28 May 2011

Le Cinque Terre

away from it all?

Le Cinque Terre is a rugged stretch of coast on the Italian Riviera, in Liguria, slightly to the west of La Spezia. There are, not surprisingly, five villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. The coastline, these five villages, and the surrounding hillsides are all part of the Cinque Terre National Park as well as being one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Each of these sites (and in 2011 there are 936 of them: 725 cultural, 183 natural, and 28 mixed properties, in 153 different states) is a place (such as a forest, mountain, lake, desert, monument, building, complex, or city) that is listed by UNESCO as of special cultural or physical significance to the common heritage of humanity.


In some ways being designated a World Heritage Site could be seen as a mixed blessing.  The City of Bath, for instance, was designated one in 1987, and now the queues to see the Roman Baths wind round the block, and Jane Austen and Fanny Burney must be turning in their graves in reaction to the busloads of trippers who wouldn’t know which way up to put a lace doily….  And on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast (World Heritage Site since 2001) it is very very hard to get a drink in the “Square and Compass” (http://squareandcompasspub.co.uk/) at Worth Matravers without jostling with multiple families weighed down with casts of trilobites and bags of fossils.


In Italy there are 48 sites currently on the list (which is the highest concentration in the world); not surprisingly these include the Historic Centres of Rome (1980), Florence (1982) and Siena (1995), the city of Venice (1987), the Piazza del Duomo in Pisa (1987, 2007), the Trulli of Alberobello (1996) and the Archaeological Areas of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata (1997). And, since 1999, at the 21st session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, as well, Le Cinque Terre (together with Portovenere and the Islands of Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto) have been blessed (or cursed) with the designation.


Now I might be something of a sceptic here, although I am not casting aspersions at the collective wisdom of the members of the world heritage committee.  Let’s be frank – Le Cinque Terre is a beautiful area and the five separate villages, perched crazily as they are above the jagged shores, tumbling colourfully down the slopes from terraced hillsides fragrant with wild flowers to kiss the sea in all weathers – are like bright jewels in a fantastic natural crown of striated rock.  Let’s be frank – other areas such as this have been subjected to being cast into concrete shrouds and private projects which have all but destroyed any sense of heritage.  Let’s be frank – without some efforts to preserve customs, practices, wild-life, vegetation, indigenous architecture, the world and all its billions of inhabitants would be the poorer.  But also, to be frank, perhaps there should be a more discreet way of doing it?


To quote Wikipedia: “Over centuries, people have carefully built terraces on the rugged, steep landscape right up to the cliffs that overlook the sea. Part of its charm is the lack of visible corporate development. Paths, trains and boats connect the villages, and cars cannot reach them from the outside. The Cinque Terre is a very popular tourist destination…..” What is the key to this? Lack of visible corporate development? – I hardly think so! Much of Italy clearly displays a lack of corporate development, albeit mainly in the twentieth century, and this is hardly to be celebrated. Cars cannot reach them from outside? – now that may hold a clue. In fact there are roads and streets and vehicles do come and go, but these are either those who live there (who have to park on the periphery of their respective village) or delivery or service vehicles, without which the bars and restaurants in particular would rapidly cease to function. But the average visitor has to take the train, and this is perhaps where Le Cinque Terre do hit the spot.


On a recent visit to the area I couldn’t help but notice a good-humoured group of Americans, who were being teased by a trio of ever-so-slightly uncouth southern Italian youths.  We were all travelling north on a train from Pisa and this diverse group of travellers clearly had not been long in Italy but were infused with a sense of direction.  At La Spezia  (“Is this La Speeschia?” they enquired) we disembarked and made our way to the office dedicated solely to Le Cinque Terre, where train tickets or passes the trains and the walking routes for one or two days need to be purchased.  This office tends to be busy, but it is well stocked with information and the multi-lingual assistants are helpful and efficient.  My American friends duly acquired their passes and we all headed for the next train to Riomaggiore and beyond.  And these Americans, informed and prepared by World Heritage advertising, disappeared off to explore this world of “unspoiled” villages and nature.  And this is where it becomes an extraordinary success story, which presumably is an outstanding example of corporate development, for the trains from La Spezia tunnel their way through Le Cinque Terre on a frequent and precise timetable, stopping at each of the five villages on their way to Genova and back, thus connecting these remote and “inaccessible” villages with the cities and airports of Rome, Milan and everywhere else.  And they are not just dinky little tourist shuttle services either; you are looking at full scale, double-decker (again a mark of the corporate development of the Ferrovie dello Stato Italiano – would that the British railway barons had thought to make their tunnels tall enough for double-decker trains!) full length electric trains. And they are full!

