Castle Hopping in Agropoli, the Gateway to The Cilento

On this particular morning as I awoke, I thought “I want to visit Agropoli, I haven’t been back there since I opened my bank account”.  Now, that brought back memories of a very interesting day in the middle of my vacation to Capri, Sorrento and Positano . . .to keep a long story very short, I saw the inside of bank the first time I went to Agropoli. (See Planes, Cars, Ferries and Buying Villa Velina for the details of how that first visit went and my interesting Italian bank dealings.)

Agropoli is the largest town nearby, about 18 miles nord di Velina, with a population of about 20,000, so it was like going to the big city for the day. I headed out of town and hopped on the SP430 northbound to Agropoli for the 40 minute drive. Before the rainy season of the winter of 2013-14, this would have been a fairly quick trip on a very limited access road. However, just after I visited Villa D’Amore for the very first time over Thanksgiving after purchasing it, the skies broke open that winter. It just poured and poured and the beautiful limited access highway that I drove once to view my home for the first time and again over Thanksgiving week, simply caved in and washed away at a spot between Agropoli and Velina.

I was horrified as I learned of this unraveling weather event. It just would not stop raining! I found myself nervously pacing back in forth in my home in Pennsylvania; I felt so helpless. My friend Maria kept me informed and I was also connected to some local Italian sites on Facebook that would post articles and pictures. I kept trying to figure out exactly where in the road this break occurred. To put it mildly, I was devastated! I had just barely learned how to get to my new home, which was rather isolated, however connected to civilization by a highway. Now the highway was broken (strada rotto)!! From a distance of 5,365 miles away, I could not begin to imagine the twisted route I would be forced to take as a detour. Believe me, I tried figuring it out via Apple Maps, but it sure wasn’t obvious. I were hopeful that they would just get it fixed. . . then I heard those words – Not. Possible. It seemed these two words were used to describe whatever someone in Italy did not want to do or could not do for you, from exchanging dollars to euros at a bank to opening up a bank account to fixing roads . . .just fill in the blank.

It appeared that the section of the road that gave way was elevated (as most of this highway was). It was on pilings and the ground under these pilings was, well, saturated to say the least. I spent hours translating news articles from Cilento Notizie, a great news site with a FaceBook page. To my horror, my detective work revealed that liquefaction was involved. This is a process by which water-saturated sediment loses its strength and acts as a fluid, like when you wiggle your toes in the sand at the edge of the water by the beach. This is also terminology found in earthquake glossaries, although it was not an earthquake that caused this damage.

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On the way down from Roma, the detour began just after Agropoli at the Agropoli Sud Uscita (exit) and continued until just before the tunnel at Prignano Cilento. It seemed very long, the first time I took it. The detour on SP45, travels along the edge of the mountain that the SP430 was built to avoid. If you are afraid of heights, let’s just say you won’t enjoy a ride in the passenger seat for the southbound journey. The guardrails, when present, are interesting. If that is your seat, and you’re scared of heights AND you have trouble KEEPING.YOUR.MOUTH.SHUT. as cars pass on narrow winding roads with plenty of blind hairpin curves that don’t always have guardrails – I suggest using a blindfold. It’s not a great idea to scream and scare the driver on roads like this.

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At any rate, traveling a new road always seems longer the first time. Have you ever noticed this? By the second time, you know what to expect and how long it will take and that knowledge seems to make it feel shorter.

In spite of the detour, before I knew it we were approaching Agropoli and following the signs to Centro Storico, normale for me. There were many one way streets that were getting narrower and narrower. This is a sign that you are very close or maybe already in the Centro Storico. At this point, the fear that you may get stuck or lost in the labyrinth of roads kicks in, as backing out a twisty road barely narrow enough for your Fiat, isn’t fun. I came to a “T” in the road and the signs told me the Centro was to the right, so I turned left to search for parking, not wanting a “narrow road encounter”. Luckily, as the road I was on descended down a hill, there was a nice, large parcheggio by the beach and marina! I parked the car and noticed everyone had parking receipts on their dashboards, but there was no sign of where to get them. After walking around and asking the workers at a restaurant, I finally located the central parking meter about a quarter mile away.

