SO MAYBE I'M NOT THE IDEAL CANDIDATE TO STAY ALONE IN A CASTLE AFTER ALL…
I’m sorry I stopped blogging — after leaving Tuscany my internet was pretty unreliable, so I fell off the wagon. I’ll try to do a round-up now that I’m back home since a lot of folks wanted to hear about the rest of my trip!
I drove to Procena castle from Castiglione D’Orcia, wondering as I went if I ought to have stayed longer or if it was indeed time to move on. As much as I loved Tuscany, it felt lonely being all alone there. In a city you can be on your own and not feel so void of companionship, but Tuscany felt much more a place to share with others. I was my own fifth wheel, go figure. That said, there is something so magical about the mystical light of Tuscany — it renders even unglamorous concrete-like chunks of upturned dessicated earth into beautiful pastoral scenes. Field after field in Tuscany had been tilled for the season, and the muted earthtones on their own were unremarkable in color, but with the low-cast peach-colored late-day sun painting the fields of beige, tan and brown into a masterpiece of breathtaking beauty, well, it was hard to part with that. It didn’t help that the Sunday I left was overcast and threatening rain all day. Still, in Tuscany, angry storm clouds lurked with such stark beauty…It’s a rare landscape that can be highlighted with inclement weather.
As I left the Tuscan region and entered Lazio, I was less impressed with the natural beauty of the area. Roads were practically bombed out with potholes — having grown up in Pitsburgh, I’ve known my share of potholes over the years, and I was afraid a few of those were going to swallow up my little Panda Smartcar whole, or at least snap an axel. As the car crawled up the final hill toward Procena, I was still a bit apprehensive about what I’d gotten myself into.
I parked my car in the outside-the-town-wall car park and lugged my backpack up the road, following signs for Castello di Proceno. I knocked on the locked door and was eventually greeted by a man who was a dead ringer for Alfred Hitchcock. Given the sort of spooky nature of an imposing and very old castle, that might not have been the best first thing for me to encounter, particularly as it was an overcast and rainy day that never seemed to garner enough light to feel like daytime. Nevertheless Giovanni was a kind and lovely host and soon brought out his wife, Cecilia (aka Pucci, a childhood nickname that stuck). Now while Pucci was delightful and sweet, she reallllly fit the whole ancient castle décor, kind of dark, hollow eyes (but honestly she was SO sweet) and very petite and I mean I do have a vivid imagination, you guys know that. I think they had a certain chiarascuro thing going, that dark-in-the-shadows thing that gave me pause. Maybe it’s just so little windows in those old buildings means more shadows on people’s face…Whatever it was, I just kept imagining they were a family of vampires and at the stroke of midnight, well…
Being alone in a castle isn’t necessarily a great thing for me, I now realize. My room wasn’t in the castle proper, but in the ramparts, the buildings at the base of the castle tower surrounding and protecting the five-story castle. I had a bit of a hike uphill and through a winding alley to then climb several flights of steps, through a lovely garden. I was greeted by collection of mismatched cats who clearly ran the place — replete with missing legs, snipped ears, I think one had an absent eye (I later learned Pucci’s son brings home the injured critters).
All around the courtyard of the garden there were doors that hid things I felt a need to check out because, well, I was alone in a room in a potentially haunted castle. I was pleasantly surprised each one ended up being some sort of supply area, potting shed, etc, all in impeccable condition, void of clusters of spider webs, no squeaking mice, no bats flying out to attack me. Put my own grimy garage to shame. And my hosts were not spring chicks. While I couldn’t’ exactly put a finger on their ages it could have been early 70’s but could easily have been mid-80’s. And they had a LOT to maintain in this place. I was so impressed. Though when my WiFi kept failing and I trekked down the street to the office with Giovanni to figure out how to make it work, I was reminded of my fathers hoarder home, with piles of stuff surrounding his antique computer (and what other kind of computer would we expect in a castle?!) along with a dusty copy of Microsoft Office 97 for Dummies. Seriously. Big props for me, figuring if we unplugged that little black plug attached to the little flat thingy by the computer, maybe the wifi would start working in five minutes (yeah, my technological know-how was no better than Alfred Hitchcock’s!). Unfortunately what this meant is if I’d slept in the dusty decrepit office, my wifi would’ve worked reliably as I’d have kept on unplugging/replugging that thing, but since I was 3 stories up (and up the street), that wasn’t gonna happen. Oh well. My only problem is night time was my research time, figuring out directions, where I was going to go, etc. And Scott and I were wrapping up last-minute plans for me to meet up with him in Rome in just two days, so being in contact was fairly important. Oh well, so I just hung out and tried not to feel like the very old collection of things on display were never used to bludgeon to death people from another century. Yeah, that imagination can run wild.
