Termoli - Where Samnium reaches the Adriatic
Bidding farewell to Alto Molise, a sleepy coach journey takes us east, to the shores of the Adriatic and the charming seaside town of Termoli!
On our return from Alto Molise, we were treated to two things with which the Peninsular Italian is frequently spoiled. A sunset characterised by the most extraordinary shade of orange, and a cena (dinner) perhaps more aptly termed a banquet.
Merrily returning to the able skills of Giancarlo’s kitchen, we sat down to yet another display of culinary prowess. A fine scarola soup, followed by delicately creamy maccheroni alla chitarra con sugo di baccalà, was the fare of the evening, and we dined well. However, unquestionably exquisite though the produce was, it was our kindly host himself and his story that truly engaged us. Giancarlo is a man of faith, and a man of tradition, yet also a creative fellow, with a keen and open mind. He recounted how he gave up his rather conventional role in the civil service, to return to Isernia to assist in that noble Italian profession of restauranteur, here in the footsteps of his family. We asked him of Molise, and why it was that she was torn from the breast of Abruzzo, forty eight years prior. Our wizened host gently shook his head, as though pained by a stab of melancholy. “Era meglio come era prima” (“It was better how it was before”), Gianluca bemoaned. “L'hanno fatto solo per creare lavori” (“They created it purely to create jobs”). Not merely cathedrals, but regions too, are created in Italian deserts. Our gently mannered host continued, explaining that Molisani and Abruzzesi were far too similar as folk for their clumsy divorce to have made much sense. Yet divorced they were, fruit of the twofold Italian loathing of centralised government, and the endemic inability of Italy to conquer unemployment beyond elective terms of office.
Though oft a matter of humour to the casual visitor, the art of bureaucracy to the residents of this land is an object of fury, and chronic paralysis. It was said that Royal Prussia of old was not a state with an army, but an army with a state. Italy of new is not a state with a bureaucracy, but a bureaucracy with a state. Sixty million victims before a regulatory despotate, lined up in an anything but orderly queue, the creative life force and will of Italy sapped by a system with a great many checks, and very few balances. Molise herself stares up at the viewer of the map of Italy, a near two thousand square mile casualty of the ineptitude of the postwar Italian status quo.
Yet what a casualty. For despite her woes, Molise is a beautiful land, spared from the more destructive caprices of twentieth and twenty first century development. Gianluca cares deeply for this blessèd plot, and our experiences with Molise and her people had won our admiration. We asked him what he liked the most about his land. “Per me, sono le persone - sono sincere e accoglienti” (“For me it is the people - they are honest and welcoming”), he said with a smile. We were both relieved and honoured that among the places he would most like to take visitors from foreign lands were Agnone and Pietrabbondante, and that Alto Molise was a land he loved too. “È il mio piacere e dovere come cristiano accogliere le persone in questa terra” (“It is my pleasure and duty as a Christian to welcome and help people in my county”), he declared with a genuine and human warmth.
Many a fond word was exchanged between ourselves and Gianluca, as the night drew on, and it was just we three in the serving hall. We learned that the man had a fondness for the craft of words and the power of stories, as he showed us a book he had written, a novel in a snow white cover. Both of our dinners as guests of Gianluca had been uncommonly pleasant, memorable and touching. We bade farewell with an embrace, and thanked him for his hospitality and splendid company. When we broke apart, he held out his book, declaring “mi farebbe molto piacere se poteste leggerlo e dirmi cosa pensate” (“It would give me great pleasure if you could read it and tell me what you think”). We assured him that the pleasure would be ours, and set off into the night, our last in these parts.
