July 20, 2019
When I booked an Amtrak Vacation to Glacier National Park everyone swooned, “ Oh! I’ve always wanted to take a long train trip.” Well, I had many years ago but it was the Orient Express from Paris to Vienna. Ergo, full of hope I reserved a roundtrip ticket with roomette for two costing about $5,000 including three night in Glacier Park Lodge in the most beautiful park in America.
On the first day of summer The Empire Builder left Union Station, late, at 3 p.m. for Seattle our final stop northwest Montana a few miles from Waterton, Alberta. With daylight for several hours on the Summer Solstice we arrived in North Dakota with its one-stoplight towns like Malta and Glasgow (where a large family of Amish from Indiana detrained). Atop the Bakken formation‘s mammoth oil reserves discovered in 1953, we sped past glacial drumlins and kettle moraines, oil tanks and grain elevators on the old Burlington Northern tracks. Stark and desolate, though it was of course next to the railroad tracks.
Our “superliner” sleeping car, launched in 1979 and purportedly upgraded in 2005, looked its age. After hoisting a heavy suitcase up a tiny cast iron step onto the train ( no redcaps here!) the Oh Nos began; the roomette was far too small for two people who had to sit stone cold upright ,knee to knee. I begged a disconsolate attendant for an upgrade to a bedroom for an extra thousand each way but no-go though several were empty. We made for the dingy observation car, first come, first serve musical chairs style and at 6 p.m. gloomily headed to the dining car. No North by Northwest here, just tubby strangers squeezed in next to us for pre-prepared airplane food. We avoided the mussels like grim death.
The 2006 fire on Red Eagle Mountain
Then the Struggle for Sleep: the top bunk was dangerous to ascend without a ladder (there were none) and Jack had to use the tiny armrest and bolt up onto the lurching mat. How is it up there? Pitch Black. Can’t Turn Over. Afraid I’ll fall out. The lower hard cot was hard but at lesat there was light, and the loos, small as an airplane’s, were down a long flight of stairs. Don’t ask about the lone shower.
Glacier 1911 and 2009
More than thirty long hours and 1,500 miles later what a relief to get out of there into the fresh air of the northern Rockies and to walk across the tracks to the red cedar lodge which opened in 1913 three years after the park itself. Though in dire need of renovation it was impressive with 48-foot high three-story Douglas-fir colonnade in the lobby though the rooms had not altered in a hundred years and were freezing in the 40 degree weather.
The lodge sits on the sovereign land of the Blackfeet Nation, Alongonquin speaking Piegan people who have lived here for 10,000 years. As on all of the 310 Native American reservations in the country, the judgments of American courts cannot be enforced in a well intentioned but obsolete system that has perpetuated poverty and welfare dependents — full blood, half blood and scores of “wannabees” according to our Blackfoot guide Kammi. It is difficult to get bank accounts or credit since the nation does not honor American contracts so she was saving up tips to put a tin roof on her bungalow. Land is held communally everyone owns it so in effect no one does and they can’t get clear title to the land and collateral from their mobile homes.
Kammi, one of the 16,000 members of the tribe, is a firefighter on the Hotshot Team that battled the 2006 conflagration of 64,000 acres on Red Eagle Mountain that will take 40 years to recover. She lives in Browning the headquarters of the 3,000 square mile reservation, a desolate trailer park of ramshackle dwelings with rusted cars just like the ones we saw last year in Wyoming, with rampant alcoholism,(Kammi said if you give a buck a can of beer he’ll disappear for a week), a high crime rate and 80% unemployment. There is a small casino next to a Holiday Inn with 300 slot machinea and a bingo parlor but the money does not filter down to the people. Though tribal reform is needed Chief Old Earl Person the 90 year old legend from Browning is still lobbying for indigenous people rights in D.C. John Two Guns White Calf (1872-1934), memorialized in profile on the American buffalo nickel is buried in Browning.
Glacier National Park has a million acres of forests, alpine meadows, lakes, 150 rugged peaks (many 10,000 feet) and glacial-carved valleys; sadly only 25 rapidly melting remain of the 200 a few decades ago. We joked, “They should call it Melting Glacier National Park.” This vast pristine “Crown of the Continent Ecosystem,” now includes some 300 buffalos which were wiped out in 1890 but a few years ago the Blackfeet imported some from Canada. We saw one baby mountain goat but no bears or grey wolves. though hikers were warned that a big grizzly was stalking hikers, their bear spray of no use.
One day one we took a boat ride on one of the eight deep water glacial lakes the sacred Badger Two Medicine Lake in mist, then rain, then descending fog past cascading Aster Falls, on the Continental Divide. The next day Kammi drove for eight hours up the vertiginois narrow winding impossibly steep 50 mile highway, built in 1930, the Going- to- the- Sun Road (there being no Blackfoot word for west) and reached the highest point in the park, Logan’s Pass where the impenetrable downpour forced us had to turn back. The road was steep with sharp drop offs and tiny stone barriers that made the Amalfi coast road look spacious. It was too dangeous to proceed on the road downhill to the west side of the park past Never Laughs Mountain and No Name Lake to Apgar Village.
In the front seat l could not see the yellow line and was imagining headlines, “SUV falls 10,000 feet into gorge killing all.” (A car fell just there a few days ago). Despite the peek- a- boo weather going back past Babb and St.Mary’s there were breathtaking mountain vistas and the scale of the starkly empty glacial landscape was such a contrast to lush Yellowstone! Four soaking wet middle aged back country hikers (must have been Brits) waved us down desperate to get a ride back into town since the ranger service not operating for another week. Kammi said she would send some emergency vehicles.