At the height of the season, for most of each day, these trains are embarking and disembarking literally thousands of tourists at every stop.  The Carabinieri are out in force to ensure a reasonable flow of pedestrians up and down each narrow main street and, although we are talking about decent, well-behaved World Heritage Tourists here and it’s not marked by street gangs or family beach parties, the throngs of international visitors can be oppressive.  Think the Palio in Siena.  Think a slow motion bull run in Pamplona.  Think of underground trains in the rush hour!


And why are they here?  Well again, to tinge this with cynicism, they are celebrating a world without cars.  Seriously, this is one of the defining features.  Yes, there are many other attractive aspects, such as the exquisite natural landscape, the beautiful light on the sea as it sparkles at the feet of the cliffs, the trails that wind steeply up and down terraced hillsides, through olive groves and vineyards; and the delicious foods and wines, much of which is somehow local, but one of the unconscious desires the holiday maker seems to yearn for is to get away from the tyranny of the car, and where better to do this than in tiny, old-fashioned villages by the sea?

There are other places in the world that kind of support this idea.  The cobbled, traffic-free, high street of the fishing village of Clovelly in North Devon, built into a cleft in a 130 metre high cliff, tumbles its way down past whitewashed and flower bedecked cottages to a tiny working port, and is the nearest thing we have to Le Cinque Terre in the UK (though perhaps PortMeirion might argue with this…)  The traffic free marvel that is Venice is a mecca for autophobes; we’ve already alluded to the Campo Santo of Pisa and the heart of Siena.  But imagine Trafalgar Square without the snarl and stampede of traffic.  Imagine your home town without cars.  We are so inured (and beholden) to our private means of transport that when UNESCO decrees that a place is beautiful because it is not accessible by car, we flock there in wonder and don’t even dream that it could happen elsewhere.

But, back to Le Cinque Terre.  On this occasion we stayed at the Locanda Ca Dei Duxi in Riomaggiore, nestled into the walls of an ancient house just like the sparrows I observed in the nearby church walls – precarious, but safe and snug, each in their individual space.  We had Cinque Terre Cards, which allowed us to walk on the Via dell’Amore (characteristically decorated with padlocks representing undying love) and, had it not been closed due to landslips, the Sentiero Azzurro ("Light Blue Trail") which connects all five villages (Riomaggiore, Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia and Manarola).  This is twelve kilometres long, and has a vertical shift of five hundred metres. And we treated ourselves to dinner at the Ristorante Ripa Del Sole, which is run with passion and care by Daniela Bertola, her brother Matteo and his wife Tatiana.  From their dining room the views of the sunset over the castle ruins are superb, and with almost everything, from the fish to the wine being locally produced, you could almost taste the lack of cars!  Among many delicacies we had anchovies in five different ways and trofie al pesto, and finished off with glasses of the legendary “Schiacchetra” – the vino passito of Le Cinque Terre (made from a combination of Bosco, Albarola, and Vermentino grapes but those that have been allowed to sweeten on the vine).

Before we left, to return to the world of cars, our host recommended returning in the late autumn or even winter.  It is quieter then, and, with the sea to warm the air, the climate is mild when other parts of Italy may be snowbound or bitterly cold with mountain air.  The train duly picked us up at Riomaggiore, within sight of the blue sea, and then, a short tunnel or two later, it dropped us back in the hustle and bustle of La Spezia, with its pleasures of concrete and cars. 

We should be grateful that in 1998 the Italian Ministry for the Environment set up the Protected natural marine area and that in 1999 the Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre was set up to conserve the ecological balance, protect the landscape.  And we should be grateful for World Monuments Watch and the World Monuments Fund which study and support the management of the conservation of the area.  And finally we should be grateful to UNESCO for their designation as a world heritage site, for, despite the way this has led to the invasion of tourism, at the least this fuels the local economy and helps with the preservation.  And, perhaps, with the lessons learned from the attraction of this area, we may find the thrill of car-free villages and “a lack of visible corporate development” catch on and even become the norm, rather than the exception.