And then, as a dark, wet, dusk settled in, so did an intimidating blanket of fog that made me feel right at home (as in scared to death) being alone at a castle. You can imagine my glee when I learned that an American couple, Jeannine and Lennie, who’d cooked with Pucci that day (one of the many services she does, this spunky wunderkind, is teach cooking classes) had offered for me to sit down to dinner with them to enjoy the bounties of their lesson. I was happy to take them up on that, as I’d been alone for so long anyhow, and feeling especially alone in the big scary castle in the fog and dark. Add to it I hadn’t spoken much English in a while, well, I’d have dined with pretty much anyone at that point. Dinnertime couldn’t come fast enough. And thank goodness they’d included me as there was no one else staying in the whole place, so it was just us.
Pucci invited us up to her kitchen as they finished off the food they’d prepared earlier in the day. I was grateful because this was not going to be a meal I’d order, but rather what I was served, and I knew one of the two pasta dishes was laden with anchovies, a deal-breaker for me. Luckily Jeannine and I realized in time that they’d forgotten to douse the dish with anchovies and so we begged them to hold back some untainted pasta for the two of us. Say what you will about “mouth feel” and “umami” and all those certain je ne sais pas ingredients, anchovies taste fishy, so I was glad I had something I’d eat that night.
We retreated to their enoteca, literally a cavernous grotto that had Etruscan caves in it. It was a combination of very cozy and a little creepy. I think if it had been full of conviviality, people lauging and drinking and eating, it would have felt more cozy, less creepy, but instead it was just us, and the rest of the place empty. Their lovely chef Luccia brought down food as it was finished off and I don’t know, I’m sure this sounds so rotten of me, but there was this thing in my head that kept harkening back to Bugs Bunny episode with that Jekyl/Hyde character who she reminded me of, so I guess I kept sort of putting all of these characters in the role of Elmer Fudd as the evil Mr. Hyde. I swear I was hoping for about ten deadbolts on my door that night to protect me from things that might go bump in the night. I’m such a weenie.
At any rate, dinner was delightful. Pucci was the consummate hostess and regaled us with lovely stories from her past and the castle’s past.
I had a fireplace in my room but hadn’t thought about actually using it, but Jeannine and Lennie said they’d fired up theirs so I decided when I returned to my room to do so and was glad I did. It provided a certain level of psychological comfort to me as I fell asleep, like leaving the TV on while nodding off. Warding off the juju. Besides which it was awfully cozy. I forgot to mention my room was nice (though the décor was a bit weary)–very spacious, a large room with a bed (well, it was actually a cot but we’ll pretend we didn’t notice that), a few chairs, then another full kitchen then a whole patio overlooking the valley below, very pretty. When the entire area was swallowed up by fog until after 10 a.m.the next morning, I waited to see the view after the fog parted, and it was exceptional.
I then wandered the property, which was sprawling, and I wondered how this older couple could maintain it all. I assume they have help but I didn’t see anyone else working the place. They had a whole ‘nother restaurant down by the pool, where I sat down and wrote for a few hours, relishing the beautiful clear early autumn day. I even dozed off, very peaceful. Later in the afternoon, Pucci gave me a promised tour of the actual castle. Very cool. We entered through her home (all part of the ramparts), and first she showed me her living room, which featured a harpsichord that had been in the family since the mid-1700’s, as well as a harp and a mandolin from the era. And then I looked upward to see the walls near the ceiling lined with Etruscan pottery, all harvested from beneath the castle when it was first built, and remaining with the castle proper since then (construction started in the 9th century, and there are records in the Vatican of the bell tower operating in the 11th century). I asked if she dusted them and she said she was terrified she’d break one. Mine would be coated in dust, for sure (and only in part for fear of breakage, but sheesh, who wants to be tasked with dusting ancient pottery anyhow?!).
