Sunday, September 28, 2008

When Bad Service Results in a Great Meal

It was hot. Very, very hot. The sun was intense and the heat was scorching, surprising for the elevation. We had just visited the fascinating castle of Lagopesole, one of the hunting lodges built by Frederick II during his reign. He used Puglia and Basilicata as his stomping grounds and playground and littered the landscape with unique, even odd, castles. Lagopesole is well preserved, though only a portion of it is open to the public. There are secret passageways and ornate stone work, and its sheer mass occupying the top of a crest makes it an enticing stopover. Bryan is very enthusiastic about fortresses and castles, so it was on the list, even if it hadn't been a convenient locale.

We left right at lunchtime and made our way to an osteria in the town below the castle. Chiuso. That's the problem with Mondays. It is a crapshoot if you'll find things open, especially museums and restaurants. We followed a sign to another restaurant, which was open and proudly proclaimed itself as climatizzata, air conditioned. Great!

We settled into a table in the depth of the cavern-like room to find that the promised a/c was not on, despite the fact that the temps were soaring in the 90s (fahrenheit). I had sweat streaming down my back while perusing the menu. We were hot and hungry. We were also resolutely ignored. The waitress floated past our table without giving us a glance, despite our best efforts to get her attention. She seated a large table of workers and immediately took their orders, brought them water and wine...while we stewed in the back. Twenty minutes ticked by without any acknowledgement that we existed and might want to eat. No water, no "I'll be right with you".

Poor customer service is one of my pet peeves. It drives me nuts; I mean, you're in a business to give service to serve them! I got good and ticked off and announced to my hungry hubby that we were outta there. He was less than happy with my decision, because as I've already mentioned, it was a Monday and there were no other choices in that town. For me it was a matter of principle...if they don't want to give me the time of day, why should I beg and then dole out money for the "privilege"? I'd rather lunch on the stale potato chips and mealy apples stashed in the trunk.

We huffed off. No clear destination in mind, as we were winding our way north-ward toward home. I drove while Bryan's stomach grumbled next to me. We descended from the castle-town along a windy road toward a green-carpeted valley with the distant outline of Monte Vulture bulking up ahead.

As we curved uphill again toward Filiano with the desperate hope of finding food, I passed a drive with a sign for an agriturismo proclaiming itself a Locanda. Now, it's not a hard and fast rule, but often "locanda" means that food is served. After another couple of turns I found enough space to pull off and yanked a u-turn to go back, hoping for the good of my marriage that the place was open for lunch. We crested the driveway to find two cars in the wide gravel parking lot and a family, obviously the cook and her family, sitting outside polishing off the remainder of their pranzo. They welcomed us warmly and sat us down in the cool interior where a nice breeze was blowing through the window bringing fresh air from the nearby mountains.

Chilled water and local wine appeared as if by magic. The daughter/waitress asked if we'd like to sample the specialty of the house, the antipasto. We know from experience that a Lucanian antipasto is a meal in itself so we ordered one portion of that and the home-made orecchiete which would come topped with the peperoni cruschi that I adore.

Plates started rolling out within minutes. Bryan gave me a warm glance of contentment. I felt a little smug with my decision to walk out of the hovel, but also knew I was extremely lucky to happen upon this heavenly place. We'd gone hungry on more than one occasion while looking for an open eatery. But no matter; we sipped a little local Aglianico and munched the house-cured prosciutto and fabulous pecorino cheeses (soft cheese, aged traditional pecorino, and super-fresh sheep's milk ricotta) along with the other elaborate nibbles that made up the three generous plates of antipasto. Tuna-stuffed cherry peppers, a pretty little frittata wedge, gooey cheese baked in pastry crust, crunchy bruschetta with the reddest tomatoes I've ever seen, and freshly roasted red peppers, and more.