The return journey was predictably uncomfortable, sleepless and starchy and when we arrived, late naturally, back at Union Station, I vowed, to the cheers of cynical Amtrak employees, to write to CEO Richard Anderson. The former head of Delta has been so focussed on profit and the bottom line since 2017 that he has sadly neglected our national long distance network routes; in fact he intends to break up these routes completely in favor of Northeast corridor commuter lines, “we’re not here to run a museum.” He has a lot to answer for to me and to you.
It has been a year since I have posted here, busy writing a book WAHOGA, Bror Blixen in Africa. I did pay a long overdue visit to Austin, Texas and the Harry Ransom Center and on a rainy April day toured, thanks to Director Stephen Enniss, the country’s finest research library and museum, located on the campus of the University of Texas. The Center’s sheer number of scholarly materials, 42 million manuscripts, one million rare books, five million photographs, and 100,000 works of art is astonishing. The collection continues to expand had after 57 years finally received the balance of the Arthur Miller papers.
Curator Jessica McDonald gave us an in depth look at the photography collection which in addition to the earliest known surviving photograph by Nicéphore Niépce, 1823, contains the works of Julia Cameron, Lewis Carroll, Walker Evans, Cecil Beaton, and some taken by my father Richard Lee Adams. Born in the Lone Star State in 1908, like Harry Huntt Ransom, he took large format photographs in the 30s and 40s.
Austin is decidedly non Texan, the fastest growing city in America, young, trendy, cosmopolitan, commercial. It sure ain’t 1960s Texas Tech where I saw cow pokes riding to the Ag school on horseback. It is an industrious hive of historical societies, preservations societies, museums, archives, histtorical commissions, the LBJ Library, where Robert Caro spend three years poring through the million documents.
Long long ago when you wore white gloves and nylons and your handbag matched your shoes, you walked up the long diagonal gangplank and boarded Cunard’s Elizabeth, Mary or Mauretania to cross the Atlantic in five vertiginous days. (I use the smokestack from my luggage tag as a logo.) In Cabin class, a deck up from Tourist, you dressed for dinner and if you caught the eye of the chief bursar you might be asked to join the captain’s table in First where I spotted a rueful Cary Grant just divorced from Betsy Drake.
A thousand years later in another world I took my next watery vacation, Viking’s Rhine Getaway cruise featured in Kodachrome- alluring ads on PBS before and after Downton Abbey
. I was hooked and we arrived in Basel, stepped onto the longboat (not a ship, carrying boats) Kara with 170 other passengers and 48 staff eager to serve. To a man everyone was over 65, white, married, retired middle management, with enviable appetites for information and food.
Sailing north on the Rhine, which started its 776 mile journey to the North Sea in the Oberalps, the Kara cruised for the first three nights while we were asleep and I wondered if this was just a floating hotel docking at different ports. Every morning passengers were divided into three or four groups and off we went on a caravan of buses. First stop Breisach, the warmest place in Germany, in hilly wine country, up tp 6,100 feet, with a Romanesque cathedral and Schongauer murals which survived the war. In Germany every monument is preceded by this lugubrious reminder, was it or was it not bombed by the Allies.
The Black Forest, impenetrable in thick fog, defied the bus driver so we stopped at a cuckoo clock shop in Hofgut Sternen next to the very hotel where Marie Antoinette stayed in 1770 en route from Vienna to Paris to marry Louis. (This is why you go to Europe!).The next day, the mist folllowed us into the old town of Strasbourg, all cobblestones, canals, half timbered houses, a medieval guild city circling a suave Gothic catheral . The multicultural new city with its unfortunate modern architecture is the seat of the 28 member European Parliament, which Britain will leave in 2020 and perhaps Italy, the Council of Europe and the Council on Human Rights.
Viking packs a full basket of Optional Excursions, “Making the MOST of every stop” but after a morning of sightseeing we skipped the Alsatian feast (food on the Kara was, fresh, simple and healthy) , the wine and beer nights in monasteries and fortresses, the cheesemaking demos, stunning Colmar, the Bruhl princely palaces, E-biking here and there. Jack did take the tour of Mercedes Benz where robots assembled cars overseen by workers rotating jobs every hour and never working more than 30 hours a week.
Heidelberg was still Edmund Purdum (with Mario Lanza’s tenor) in The Student Prince, singing DrinkDrinkDrink to Eyes to that are Bright and…. in the oldest university in Europe (1386), summertime, linden trees,bells chiming, lover’s promenade. Ah! The pink sandstone castle 330 ft high above the lovely Neckar, home of the Palatinate princes was so beautiful the Allies spared it. It is sans doute the most Romantic place on the Continent, and you have to hand it to the Germans, no folderol, no commercialism, no glassed in forced fed education, no Frenchified son et lumiere as in Lex Baux, just the empty melancholy divinity of castle ruins, yes in a thunderstorm, that enchanted Turner, Goethe and Mark Twain.
Finally finally daylight cruising in the choppy Rhine Gorge between Rudesheim and Koblenz the 25 mile stretch a UNESCO World Heritage site with 20 hilltop castles where robber barons exacted tolls from river traffic and where at the treacherous bend in the river stands the Lorelei rock of the Niebelungen. I longed to hear Siegfried but the musak offered All You Need is Love, a nod to the “Royal” wedding that day. The Kara docked in Koblenz, home of the Teutonic knights, where the Rhine and Moselle meet at a massive equestrian statue of Prince Willliam I and off to Marksburg Castle, the only castle untouched by the war, high up on the gorge. At this age having explored a lifetime of ruins, castles, monasteries and cathedrals I didn’t need to see another medieval kitchen and great hall so stayed outside, had a grand local beer, and admired the view.