We then started climbing the castle, which was actually a very tall, narrow tower, which had tapered and very steep ladder-steps, some of which were practically a 90-degree angle (how did she do this? I was afraid I’d kill myself and I probably had 30 years on her! I swear Italian women are the spunkiest; those ladies have the most stamina ever). Each floor brought new surprises. The castle had been in her family’s hands since the mid-1600’s (can you imagine?!) and they had vestments from the church in display cases from that far back, clothes from the Napoleonic era, also in glass cases. And a framed note from some long-ago Pope (a distant relative). There were your run-of-the-mill castle things: the torch holders the you pull from the sconce in the wall and use to run out the Beast (oh, wait, that was in Beauty and the Beast), there were all sorts of weapons, it was just amazing, that this was all from her family over hundreds and hundreds of years. I think my family heirlooms date back to about 1975.
We finally got to the top, I got to cross the drawbridge (it was small and verrrrrryyyyy high up! I subsequently learned they’d been looking for a drawbridge repairman, but that was good I was unaware of that!). Atop the castle, leaning into the crenelated walls, I could see how that King would feel good surveying his terrain, smugly protected. I saw slits along a floorway and asked if that was where they poured the boiling oil. I was joking, but it turns out it was indeed for that purpose! And Pucci showed me the pockmarks in the walls from catapult ball attacks (remaining catapult balls can be found decorating the garden and even using almost as finials on garden walls. Funny).
Pucci talked about growing up in a castle — you can imagine what a cool place that would be to be a child. Her boy cousins of course picked up weapons to play with while she got to be the princess (no doubt with some historical accuracy from her family tree). I asked her how they were able to preserve their treasures during World War II, and she said that when it became apparent the war was ending badly for the Italians, her father buried their treasures behind a wall that got cemented in, so that it wasn’t pillaged. It was quite a treat to be able to tour this fabulous historical relic — so hard to imagine growing up in your run-of-the-mill suburbia the sense of history that so many Europeans maintain. (even that kids in Italy get to go on field trips to things like Pompeii, like how cool is that?). Also cool, her husband Giovanni’s family had the first printing press in Lazio, and they are on display in the entryway to their home.
I left well before dawn the next morning in order to get to Fiumichino airport in Rome to meet Scott. I didn’t get my quaint basket with homemade breads and jams as I did the first morning, pity. I did manage to get myself lost, which was probably because I was still spooked wandering the empty streets of Procena, a very dying village that once housed some 11,000 residents and has since whittled down to about 300. At 5 a.m. it was, yeah, the common theme here, foggy and spooky. One of the many village cats must’ve gotten into mischief ,as someone’s flower pots had been knocked over and dirt was strewn about the cobblestone road.
I got myself lost in the dark by forgetting to take a hard-to-forget sharp right turn while leaving the hilltop town, ten miles later got back on the right road, but my directions, loosely translated from Italian, weren’t quite enough to get me to my destination without wondering if I was making wrong turns. I stopped once on the highway to ask directions and the sweetest man who was driving a truck for a glass repair business, escorted me for about 50 KM to ensure I was on the right route. How nice was that? I met so many kind people on this trip who have helped me along the way. There are a lot of good people in the world.
Scott’s flight arrived on time, as did I, so we were able to hop a train to Salerno right away and get going. The plan was to take a ferry from Salerno to Positano, then take a bus up to our B&B in Nocelle, at the top of the ridge, about 30 minutes from Positano. We’d been warned that the ferries didn’t run in bad weather, so when we arrived to brilliant sunshine in Salerno, only to be told the ferries weren’t running (I asked the woman why and she pointed to the clear blue sky and shrugged), we had to figure quickly what to do, which turned out to be to quickly purchase tickets for the bus, set to arrive in a few minutes.
Evidently we weren’t the only ones needing a Plan B, as by the time the bus arrived, a throng of humans pushed their way to get onto the bus. Luckily Scott was trying to load our luggage into the belly of the vehicle, and luckily the driver had suddenly opened the back door of the bus, so he got on, and I was turned away, as the bus was belching out people. But I shouted out in Italian that my husband was on the bus and I simply had to get on, so he let me on (along with a few others) despite there being nowhere for us to be. At one point I thought I would ride the entire way with my face pressed up to the windshield, but then a really sweet Englishman traveling with his wife gave up his seat for me (she was fine sitting on the steps, apparently), so I was able to get a seat next to a very friendly Italian pastry chef on his way home from work. I feel sorry for the locals who must rely on the buses for their daily commute (this includes school kids) — our bus was filled with students trying to get home, plus all tourists who’d started the day traveling by ferry to another Amalfi Coast town but had to get back to their starting point via the lone remaining transportation option, the bus. The trip was about an hour, with poor Scott fighting off carsickness standing, jammed, way back in the back while I chatted pastries with my little Italian buddy up front. I’d never have been able to offer him my seat through the pressed flesh regardless, or I would have. He was a little green around the gills by the time we got to Amalfi, where we had to catch another bus, which we foolishly thought would be substantially more calm.
