Today we rented a car and took off exploring in the Italian countryside. We wanted to visit the ruins of Paestum, a city founded by the Greeks in ancient times. It was already 500 years old when Jesus was learning how to walk. People abandoned Paestum and moved up the hill from here in the 9th century because its marshy location bred malaria. 18th century poets on the Grand Tour “rediscovered” it. Excavated in the 1930’s as a depression-era work project, it now has the three best preserved examples of Greek temples left in the world. In Italy. Go figure.
But first we drove along the coast roads south of Salerno, where my military historian reliably informs me that Allied forces landed on the beaches a year ahead of Dunkirk. That’s now 69 years ago, to the day (September 5). There were no monuments or historic plaques, but we stopped to watch the waves rolling up onto the sands, and I thought how little inclined I would have been to jump into the surf in full wool uniform, trying to keep a rifle dry over my head, and immediately engaging in war with people hiding in the trees next to the beach who wanted to kill me.
Paestum was sunny, cloudy and rainy by turns, so we spent some time in the national museum viewing the artifacts while the weather settled (which it never did).
I was particularly interested in the temple dedicated to Hera. Apparently this was a particularly female cult, and many shuttle weights from looms were found on the premises.
The (male) archaeologists seem to think that these were accidentally left behind by the women who toiled on the premises. They imagine these women coming to the temple to weave fancy costumes for the statue of Hera in the sanctuary. I say just like a man to imagine women in semi-slavery, toiling away in a temple and then being scatter-brained enough to leave their loom weights behind.
But I say, who’s to say these weren’t votive offerings left by female supplicants instead? I mean, if I were a 2,500 year old Greek woman with kids and a DH to look after, why would I even be bothering with weaving clothes for a marble statue? In a temple, for Pete’s sake, instead of my own home, where I could watch to make sure baby didn’t fall into the cooking fire? I would be much more likely to make all sorts of clothes for my family, and then, fed up with the whole business, “accidentally” leave a loom weight at the temple, along with a prayer to deliver me from all that constant weaving. I’m just saying.
After sharing a bun with cold cuts and enjoying some “mozzarella di bufala” (a fresh cheese the size of a billiard ball which really is made of buffalo milk – a specialty of the region) we drove further along the coast road, which winds up and down and around coastal hills and is beautifully scenic. I’m sure it must be as beautiful as the Amalfi coast road, and we haven’t seen water so many different shades of blue and turquoise ever.
Supper was in the historic part of Salerno, down a dark and narrow alley that felt like something out of a Charles Dickens novel. In many parts of town, but especially here, the entire store-front, windows, doors, display cases and even the advertising signs, are covered by a giant metal shade that is pulled down from the top when they are closed. So if you walk along here in the heat of the afternoon, when everything closes down for several hours, you don’t know if you are walking past a garage or a jewelry shop – only those blank metal doors face you on either side as you go down the alley. When they open, however, candles flicker outside, umbrellas and tables are pulled out onto the street, tables are set up and doors thrown open, and everything is charming and welcoming.
We chose a restaurant that could have been used for any other purpose in the last 800 years or so, but was now whitewashed inside, and dimly lit, with all the electric wiring laid on the surface of the walls.
The four ladies at the next table were speaking a Slavic language, and communicating in broken English and with a great deal of consultation with an iPhone. One lady ordered cozze, and when her order of mussels came, her eyebrows lifted and her mouth circled into a large “oh!” Obviously Google Translate lost something along the way.
We shared a pasta dish that we had never heard of before – scarpariello, I think. There were roasted baby tomatoes in it, and chilies in oil and Parmesan served alongside. The waiter told us it was a country dish. Actually, he told us a whole lot of things, as he seemed under the impression that our Italian was a lot better than it is. We left him a small tip, but it seemed to mean a lot to him, as he bowed to us when he added it up,and kissed my hand when we left.
And yes, he kissed my hand, without a single touch of irony. I smiled all the way home.