of protection from the elements. Cousin Umberto gathered up a nice pile of chestnuts, covered them with leaves and damp grass and lit them on fire.  The damp greens created a nice stream of steam that cooked the chestnuts perfectly, right there on the mountain.  In wetter weather this would be done in a hut like this.
It's fun to play at being a mountaineer, but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be able to handle it on a regular basis.  There's a saying that you shouldn't curse the farmer with your mouth full, and that goes for the gatherers of all the riches of the mountains.  It's easy to criticize or be unappreciative of the laborers who put the food on our tables, but if we just tried doing their work day in and day out  I think we would all change our tune.
There are more riches than just the chestnuts at this time of year.  It's also the perfect time for mushroom hunting.  While I spotted many, my companions were quick to point out that I only have an eye for the poisonous ones!  It's a good thing I have nice friends who are eager to share their good fortune with me and we had some yummy funghi to accompany our lunch back home.

This October on the 28th and 29th, there will be another sagra in honor of the chestnut.  There will be restaurants opened inside private homes where traditional dishes will be served.  There will be desserts based on chestnuts, huge roasting machines and lots of other culinary treats.  There will be music and entertainments, parades, flag throwers and drill teams.  But most importantly, there will be lots of local chestnuts, not chestnuts imported from Greece as they've had to use the last few years.  It's reassuring to know that after an unpleasant interlude, the gold ricci that cover the hillsides of Cervinara are back in strength, just waiting for some hungry and enterprising folks to pick them up and take them home!  Buon appetito!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Shame on Us!

I've written so many times about how we don't appreciate the beauty that we see every day, that it takes the eyes of an outsider to make us see what surrounds us.  Sadly, this week I was on the receiving end of this message and it makes me ashamed that we have ignored what's in our own backyard for so long.

We all know about the big cities, and the medium sized towns that Rick Steves has brought to light.  But the tiny villages and hilltop towns tend to be ignored.  That's where the website comes in.  I found out about this site while watching a weekend travel show called Linea Verde.  This program celebrates so much of what makes Italy special, from the beautiful scenery to the magnificent buildings to the delicious food.  The borghi piu belli site puts all this information into easily clickable bits of information and when I visited it I was surprised to see that there are several towns very near here, and one that we have gone to dozens of times over the years.

Montesarchio is one town over from Cervinara.  I've always admired the castle and tower that dominates the landscape, and have known that there is a very good archeological museum there, but we've always just used Montesarchio as a shopping venue.  There's a little mall that we've visited, a supermarket that carries all our necessaries, and our Tim Telephone tech center.  I've always ignored the historic center.  Well shame on me!

This past week our friends and cousins from Milan came down for a visit.  On their list of things to do was to visit the Castello in Montesarchio.  I'd been homebound for several days due to dear hubby's nasty cold and was ready for an excursion. 

We started with a fantastic lunch at Colle d'Ercule, a family run restaurant at the foot of Mount Taburno.  What culinary treats awaited us!  This wasn't our first time at this restaurant but it was certainly our most enjoyable!  Varied plates of antipasti, pappardelle with porcinis, and a fig and robiola crostata made for a most satisfying lunch, all accompanied by well chilled falanghina wine.  Superb!

After lunch and a nice stroll through their gardens we drove up to the top of the promontory that looms over the town below.  This was a really lovely spot that is worth a visit and I feel so bad that with all the friends and family who have visited us over the years, we've never taken them here. 
We went through the museum that is free of charge and were amazed at the wealth of this collection, all relics from ancient civilizations in this area, and many excavated from Via Cervinara!
From the museum we walked down a narrow pathway and into the old borgo, in search of an 8th century sanctuary.  There isn't much left of it, but it was lovely finding this ancient place of worship.

Our day was blessed with blue skies, mild winds and strolls through history. 
I promise to all those who will come to visit us in the future that we will not ignore the beauty and history that lie not 15 minutes from our front door.  And I also promise to try not to be one of those who require the presence of "outsiders" to appreciate what I have been given! 
Next year we'll be exploring Sant'Agata dei Goti, another town in our area that is among the most beautiful borghi of Italy.  There's always something new to discover, here in this beautiful part of the world!

Saturday, September 30, 2017


Anyone who has taught high school for more than a week knows what PDA's are (public displays of affection, for the uninitiated among you).  But here in Cervinara, and in so many other small towns in this area, PDA's are my shorthand for Public Displays of Art.  It's a charming way to bring beauty to the streets and sometimes show important traditions and beliefs.