The heaping helpings of pasta- pillowy canoe-shaped cups called strascinati that soak up the sunny olive oil and pieces of the crispy peppers that have been dried and fried (sooo addictive, those!) filled us up. The breeze cooled us down while the attention of the owners warmed our hearts. They were so genuinely happy to have us there, served us so sweetly and presented us with so much delicious food, we were thrilled to have walked out on the surly girl to find this family-run place instead. Sometimes bad service turns out to be a blessing in disguise.

If You Go: La Locanda del Re, located in the contrada of Gianturco between Castel Lagopesole and Filiano in northern Basilicata. Tell them the americani sent you.

Want to Know More?

Castello di Lagopesole, and some nice photos of the Castello

Aglianico del Monte Vulture

Travel Information for Basilicata

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Shepherdess in Training

After Bryan's thrilling flight across the gorge at Castelmezzano, we departed utilizing a road with a newly-opened tunnel. It was not marked on the map, but we had a pretty clear idea that this route would take us to our destination much more quickly and with fewer switchbacks than the stomach-churning strada we'd used to reach the lofty mountain pinnacles. (Our intuition proved correct.)

Along the way we encounted a mixed flock of sheep and goats trotting along the narrow road. At first we didn't see the shepherd, but as we got closer we glimpsed this girl herding them along...on her bicycle. She couldn't have been more than 14 years old. She and the dogs maneuvered the flock off to the side just enough for us pass.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Basilicata: Buon Compleanno

While visiting my ancestral town we found ourselves with invitations to a party. Just as we were feeling really and truly flattered, we discovered that everyone in town was invited. The occasion was Carmela's birthday; Carmela likes a party and the comune was only too happy to oblige her. After all, she is Anzi's first centenarian.

Fliers went up all over the village inviting the good citizenry to come celebrate. A stage was erected in the main piazza and a long table prepared off to the side. A special mass was said in Carmela's honor and the congregation presented her with a lovely painting. After a benediction and a prayer of thanks for her presence and devotion, the full-to-overflowing church emptied out into the piazza.

Carmela slowly made her way through the crowd, waving and echoing her grazie to the many auguri called out her way. She walked up to the stage and listened as the mayor sang (well, recited) her praises. He bored everyone, as mayoral speeches tend to do, and we peeked to see if Carmela herself was getting antsy in an "I don't have all day" kind of way. Maybe she was whispering, "Not getting any younger over here, sindaco!" But no, she was listening intently and enjoying the procedings.

Carmela lives alone up one of the steep, narrow streets. She still follows the "early to bed, early to rise" creed of her generation, and still cooks. When she speaks, her voice is still clear and strong. The years have passed quickly, she says.

Bottles of Prosecco were opened and Carmela was toasted (she enjoyed a glass herself). An enormous torta was cut and served around. Under brilliant sunlight the piazza was filled with her family and friends, and her joyful face showed her pleasure in the event and in her town. Children danced together off to the side while adults milled about and chatted amiably while balancing plates of cake.
While it's a small town, it was by far the largest birthday party I've ever attended. Buon compleanno, Carmela!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Basilicata: An Evening With Brigands

Before our trip to the Motherland last fall, our landlord warned us to sta attenti (watch out) because "Basilicata is the land of brigands". Yeah, whatever. We were getting used to hearing rather derogatory comments about il Mezzogiorno so we passed it off as just one more offhand remark by someone who had never bothered to travel "down there" himself.

Turns out our landlord was correct. There *are* brigands in Basilicata, and they put on one helluva performance. Every weekend from the beginning of August through mid-September the era of i briganti comes to life at La Grancia outside tiny Brinidisi di Montagna.

In a huge open-air, natural amphitheatre below town, Il Parco Storico La Grancia is a multi-venue historical theme park with six areas for education, theatre, music and art. There is Il Borgo, a sort of Lucanian frontier-town where artisans in period costumes demonstrate traditional crafts, and -this being Italy-there are several stands and restaurants where you can eat locally-produced delicacies that would have been served during the brigantaggio years, the late 1800s. Music and dance performances are designed to reflect the area's particular history and culture.

