From the Adriatic to the Biferno Basin
Rising beneath a brick vault, our explorations take us along the sun drenched seaside of Termoli, all the way to the Regional Capital of Campobasso!
Our eyes opened to the morning light washing over the rough brick vault above. Betraying a day finer than the storms of the night before, we eagerly readied ourselves for the road.
Spring, it seemed, had yielded to the approaching Summer without a fight. Only the waves of the Adriatic were more azure than the skies above. Rays of light shone so brilliantly upon the white slabs of the piazza that even the façades of the houses which escaped the eye of Apollo were glowing. The elegant quietness of Piazza del Duomo made for a soothingly peaceful breakfast of spremuta (freshly squeezed orange juice) and cornetto (croissant). Every so often a smartly dressed figure would cross the piazza and make their way into the monolithic cathedral. Something was afoot, betrayed by the flowers which had adorned the flowerpots to the side of doors since the night before. When curiosity at last conquered the peace of our breakfast, we stole away and made what one hopes was a convincing effort to not be conspicuous, by quietly slipping inside the great door.
Rows of rather modern wood carved chairs darted across the austere stone floor, bedecked in ribbons, roses and all the panoply of marriage. The bride had yet to make her appearance, and the nave was alive to the chatter and gossip of a hundred or more family, friends and townsfolk. The altar rose above the congregation perhaps higher than in other churches of Italy, some eight feet or more, such that even the polished shoes of the groom were as visible as his smile. The architecture was not dark and sombre, as it at times may be in churches of great antiquity, but rather as light and joyous as the occasion itself. The cathedral shares this lifting quality with many of the churches of Apulia which adorn the Adriatic coast, for all were built by the hands of a people well known to history.
It may surprise the Englishman who has yet to set foot in the Mezzogiorno (Southern Italy) to learn that near a century before the twilight of the Anglo Saxon culture at Hastings, the Normans would make landfall on Italy's southern shores. To speak of a Norman Conquest a thousand years ago is a history which binds the Britons to the Italians of the South. While Duke William may have pacified the English with the fury of a blitzkrieg, it is generally accepted that the Norman lords would unify the Italian South over some fifteen decades, profiting from the decline of the rule of Constantinople and the struggles of the Emperor and Pope. Ambitious soldiers of fortune, enlightened nobles and local miscreants would together lead the rule of the House of Normandy to the Sicilian Throne, and forever leave the mark of Germanic feudalism on the South.
The Duomo of Termoli, founded on the ruins of a Temple to Castor and Pollux, drew certain inspiration from the North men, despite its rebuilding around the thirteenth century. Its beauty lies in its simplicity, its vaults are vast, yet its decoration discrete, having been confined to the hand of stonemasons more than painters. Here, under the rafters high above, two Termolesi were to be married at an altar which had wed Normans.
A mere fifty yards brings one from Piazza del Duomo to the waterfront on Via Federico II, and it brought us once more to that glorious view over the Adriatic, and the coast of Molise, now glowing golden under the late morning sun. The mighty seawall towers over the trabucco below, and inevitably draws one's gaze to the east, where beyond the distant horizon lies the Dalmatian Coast.
It was perhaps from over this horizon that the first settlers to this place came. Of such antiquity is the town, many are the stories of its foundation. According to Herodotus, before Lycus the son of Pandion gave his name to Lycia in Southern Anatolia, the men who lived there were known as the Termilae, and they arrived in Asia from the island of Crete. They were a seafaring people, and had the most unusual custom of taking their names not from their fathers, but their mothers. That sailors of their civilisation reached the Adriatic Coast, and Tremiti Islands just beyond, is in little doubt. Little needed to have changed to grant the name of Termoli which lives on today.