During the night cruising and day cruising through lock after lock one noted that not a centimeter of space was left on the banks of the Rhine with heavy industry, factory after factory, plants after plant,many pharmas, smokestack after smokestack, shipping port after shipping port. In a country the size of Montana with 83 million souls( 10% have foreign passports), from cradle to grave everything is be organized in a quasi socialistic system where engineers earn more than lawyers and a super skilled workforce offers America, so profligate with our treasures, a valuable lesson.
Then Cologne, 90% flattened in the war, the old town rebuilt as a perfect copy of the original thanks to city planner Klement Eul the godfther of our guide Irwin. The biggest cathedral in Europe, built from the 14th through the 19th centuries, was as black as coal sadly unable to be cleaned so far has grime penetrated into the stone. The fourth country of the tour, the Netherlands and Kinderdjik another UNESCO site with 19 eighteenth century windmills, the largest concentration in the country, still fully functional, amidst the polders or grasslands five feet below sea level .Massive pumps from 1740 still keeping the sea at bay. Forgoing the tour of Amsterdam, which after all never changes, we were corraled onto a very old KLM 747 for the long painful flight home. The next time I cross the Atlantic I’ll try one of those new Cunards.
Fifty, yes that’s fifty, years ago in Provence I marveled at the clear air, soft light, pebbled beaches, northern Mistral, very violent with 65 mph gusts this October, open air markets with chickpea Socca, flowers, honeysuckle, poppies, hyacinth, lavender, Romanesque eglises, the ominpresent Roman remains and those lovely Beaux Arts buildings. Not much has changed today save the sheer numbers of Millennials in jeans and sweatshirts, no French stylishness here, meandering around the spacious plazas festooned with awkwardly unintelligible contemporary “art”.
In the 1960s on the Cote d’Azur a vague anticipation of glamor was in the air, but, alas, the south of France had already lost its panache, its chic, the Riviera set long gone, not a ghost of an impoverished aristocrat or Gerald and Sara Murphy but rather the playground of actress Brigitte Bardot. Since the 18th century the English had swarmed to Nice reaching an apex with Queen Victoria’s residence in an enormous summer palace, now the Regina hotel, and the descendants of aristocratic pre-revolutionary Russians who still live in the neighborhood of the ornate Orthodox cathedral built in 1865. A soupcon of raffish louchness persists, Maugham’s “sunny place for shady people”, in the 1,600 slip Marina in Antibes festooned with gigantic brand new yachts.
Antibes, dans ma memoire, the distant pink and blue Alps, the golden ramparts plunging directly into the cobalt Med, and half a century ago the rickety dark charm of the Old Town (built up today) . I vowed to live there someday, smoking Gauloises, drinking rouge, and writing on a balcony overlooking the sea, a la Lawrence Durrell whose Alexandria Quartet offered a fetching alternative, never taken, to Academia.
Though the petit pension on the Cap where we spent our frugal vacs, Les Coquelicots, had vanished the Grimaldi Castle, now officially the Musee Picasso, still housed the jolly yellow La Joie de Vivre which I recalled as far larger. Today the collection has expanded with photographs and ancillary exhibits, high entry fees, head sets, gift shops and a quartet of gendarmes with AK 47s with fingers resting on the triggers. They are a force a presence all over the Cote presumably since the July 14, 2016 terrorist massacre in Nice.
Provence had been part of a research journey for my thesis on the paintings of Roger Fry who loved its solid limestone rocks and farmhouses amidst the vertical cypress and horizontal plains. Deeply inspired by Cezanne whose paintings he first brought to England in 1912 naming them Post-Impressionist, he copied the master’s techniques, rather ruefully.
On this excursion I stepped through the very doorway of Cezanne’s atelier outside of Aix which I painted five years ago. Inside the high ceilinged room with walls painted neutral gray by Cezanne himself, foliage now obscuring the view of Mount St.Victoire, but the very wine bottles and statuettes he painted were miraculously intact.
#6 Cezanne’s atelier
Back then we zoomed through the Dordogne, far too drizzly like our home in England, to visit Marie Mauron in nearby St. Remy. The widow of Charles Mauron, Fry’s best friend, an eccentric literary critic now with a grand boulevard named for him, she was too busy to reminisce about all the Bloomsbury visitors, the industry in full swing and the BBC filming a documentary at the mas. This October the town square was in the throes of a wedding celebration with four tubas with the gaiety and sprezzatura of nearby Italy.
In Arles, after pizza au feu de bois (no longer allowed) and sleeping in the VW beetle on the Roman forum, we had a Perrier menthe at the Van Gogh cafe still there today unchanged and where I repeated the order. Van Gogh has become a potent marketing tool in the tourist industry and seemingly every sight he ever saw for a painting is noted. Jack and I stood on the exact spot on the Rhone where he painted Starry Night then visited the mental home where he exiled himself for a year, St.Paul de Mausole. His miniscule stone bedroom looked out on a gorgeous lavendar and almond orchard and down the road were two magnificent ornate columns of 5th century BC city of Glanum which he curiously never painted.
In 1967 we raced up the rocky bauxite mountain in the heart of the Alpilles to the fortified 12th century castle at Les Baux, sitting on the stones all day in the hot sun looking south over the plain where even the Romans dare not traverse it was so remotely forbidding. #11 Les BauxThe tiny village is still preserved intact by the vigilant French which added to the mix the Carrieres de Lumiere galleries dug into the limestone rock for immersive exhibits which this October was projecting the images of Bosch’s hell and Breughel’s sinners on the walls to the music of Carmina Burana and Led Zeppelin.
Though the Greeks were in Les Baux earlier in recorded history, the Romans are the overwhelming presence here and all over Provence which has to have a psychic impact on the Provencals, the weight of the past, the looming thereness especially of the first century AD, a tangible memento mori. The most overwhelming monument is the gigantic three tier Pont du Gard the highest Roman aqueduct in the world which carried water to Nimes from Uzes, now a UNESCO site.
