Friday, February 27, 2009

The Underworld

Last week we journeyed into the underworld. I know what you're thinking. I'm now ensconced in southern Italy. The rampant rumors of crime, chaos and (shh) mafiosi must be true and evident. Truth is, I have no idea. I've never encountered anyone that seemed particularly sleazy or underhanded, unless you count the Guardia di Finanza officers, who are loathed by all.

No, no. I'm talking about a different underworld. As in, underground. We paid a visit to the Grotte di Castelcivita and entered into the belly of the mountain. When you marry a guy with a degree in Geology you just know that caves and rocks are going to be a part of your life. So when Bryan saw mentions of a cavern system in the nearby mountains, it was quickly put on his must-see list.

We passed beautiful villages sunning on the hillsides and followed a river gorge bursting with pastel almond and vibrant mimosa blossoms. The sign, once we actually reached the entry point, was so obscure we missed it and had to turn around.

We arrived to find the ticket booth vacant, but I figured the guy standing over by the roadside must be an employee and walked over to ask about seeing the caves. "Shi, shi...aperta." Yes, it's open...wait a few minutes and I'll be right with you. We sauntered up the road to a coffee bar for another shot of caffeine, because we have found that the old saying is correct: the further south you go, the better the coffee gets.

No one else showed up and the man pulled out his keys and unlocked the gate. We walked into a hole in the mountain and found ourselves in an intricate network of fantasy-like natural sculptures. The ceiling was dripping liquid minerals, still creating the formations. Little ponds were full of delicate, shimmering crystals. "Guarda i diamanti," look at the little diamonds, he pointed out. Of course, if they were real diamonds I wouldn't be working as a guide, he said laughingly. He let me dip my finger into one of the natural cup-shaped pools and gently touch the crystals.

The cavern was long and descended into the earth. It was not grand and awe-striking like Frasassi, with enormous rooms large enough to house a cathedral inside. Instead, it was more intimate feeling, more mysterious. It was dimly lit which made it feel otherworldly. Since we were the only visitors, we felt like we were exploring it ourselves, the first to uncover this 'new' underworld. We were able to get up close and personal with the varied colors and shapes of the creations, sculpted by the subterranean river and amassed by trickling mineral deposits. The guide explained how new channels continue to be discovered and existing formations continue to grow. He tapped on one ribbon-like stalactite that emitted a resonant bell tone. Bryan was in heaven. It was the most interesting cave tour I've ever experienced, and believe me, I've been through my share.

The guide was obviously passionate about the area in general and the cavern in particular. As we exited back to the upper world and the light of day, he directed us to a trail down to the river and a restaurant for lunch.

Up above was the ancient town of Castelcivita, clutching desperately at the rock massif. Narrow pedestrian alleys made up the street system, climbing, bending, and descending. A huge dog befriended us and motioned for us to follow him. His owner called out from his shop doorway that "lui e` il guida turistica" (he's the local tour guide). "Dai! Vai a lavoro!" Go on, get to work, he told the dog. Our new pal lopped along, stopping and leaning against us for a pat on the head now and then, and guided us to the church of San Niccolo` (St. Nicholas) and then sat down outside the door. We went inside for a look-see while he waited for us.

When we came out he scrambled to his feet, let out a little bark, and bounded down the street, then down an uneven narrow stone staircase to an alley-street below. He took us past once-glorious palazzi, and we peeked into courtyards; when we stopped to look at the view, our guide-dog sat down and waited for us. After about 20 minutes he showed us back to the little piazza where we had started out and laid down, his work-day done. We thanked his owner for the great guide, patted him affectionately (the dog, not the owner), and headed on our way.

In one day trip we visited the underworld, as well as a lofty ancient town, with fantastic guided visits of both.

Friday, February 20, 2009

When Worlds Collide

Or, what happens when a long-time desert-dweller walks into a seaside fish shop?

I like seafood, but have to say that I haven't consumed a lot of it since I've been in Italy, despite living in fairly close proximity to a sea the entirety of our residence. Okay, I confess. I realistically haven't consumed a whole lot of it in my lifetime.

