Our first steps take us to the border town of Venafro, along the train line from Rome, and it takes our breath away!
It is a general rule of travel by public transport in Italy, that one must brace for the crack-of-dawn departures that Italian Regionale train services tend to operate, if one wishes to arrive at one's destination prior to mid afternoon. Armed with such expectation, and at war with an inherent wish to sleep in on holiday mornings, we were most pleasantly surprised to find out that the train for Venafro would leave at the most civilised compromise of 9:07am. Perhaps our pessimism was truly ill-founded, for we found not one, but two seats, side by side, with ample space for our modest luggage. The impressively modern looking carriage even boasted sockets for charging devices, though alas the current appeared to have gone on holiday, as plugging in our phones proved said sockets to be more ornamental than functional.
Our first day on the road was ushered in under glorious sunlight, however, which bathed our entire journey through the Roman campagna in brilliant rays. It was indeed to be an indicator of the beauty which was to come.
Spying a fair looking town creeping towards us, with stony towers protruding from a hill of terracotta, we were surprised to learn that we had reached Venafro so soon, having lost track of time while on the train. We appeared to be the only ones to disembark at the station - we wondered why. Train stations tend not to be in the most attractive corners of Italian towns, yet the street beyond Venafro station was neither oppressive nor apparently unsafe. A path, neither road nor bridge, lead us up to the lower town, a reassuringly shallow slope, since we both wheeled suitcases in our wake. Few people seemed to be about, yet the town did not feel dead, more a place of utmost serenity.
A quick check of our map directed us up a rather uneven street, which could not quite make up its mind whether it was cobbled or paved, leading to something of a battle with the luggage, yet the growing beauty of Venafro had cast such trivial concerns from our minds. Washing billowed from the balconies of pastel coloured palazzi, and arches and stone gates all passed overhead, as into the centro storico we went. The almost dreamlike state of a living ghost town enveloped us, the mountains looming overhead, more awe-inspiring than formidable, with maritime pines sprouting forth higher up. At last we arrived at what seemed to be the central piazza of old Venafro, with a decidedly noble palazzo embracing the piazza's south-eastern side, and a church the other.
There is often a moment of trepidation when, for the well organised traveller, one is afraid of having made some error when booking online. Perhaps paranoia that the place doesn't really exist, or else perhaps that the website met malfunction and failed to communicate the reservation to the owner. A metallic plaque stood reassuringly out by the vast, wooden doors of this palazzo, and the name checked out. Dimora del Prete Belmonte, it said, crystal clear and polished. A glance down revealed a stone carving which read simply '1860'. Unusually 'modern' for an Italian palazzo. We pushed the door within the door asunder, and the wood swung back delicately. The sound of a slamming door is an unthinkable prospect in Venafro. To our surprise, no stony courtyard lay beyond, but yet more sunshine, as an elegant yet homely garden bade us in, even sporting a view over the lower town. Not a soul around, yet one felt anything but alone. Feeling that we ought really to free ourselves of the burden of luggage, we rang the citofono (buzzer) beside a seemingly older wooden door. A kindly voice answered, "Sí sí, prego!" ("Ah yes, come in!"), and we entered the residence, stepping back in time, to a time before the horrors of the First World War polluted this world forever. A majestic marble staircase, lined with the occasional classical statue, and colourful potted plant, led us up into the heart of the palazzo.
A lady of kindly appearance and elegant bearing met us at the summit of the stairs, and seemed happy to indulge our questions. Sunlight poured in through the vast windows, breathing the coming Summer into the palazzo. Dorothy, as she introduced herself, spoke of the town, and told us that she herself had come to Venafro from Naples. Many questions would we have, but two heavy bags we also had, so on we went. Dorothy showed us the room in which we would be taking breakfast the following morning, and my goodness what a sight! Modestly scaled, yet triumphantly decorated in frescoes, echoing the walls of Ancient Pompeian villas, the inner love of history was at once sparked in James.