One truly noteworthy feature along this waterfront lies a stone's throw to the south. The eagle-eyed viewer may spot a small slice into the building off to the left, appearing as though an arch obscured by the building in front. Yet it is not. It is known to the Termolesi as A Rejecelle, and is the narrowest thoroughfare in Italy, and it is believed, in Europe too. Its exact width, being in want of a tape measure, we could not verify, though a man would certainly scrape his elbows passing through it were he not to do so sideways. We were told that it was somewhere around thirty four centimetres at its narrowest point, enough to reassure us that our dinner of scampi the previous night had not been too extravagant. The alley has been known by its peculiar name since at least the closing years of the eighteenth century. Apparently the Termolesi rather crudely toyed with the French word rue (street) and local diminutive, and transformed it into a manner of Franco-Termolesi word to honour the passageway's modest dimensions. Our own passage through and back again was rendered somewhat comical, and decidedly tense, by the presence of a wasp's nest lodged in the arch in the centre of the passageway. Woe betide the visitor of ample waistline.
Towering above the seawall road, where the headland of the centro storico meets the terra firma, is the imposing citadel. Stouter by far than most towers of fortified Italian towns, and with an upper keep which appears somewhat shorter than it ought for ideal harmony, it exudes the authority of its builder as readily as it did a thousand years past. It was the Normans who fortified Termoli, yet even their remarkable encastellation of the South could not keep at bay the armadas of Venice at sea and the vanguards of the Pope on land. Thus it was that the greatest of the medieval monarchs of Europe would see to the town's defence, bestowing her with a keep worthy of the grandeur of her liege.
Not for nothing was Frederick II the Swabian, Holy Roman Emperor and sovereign of the lands of Italy, Sicily and Germany and Jerusalem, known as Stupor Mundi (Wonder of the World). Fluent in six of the languages of the thirteenth century, seldom indeed had any man reigned over Arabs, Sicilians, Germans, Greeks and Frenchmen, and spoken the tongues of them all, while gifted too in Latin. That Frederick was the first among Christian Kings and Emperors to bring an end to the injustice of trial by ordeal should alone endear him to the rational soul. That he readily welcomed Jew and Saracen alike into his kingdom should earn him warmth from a compassionate heart. So great was his spirit, and so good his name to the Arabs of the Levant, it was said that the Sultan himself would grant him the keys to Jerusalem in the year 1229, in the first crusade to triumph through words, though the sixth to depart western shores.
Around a decade after the return of the Holy City to the West, Stupor Mundi would grant the Termolesi his blessing to hold a weekly market within the old castle walls, and shield them from the aggression of Venice with the order of a vast new tower, the very same which loomed over us now. The approach from the seawall is arguably as impressive as that from the land, as a mighty ramp snakes around its base to the open gate.
A cat suddenly leapt among the small flowerbeds at the base of the tower, impossibly small beside the vast edifice. Quietly stalking unseen quarry, its ears pricked up at the call of a particularly bulbous seagull overhead, before continuing its march down to the sea. We swiftly followed it out of old Termoli and onto the promenade of new Termoli.
The Swabian citadel marks the end of the centro storico, and the dawn of more modern times. The ravages of the Turk and tremors of the Earth took their toll, until the reign of the Bourbons over the South. The coming of 1847 would change the town forever, when His Majesty King Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies, a man in whom both the greatest and most tragic tendencies of the leaders of post-Napoleonic Europe would be wed, would grant the Termolesi concessions to begin expanding beyond the walls which Stupor Mundi had made strong six centuries earlier. Termoli the fortress town would become Termoli the seaside town, as she began to flirt with that rather novel Victorian invention, the beach holiday.
Be it the fruit of spring weather or the Termolesi character, the seafront to the west of the town had a pleasing feel, being neither crowded nor poor in taste. The sand meets the promenade at a comfortable distance from the shore, and the beach is warmly embraced by the pretty town and trabocchi which stand firm and hold its flank. It is not so terribly frequent in Italy, nor anywhere else for that matter, that a seaside town has the irresistible feel of Summer, so very far out of that season. Yet here the stabilimenti (private beaches), those most Italian of coastal enterprises, all lined up in a Teutonically ordered fashion, with waiters strolling from deckchair to sunbed, bearing an aperol spritz or iced tea to invariably Italian patrons. Alas that our swimming attire was far and our time was short.