I grew up in Northern Ohio, where the only fish we encountered was of the fried persuasion. You can have it on a bun or on a plate, always topped with globs of tartar sauce. Then I lived in the desert for a long time where fresh fish is pretty scarce. Sure, there is the occasional river trout but everything else that swims gets flown in from long distances. I'm sure it's fine, but still...I always had my doubts about freshness.

In Ascoli, despite its proximity to the Adriatic, the culinary traditions are much more tied to the hills than the sea. The two pesce shops in town were owned by the same rude guy, who didn't like my requests to clean the fish for me. (At least take out the innards, I pleaded, which seemed to be too much of a chore for him, despite Chef Giorgio assuring me it was normale to ask for this service anywhere else.) So we shunned seafood unless dining out and partaking of the Fully Monty feast.

Then there is the whole "whole fish" thing. If I did venture into seafood preparation back home, the fish came nicely filleted and boned. Cleaned and ready, even. Here you get the whole shebang and it's pretty much up to you to clean it, fillet it or roast it whole, then chop off the head, yank out the bones and try not to choke on the ones you have missed.

But now we find ourselves back on the Mediterranean where I daily watch the fishing boats tooling around the bay, and where I have chatted amiably with a few of the seafarers while they were dockside repairing their nets or painting their boats. I figured we really should partake while were here where it's so fresh.

There is a fish shop down at the bottom of the hill from us and while the offerings have looked pretty abundant and good when I have passed by, it is also the local old-guy hang-out. That means that absolutely anything that transpires within the shop is completely open to public scrutiny and any purchase would go something like this:

Me: "Uh, what kind of fish is this?"
Owner: "That's a flounder."
Observer 1: "Mah! She doesn't recognize a flounder when she sees one?"
Observer 2: "That's no flounder, that's a halibut!"
Then a lively and lengthy discussion would ensue while I stand listening, ignorant and fish-less. I've had these experiences before. They can be interesting, but I really wasn't in the mood to have my ignorance put on trial.

I went into town to a smallish shop not far from the seafront where I had watched the guys delivering the fresh catch just minutes before. I thought that boded well. I wandered about looking at the fish while being careful to not set my gaze on the squid and seppia. Anything of the jelly or squishy variety is strictly off my list and the sight of their gooey mass makes me a little squeamish.

The guy asked what I wanted, so I just confessed up front, "I'm not sure. I don't know fish well, I'm from the desert." Va bene. "Vorebbe la spigola? Or maybe some nice vongole? Shellfish? What type?"

Boh. A fish, not frutti di mare, I said. Quickly grasping that I don't know my bass from a rombo, he gave me a little guided tour.

"Qui, questa e` spigola. SPIGOLAAAAA. CapitoooOO?" Si.
"Questo...QUESTO PESCE QUI..." poking at it, "OR-A-TA." And so on.

I chose the spigola and asked him to clean it, per favore. No problem! (Thank God!) He asked what I would be doing with it ("Arrosto? Al forno? Do you want it filleted?") and set about scraping off the scales and gutting it.

We chit-chatted about New Mexico and how the landscape is indeed similar to the John Wayne films he has seen and how that explains my fish ignorance. He handed over the goods, knocked a little off the price and wouldn't take a tip for cleaning it, despite the hand-written sign I spotted saying a gratuity was appreciated for that chore.

I've been initiated; he told me I could come back anytime for further fish lessons and he would make sure I get the nicest ones he has. Maybe there is hope for us desert-dwellers after all.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Lighthouse

I have always had a fascination with lighthouses. I grew up not too far from a very pretty one on Lake Erie, and sometimes swam in its shadow on hot, humid summer days. So it was a neat surprise on our first or second evening here to see the streak of the rotating beam as we watched a gorgeous sunset. From the village you can't see it, or at least I had not noticed it during our forays into town.

One morning while the fishing boats were exiting the harbor I grabbed the binoculars and fixed them on the lighthouse. It sits on a little island just off the rocky shore, and I could see waves crashing onto the little slip of land from which it rises. I looked through brochures but could only find vague mentions of Punta Licosa and the lighthouse.

