Friday, July 20, 2007

The Palace at 4 AM

I was prowling about the house. It was still dark; the sun wouldn’t be up for a few hours yet. Unable to sleep, associating it with something as simple as a case of jet lag or medication that hasn’t been finely adjusted yet. Or an early harvest. Worrying about a vision of the demise of something big looming on the horizon, coming this way.

Thankfully, it was cool at that time of the day. And quiet. No one calling to get donations for a policeman’s fraternal order in Billings, Montana. Or offers to get a Kia SUV with no money down, no payments till January. Little or no interest.

The map was laid out on the table. Where were we going? Friends in Conversano have been asking, “When are you coming?” The sad little region, Basilicata, however, was whispering in my ear, “We haven’t seen you since the year of the comet.”

Basilicata is a ragtag region of cave dwellings, fields of wheat and bald mountains peeled back from the harsh winters. Like the rags of Armani before Miami, one would almost rather have the Douro as a replacement region for this sad little isola of a region.

From Puglia, crawling along the coast on SS7 and over to Taranto, the pilgrimage to one of the main towns, Matera, takes one though a Pittsburghian landscape of refineries and discarded automobiles. Like the set of Giant in West Texas: abandoned, rusting, desolate. A glimmer of hope as one passes through Massafra, where a revival of sorts took place. It was a simple plate of pasta with clams, but one that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

Still in Puglia, as we pass though Castellaneta, an outcropping of stone with the all too human brick and mortar. Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Piero Filiberto Guglielmi was born here the same year as my grandfather, and left for California about the same time.

Right after the Masseria Pantano, one slips into Basilicata. From there it’s a climb up to Matera. It’s here where the SS7 tires, but ultimately finds its way to Potenza, a Death Valley mule-stop turned into a dull hope for the humanity who have parked their lives in that place.

First, Matera.

This is a durable village, blessed by sun and a solid foundation. In a land of earthquakes and invasions, Matera offered a chance to dig in and establish some sense of civilization. Plenty has been written on the place, and I won’t dare to press the stone with any more impressions. Just go there. It is a place with a sense of itself and a vibration that is unique. Is it Italy? Of course, it’s all Italy. And Matera, like anywhere in this country, isn’t some candy-coated tourist destination for scared American tourists.

The bread, to die for. Wine? Yes, but in its barest essential form. Red. Hearty. Necessary.

I started this blog almost two years ago with an image from Basilicata, looking through a vineyard of Aglianico towards Monte Vulture. In this time, now, we stare, eyeless at a blazing ancient stone village, walking the deserted paths, wondering for the lives of those who smoothed the rough rocks down to this silk road of smoothness.

This is not a place to spend a lifetime. But a few hours, or days, what can it hurt? Anything made with wheat, in this town, will be great. Cheese from the uplands. Wine from the vinelands. The sea is far, but it’s not like Kansas. There is a hope to drive a few hours and see the endless blue. And we will. We must head towards Potenza, to taste wine. And press on, to Campania, to Calabria, on the wine trail in Italy.

Photography by Allegro Paolo

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