Nevertheless, we followed the Via Cristoforo Colombo alongside the beach, in search of one last morsel before we headed inland once more. One particular stabilimento caught our eye, being amply stocked with foods both hot and cold. "Vi posso preparare un bel panino se volete?" ("I can make you a nice sandwich if you want?"), the stocky yet friendly owner said with a smile. "Guarda, se volete vi posso mettere un po' di ventricina?" ("Look here, if you like I can put a bit of ventricina in?"). Ventricina, is a a kind of salami, so deeply red and veined with lard that at a glance it looks rather like a muscle from a freshly flayed arm. We deemed it most devilishly unadventurous to refuse the man's produce. "Attenzione eh, è bel piccante" ("Careful now, it's pretty spicy"), he warned with a devilish wink. The man cushioned the ventricina's sensual blow with a voluptuously thick slice of mozzarella, before folding a generous bread panino around the lot. Closing his eyes, James took a wholesome bite. A moment for the cold and juicy mozzarella to prepare the palate, and then "Ok, prendiamo anche un tè freddo" (Ok, let's get an iced tea too). The ventricina undoubtedly makes itself felt, but does not blast out one's tastebuds in the manner of the more famous spices of the South, and is rather delicious. A traditional meat of Abruzzo and Molise, variations of it may be found along this stretch of the Adriatic coast. About seventy percent meat to thirty fat, with a pinch or two of salt, forms the basis of the salami, to which chilli is added by the Termolesi to enhance its flavour and memorability. Never before has the English term 'cold meat' been more misleading.
Yet the peace of the place belies its stricken past. For the roar and fire of the Second Great War found this place, as it was here over four days in October, 1943, that British and Canadian arms valiantly drove back the armoured fist of the Third Reich. Commandos of the British Crown would capture Termoli with such astonishing speed at the breach of dawn, the commanding officer of the Kampfgruppe would be captured in his pyjamas. The Eighth Army would not have it so easy, as they crossed the Biferno River just east of the town, fighting a hard won battle through to the streets, before all endured a most terrible onslaught from the Panzer Divisions of the enemy. Only a just-in-time completion of the bridge would thwart forever the ambitions of Hitler in the heel of Italy. The devastation of war would litter the beach and roads to Termoli in those days, but no trace of such things lingers today. The bandages and blood of 1943 have ceded to towels and suncream in 2018, and the choking smoke of burning wreckage to wisps of cloud.
A deeply pleasant lunch was had on that beach at Termoli, our first by the sea on our adventure. But adventure it was that spurred us on once more, back to collect our baggage and bid farewell to Mimmo, and back up the elegant Corso Nazionale to the bus station. We had enjoyed Termoli very greatly, and took heart in the knowledge that we would be returning before our two years were out, for Termoli is the gateway to the Isole Tremiti, about twenty miles off her shores. Coming under the boundaries of Puglia, however, they would have to wait for now. It appeared, however, that Termoli was loathe to let us go, for the bus station seemed all but abandoned. Ticket office and ticket machine alike appeared as though many years had passed since they had known human presence, despite us having seen the contrary but a day earlier. Often in Italy one is faced with such moments of dread, that what a timetable may say appears entirely false in the flesh. Let no major nexus of transport's many routes which many may depend on get in the way of it being a Sunday. Even the toilets were padlocked shut. The answer to the question we both wondered was soon presented by the suspicious glances cast hither and thither by a certain gentleman, before he duly charged off into the long grass on the embankment behind the station. Alas no running tap awaited when the poor fellow emerged a minute or two later. Being of no alternative, we camped out on the kerb and dared to dream.
Some time later, a great coach pulled into sight, with the reassuring yellow letters which spelled out 'Campobasso'. The white haired driver casually stepped out, pulling a lighter from his pocket. "Ma possiamo comprare i biglietti direttamente da te?" ("Can we buy the tickets directly from you?"), we anxiously enquired, for the ability to acquire tickets from the driver varies rather randomly in Italy, and a stiff fine and tough luck awaits he who then attempts to travel, even if left with no other means of acquiring said ticket. All too often, a chance closure of a ticket office spells doom to the ambitions of innocent travellers. But fate smiled, and so did the driver. "Si, tranquillo" ("Yes, don't worry"), he declared in a reassuring laugh, and so, heaving our bags into the hold, we boarded the next bus of our trip. We bade Termoli adieu for now, and fixed our gaze south and west. Campobasso, the capital city of Molise, beckoned, and so did afternoon sleep.