But the main event of this park is La Storia Bandita, a grand production dubbed as a "cinespettacolo". It is a beautiful blending of impassioned live performance, dramatically-devised video projection, and astounding special effects, utilizing the bare cliff wall opposite and the ruins of the 11th century castle perched above Brindisi. Seriously, this is one amazing show.

Interestingly, La Storia Bandita means "the history of the bandits" but could also be translated as "banned history". It is a clever word play for the period when many Lucani felt that their culture and history had been marginalized, trivialized and tyrannized. Tired of invasions and overly dominating landowners that kept them poor, oppressed and disillusioned, the period of the Risorgimento (the unification of Italy) proved to be a flashpoint for many southern peasants who joined together and formed a band of bandits. They became known as briganti.

La Storia Bandita tells a dramatized version of this period, focusing on the charismatic leader of the pack, Carmine Crocco, who was called the General of the Briganti. From events in his childhood and disillusionment with the unification forces, the story shows how and why the briganti took things into their own hands to protect their lands and traditions.

The production is astounding, with hundreds of participants in an all-volunteer cast and crew. Dance and music reflect the rural Lucanian life at the time. Crocco authored an autobiography and some of his rousing prose is movingly recited. But the effects! When the forces invade, the castle is set aflame. Gunfire echoes loudly in the canyon and the flashes illuminate the mountain formations. Images are projected behind the set on the rock. A waterwall shoots up in a stirring finale.

You don't have to understand much Italian to follow the show. The performances play it all out before your eyes, unfolding in the peasant village, as well as tents and caves, representing how the briganti had to hide out in the hills. The performance was so rousing that Bryan decided he would dress as Crocco for Carnevale next year. This is a show worth seeing.

WHAT: La Storia Bandita, a live performance utilizing special effects

WHERE: Il Parco Storico La Grancia, Brindisi di Montagna (Potenza Province). It is located just off the Basentana superstrada.

WHEN: Every weekend from the beginning of August through mid-September

COST: 18 euro

NEED TO KNOW INFORMATION: The park also contains various areas of attractions and trails, so you can make a day of it. Picnic areas are provided. Restaurants and stands offer locally-produced foods at reasonable prices.

The hundreds of people who comprise the cast and crew are all volunteers.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Basilicata: Flying With Angels

We first heard about the chance to fly with the angels last year when we visited Basilicata with my cousin and her friend, Rhonda. Il Volo dell'Angelo is an open-air thrill ride where you rocket across a 400 meter deep ravine at 120 km/hour. (That's 1300 feet, and 75 miles per hour.) Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that you do this while strapped into a flimsy vest which is attached to a wire?

I admit that when cousin Michele told us about it, Rhonda and I were all over it. Oh yeah, let's do it! Celia and Bryan were less enthused. But it all a moot point anyway; our visit was in October, a few weeks after they'd closed for the season. Still, being a roller coast enthusiast, I was intrigued.

Fast forward a year. Bryan and I finagled a day away from la famiglia to explore the high-altitude towns of Pietrapertosa, the highest town in Basilicata at 1088 meters (3569 feet) and Castelmezzano, a little lower but no less dramatic. Both nestle into the clefts of the fanciful and bizarre peaks of the Dolomiti Lucani. The views are truly breathtaking and the sight of these towns tucked into the rocks is astonishing.

On the twisty road below Pietrapertosa we saw movement overhead, then *zoom* he was gone. That's when we noticed the thin line and just how deep that valley between the towns really is. And how fast you fly. Omigod! I don't think so! And just as I'm thinking that Bryan says, "Woohoo!" Huh? I have a hard time coaxing onto my favorite coasters at Cedar Point but this he'll do?

After meandering the pretty lanes of Pietrapertosa the moment of reckoning comes. Bryan buys his ticket and is awaiting my final decision. After having seen the sucker in action and walking up to the departure point and looking down -as well as across to the end point- I totally chickened out and said, "nuh-uh". Off we went for Bryan's wingless flight.