Following days of rain, when the sun finally dawned a few days ago we figured we better take advantage of it while it lasted, grabbed our grubby hiking shoes and set off to find the faro. We followed a few vague signposts to Punta Licosa from the nearby village of San Marco, which directed us down a rutted dirt road. It wasn't so much a road as a collection of water-filled, suspension-jarring potholes loosely laced together by little threads of earth. We went as far as the groaning car would let us, and continued on foot through the mud, passing several very luxurious-looking villas.

Two dogs bounded up to act as our guides, with one running ahead and then stopping to wait for us, while the other, pudgey mutt brought up the rear. We were like a rag-tag parade. All was silent and views spread out across grassy expanses to the sea and stretched to the hazy outline of Capri beyong. The wind was chilly and the walk was much longer than we had anticipated, but we arrived finally at the point, where jagged hills plunged down to the churning sea. Just past the land's end the lighthouse stood solidly while windswept waves battered around it.

Punta Licosa is swathed in legend, deriving its name from the Greek 'Leucosia', who is said to have been one of the three sirens (or mermaids) mentioned by Homer in the Odyssey, whose songs lured sailors to shipwreck on the rocks. Odysseus had to be tied to the mast to keep from succumbing to their melodic allures. The mythical Leucosia, after failing to bring destruction to Odysseus, was thrown into the abyss of the sea and washed up on an island, which was named after her...hence, Punta Licosa.

There is a lot of legend in these parts, which makes sense since it was a part of Magna Grecia a few millenia ago. Really makes me wish I had paid more attention in mythology class. In any case, the lighthouse stands guard and keeps sailors from shipwrecks, by sirens or storms.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Food Fight!

As a follow-up to my post about school lunch menus in Italy versus the US, I recently read that there are some school districts that are fighting the fat, shedding the soda machines, and banning the bad stuff. Kudos to them! Complimenti!

Read about the Ten Healthiest Schools in America.

Hopefully they will provide inspiration and mentoring for parents and educators who want to enact similar changes in their own communities. Kids (and their parents!) *can* learn to eat well, choose healthy fare, and enjoy it.

Like lists? Visit where you get a run-down on other "healthiests" in the land, including airports, grocery stores, and more.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Winter in the South

The wind started howling last night, banging against the metal shutters and whistling as it skidded under the front door, reminding me that it *is* still winter, even in the south. Not that I really needed reminding; staying in a beach resort in the off-season offers clear enough clues with shuttered up seaside establishments and other shops closed for a month-long vacation.

The town of Santa Maria is pretty, but also pretty small. The main pedestrian street, called the Corso, is lined with shops and cafes and while most of them are open year round, their hours are much more relaxed than during the high season months when the place is packed. Can't say that I blame them; when you put in long hours for three straight months, take the chance to kick back when it comes along. When we were looking for a connector cable to hook up the DVD to the television, for example, the first shop didn't have what we needed but directed us up the street to another electronics store, cautioning us, "he probably isn't there yet, though. He will open around 10:30 or 11:00." Va bene.

The overflowing swimming pool is another sign. While early winter is usually rainy, everyone we've encountered so far is bemoaning the much wetter-than-normal season they've been experiencing. I guess the unremitting rains we had in Ascoli had circled around to this area, too. In fact, they are telling us that they haven't seen rain like this is 40 years. There have been an abundance of rockslides in the hills above town, in some cases stranding residents out of their homes when the roads become impassable. What do you do when you can't get home after work? Boh. (See photos of the wash-outs here.)

Today I'm watching the gray storm over the sea while listening to the wind, catching up on email and projects while nursing a cup of tea. But at least it is a warm wind. It may still be winter, but it is definitely milder than we've experienced in a few years, and being able to watch the weather fronts as they skirt the coast is a new experience. We can see waves breaking in front of a lighthouse located on an isola in the distance. Very cool.

Now where did I put those biscottini? They'd go nicely with my tea.