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As I was figuring out how exactly to get into Centro, I spotted a Farmacia. I had been trying to find one that was actually open (when I was nearby) for a couple of days now. I had been trying to shake off a sinus infection, and felt I was losing the battle. So, I went inside and waited in a short line to talk to the pharmacist. Although I did not speak very much Italian at all at that time, and he did not speak very much English at all, we managed to communicate and he “prescribed” a medicine for me and then had it all wrapped up like a gift.

I continued walking up the hill and to the left and found a beautiful street lined with shops that swept up upwards and morphed into a very wide, gradual staircase.

Signs guided me along the way . . . although the historical center was my goal, this one sign presented a particular challenge (I love gelato)!

In spite of the temptation, I did not follow the sign to the gelateria, but continued my upward climb. As I reached the Portico to the Borgo Antico, I looked to our left and saw my car parked far below.

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As I climbed higher, my journey was rewarded by more breathtaking views. I will never tire of viewing slices of scenic beauty cropped by edifice antichi (ancient buildings).

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One of my first stops was the Church of Santa Maria di Costantinopoli.

Continuing on my upward climb, the Angevin-Aragonese castle, Castello Aragonese, was my ultimate goal. The castle standing today was built on 6th century Byzantine foundations. I couldn’t wait to see what was in store for us along the way, as the the promontory on which the Centro Storico stands has been inhabited since Neolithic times! There were so many wonderful buildings, views and doors along the way, it was such an interesting walk  . . .

As I reached the castle, I was rewarded with gorgeous views along the sea, looking to the north of Agropoli.

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I walked the castle, imaging how life was back in the day.

The view to the south from the top of the castle was amazing.

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And upon leaving the castle, another surprise “historically cropped” view awaited us. I imagined an intruder who, after miraculously scaling the foreboding walls of this castle, was forced to “walk the plank” to his death . . . if you had to go, I thought, this was the way to do it. At least your last memory would be fabulous. Many have gone before us with lesser visions just prior to their final journey to their ascent or descent, whichever they had earned.

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Not yet wishing to leave my newly discovered Borgo Antico, I decended from the castle and found the perfect bar to sit and relax while recapping yet another perfect day in my beloved Cilento.

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Ciao!

Giovanna (Gio)

I Tre Gufi . . . The Three Owls

Having just completed my drive through La Strada Rotto, I decided it was time for some liquid refreshment. Arriving in Pisciotta was interesting; I barely blinked and I was already out of town and doing a three or so point turn on the narrow road to retrace my recent path and locate parking. I found a piccolo parcheggio (small parking lot) immediately on my right and pull in. While it had three levels, there were only about six or so spaces per level and maneuvering around the turns proved to be “not very possible”.  But I managed to make it work and the car was now parked.

Resolving one problem immediately revealed the next as I could not determine how to pay for the parking, as there were no machines or attendants. Fortunately, a gentleman returning to his car came along that very moment. Once again in part Italian, part English and part charades, I managed to communicate with him and learned that I would need to walk into the main piazza and pay for the parking at the bar and get a biglietto (ticket) to place in my car. Until I returned, how would they know that I was planning to pay, I wondered? So, not wanting to get a ticket along with another opportunity to visit Posteitaliane to pay it,  I hightailed it over there to buy the ticket, returning with the strangest looking parking receipt I had ever seen. It was issued on the honor system. I paid for the amount to time I thought I would need, but I would need to indicate the time my parking began by filling in little circles with a pen on each of the one hour tickets, just like taking the SAT exam.

Pleased with that I had navigated yet another interesting Italian experience, I headed off to do my thing . . . explore the town and discover the best it had to offer. As I exited the piccolo parcheggio and strolled to the main piazza, I could see why we almost missed it completely. The town was on two hills with the main road (and only road that could be traveled by car) cutting through the middle. To the left was the main piazza and to the right was a staircase – yes, only a staircase that led to the other side of town, with tables from a restaurant lining the beautiful stairs. It was so inviting, but I held out, opting for the Centro Storico instead.

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I spotted the sign for Centro Storico (the historic section) when I went to the bar to pay for the parking, so I knew it was to the left beyond the piazza.

The main piazza was mostly in the shade at this time of the day and all of the locals were gathered in various groups talking, sharing stories and smiling. I never fail to enjoy these Norman Rockwell-esque scenes I frequently encounter in the small towns of the Mezzogiorno.