And the artists the artists all the artists knew what they were doing when they chose St.Paul de Vence the intoxicating mountain town where midwestern-born F.Scott and Hemingway drank pastis and Simone and Yves lived and where Matisse recovered from cancer surgery. He gave the Dominican nuns who succored him and who still live here a thank you gift, the Chapelle du Rosaire’s stained glass windows and priest’s chasubles, which the Vatican tried unsuccessfully to buy. A Matisse museum in nearby Cimiez the hilly region north of Nice is adjacent to Roman baths and arena, housing the works of his cut out years, which hover somewhere between graphic design and art. The Chagall Museum in Cimiez down the hill contains his large iconographically rich biblical paintings but I found them muddy and formless, however precious in the details.
We were tourists not travellers in Apuglia (I prefer the older word) setting out to see as much as possible with a guided tour. It was a trade off to be sure, more a quantitative than qualitative experience, but that was fine, the purpose was served. For fifty years I longed to see Bari which my grandmother left forever in 1911, the land of poverty, the Land of Remorse, the land of chronic massacres. It was far more beautiful and haunting than I’d ever imagined and understood why Laura Terrone missed it every day of her life in the New World.
My DNA is half Apuglian; I had expected to see half Italian when I sent the sample to Ancestry which determined the other 50% originated in the British Isles. Instead it revealed 29% Greco Italian, with 21% an assortment of Balkan, European Jewish, Caucasian, and Middle Eastern with a touch of the Iberian peninsula, like a history of the eastern-most region of Italy. At one point in time it was the colony of Magna Graecia where
Pythagoras, Archimedes and Aeschylus lived and where Western Civilization started to flourish.
I could scarcely believe how congested, chaotic and graffiti -strewn Naples was on the drive from the airport to the Renaissance Mediterraneo hotel, a few minutes from the Bay and overlooking Vesuvio. After a sleepless night with singing giovanetti outside our window we spent the next day at the National Archaeological Museum one of the true wonders of the western cultural world housing the Farnese collection and artifacts and mosaics from Pompeii and Herculaneum. At the Herculaneum excavation site later that day a few miles south we walked down into the ruins of luxury villas in what had been a seaside resort for the wealthy, Ercolani, before Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. It rained lava here not volcanic ash as in Pompeii which preserved the organic life in the bustling commercial center. Here only a few skeletons remained, in basements near the river bank and scholars are still debating what happened to the people.
The next day we were off to the northeast of Campania, stopping for lunch in the stunning mountain town lying on a ridge between two rivers, Benevento, on the Via Appia between Rome and Brindisi. Founded by Diomedes after the Trojan War it became a Roman colony then a Lombard city and has numerous Longobardian churches where a young Padre Pio worshipped. Trajan’s Arch still stands and from a later moment in time Santa Sofia where the locals congregated after mass then strolled in a colorful passeggiata on the Corso Garibaldi.
Later in the day we arrived at Apuglia’s most prominent landmark, the 13th century Castel del Monte, one of the 92 castles built in the region by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, Hohenstaufen. The dark moody day was perfect for visiting this massive Gothic castle sitting atop a 4,000 foot mountain overlooking the coast from the Gargano to Monopoli and the foothills of the Murge plateau. Equidistant between Chartres and Cheops it has an obsession with the number eight (as in the emperor’s crown!) , with eight rooms, all perfect octagons, on both floors, and eight octagonal towers, one of which we ascended on impossibly tiny steps. There was a lot of climbing up and down streets and staircases on this tour and you really had to have stamina. Most of us were past 60 some past 70 and 80 and the level of activity was considerable though we had not been forewarned.
Passing Cerignola, the storm center of revolt in the early 20th century when peasant farm workers struck against the brutal conditions imposed on them by the owners of the vast latifundi. The green and golden fields of wheat, the endless olive orchards and vineyards of the Tavoliere here in Foggia rolled by the window, once the land of extreme poverty and inhumanity imposed on Apuglians by men from the north who came south after the Risorgimento like carpetbaggers. Latifundism was another reason why millions emigrated from Apuglia.
Then Bari, Bari, Italy. Finally. We stayed in the new town on the Corso Cavour with its grid plan spaghetti-thin streets a few minutes walk from Bari Vecchia which reminded me of a medina in Tangiers with narrow streets winding around and around the port within the fortified castle walls. It is authentico, with a vigorous street, life old men sitting and smoking on plastic chairs, laundry hanging from each balcony, nonnas their daughters and grandaughters making the daily orrechiette and taralli drying them on screens in the sun.
The 11th century Basilica Pontificia San Nicola the vast Romanesque cathedral was my true destination, the church which my grandmother sent money to from America, $2 at a time, for stained glass windows. It was startlingly half Roman Catholic, half Orthodox, housing the bones of Saint Nicholas ( Santa Claus of legend) a Turkish bishop adopted by the Barese when 62 local sailors stole his relics from Myra in 1087. in the lower crypt babushked Russian women and Orthodox priests prayed before his bones at the silver alter behind a silver screen. Every May the 17th century statue, right there still in the basilica, is carried through the streets of Bari down to the sea by sailors. That St.Francis of Assisi prayed here and that my grandmother sometimes wore the Capuchin robes and scapulas of the Order of St. Francis was emotionally powerful.
At dinner In a trattoria on the Piazza Ferrarese, overflowing with Barese on a warm Sunday night, we had the best meal of the trip, with the main ingredients the mellow, fruity Apuglian olive oil and dark red wine from the Primitivo grape. It was virtually vegetarian, true cucina povera, rapini with orrechiette, fava bean puree, wild mushroom ragu, stacked eggplant sliced paper thin, ceci. Mussels and some veal made an appearance as almost always in Apuglia where I never saw chicken or beef because it is too expensive to raise cattle to maturity. The brown grainydurum wheat bread was a revelation.