Alas, the bus that was leaving shortly after we arrived there was mobbed by throngs of tourists, so we had no chance. It was to be a 30 minute wait for another bus, but the problem was there was no system as to where to meet the next bus, nor where to line up. There was a cluster of bus drivers taking a classic Italian smoke break, but were unable or unwilling to provide a hint of information about transportation clues: imploring questions were met with ambivalent shrugs, a tight suck on a cigarette, and a return to important conversation with their stylishly dressed coworkers (sweaters tied around their necks, very chi-chi for bus drivers).
Finally we realized we had to divide and conquer if we were to get on a bus any time soon, so I served as scout searching for the next bus that might be arriving while Scott waited in line, hoping something would materialize on that end. After a while one of the bus drivers who’d not given up information about which bus might be Positano-bound then climbed aboard a nearby idle bus and several of us accosted him, demanding to know if it would become the Positano bus. He shrugged in a positive-ish way, leading us to guess that perhaps we would be on the right bus if we got on. So I rushed on with others in the front of the quasi line while Scott tried to load our bags onto the bus. But the driver wasn’t opening the baggage storage section, so finally we ended up with our pile of bags jammed on yet another bus for another 45 minutes on windy cliffside roads with hairpin turns and absolutely breathtaking views of the Mediterranean Sea, and about twice as many humans as should safely be on the thing.
When we arrived in Positano we had about ten minutes to spare before catching the next bus to Nocelle. We grabbed a gelato so I could use the restaurant’s bathroom (which I’d needed since Salerno, natch!) and smugly gloated that at least this time we could have comfortable seats on the bus. Ha! When the bus arrived, it was packed to the gills, only smaller than the previous buses. But our driver was nothing if not an optimist, and he just kept piling more riders on (our bags stacked up inside the bus yet again. I laughed at the small child who was perched atop a locked safe that was behind and above the drivers seat. He was like a bird in a nest peering down at the crowd. Lordie, another thirty minutes hoping we didn’t end up through the windshield. The bus drivers are amazingly gifted at avoiding collisions (I couldn’t help but wonder how often buses go over the cliffs, simply because of my macabre imagination), and at one point the entire overpacked bus applauded as our driver passed another vehicle with about 1-1/2 millimeter’s space before a huge sideswipe would’ve happened. Patience is quite an Italian virtue, and the locals must have it in spades, so it was a good lesson to remind us that this wasn’t a pain-in-the-ass-transportation-nightmare, but rather an exhilarating adventure that we’d laugh at for years to come.
When we reached the end of the line, and there were no more buses as options (the last few miles involved the bus waiting at the foot of a hairpin turn for 10 minutes while a truck made its way down the steep hill; no room for two vehicles on the road), though we knew we had more to go. Mind you, I’d been traveling with my backpack and nothing else for three weeks, and was quite used to it. But when I found out that Scott was going to meet me for the last week, I wisely suggested we FaceTime in my closet so I could give him a nice long list of things I sure wouldn’t mind finally having. Like clothes. Underwear. Perfume. I had packed three outfits for four weeks and I can’t tell you how sick I was of them. So Scott ended up with enough this and that I’d requested that he brought a whole extra suitcase for me (also with enough room to bring home some wine and olive oil and balsamic vinegar, necessities). Otherwise it would have been him with a small suitcase, and me with my easily manageable backpack. But hey, I wasy dying for some perfume and make-up by then…
So we were met at the bus stop by our B&B host, Nino, a genial, cheerful and surprisingly fit man I’d guess was in his late 60’s or early 70’s, who hoisted my (oversized) suitcase on his shoulders while Scott lugged his bag and I wore my pack for the next ten minutes of walking up and down many steps (an Amalfi Coast thing), dodging lots of dog poo (and what looked distinctly like horse dung but I couldn’t figure out how that got there!) until we finally reached our destination.