When Dawn arrived, the tranquility of Isernia we had come to know seemed to have called a truce. Hurried movement, and distant calls, sounded through the sun drenched window of our room. Market day. A cart of tomatoes here, rails of cheap clothing there, and the calls of vendors blending with the toing and froing of would be buyers everywhere. Innocently trundling through the arch and into the piazza, our luggage trailing behind, we were entirely taken aback by the liveliness of the scene, so sleepy just hours before. An assortment of nonne (grandmothers) were rifling through piles of clothes as though panning for gold, while their husbands were seated around the piazza like spectators beholding the ring. Italian markets are a treasure trove of varying prospects, with everything from sumptuous cheeses and prosciutti to cheaply made children’s toys in garishly coloured plastic. Yet today the air was authentic, and genuinely interesting and useful goods were to be found. Perusing stalls while one has barely a breath of space in one’s luggage is both an agonising and liberating experience. It grants the pleasure of window shopping whilst fashioning the most innocuous of ready-made excuses for not buying, especially when faced with determined sellers.
At last we pulled ourselves from the fray, and heaved our baggage train atop the hill, sympathising with the plight of Sisyphus as we did, for today our lodging was to be in Termoli, where the brine of the Adriatic laps the Italian coast on her eastern flank.
Once again our transport proved most comfortable. Abundant space, a refreshing flow of air and a sleepy corps of fellow travellers are an excellent combination for daytime coach travel. The reader may not forgive our undying fondness for it, yet Alto Molise was as flawlessy verdant and pleasing to the eye as ever it had been as it bounded past the windows. The occasional splash of terracotta and Mediterranean campanile (bell tower) drew one’s attention, as though a hand raised to remind the viewer that mankind may be found here, amongst the emerald majesty.
Before long, however, hills gave way to plains. A reservoir passed on our right. The land was decrescendoing towards the sea. All of a sudden we jumped as the microphone crackled. We would be needing to change to some other bus in order to reach our destination. Unexpected changes to coach termini mid-journey are the punctuation marks in the journal of travel. Fearing an unceremonious dumping in the hinterlands of nowhere, we were pleasantly surprised, as oft we had been in Molise so far, when we were graciously placed on an asphalt patch in the sunny countryside, where our next driver awaited us, leaning against his coach. "Per Termoli?", we anxiously enquired. "Si, si, tranquillo" ("Yes indeed, don't worry"), the gruff looking man replied, his fingers closing around the cigarette in his mouth. A puff of white smoke followed, before he cast it on the ground and climbed aboard.
The road into Termoli is profoundly unassuming, bar the occasional scorci (glances) off to the east. But then at last the land levelled out, and that telltale absence of features beyond the structures of man meant one thing - the Adriatic Sea. On our first adventure from Rome, we had now crossed the breadth of the Peninsula, from the Tyrrhenian to the Adriatic, and the anxieties of the coming arrival could not fully stifle something of a stab of wonder. It was this, the undying allure of the sea at last, which compelled us from the unexpectedly spacious bus station, along the delicately threatening outer streets, and into the heart of this town, our first on the Italic Coast. The closer one gets to the waterline, as oft is the case, the more welcoming the scene and less intimidating the folk. Upon coming to Piazza Vittorio Veneto, and then descending on the sloping Corso Nazionale, one is presented with the beauty of Termoli. Many a town and città (city) in the South stares back with three faces. At the innermost sanctum lies the town of its most ancient forebears, either charmingly alive or sadly abandoned to nature and unsavoury youths. Nearby one finds the reimagined city of the 19th century, the fruit of the at times naive optimism spurred by il Risorgimento. Defined by their regular layouts of streets and palatial popular housing blocks punctuated by glamorous theatres and light brick churches, they are often undeniably beautiful to the eye, yet not always to the soul. The outermost reaches of the town are the often dreary, noisy, and unsightly streets of which the travel guidebook remains curiously silent. There they stand, testament to the surrender of urban aesthetics that followed the birth of postwar Italy. Down the Corso in Termoli, one is comfortably in the reassuring lap of the nineteenth century, and in Termoli the last century and has been kind. Lapped so brilliantly by the Sun that no dark corner exists, the spirit is exuberantly lifted as one makes one's way down to the seafront.