Bari has a long gracefully curved harbour and busy port, which was in October with the blinding sun still too hot to tarry on for long. One can only imagine the 100 to 120 degree temperatures in the summer which justifies these long siesta hours when everything is chiusa from 1.30 to 5. Everything still was this October, much to the tourist’s annoyance The port was a point of departure for the Crusades and the entry point for a dizzying array of conquerors including the Lombardian Dukes of Benevento and Muslim Saracens and the Byzantine emperors of the Levant . From the Neolithic, to the Peutians, the Messapians, the Greeks, the Romans, Swabians, Normans, expecially the Normans, the Longobards, the Angevins and Aragons and the Turks. It seems everyone who had a fleet raided this part of the Adriatic coast.
We checked out of the Hotel Oriente and boarded the bus to Lecce at the beginning of the humble Salentine peninsula, the southermost part of the heel. Deemed the Florence of the South, the Athens of Apuglia, the Florence of Baroque, all meaningless terms because it is perfect as it is, remote Lecce has now been discovered by Helen Mirren, Gerard Depardieu and countless Englishmen. After the great commercial successes of the 17th and 18th centuries the city’s architects embraced Baroque and Rococo decoration carving on to classical facades golden bouquets of stone putti, angels, saints, fruits and flowers as in the gay and exuberant Cathedral of Santa Croce. Though loved by most over the centuries, 18th century Marchese Grimaldi said the facade made him think of a lunatic who was having a nightmare.
There are numerous ornate palazzi where the elegant Salentino citizens lived (who called the Barese decadent Levantines), with Spanish style wrought iron balconies. The Piazza Oronzo is named for the the sainted bishop whose statue looms over countless African immigrants trying to supplement their stipends from Italy by selling trinkets. Though there were 62,000 migrants in 2015 and 200,000 since 2014 in a poor crowded country the Italians are tolerant and kind though the commercial harrassment of tourists continuous. The piazza is constructed atop a wonderful Roman ampitheater that once seated 25,000.
Our hotel was the remote Best Western’s Leone di Messapia (evocatively named for the Balkan Messapians, those Indo European Illlyrians who settled in Apuglia seven centuries before Christ). The restaurant Mbriana Bella was sparsely populated like the hotel and the veal dry and pasta pomodoro, always with ricotta mixed in, bland. Maybe the hotel and restaurant were like many of those optimistically built in the oughts when everyone predicted a tourist stampede to Lecce and the Salentine, which one suspects has not really materialized. Even the luxe high priced masseria like Borgo Ignazio may not have found it easy to attract tourists and one wonders how Francis Ford Coppola’s Palazzo Margherita is faring in Bernalda, Basilicata. This has been called the Great Tourism Fail in the Mezzogiorno with the Italian government using 98% of the tourism budget for salaries and where only 13% of all tourists to Italy venture.
The next night a wine tasting at the Masseria d’Astore in
Cutrofiano a few miles south of Lecce took place in a fortified farmhouse on a grand Salentine estate carefully restored by orthodontist Paolo Benegiamo who lives there with his family. It produces evoo and small batch wines mainly from the Primitivo and Negroamaro grapes grown in their vineyard. We started dinner of with a Malvasia Bianca, then a Negroamaro Rose and on to two Filimei Reds one a year old the other five years made from the Aliarico grape. They were clean and crisp though lacking
L’Astore studiously makes biodynamic wines, subsidized by the government, using purely organic grapes, with no synthetic chemicals or mechanical irrigation and no added ingredients. That the harvesting and planting respect obscure astrological rituals detracts a bit from the credibility of this monoculture. The masseria was once a 16th century frantoio ipogeo and still retains the underground olive mill, in the original cave where olives were crushed and made into golden liquid for consumption for London street lamps. The workers were too poor to use the oil themselves and the subterranean conditions under which they labored to produce the oil was visibly worse than Dickensian, dark, underground, damp, with low ceilings which forced the men to remain bent over. Mamma mia!
Apuglia has olive trees some which still bear fruit though they predate the birth of Christ. Before the xyella fastidiosa outbreak there were about 60 million trees and some estimates claim over a million trees or more have been lost since 2013. The olive trees here are much larger, gargantuan even, than in Tuscany and like the people of Apuglia because they have had to struggle for survival in a harsh land they have grown tough, reaching deep down to reserves of strength.
The next day we drove through the Val d’Istria the lovely undulating Trulli Valley, stopping by Ostuni ,the White City, dazzling on a high hill about five miles inland to evade pirates. As usual in Apuglian towns it was repeatedly sacked, has a colorful but treacherous history, a riot of Norman churches, palazzi for the aristocratic familes past and present, winding streets and alleys with shops and family restaurants. English and German tourists flock here.
Tourism in Apuglia is usually promoted with endless photos of
Alberobello which until a hundred years ago was the lair of brigands hiding in thick woods and preying on travelers. Today the hundreds of picturesque trulli, the bee hived shaped conical houses that resemble farm tool sheds in the olive fields, are one or two room dwellings. Built of local limestone slabs their triangular roofs have Messapian roots with enigmatic icons and varied rooftop spindles. They tell the tale of the woodland town Sylva Arboris Belli and powerful Count Giangirolamo in the 16th century who told his feudal serfs to build houses without mortar to be easily dismantled to evade tax collectors.They are gleamingly whitewashed, with walls of several feet,perhaps one window and are charming en masse.