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As I neared the back of the piazza, the gradual upward slop abruptly ended upon entering the Centro Storico. Just before the climb up, I came upon this beautiful Osteria, but sadly it was not yet time for lunch.

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The views off to the left of it were stunning, and I had not even climbed a staircase yet (note, I did not say hill)! I could see the peninsula of Palinuro jutting out into the sea.

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Then, I began my initial ascent into the beautiful historic area. I walked all around and did my usual “official town photographer” stint, enjoying every second.

The initial climb up was a bit steep and I encountered small, tank-like vehicles with actual tank treads that were used to make deliveries to restaurants and shops up the staircases. Very. Interesting.

At the one edge of the Centro Storico, I were rewarded with a gorgeous view for my efforts. Little did I realize, the best was yet to come.

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As I climbed the last remaining stairs, I discovered the pinnacle and crown jewel of the entire Centro Storico – I Tre Gufi!! Our jaws dropped as we took in the amazing view and I felt so lucky that I had explored before choosing my lunch destination. Before my eyes lay a stunning “bird’s eye” view of the beach town portion of Pisciotta. As many ancient towns often do, Pisciotta had both a coastal town and a hill town to escape to whenever the Saracens, or any other unwelcome breed decided to ravage their seaside towns and women.

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Once again, I found my magic place in yet another beautiful town as I ascended onto the outdoor terrace of I Tre Gufi feeling privileged as though I were entering the Gates of Heaven.

I lingered over a very long lunch of fish, roasted potatoes and a wonderful arugula salad with parmesan and walnuts and finished pranzo with an incredible light and moist lemon cake, wishing I would never, ever have to leave! By now, I realized that I was taking longer than I probably covered for parking. “Non ti preoccupare, nessun problema” (don’t worry, no problem), the owner told me. “La polizia sta anche mangiando il pranzo ora, in modo da non disturbare la vostra macchina.” (The police are also eating lunch now, so they won’t bother your car)

Oh, and did I forget to mention there was plenty of wine flowing? I would need that for facing the broken road on the way home! Va bene . . . I could certainly say d’accordo to that!!

Ciao!

Giovanna (Gio)

Una Giornata a Maratea (A Day in Maratea)

This day begins like many other days, at Isola Verde, grabbing some wifi, having breakfast and deciding how to spend the day. Since I had a local day the day before, I decide to explore some new territory today. I refer to this as “new turf”. Two towns came to mind and as I compare maps, my decision was made.

Camerota or Maratea. Hmmm, let’s just say on this particular day, the maps decided for me! I chose Maratea for two reasons; I just wasn’t into extreme hairpin curves today and going to Maratea would take me to the Province of Potenza – totally new turf!

I would take my familiar Strada Provinciale, SP430, a highway I could access within a few miles of my home. This limited access road cuts through some major mountain passes, utilizing tunnels and sometimes very, very long suspended stretches of road on pillars high above the valley below. In at least one case, you exit a tunnel to find yourself almost immediately on a suspended stretch of road – not for the faint of heart, but beautiful. Although this highway cuts away from the sea, at times you find yourself at such a high altitude at a place with a pass between two huge mountains, and there you can “see” all the way to the sea. That, and the dramatic mountain views make this a very scenic drive.  All along the way, I see small borgos and villaggios dotting the tops and sides of mountains and make mental notes to go back and visit.

Just before Sapri, the SP430 dumps me onto the SS18 for a beautiful drive along the coast, past Policastro Bussentino, Capitello and Sapri.

As I near Maratea, I drive through the small, beautiful borgo of Acquafredda, where the street is so narrow, it only allows one lane of traffic at a time, so there are traffic signals at both ends of town.

Continuing on, I can see the sign that I am approaching Maratea. The mountaintop overlooking Maratea is home to the fifth largest statue of Christ in the world! It is so majestic perched high above the town.

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Idrive into the lower part of town and park and begin the short walk up into the Centro Storico. One of the first things I notice is a very old church with “Jesus” (yes, in English), written on the bell tower.

Along the way, the skies begin to brighten and I enjoy the beautiful views on the walk up.

I stroll through the Centro Storico a bit to get my bearings. Maratea is so beautiful with interesting streets and piazzas everywhere.

True to form, I decide it’s time for pranzo (lunch) and settle on a restaurant that shares a piazza with the municipio building. I have a delicious lunch of Fiori di Zucca and Risotto ai Funghi (zucchini blossoms and mushroom risotto).