Upon passing the varied cafes and gelaterie all bristling with life, there at last the Adriatic unfurls before one's eyes, the imposing castle of Stupor Mundi soaring above, and the walls of the old town darting out to the north and east. Once keeping out the force of arms, now they hold back the tide that modernity which marches for modernity's sake. The old town is irresistibly attractive, neither succumbing to the ravages of kitsch tourism nor clinging on to the mortal realm as a ghost town, despite being no more than three hundred yards across. Small vendors of painted ceramics are to be found, yet benches of nonne discussing the day's gossip too.
At its heart lies the Piazza del Duomo, a square which recalls the great sun drenched piazze of the South, watched over by its looming Romanesque Cathedral. A pair of cafes lay at the edge, tables elegantly arranged at their front, their clientele doing nothing to dispel the impression of authenticity at the heart of Termoli. After the slopes and cobbles of Venafro and Isernia, the gentle incline of the paved slabs were a welcome relief to our arms, wearied by the burden of travel.
Off to our right lay our lodgings for the night, and we were welcomed in by Mimmo, an energetic and friendly Neapolitan fellow of middle age and tanned complexion. Our relative awakeness, soaring warmth at the beauty of Termoli and eagerness to be at the sea at last made our conversation a joyful one, as our host offered a smile as he described the relative isolation of Termoli to the ravages of over development. The hotel is one which had in fact previously been his office, and into which rather tasteful attention had been poured when refurbishing. With a somewhat cheeky grin, he declared that there were in fact two rooms available and we were welcome to choose which we preferred. "Ma sono molto diverse?" ("Are they very different?) we enquired, with genuine curiosity. He lead us to the first, somewhat sunken but of appealing antiquity. A brick barrel vault spread out above our heads, and over a cleverly partitioned space, with a kitchen and bathroom. "Ma sono originali?" ("Are they original?"), James asked, gesturing towards the bricks. "Si si, alcuni risalgono al dodicesimo secolo" (Yes indeed, some of them date to the 12th century), he proudly replied. A charming room it was, yet there was another. Up the stairs to somewhere near the top, a quite different feel prevailed. A window offered a peaceful view out from a room decorated in a more 1960's feel, with an unusual bathroom. "Quello lo chiamo il bagno sexy" ("I call that the 'sexy bathroom'"), Mimmo said with a somewhat mischievous giggle, pointing at the shower, whose 'wall' was in fact the transparent partition, offering whoever lay in the bed an unfettered panorama of anyone who might use said shower. There was nothing seedy in his laugh, more an honest humour at how the refurbishment had unexpectedly turned out this way. We trust the reader will not find our choice of the brick vaulted room unadventurously dull.
Armed with a map and variety of tips so generously supplied by Mimmo, we emerged back onto the streets, unladen with luggage and breathing in the salty smell of Adriatic brine. A brief stroll along the supporting wall of the Duomo brings one out onto what is perhaps the most attractive face of Termoli. A row of brightly painted houses - not unfamiliar to the traveller who has set foot on the island of Burano - dart along the street, which revealed itself to be rather high up. The fortified wall runs below the side opposite the edifices, leaving an uninterrupted view over the beachfront and Adriatic beyond. The feels of Summer were overwhelming, regardless of the encroaching clouds, mirroring the wine dark sea below. There just below protruded a sight most unusual to Anglo-Saxon eyes, yet commonplace to the people of this part of Italy. A vast wooden structure, it jutted out into the sea yet stood a good twelve feet above the water. It perhaps appeared as though a humble woodsman's lodge, perched precariously upon a platform of planks, with other stakes of all manner of lengths lining the walkway to reach it.
