mandag 6. februar 2012

Italy at its friendliest: Pietrapertosa

Pietrapertosa west and Pietrapertosa east. The castle is on the clifftop, centre.

Your Italy and our Italia is not the same thing, writes Beppe Severgnini in his "insider's guide" to Italians, "La Bella Figura". I am not the one to argue. But I think that there is at least one point where gli italiani and the Italians of our preconseptions meet, at least the way I read Severgnini: The Italians thrive making exceptions. Sometimes this will lead to frustration, but more often than not their exceptions tend to manifest themselves through generosity and helpfulness. 

Americans - and Englishmen, Swedes, Germans, Norwegians, Danish, Dutch and whatever - seem to dream about meeting this contagious warmth among the rolling hills, vines and cypresses of Tuscany. I'm sure they can, too. From time to time. But a welcome has a tendency of becoming less effusive when it is repeated, repeated and repeated, for Americans, Englishmen, Swedes, Norwegians... After a while the tourist stop being an exception.

That makes the Italian south a better prospect. Not better as in gentler scenery, richer art and more elegant towns. If cypresses in the pastel light of morning mist is what you seek, you'd better go to your Tuscany.

What I mean by better, is more hearty. With more time to make all those exceptions that Italy is made of. (And less money; the formula time=money should be re-written: time≠money - the more money, the less time.)

The road to Pietrapertosa. View towards Castelmezzano.
As in Pietrapertosa, a town of 1342 inhabitants at 1088 meters above sea level in Basilicata, one of the poorest regions in Italy. 

From the autostrada all I can see is the peaks of Dolomiti Lucane, in the distance they look like a bewitched bar graph. As soon as I have turned around the last hairpin curve, I find that those steep dolomites is Pietrapertosa. The village in clinging so tightly to the rock that the cliffs almost form the forth wall of the houses.

Not many tourists come here. And maybe that's why the welcome is so warm. 

Street view in Pietrapertosa.
It feels like I have already said hello to half the village when I'm finally in my room - not at the albergo diffuso, Le Costellazioni, as planned, but that's too long a story.

I'll just say that at that point I had been sitting on a plastic chair at the tobacconist while he had called Alberto, the postman who manage Le Costellazioni in cooperative with the rest of the house owners, but Alberto could not help because the hotel was closed, the houses cold, and this is in March at more than 1000 above sea level; but nevertheless: Alberto had in his turn called the teacher Teresa, because Teresa has a house. And ten minutes later she arrives to the small kiosk where we are waiting, and leads us to a house with five beds, two living rooms, a bath, kitchen and Chopin in the CD player. The rent is 30 euro for one night.

Later Alberto drives me around town in his car to show me where to find what. Then I have dinner.

On my way home I pass Zamby's Bar. It is remarkably crowded for a Sunday in a town of 1300 people. I enter.

- In the north the work, here we drink. There are no work anyway, says Domenico, one of the men I meet in the bar. We have walked outside, because his friend Aldo has brought his dog, a gigantic 18 months old German shephard.

- Tomorrow you are not going to any restaurant. Tomorrow you will have lunch at my place, Aldo invites.

Facade in Pietrapertosa.
He is a mason, but this Monday he will take the day off.

- Long weekend, he jokes.

Next morning, white snow has sprinkled the mountains to the west and south. I stroll around town, criss-crossing the maze of stairs and portals. Many houses are abandoned, other places I can hear chickens clucking from inside almost hidden nettings. The place smells of wood and coal, the winter smell of the Italian south.

Not much is happening in Pietrapertosa. The Norman castle has been closed for repair for years, the abbey is locked, but on a point to the north of town at least someone has made Volo dell' Angelo: a zip line to the next village (!) Castelmezzano, another cluster of houses almost as dramatically situated - and just as Pietrapertosa a member of the organization The most beautiful villages of Italy.

The zip lin is closed for winter (In 2012 it opens 29 April), but Pietrapertosa will do for me. The village and the mountains. The cliffs look like molars in grandpa's mouth, a jaw full of holes, and the holes are filled with buildings. Three places the village break through the rock walls, and the stairs meet small roads on the other side.

Zamby's Bar is a meeting place both day and night.

My shoes are wet and my feet are cold when I enter Zamby's Bar. Aldo is sitting by a table playing cards. I talk to a man and his old father while I'm drinking coffee.

Then Aldo comes up to me. He buys prosecco, refusing to let me pay.

- In the south we are hospitable, he says pouring us another round.

After three or four glasses we go home to his house. He lives with his parents just by the piazza. He is 37 and has ten siblings. Some live abroad, one of his sisters lives in Switzerland after marrying last August. We flicker through the photo book from their wedding, it shows a well-built woman and a flimsy Swiss. Aldo's mother (72) is in charge at the kitchen, his 83 year old father is sitting by the window.

- What do you want to eat? Pasta? Aldo enquires.

I don't know what to answer. This is no à la carte-restaurant, I say. But oh no. Yes it is.

Aldo and his mother put salami, cheese, squares of bacon, dried blacks olives, two types of sausage, salted spicy bacon, pizza margherita and pizza bianco (thick, that thin pizza in the restaurants is nothing, claims Aldo) and bread on the table. Aldo pops the plastic cap off a bottle of homemade wine, while his mother puts sausages packed into aluminum in the embers in front of the owen, and puts pecorino cheese on a rack over the fire.

Scorching hot sausages.

Thin pizza is for sissies!

We munch scorching spicy sausage and melted goat cheese, swallowing it with bread, pizza and wine. Delicious! 

- You can't eat like this in a restaurant, Aldo grins.

When Vito comes we are chock full. Vito is a teacher, but in summers and weekends he manages the Volo dell' Angelo. We drink grappa and coffee, then we go out.

The fog has set, but we go on with our plan. Vito and Aldo want to show me the castle. Truth be told, it is closed, but who cares? When you have guests... We clamber over the fences, climb up the scaffoldings and balance up the stone stairs that the Normans cut into the rock. Sometimes I can glimpse the ochre tiles 200 meters below. The grappa, redwine and prosecco musserende make my legs sway, but I manage. We all manage. No one falls. We don't see much either, but that doesn't matter much. 

For I am going back, right? Hopefully, I will be a very welcome exception also the second time around. 

Pietrapertosa just after sunset.
View towards Castelmezzano.

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