As luck would have it, just as I finish lunch, siesta has begun, so my plans for shopping are not going so well.  Note to self: get moving earlier in the morning!! Often, by the time I arrive at my destination, siesta is beginning, which means all the stores will be closed until about 4:30 pm!! This sort of cramps the shopping. . .

I notice a beautiful hand-made ceramics shop, but it is closed. I hesitate to peer into the windows of the dark shop. As I walk back out the very narrow little pathway it is on, I think how sad I am that I cannot buy anything there. Suddenly, a gentleman tells me (in Italian) to wait – “Aspetto!”, he can find the owner for us! I wait and he does – she comes to find me and opens her shop!  The owner makes everything on the premises by hand. I choose a beautiful holy water dish and a town crest of Maratea. The store owner doesn’t take credit cards, “solamente soldi” (only cash), so I have an adventure locating the nearest Bancomat and return with the cash.

Well, I think as I leave Maratea, “un altar giorno in paradiso”! As I arrive home to Villa D’Amore, the skies agree with me.

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Ciao!

Giovanna

Coastal Exploration (L’Esplorazione Costiera)

On my second full day, and the last day of August, I decided to take a drive up the coast and check out a couple of beach towns – Acciaroli and Santa Maria di Castellabate. I love the beach, but I also love exploring, so my love for the unknown trumped my desire for another lazy day at the beach.

As I headed out for the day, I passed one of my favorite little towns, Pioppi. A tiny hamlet by the sea, Pioppi boasts views of the curved protected bay at Marina di Casalvelino that compete with the best. Think Bay of Napoli – on a smaller scale, but just as spectacular and even more so to me without all of the buildings and population nearby.

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As I leave Pioppi, I am on “new turf”.  I always take note of this, wherever I am. Maybe it’s the gypsy in me. How do people get like this, I wonder? Here I am, a person here on this earth, who treasures, in fact, craves new experiences. Crazy? Or pazzo? One person’s craziness, is another person’s fun and entertainment. Sometimes I think about how I got that way. For the most part, I am the explorers of my nuclear family and I also happen to be a first-born. Once, I moved to California, forcing a trip to visit my parents who likely never would have made the journey, had I not moved. I have lived many places across the U.S. while my parents and sister have remained living in the same areas where they were born and grew up. I’m not sure why . . . it just IS me!!

After Pioppi, I do a few zigs and zags on the SRexSS267 (big name, small road) up over a large “hill”, I’ll call it due to the huge mountains within view, and the road brings me down to near sea level when I catch sight of Acciaroli.  I take a slight left, and park down by the marina and take a stroll through town by the beach.

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The beach is still buzzing with activity. After all, it is still August. I enjoy watching people swimming and sunbathing and jumping off of rocks and make a mental note to bring my swimsuit next time.

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I linger for awhile and then reluctantly return to my car to continue on to Santa Maria di Castellabate. This is the sister (beach) town of Castellabate.

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SM di C is a classy beach town with great shopping, hotels and restaurants. I see the stately Hotel Villa Sirio along the beach and enter to explore. Inside I find a very friendly owner, who graciously gives me a private tour of various rooms, all beautiful.  As I leave, I comment on the beautiful portrait in the lobby and he proudly tells me this is his family.

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I meander around town enjoying the buildings, shops and a the occasional adorable kitty.

As is always the case, I decide it is time for a rest at the local bar and I find the main piazza and a bar by a beautiful umbrella cypress tree. I just love these trees and stare at them along the way from Rome to Casalvelino.

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As i refresh myself, I have a lively discussion with with the Nonna of the bar owner, who shows me a beautiful hibiscus plant that bears two different colors of blossoms. I don’t speak much Italian and she speaks no English, but that didn’t stop either of us from having an enjoyable conversation.

I decide to take one more pass by the beach before I leave. Although it’s still light out, I am quite interested in driving home in full day light because of the narrow, cliff-hugging road with lots of sharp switch-backs! I sometimes squint my eyes briefly while driving on roads like that, especially when someone near us decides to pass on a blind curve. . . let’s face it – any crash they would cause at those speeds, and we’d all be off the cliff!!

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I sigh as I absorb the sight of this beautiful beach and hate to leave, but I know I will return again soon.

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Ciao!

Giovanna