We don't see many PDA's "downtown".  There the streets are dominated with shop fronts and restaurants.  But up in the Borgo of Castello and down into the Ioffredo and Valle neighborhoods, public art is a part of daily life.  Starting up in Castello, the highest neighborhood in town, there is a series of murals dedicated to the chestnut. For generations, the economy of Cervinara revolved around the chestnut harvest and other fruits of the mountains.  When Castello started hosting the Chestnut Festival every October, the murals were painted to add character and a sense of history to the event.  They are still there, invoking memories of the hard labor the cultivation of chestnuts entails.

Some of the artwork is of a more personal nature.  It's not clear who the artist is in most cases, and if he or she still lives in the house that has been decorated.  Today, walking down a narrow alleyway up in Castello, I came across this sketch.  Half of it is missing, but I was taken by the somber feel and the simplicity of the figure. 

  Then there is this charming and heartwarming picture of a traditional Cervinarese couple from the past.  I found this in the tiniest piazza, not a 10 minute walk from our house.  It's tucked away in a corner of the Valle neighborhood and I just love the sense of history and nostalgia that it imparts. 

There are other pieces of public art that one encounters along the way, many of a religious nature.  This simple painting shows a primitive look at our local parish church, San Nicola.  There are also many paintings dedicated to various saints and religious figures. 

I think for the most part, most residents of Cervinara and all those other small towns walk by these pieces of public art and never register what they are seeing.  Sometimes it takes the eyes of an outsider to appreciate what a gift these works actually are.  To be surrounded with beauty, both manmade and natural, gives our lives meaning.  I try to find that beauty in every corner of our little town and I hope my readers will appreciate them as well.  Peace.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

I hate earworms.  You know, the little snippets of music that replay themselves constantly in your brain, that you wake up humming and go to sleep listening to in the dark?  Earworms are the worst.  For the last couple of days I have been living with "Should I stay or should I go".  It's a forgettable song brought to mind only because of an ad campaign this year.  I don't remember what product or service was being hawked, but the tagline was this lyric.  So why is it my constant companion?

This summer, the sun never left.  For over two months there was not a drop of rain, and nary a cloud in the sky.  Temperatures routinely went into triple digits for days on end and there was no one in the streets or at the market.  Cervinara, and all of Europe for that matter, was stuck in a horrible heat wave.  I know this only second hand of course, because we just got here a couple of weeks ago.  We've enjoyed mostly cool and comfortable weather, thank goodness.  If we had had to suffer through what the local residents did, I don't know that we would have stayed.

However, the sun has become a little bit touchy lately.  It comes, it goes, it rains, it clears up, it's pleasant, it pours.  I think the sun has been listening to the same earworm as I have!  In fact, our house has a microclimate all its own.  I took two pictures this morning, not 10 seconds apart.  In one I was facing north, then I turned around 180 degrees and took another shot.  Here's what it's like in Cervinara today:
This was the sky to the north. 
This was the view to the south. 

I did three loads of laundry this morning, thinking all would be well and I would take advantage of a nice breeze and sunny skies.  By the time I was ready to schlep them all upstairs to the line, it was clear that I could not trust Mr. Sun and I resorted to using my indoor racks to get the drying process started.  Who knows how long it will take, but it's better than trying to outguess the weather gods in this game of "Should I stay or should I go?"  Pazienza!

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Nature's Surprises

Today we took advantage of an absolutely gorgeous day to take a walk up into the hills.  This is always one of my favorite ways to spend a couple of hours in Cervinara and today's excursion was no exception.
The rocky cliffs provide an awesome entrance to the hill region and we certainly don't try to venture up there, but it's always an impressive sight that gives me pause. 
We started up at the Mafariello Park area.  Driving through winding roads, the vegetation changes from chestnut and walnut trees to pine trees and low shrubs.  It's very reminiscent of driving into Maine, with the sweet smell of the pine trees redolent in the air.  We always bring jugs up to Mafariello to bring home some of the icy, spring water that is usually in abundant supply.  Today however, things were different.  It must be due to the very hot and dry weather that everyone here suffered through this summer, but the pipe that brings the spring water to the surface brought just a dribble.  Usually water comes pouring out at a couple of liters a second.  I've never seen it with such a pitiful trickle, and I've been coming here since 1973.  But we filled one jug and enjoyed splashing our faces and drinking from the pipe regardless.