The restaurants were closed even before the magical siesta hour because of nearby construction so we spent our time walking up and down the hilly town about to close for the season. Sometimes called Trulliville with its endless tiny, poor tourist shops, it has chic weekend second homes for rich Milanese or Barese. Our hotel for the next two nights, the Grand Hotel Chiusa de Chietri, again far out in the suburbs, was built as a luxurious spa paradise with magnificent landscaping and spacious public spaces but alas had fallen on hard times perhaps because the working class English trippers tolerate substandard everything. Our feisty American tour group complained that the carpets were wet and the mold everywhere including the questionable bathrooms.
Otranto Otranto — where had I heard that? Was it Byron? No it was the Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (he had never been there but liked the sound of the name) the very first Gothick novel kicking off centuries of vampires and monsters and other nonsense. Bari and Otranto were ruled by the catapan of Byzantium before the explosion of Christianity in the middle ages, the 11th -13th centuries, when ruthless conquering Muslims were replaced by equally ruthless and even more cruel Catholic Normans, those footloose mercenaries who passed through Southern Italy in 1015 on their way back from the Crusades and by 1050 were powerful enough to defeat the papal army .
The capital of the Terra d’Otranto and the easternmost point in western Europe, Otranto seems like a Greek town. The Norman cathedral’s floor is the most important mosaic in Apuglia depicting the struggle of good and evil perhaps predicting the Turkish invasion of 1480, still called the sacco, which wiped out the town of 12,000 leaving only 800 who were canonized as saints.
We were however getting a tad churched-out so hurried up the steep hill to the cathedral then descended to the seaport to look at the meeting point of the Adriatic and Ionian seas. We bought a gelato at one of the few places still open at the end of the season and I thought of our trip to the seaside towns of northern England a few years ago when shuttered shops greeted autumn’s visitors. But there was one more important place to see.
Matera was once in Apuglia but today is the Sassi city on a hilltop in Basilicata. The bus was parked alongside a long string of buses about a mile from the center of the town of Matera located on top of the Sassi cave dwellings. We were herded on to a viewing platform as we had in Alberbello here with Italian tourists and their families taking selfies before the spectacle of the troglodyte village.
My grandmother often told me that people lived in caves in Apuglia and now I knew she was not exaggerating as I stood before a ghoulish stage set from a production of Dante’s Inferno. The caves carved into limestone ravine, treeless and desolate, a fortress standing above the plains and the Gravina River below. Although sassi existed in some form since Neolithic man they remained throughout the millennia dire peasant dwellings for the poorest of the poor in one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, like Aleppo. For several centuries the city was entirely underground hiding in a dense forest so invading Saracens could never see it from above.
Down, down, down Escher- like steps into the old city hewn we see limestone rocks, tufa, high above the river and plains, past the newer sassi now 4- star hotels and boutiques and second homes (some call it Tribeca) down down into the vertical chaos of the old city that was exposed by
Carlo Levi in Christ Stopped and Eboli. When it was published in 1945 a horrified government forced the evacuation of the population of 15,000 who lived with their animals in the filthy underground caves. They were moved into sterile new housing blocks, destroying the community, but in 1986 subsidies were made available to renovate the sassi and grotto churches cutting costs in half and in 1993 it had recovered enough to be declared a UNESCO world heritage site.
Ah would that we had happened upon this astonishing vision by chance in another era. Today the city of Matera with 60,000 residents with its elegant 18th century square with palazzi and restaurants was just declared the 2019 European Capitol of Culture. After viewing all the momento mori skulls and crossbones on the cathedral we grabbed an aperitivo at Hemingway’s Bistrot on the via Riobla Domenico. Yes. Hemingway again, even here in the Mezzogiorno. This man was a historical menace.
Such melancholy thoughts accompanied me the 200 miles to Sorrento. through Basilicata’s mountains that resemble the Dolomites which after the flatness of Apuglia was a shock. Both regions of the Mezzogiorno are still poor compared to the rest of Italy with over one quarter (some say 75%) of young men unemployed. One of our guides Simonetta told me with that characteristic menefreghismo that there were no opportunities in the south and that she will probably be stuck in her job forever if she choses to stay here. Many young people have already jumped the train out of there since Matteo Renzi’s master plan to resusitate Apuglia seems to have stalled.
Sorrento was a mass of humanity spilling off the sidewalks, so exquisite, so picturesque, so polluted with unregulated tourism, here on the beautiful Tyrrhenian. The Cristina Hotel had a spectacular view of the coast. You cannot ruin the beauty of the natural setting of the peninsula, the red clfffs against the blue sea and the golden light.
We took the bait and went to Capri via the hydrofoil, then on to a waiting speedboat that zipped around the gorgeous aquamarine grottoes (though the Blue one now off limits) past scores of boats some with divers. Then we were crammed into a funicular for the ride to the Piazza Umberto a seething scrum of comically overpriced shops and restaurants. We did get some stunning tourist shots from the Garden of Augustus at the base of the Krupp mansion but this was not the Villa of Jovis of Tiberius or the Capri of Graham Greene and Debussy. One needs to go to the private parts of the island for that and there was no more time.
One of the pitfalls of being a tourist is the relentless momentum of it all, when your brain cannot keep pace with your feet and spectacular sights flash by with one’s dwindling comprehension. I will have to return to Apuglia some day as a traveller but I will always be grateful for this chance to see what I have always dreamt of. Ciao
March 21, 2015
We spent much of the wicked winter in Naples, Florida where dangerously wealthy retirees and their ubiquitous wives, mainly from the Midwest, spend the cold months. Save the physical beauty, the warmth, the palmettoes it could be Oak Brook, Illinois, with a similar demographic, builder’s mansions, malls and golf clubs. Etcetera.