That's when things got a little complicated. What they don't explain when you buy your ticket is that this is a round-trip affair. Because of course you have to get back to the point from which you started somehow, but having seen vans marked "Navetta - Volo dell'Angelo" we thought a shuttle returned you. Okay. No problem. A double-header. But what they don't tell you about *that* is the grueling hike to reach the second departure point in Castelmezzano. Bryan would discover this only after his first euphoric flyover. The shuttle takes you only a short distance and dumps you at the foot of a very steep peak, which you must scale to reach the departure station. In 35 celsius (95 fahrenheit) heat. My former Eagle Scout hubby thought it was pretty intense; I would have been calling it a day and waiting for the next bus out of town, whenever that may be.

So was it worth it? He said emphatically, yes. "It would have been a little more enjoyable if they'd tell you the finer details up front, but it was a blast." So there you go. If you want to be strapped in and pushed off a mountaintop to soar like an angel, here is your chance.

WHAT: Volo dell'Angelo, a 1400 meter (4593 feet) long suspension wire spanning two mountain peaks.

WHERE: Pietrapertosa and Castelmezzano in central Basilicata.

COST: 30 euro roundtrip

HOW IT WORKS: 1) Purchase a ticket at the biglietteria in town. 2) Walk to the departure point. 3) Let them rig you up in a vest and helmet. 4) Take the heavy metal piece which will hold you to the line. 5) Go to the departure station and get hooked on. 6) Soar and scream.

NEED TO KNOW INFORMATION: Unless you have a friend with a car waiting for you on the other side, this is a roundtrip adventure. You must be in good physical condition to hike to the departure points. Bottles of water are provided at the Castelmezzano station for the trail.

OTHER STUFF: There are a couple of restaurants and coffee bars in both towns but Castelmezzano is a bit more "bustling" than Pietrapertosa.

For hiking enthusiasts there are loads of trails available in this area. Lodging is available in both towns and the evening sunsets and star-filled nights would make this a very romantic destination.

Read Bryan's account of his flight here.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Summer Fever

Mi spiace! I know I've left the Pinon Tree with an empty nest lately. After returning to Italy I had an inbox filled to the brim and some commitments to fulfill. When we left so abruptly I had to cancel a trip we'd planned to visit la famiglia down south, so when I got back we rescheduled and went last week. I ended up coming home sick. At first I thought I was having heat stroke; the scirocco from Africa has been bringing major heat to Italy. I chalked up my scratchy throat to dust from said scirocco, or the all-too-present cigarette smoke from my cousin's family and friends, who all puff away a *lot*. But no, I woke up this morning with that distinct knowledge one has when one knows she has a full-blown sick-with-something symptomology. I hate summer colds; I especially hate them when accompanied by fever...I mean, who needs more heat right now?

We were in Basilicata, the Motherland, the remote locale that Carlo Levi wrote about in his famous book, Christ Stopped at Eboli. I don't know about the Lord, but modern communications seem to have stopped at Eboli. We were in deep woods, steep valleys, and mountain clefts wehre no cell signals dare to tread. My handy-dandy cell phone internet connection that I use when traveling was useless. Internet Point? Ha! Not in my ancestral village.

We stayed in an agriturismo up a squiggly road with such tight turns that the headlights had to race to keep up...and lost. We plunged into darkness around every bend, hoping there were no animals or precipitous drop-offs in our direct path. But up in our mountain hideaway we heard only sheep bells and wind. Another guest, from Rome, mentioned at breakfast, "si sente il silenzio." You hear the silence. I was able to relax, and while the days were scorching, the nights were cool and so we slept soundly. Being out of touch was just what I needed at that moment.

Because we were actually able to go off and play tourist this time around, over the next few days I will tell you more about some of the things we experienced laggiu`.

But now I'm taking my hot summer fever back to bed. A presto.