Upon being led to our room, in a setting which would not have been out of place in Edwardian England, we breathed a sigh of relief - we knew already that we been fortunate. Fortunate to have chosen to come to Venafro, and fortunate to have found such wonderful lodgings. A glance from our balcony to the piazza below showed naught but a dog, slumped on the steps of the church, sleeping peacefully before the hallowed doors. Peace reigns in Venafro where chaos does in Rome.
Our wanderings through the old town did nothing to prove our initial impressions misguided, as street after peaceful street unfurled before us. Any soul seeking respite from the Eternal City will not find disappointment here, as the town blends so seamlessly with the countryside that surrounds it on all sides. The faith of Rome is to be found in every corner, with shrines to the Madonna watching over passers-by. A rabbit-warren of alleys, lanes and streets criss-crossed in every direction, and we desired to follow all of them. We eventually came to the edge of the old town, as it slopes down to the valley floor, when all of a sudden, most unexpectedly, a car pulled over, and the driver lowered the window. "Voi cercate il cattedrale?" ("Are you looking for the cathedral?"), came out from it. There was something rather awkward about the delivery of the words, and his subsequent offer of a lift. We did indeed seek the cathedral, yet a look to the horizon revealed that it was not far. Discretion being the better part of valour, we politely refused, keen to enjoy the town from our feet. All to the most charming soundtrack of them all - birdsong.
Passing a large body of stagnant water, elegantly lined by a liberty palazzo, we stumbled across the eccentric sight of a thing one would never imagine to find in a built up area, least of all in rural Italy. A fish farm! Humble huts stood over two vast pools, brimming with the erratic movements of hundreds of fish. Alas, the tranquility of the moment was abruptly breached by the most importunate honking of a goose. Turning around, the irate bird was mercifully beyond a stone wall, and we beyond the reach of its threatening beak. The people of Venafro still remained nowhere to be found, save one soul in a café where we sought food. While there we learned that there had been an earthquake, in Molise! At the coast, near Termoli. Having experienced a series of earthquakes whilst in Italy, including the catastrophic tremor of October 2016, which wrought havoc on Central Italy, and even shook James awake in his then flat in Rome, an ominous silence fell upon us. Fortunately there had been no casualties, yet learning that an earthquake has just struck a town where one is scheduled to be in just three days is far from reassuring news.
Out and beyond, into the glorious green of the countryside we trod. The cathedral, a beautiful yet simple stone structure, was closed, as it seemed were most of Venafro's churches. But the street which lay alongside it beckoned us on. Into the fields we arrived with surprising speed. There before us stood a sight symbolic of Italy herself. A small clearing in a grove opened up, and in it a lone white horse, tethered to some trunk. Grazing, unfazed by our sudden appearance, the creature seemed as peaceful as the town above it. Above the tree line, in the distance, one could make out a factory in the haze. The rural South and Industrial north allied as one in a single scorcio (glimpse). We lingered there, and there we knew bliss.
A little further on from this pastoral scene, a view from a Grand Tour painting - Roman ruins, overgrown and complete enough to inspire curiosity, but not so much as to make the imagination come readily. We had the impression that few travellers pass by here, and fewer still from lands as distant as ours.
As the day drew on, and the afternoon grew golden and deeper, our thoughts turned, as often they do in Italy, to food. A glass of Aperol at a street side bar, to the accompaniment of bizarrely energetic music, started us off. Then, by the old town, we had the fortune to at last meet a Venafrano and his wife, and we seized the chance to ask where we might eat that night, as so much seemed closed. "Giù in fondo" ("Down there"), the gentleman gestured. He spoke of a place at a crossroads near the cathedral which had by now assumed landmark status to us. "Si mangia discretamente", he assured us, in a manner that seemed distinctly noble. We both looked at each other, amused by his choice of adverb, which we are still uncertain how best to translate, but we'll try and say "One eats well there". Sound was his advice, for we did indeed eat 'discreetly'. Unpretentious yet certainly flavoursome dishes of chicken and seasoned potatoes, at the Trattoria La Lanterna, as night set in.
As we made our way back to our palatial lodgings, we could look back, content, on an inspiring first day.