Biblical rainstorms plagued us from Chicago to Savannah so we saw little of the city Sherman stormed in the War of Northern Aggression. The landmark Riverfront Hotel, a converted cotton warehouse on the Savannah River, was casual at best, with that disturbing southern racial divide as in black staff, white guests. The same syndrome appeared in Paula Deen’s buffet restaurant, no more inviting than Waffle House. Forsyth Square featured in the hothouse fantasy Midnight in the Garden etc. was invisible in the storm. Some other time, perhaps.
St. Augustine was celebrating its 450th anniversary in the somewhat bedraggled historical district with its chilling Spanish fort where the European assault on Florida all began. The skies lifted in Naples just in time to see pelicans plunging balletically into the Gulf against a blazing pink sunset. We had passed the tropical Mason Dixon into Southwest Florida where the foliage and climate become Caribbean, colorful, exotic. Which is precisely why it is so suffocatingly, chokingly overcrowded with cars, condos, people, shopping centers. In 2014, over 97 million tourists visited Florida, and with 18% of the state water, and 20 million residents no wonder it has a higher density of population per square mile than California.
In February the Imagine Solutions Conference, a TED- style think tank where retirees can have the Renaissance Man Experience, took place at the Ritz seeking “general solutions” to world problems. Over 600 seekers paid $600 for lunch and to listen to local healthcare experts in a state with the highest number of Affordable Care Act enrollees in the nation. One seeker exclaimed, “holding a conference like Imagine Solutions makes a lot of sense in Naples, where there are so many smart retirees looking for something to do.”
Ah yes! Something To Do! A Plague of Volunteers is much in evidence at every turn in this city of 20,000 with the world’s largest chapter of the Circumnavigators Club. Each week the Naples Daily News lists 200 plus events and club meetings, for soroptimists, optimists, orchid lovers, pastel painters, rubber bridge players, alums of Notre Dame, Delta Gamma, Midwest high schools, the list endless……stock options, canasta, Corvettes, DAR chapters. Philanthropy is High Sport.
Florida is recovering from the Great Recession and yet more gated communities are breaking ground with land grabbing golf courses called Chambord or Tuscany (even a St. Lucia!) developed by Lennar builders. In 2015 SWFL tops the nation in job growth and a hot housing market and Naples and Marco (a sea of coastal) are exploding reminiscent of the 90s when Carl Hiaasen’s Sick Puppy described “Trucks, bulldozers, cement mixers, cranes, gasoline tankers….Here’s where the yacht harbor will be dredged. There’s where the golf courses go. That’s being cleared for the airstrip. And everywhere else: homesites. Very expensive houses also condominiums and townhouses and even some year round rentals. Duplexes and triplexes.”
Sadly and ineluctably Florida’s unique fragile ecosystem will not sustain the onslaught of even more prosperity. Though many of the winter billionaires have become feel-good conservationists their efforts are too late; the next generations need to make a buck from the weather, the weather, the waters, the waters, the exploitation of the fragments that remain of Old Florida.
There are facsimiles of Old Florida, like zoos for flora, called “preserves” that give one a sample of Nature in the past. The Southwest Conservancy has a patch of mangrove swamp near the heart of Naples, offering half hour electric boat tours down the Gordon River where one can see the expanding number of houses and the Bear Claw development lurking on the perimeter. Only a matter of time! The Naples Botanic Garden has 90 acres of a river of grass, a restored habitat which you whip by on a path before entering the gift shop. There are state parks and endless environmental learning centers but it’s all….well, you know.
The Land Preservation Trust and the Conservancy are dedicated to saving wetlands but this year saw a very steep decline in wading birds’ nests, and sightings of egrets and herons and ibis. Corkscrew Swamp is 13,000 fragile acres of wetlands where the ancient old growth cypress, 100 feet tall, are submerged in a shallow slow moving river. So beautiful! So refreshing! A chap in a Tilly hat and walking stick emerged from the forest as we were about to enter the two mile boardwalk and mumbled sadly, “This is the real Florida, the old Florida.” The Romance of the Swamp. We saw a couple of mammoth gators, two tiny turtles, two squirrels, two anhingas and one lonely white ibis in the hour’s walk though the Audubon guide said panthers and woodstorks are coming back one of the many promised sightings over the months.
We spotted two dolphin fins on a boat tour of Naples Bay and listened to numerous teasers about manatees but none materialized amidst all the racing speedboats. What we did see were ugly McMansions being constructed by corporations and syndicates, many foreign, and left uninhabited. They say 20% of the estates in Port Royal are empty. A panther was found hiding in a backyard of one of these rented mansions having swam across the bay from Keewaydin Island, a 22 -mile preserve. The cousin of the American cougar is losing more and more habitat and there are weekly postings of how many were killed on highways like I-75, 2014 being highest and 2015 surpassing that already.
“The growth is coming. The growth is coming.” warn local newspapers about Fort Myers. Today the blue collar river town, where in 1881 Hamilton Disston from Philadelphia came to dredge and drain the Everglades, is seeing a building boom on the Caloosahatchee River, nice but not the Gulf. The main attractions are the airport and the Edison Ford Estate, 20 acres of experimental labs where the great inventors tried to find a cheap source of rubber, from goldenrod to banyan trees, for auto tires. The gardens by Olmsted are stunning but tough to navigate with the mobs.
Old Florida, or what remains of it, became increasingly alluring as we took refuge from Mercato, Venetian Bay and Waterside (jewelry stores, sweatshirts and kitchen supplies) and escaped south to Everglades City for our annual crazy-fast airboat ride through the mangroves this time led by Shaun. Born on Chokoloskee Island as his father and grandfather were, this wiry Cracker lured a few raccoons out of the mangroves with Cheetos. The only Confederate flag we saw during this trip (and the only one since West Virginia!) was on a crabbing boat outside the Triad Café here which sold blue stone crabs.