The next stop was to take Maria Elena and Josh to the family property where we have part of a mountain with chestnut groves on it.  Again, things looked good, but dry.  Even the notorious spot that always has a pool of muddy water in it (notorious because we got our car stuck there in 2010 and had to call in the troops to pull us out) was just a bit mucky rather than full of water. 

As we stepped out of our car, our noses were met with the unmistakable scent of sheep poop.  Before we heard the bells of the herd, we smelled their contributions to the ecosystem....and it was all over the place!  I was anxious to see those beauties and so we headed down another path to find their grazing area.
They were so sweet and cute, I had to take some pictures.  The shepherd over in the background waved and must have thought that I was one crazy city lady, but it reminded me so much of my time in Greece where we were able to roam around with the sheep and goats, before they got served to us for lunch!
These are moments that make every day enjoyable.  They may seem silly to some, but I find such joy roaming in the hills, dodging the sheep poop, admiring the majesty of our hills and looking forward to tasting our chestnuts.  If we keep our eyes and minds open, we can all find beauty in Nature's gifts. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Adventures in Training

One of our favorite things about spending time in Italy is being able to take friends and family around to spots we love, or to use them as an excuse to visit new sites.  Today, I was lucky enough to take daughter Maria Elena and her hubby Josh out to Herculaneum, a site very similar to Pompeii, but smaller and more manageable.  Maria had been there about 15 years ago, but I had never been to these excavations, always opting for the more well known Pompeii.  Today I was thrilled with what I saw and don't think Pompeii will be on my radar in the future!

As always, the best way to get into Naples is on our little train.  Our ticket agent was on the job and suggested we buy a TIC (Ticket Integrato Campania).  Turns out for under 5E per person we could get from Cervinara to Naples and from Naples to Herculaneum on one ticket.  What a deal!  Of course our train was 15 minutes late and quite crowded, but we were able to find seats right next to the  Seats on our old little train our pretty tight, and not meant for anyone over 4'10 or 80 pounds, both benchmarks I passed at about six years of age...but I digress.

We arrived at Napoli Centrale and went immediately down to the lower level to pick up the Circumvesuviano train that takes you out past Herculaneum, Pompeii, and all the way to Sorrento.  The line at the ticket window was very long but we scooted right through the gate with our prepaid ticket.  Felt very smug!  The platform was teeming with people, both natives and tourists alike and we were shocked when our train arrived already filled to overflowing.  But we jammed in and managed to find a spot where we could grab onto a handhold.  Seriously, I haven't been this close to strange men in many a moon!  No secrets between us, believe you me!  But 15 minutes later and we were set free to start our explorations. 

A pleasant 10 minute walk down Via IV Novembre (with a quick stop for a sfogliatella!) and we were in line at the scavi di Ercolano.  This is an amazing site, much more manageable than Pompeii.  It doesn't extend for miles, but it gives the visitor every bit of what Pompeii offers, minus the arenas.  There are the taverns, luxurious homes, brothels, and tragic remains of the victims of Vesuvius' wrath.  This is all easily accessible in a visit of 2 hours or so.  It's now my place of choice for Roman excavations!

On our return trip, again the craziness of southern Italy and its train system came to the surface.  First, as I was putting my return ticket into the slot and waiting for the gates to open, I was pushed from behind by a group of three teenage boys.  They successfully managed to push me and the three of them through the gates on my one ticket!  They were so proud of their ability to game the system that I had to chuckle, but I did want to give them a swift kick in the behind too!

Then, we climb up three flights of stairs to get to the binario where the train to Naples was scheduled to leave in 15 minutes.  An announcement comes on, and suddenly there's movement among all those waiting on the platform.  People are leaping over the fence separating the platform from the rails, jumping onto the tracks and running across three sets of tracks to get to binario 3.  That announcement that we missed had just said that there was a change in program and the train would no longer leave from binario 1 but would now leave from binario 3. we schlep down three flights of stairs, do the underground tunnel to cross under the tracks and then schlep up three more flights to get to the correct binario....or do we jump the tracks like everyone else?  We jump the tracks, of course!

Somehow I manage to squeeze myself through the fence, jump down onto the tracks, stumble across the gravel and rails, and then pull myself up onto the platform, just in time to get on the train.  I must say, this was not one of my finer moments of grace and coordination, but thanks to Maria and Josh I made it in one piece and we were all on our way back to Cervinara, via Naples. 

The rest of the trip was quite uneventful and we were even lucky enough to find a train with air conditioning for the last leg of our trip, but I don't think any of us will forget our laughing in the face of danger and becoming railroad scofflaws!  It's all in a day's life here in southern Italy!