2 May 2011


The silence of the Wolves

congregazione camaldolese dell' Ordine di San Benedetto
comunità monastica di Camaldoli

sacro eremo di Camaldoli - Arezzo
monastero di Camaldoli – Arezzo

Spring comes late to Camaldoli.  At 1104 metres above sea level, immersed in thick forest and cloaked in deep silence this hermitage is chilly despite the sunshine.  We have travelled from the Ligurian coast, where hottentot figs flower and bougainvillea thrives; through Florence where the fresh green of the Boboli gardens sets off the massed violet racemes of the wisteria to perfection, and up the winding roads from Poppi, where vines and olives give way to chestnut trees, beeches, oaks and then pines.

There is much to explore in these forested hills, known as “Il Casentino.”  It is an area of some 800 square kilometres, with its highest point at Monte Falco which reaches 1658 metres above sea level.  The river Arno, which is the fourth largest river in Italy, rises at 1358 metres on Monte Falterona before coursing to the sea through Florence and Pisa.  There is a wealth of history here, too, including the celebrated battle of Campaldino (near Poppi) in which some 11,000 Florentines – including a youthful Dante Aligheri – trounced a similar number of Aretines on June 11th 1289. In 1224, Saint Francis of Assisi received the stigmata at La Verna (1129 metres) and in 1051 Saint Giovanni Gualberto founded the monastery of Vallombrosa (958 metres). 

The National Park of Monte Falterona, Campigna and the Casentino Forest is approximately 70 kms east of Florence, which puts it pretty much at the heart of Italy, midway between the Tyrrhenian and the Adriatic seas, and it was here, almost exactly 1000 years ago, that Count Maldolo d’Arezzo gave the ruined castle of Fontebuona and a parcel of land to a young monk by the name of Romualdo.  Saint Romuald, as he was to become, was born at Ravenna in about 950, and is said to have fled the world after witnessing his father killing a relative during a dispute about property.  After some time in Florence at San Miniato, he founded the Benedictine community of Camaldoli (taking the name from his benefactor), which, despite reconstructions over the centuries, survives with two impressive complexes of buildings here as well as having the monastery of San Gregorio al Celio in Rome. Camaldoli is also the mother house for several male communities in Italy as well as the United States, India and Brazil as well as being the inspiration and spiritual reference point for a number of female monastic communities in these countries and others.

The main monastery buildings are in a narrow gorge at 816 metres.  Originally this consisted of accommodation for a few monks and visitors, but it was enlarged to create capacity for one hundred, and this included a water mill, a pharmacy, and, at its peak in 1520, a printing press which produced the “Costituzione Camaldolesi” containing rules for, amongst other things, the planting and conservation of fir trees.  Nowadays the grand, but irregular, building contains a monastery, a baroque church with decorations by Vasari, the Foresteria (or guest rooms, now called the Hospitium Camalduli where groups of visitors may stay in retreat), an infirmary for the care of elderly monks, a refectory with a beautiful inlaid wooden ceiling, cloisters, courtyards, an important library, the ancient pharmacy complete with antique jars and a stuffed crocodile, and a modern gift shop, selling herbal remedies, honey and religious items.

Legend has it that Romuald quickly found his peace disturbed by followers and well-meaning but over-enthusiastic visitors and so moved, in 1012, 2.5 kilometers up the road (and nearly 300 metres higher) to settle into the deepest silence amongst the rocks and the firs and larches.  He built five cells and a little oratory.  The first church here, dedicated to Christ the Saviour, was consecrated in the year Romuald died, 1027, but this was enlarged and rebuilt several times before being destroyed by fire in 1693.  The present church is baroque, with an elegant façade and two bell towers.  The decorations inside include a marble bas-relief of the Madonna and child by Tommaso Fiamberti and a glazed terracotta of the Madonna and child with saints in the style of Andrea della Robbia.

Beyond the church, secure behind an iron fence, there are twenty cottages, in five rows.  These are the hermits’ cells, self-contained units complete with walled gardens for the cultivation of vegetables and herbs.  The only sign of occupation is the trickle of woodsmoke from a chimney – here silence is the rule.  Although there is a refectory adjoining the church, it is only used by the community for meals together twelve times a year, and even then the rule of silence is observed.