The city was, as so many in early industrial Florida history, a company town built by another Everglades drainage outsider Barron Collier and is today a real backwater. The Rod and Gun Club hosted five presidents seeking great hunting and fishing and today is a restaurant. The 11th Annual Marjory Stoneman Douglas Festival in the wee Museum of the Everglades, the Old Laundry Building, built in 1927 was organized by Friends of the Everglades. It was founded in 1962 (the Rachel Carson era) by the conservationist when she was 78 the media age of the club members listening to Seminole Indians talk about powerful women in their culture.
There are six Seminole reservations in Florida but the Seminoles are long gone and you need only one-fourth Indian blood to be a tribal member now. The tribe is more involved with the Immokalee casino and live in their own gated communities though the history of the tribe resonates. A loose amalgam of many southern tribes, they welcomed runaway slaves before the Civil War and after the Seminole Wars retreated deep into the Everglades rather than be forced onto western reservations.
From Everglades City it’s a short drive over a causeway to Chokoloskee Island, a Calusa Indian shell mound, where the Smallwood Store founded in 1906 was a trading post in the heart of Ten Thousand Islands. In 1982 it became a designated landmark and museum. Totch Brown and his pioneer family were born in Chokoloskee and his book which we bought one desperate day in Barnes & Noble in Waterside, Totch!A Life in the Everglades, is wonderful oral history of the land and the life of this alligator hunter, fisherman, crabber, poacher, weed runner, singer and character of the Western Everglades. He appeared in Bud Schulberg’s Winds Across the Everglades which seems to be running permanently in some cinema or other. The Glades have inspired filmmakers and writers for a hundred years, the best of which is Peter Matthiesen’s Shadow Country a classic of the outlaw life in the Glades. As usual an informed literary imagination is the redeeming factor in the arduous sport of traveling.
For 150 years wetlands have been considered wastelands to be drained so today half the Everglades is gone and the other half is dying, au revoir to the unique flora and fauna not found anywhere else in the world. What remains of the River of Grass is 2,500 square miles of Everglades National Park, designated in 1947 as a subtropical wilderness of mangroves, hardwood pine forests, cypress swamps and sawgrass prairies. It is located next door to the Big Cypress preserve another 2,400 square miles of subtropical swamp one- third covered with cypress trees. You can a glimpse of the wilderness with a tram tour at Shark Alley on Highway 41 but no sense of the extent of the national park whose waters are disappearing or being ravaged.
The Everglades Restoration Plan 30 years and eight billion dollars later fresh water still does not flow in sheets across the sawgrass prairie. Jeb Bush crossed party lines to sign Clinton’s bill to balance restoration with growth management but alas uncontrolled development reigns, traffic, air and water pollution, ever more loss of trees and marches. Newspapers bristle with fights between developers and city councils struggling to preserve What’s Left even if it just a theme park like the Bonita Springs Everglades Wonder Garden.
One day we drove straight east from Naples to Clewiston, past fields and fields of sugar cane plantations and humongous belching sugar refineries, to see what once was the beating heart of the Everglades, its headwaters at Lake Okeechobee. It has of course been dammed up since the 30s by the Herbert Hoover Dike forever preventing its clear waters to return to the Everglades. The Sweetest City in the World now an old former company town was built for executives of the US Sugar Corporation and we stopped briefly at the famous Clewiston Inn where the Windsors once stayed before going bass fishing on the lake. It was dark and empty and the new owner from New Delhi said the restaurant was now closed.
We tried to see the lake but without a boat to go through the locks and levees it was accessible only on foot 35 feet high up so we settled for having a beer at Roland Martin’s Marina. At the Tiki Bar we continued to read Michael Grunwald’s extraordinary book The Swamp, one for the ages, telling the melancholy history of the ruination of Nature in south Florida from the 19th to the 21st centuries. Apparently the sugar farmers are still back pumping polluted water into to Lake O which is then released into the Caloosahatchee, fouling Estero Bay and continuing on as red tide into the Atlantic.
The March 8th New York Times reports, Miami Port Project killing off coral reef. The Army Corps of Engineers is ignoring environmentalists and creating even more of an underwater moonscape by poor dredging, poor management. It’s all a Lost Cause. “Alligator” Ron Bergeron a Fish & Wildlife Commissioner writes, “you have to decompartmentalize the system to where it has a natural flow from Lake Okeechobee to the central Everglades and on to Florida Bay.” That will never happen of course.
Before we left Florida we had to see Ave Maria a new town founded a decade or so ago by the Domino’s Pizza guy according to the strictest (loathe that word) Catholic principles. This Bizzaro Brave New World has a university whose president Jim Towey is the biggest donor to Jeb Bush. The alien cult like atmosphere After the Bomb empty with a creepy cathedral where the entire town was at a service on the Sunday morning we appeared.
We should have taken the four hour ferry from Marco to Key West since driving was at gruesome snail’s pace. Eight hours in half way through we gave up at Marker 61 and stopped at Marathon’s Duck Key and the Hawks Cay Resort along with half of the Jersey shore. The Preferred Group hotel definitely needed Leona Helmsley and finding solace at yet another Tiki Bar we could not help but notice the clear aquamarine waters, the exquisite beauty of the lagoon and the breathtaking natural setting.
Hoping to avoid The Flood we returned home through the Panhandle en route to Alabama’s I-65, the War on Terror Memorial Highway. In all our American travels over the years no state seemed more impoverished than southern Alabama with countless derelict shacks next to billboards for the Robert Trent Jones Trail. We arrived in Montgomery, trying to exploit its history to draw tourists, this time thankfully Civil Rights not the Civil War, on this the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma. We stayed at Hampton Inn next to the Hank Williams Museum and took a pass on the Zelda Fitzgerald and Jefferson Davis’ homes. We will definitely return to this living history museum someday.