What to call this structure depends on the origins of the person whom one asks. Some call it the trabucco, others the trabocco and some even the travocco. It might be described as a kind of 'fishing machine', the tool of industry to the Molisano fisherman since at least the seventeenth century. According to some, it was the Phoenicians who conjured the idea. When in service, two large 'arms' fan out before the hut, rather like the tentacles of a squid, with a fine net spanning the chasm. The trabucco is oft crafted out of Aleppo pine, a timber most favourable to resist the salty winds, and its ingenuity lies in allowing the fisherman to practise his trade in shelter and safety from the fickle seas. Not all have a covered hut, but here in Termoli there is one which does, directly below the viewer who walks the western perimeter of the town walls. As we watched, a pair of men emerged from the hut, readying the winch to return a small dinghy to rest for the night. To our surprise the small boat was not brought up to the stage, but rather snugly slotted in underneath.
It was just as well that the boats were coming in. For upon looking at each other, a most comical scene played out. Certain hairs on our heads were quite literally standing on end. Looking around, a smattering of other people walked along the seafront, some aware, others not, of the bizarre games their hair was playing. James, who had never seen such a thing, was taken quite aback, but Katrina was wary, knowing. Lightning was about to strike. No rain was falling, no rough sea, just our hair reaching for the darkened heavens. "We'd better not stand still here", she pointed out. The threat of Jupiter's imminent wrath, and pangs of hunger, were enough to put life into our legs. We beat a brave retreat, as dark spots began to dapple the pavements.
Being a modestly sized town, we reached the eastern seawall with great speed. Little time there was to stand and view, for James knew well the Thunderer hath no fury like a hungry wife. By accident or subconscious design, we came across a restaurant of which Mimmo had spoken well. Called Recchi, it is well known for its ocean fare and upmarket 'canteen' feel. Seeing it open, brightly lit and apparently empty, we hurried in as the heavens opened.
A slightly awkward smile on the silver haired owner's face however, soon delivered a sinking feeling. "Mi dispiace, ma purtroppo siamo pieno, stasera c'è una prima communione" ("I'm so sorry, I'm afraid we're full, there's a First Communion dinner here tonight"), he said with a look which betrayed empathy. Oh the pain, dear reader. With a wistful look at the vibrant arrays of shellfish on the counter, we turned to leave. "Aspetta!" ("Wait!"), came the cry from our rear. "Guarda, vi preparo una piccola tavola qua" ("Look, I'll prepare you a little table here"), he warmly declared. To be turned away from a restaurant of good name is for the Italian to be condemned to the hangman's noose, and we had been granted a royal pardon. Beaming, we seized the kind fellow's offer, and sat down as swiftly as the rain had begun to fall.
It was a decidedly odd situation, to be seated in a restaurant that was both fully booked and full of empty chairs, their delicately woven upholstery breaking the otherwise absolute monopoly of white. Yet the rather chic counter hosted the most extraordinary fruits of Neptune, behind glass and on a bed of ice. Differently, at Recchi one inspects the fare prior to ordering, and two things caught our four eyes. Katrina favoured the salmon, while James, seeking something a tad more exotic, opted for a dish of the most exquisite scampi crudi - raw scampi. When our dishes arrived with flair, the salmon was laid with elegance and simplicity. A moment later and down came a large dish, coated with crushed ice and crowned with a company of scampi. Their beady black eyes stared up, motionless, granting something of a threatening air, dampened only by their sharing the plate with a quartered lemon. The ambience was all but silent, waiters and waitresses gently folding the napkins for the coming party when, with a satisfying 'crack', the first shell was broken, and the soft flesh flowed. Unquestionably the scampi was divine, lemon or not.
After a dine which had been refreshingly light, we bade farewell to the accommodating staff at Recchi, and made our way back to our enticing lodging. The storm had passed, and Termoli had emerged. It was perhaps around ten o'clock, and time for the passeggiata (evening walk). Those under twenty congregated in small groups on medieval stairwells, and those above strolled the strade hand in hand, admiring the beauty of a town by night, and deeply golden light. Tucked in the tight vicoli (alleys) beyond the walls, small groups of elderly folk sat outside on tall backed chairs, sometimes a cigar in hand, sometimes a ten of clubs. As we lay down under our brick vault, we felt content to do so in reassuring authenticity.