Although several of the cells have been occupied by notable visitors, including one constructed by Pope Leo X in 1523 in penitence for the fact that Princess Maria Medici had visited the hermitage dressed as a man, and they date from different periods, they are all similar in their austere plan.  Just opposite the church, and part of the larger buildings, is the cell of Saint Romuald himself, and this was visited by Pope John Paul II in 1993. The cell remains as if Saint Romuald had just slipped out to church – spare, functional, deep, dark and strangely comfortable.  Outside a small garden, supervised by a sprightly redstart (in complete disregard of the rule of silence) would have provided herbs and vegetables.  Inside, a corridor leads to the main room, with a fireplace, desk and box bed, off which there is a tiny oratory and an even tinier closet.  And that is it.  For a thousand years now a community of no more than twenty men has lived here, never speaking, dedicating themselves to the Benedictine principle of ora et labora (prayer and work).

The Hermitage routine starts at 6.00am with the Office of Readings, in the church, followed by private reading.  The Lauds is sung at 7.30am which is followed by breakfast.  From 9.00 to 11.15 the monks work or study.  Then there is the celebration of Eucharist at 11.30.  At 12.30 they have lunch, followed, as stated on the official website, by “free time”.  From 3.30pm to 6.30 they work or study again; at 7.00 Vespers is followed by “dinner or free time” and at 8.30pm they retire to their cells.    By comparison, the routine in the more relaxed monastery has a start time of 6.15am and after dinner at 7.40pm there is “personal time and rest” at 9.00pm.

The work activities will vary, but they include, certainly for those in the main monastery, the necessary routines of life in a community, such as laundry, cleaning, preparing food, gardening and gathering fuel.  These monks also help care for the hermits, and of course the younger brethren need to help care for the older.  The emblem of the Camaldoli community is of two doves drinking from the same chalice, which symbolises communion within diversity, nourished by a relationship with God.  The hermits spend time in mediation on the words of the bible, and in the study of other religions with a view to forming bridges between eastern and western monastic traditions, developing, despite their silence, ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue.

The seasons come and go, but in the silence of the forest little has changed.  There are still wolves and eagles in these mountains, and in winter the hermitage can be completely cut off by snow.  In summer it may be besieged by Florentines and Aretines fighting for a share of the peace and freschezza at this altitude, but the rule of silence prevails and the hermits proceed with their dedication and self-discipline, whatever else may be happening in the world.  Tsunami, rebellion, Bunga-Bunga – it makes no difference.  Sealed in their silent cells, the inhabitants of the Sacred Hermitage of Camaldoli live as examples of religious order, removed from the jealousies and competitions of the material world.  It is not (perhaps) important whether they are Camaldolese, Catholic, or Christian – it is important that it is possible to live such a life, and that it can be good to live without double-glazing or central heating, supermarkets or internet shopping, imported goods or ice-cream.  Fashions do not need to change; life alone does not need to be sad, or unprofitable.

Viewed from a different, more cynical, point of view, it could be argued that a number of reclusive men living in tiny cottages at the top of an Italian mountain offer little to malnourished millions around the world, but this was never the point.  As we leave the courtyard, we step into the little shop and bar that nestles in the wall of the compound.  Apart from the books and icons, honeys and tisanes on offer there are a number of CDs of sacred music and also DVDs on sale.  I browse through the titles: Liliana Calvani’s Francesco, a curious role for a troubled Mickey Rourke: Philip Groning’s fine visual examination of La Grande Chartreuse in Into Great Silence; Francesco Rosi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli, not exactly a study of religious seclusion though a marvellous film. Then, curiously, I find several copies of Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino.  What was this doing here?  Could the man with no name be a metaphor for the life of a hermit?  Eastwood’s taciturn characters are invariably widowed, divorced, separated or otherwise unattached – and he generally has a mission, or calling, but this film does not immediately seem to fit. However, as the eminent film critic Philip French pointed out in his review, what gives the film its formidable strength is the way Eastwood shows [the hero] struggling with his prejudices and coming to terms with a changing world and with his inner demons.  There is an enigma here, perhaps not dissimilar to the riddle about out of the strong came forth sweetness; perhaps the men who inhabit the silence in these forested mountains are not so silent after all.

for a brilliant short film about Camaldoli

1 May 2011

Ossi di Seppia

Cuttlefish Bones

Amanda and me at a place we treasure - on the slopes of Monte Amiata in Tuscany.  The vetta (peak) is behind, the vegetation scrubby and perfect for wild bores like us.  

Dry as cuttlefish bones.