(That horse poo? Well, Two days later I would see a man escorting two horses down a very steep flight of steps en route toward the village parking area, by the bus stop. I had no idea horses were so fleet of foot! They were far more graceful than I was on those steep steps! And the dog poo? While I cursed the locals for not curbing their dogs, I soon realized there wasn’t anywhere else for dogs to go anyhow, with the treacherously steep and untamed terrain, and mostly they weren’t anyone’s dogs, but rather many stray dogs that make the circuit, mooching and living off the land, living the good life. Our Bridget would love it.
Okay, back to Nocelle. It’s a beautiful tiny village with the most breathtaking views imaginable. You can see for miles, the dramatic and rugged cliffs of the Amalfi and purest blue Mediterranean waters and you just cannot get enough of it. Sunsets? Forget it, they’re too beautiful to describe. You just feel so blessed to have an opportunity to partake in it.
We had a lovely dinner at a nearby restaurant that first night, and started off early the next morning with no particular plans but to wander around Positano. We hopped a (crowded) bus and headed down toward the town, and decided to get off midway down, knowing we could find stairs to continue our walk if need be. We wandered into a ceramics shop (the pottery in the Amalfi coast is very pretty) and happened upon a woman presenting a lecture of some sort about authentic Amalfi pottery to a rapt group of people. We soon realized this woman was Christine, an Aussie transplant about whom we’d read in Rick Steves’ guidebook, a lawyer who’d married a local and had become the unofficial town historian and gave great tours. We asked if we could tag along, and spent the next few hours touring Positano and getting great insight into the are. Along the way she regaled us with fun tales of life in Italy: how the first day of school had been the day before, and the mothers were up in arms because classes had been consolidated Montessori-style because there weren’t enough students to fill up a grade. The mothers were all clucking their displeasure and her husband decided he wasn’t going to stick around with that going on, so he bailed and left them behind. And so in true Italian fashion the moms decided they were going to go on strike, and on day two of school, there was no school because there were no students for the school.
Christine took us to her husband Vicenzo’s showroom — his family owns the butcher shop in town, and he’d become a sommelier in addition to being an expert on local charcuterie and cheeses, so we did a great tasting in his shop and she urged us to attend his wine tasting class that evening as well. Christine’s tour was delightful and turned what could feel simply like a large, albeit scenic tourist trap into a really interesting place to spend some time. Even the animals we encountered had stories. Apparently the local shops adopt the stray cats and dogs as their own and when open feed and house them by day, and various animals go by different names depending upon which shop they happen into at that time. One dog, I think he was named Arturo, actually hopped a bus from Praiano, a town about 20 minutes away by bus, each morning, even though dogs aren’t allowed on the bus. We saw him sunning himself in the piazza near the duomo, a very contented stray indeed.
Christine told us how she’d met her husband while taking time off as a lawyer in Sydney and backpacking through Europe. She arrived in Positano and unbeknownst to her, the boys in the town had a longstanding system of “tagging” pretty girls they wanted to end up with during the tourist season, and Vincenzo had tagged her with his buddies. The boys are known as “squallows” and are also called sharks, and they serve as wingmen for each other to facilitate their goals. Each spring the boys ditch their local girlfriends in favor of the new blood coming in to visit. So Christine was tagged by Vincenzo, and as she told him of her plans, that she was taking the bus in the morning to catch a boat to Capri, well, he told her the time to catch the bus, but he gave her the wrong time, so that when he showed up a few minutes later with his motor scooter and offered her a ride, how perfect that she had a way to get there. And when no boat materialized (he’d told his friend she’d hired not to show up), then he borrowed someone else’s boat so that he could take her on his own. She said this system is known enough now that girls show up in Positano with no place to stay, knowing that they’ll find housing and food one way or another. Though she said when they were dancing at the only nightclub in town, on the beach, on that first night, and he started getting a little too familiar, she slapped him across the face, and he knew then that he wasn’t dealing with the run-of-the-mill female he was used to dealing with. She finished her travels and his missed her so much he visited her in Australia, and the next thing they knew, they were married. I could only imagine how much the local girls must have hated her, as she was taking away one of the few locals from their options. And in this part of Italy, you don’t want to get on someone’s bad side, or you’ll end up with the malocchio, the evil eye, and they sell cornutos everywhere–those horn necklaces, to ward off the bad juju.
I’m going to stop writing now and post this, and will finish the rest of our trip in the next posting,which I hope to get up on my blog in the next day or so!!