Sunday, March 04, 2018

In Search of the Untamed - Is it Too Late for Italy?

In a lifetime quest to uncover every inch of Italy, what I have been looking for lately has been a return to something I found very early and didn’t know just how important it was. And that is the secret life of the wild, the feral, the untamed. Sure, fifty years ago, it was easy to walk down a street in Pozzuoli and see an Italy that was pretty much characteristic at the time – chaotic, noisy, bustling with life, kids running after the tall, lanky Americano in patched jeans and a funky t-shirt, back packing across his ancestor’s lands with a camera. It was everywhere. But is it still there, somewhere?

It came to me last year as I was walking around the central piazza of Gravina in Puglia. There were four older men sitting on a bench and I went over to them and started talking to them about everything under the sun. Mind you, my Italian is conversant and rudimentary, although the farther south I go, the better my Italian seems to get. But it was very much like the kinds of conversations I have been having ever since I stepped into Italy. It was all about connection. Is that odd, to have a feral connection? What is this vein running through us that smart phones and internets and all the modern conveniences just cannot delete?

My mission has been to observe and be on the lookout for those signs of wildness. And curiously, there are signs everywhere, even in the big cities.

I am also looking for that in the wines of Italy, although I don’t quite want to get back to the down and dirty wines of the 1970’s. But there are plenty of places in Italy where one can find that sense of wildness in wines without stepping on a, well, you know what I mean.

Some of the places I have found this timelessness are:
  • Abruzzo
  • Basilicata
  • Calabria
  • Colli Euganei
  • Sicily and Mt. Etna
  • Valdobbiadene
  • Valle d’Aoste
  • Valtellina

Abruzzo – This is so easy. The traditions in this region are strong, and even though everyone has a car and a washing machine and a cell phone, there is an invisible bond to something that is stronger than dirt. They still like their rose wines darker, not all dolled up and whitewashed like some anemic Provençal wannabee. You can still find rustic whites and reds, too. Food is a major function of this continued link with one’s antecedents. A hearty plate of pasta in a mountainside trattoria just feels good with a rich, fruity, glass of Montepulciano. It fits. And it feels not only right, but timeless.

Basilicata – This might be, for me, one of the great strongholds of an appurtenance of the feral. Maybe it is the isolation, although one could argue that for Sardegna as easily. But in today’s world, everywhere is easily reachable. It’s not the “getting to there” that is the barrier. It’s the “getting it,” the act of making time and putting down the hold of modern day civilization and just looking into the soul of the place. Basilicata, for me is one of those transmitting stations. Get off the well-trod path and the wines loom, over the hill.

Calabria – I’ve worn you all out with my paeans to Calabria. It’s all there, in the hills. It’s not going anywhere. And again, the wines play into this, in confluence with the food, the music, the culture, and yes, the donkeys.

Colli Euganei – So close to so much refined civilization, and yet, hidden among the volcanic pyramids are these pockets of imperishable patterns. There is so much latent timelessness in this area, so ready to open up to anyone who will veer off the road from Verona to Venice and spend a moment going through a time tunnel.

Sicily and Mt. Etna – Maybe it’s the lava? Again, a place formed by the violent outcroppings of Mother Earth. At once a harsh environment, but also a cradle, if you have the will and the patience to let down your guard of civilization (and your technological devices). Look, it’s all around you. and not just on La Mutagna, although that’s a great place to start.

Valdobbiadene – One might think I’ve lost my mind with this heading. But do you know the way to Valdobbiadene? Sure, success can (and has) spoiled some folks. The BMW hybrids are trying to take over for the donkey-led carts.. This is a place that has a deep undercurrent of resistance to the progress of progress. And I say that with the utmost respect for the land. Ambition and lust for gold and marble, well that’s for the short-timers, the earthlings who ignore history. The land, it remembers. And so do the donkeys. And that’s what I’m betting on, in the long-haul.

Valle d’Aoste – Who goes there? How many of you have even thought about it? Oh yeah, it’s rife with hipster unicorn wines, but have you stood on the steppes of the vigne de Torrette and looked down over the Valle? It’s wild, it’s unruly. It’s not dirty. But it is funky. And time has tricked some of us into thinking that things there haven’t changed all that much, in terms of the tamelessness.

Valtellina – Go there in the dead of winter, when the sun sinks low early in the day, and the valley goes dark and savage. Cellphones won’t work, thankfully. And the vines that cling for dear life, hang on, and wait for the sun and the Spring. An endless cycle. Repeated for ages. You think a silly 100 years of industrial and technological evolution is going to wipe away the wild? Think again. Better, yet, take off your thinking cap and book a ticket, and behold for yourself.

And in the future, where will I look further for signs of the timeless past? For one, Sardegna. In all my travels, I have never yet stepped on that island. I plan to do so. Closer to home, or rather, Rome, is the undiscovered (at least for me) land of Castelli Romani Lazio. There’s amazing feral wildness less than an hour from the chaos of Rome. And if you think Piedmont and Tuscany are wrapped up in a Gold Gucci bow, you haven’t been looking deeply enough. I have my wild places there, under deep cover, away from the tourist trails.

Look - that’s all you need to do. And slow it down a bit. Italy is a hot mess, but underneath the magma flow is a current of imperishability that even a Berlusconi cannot obliterate. It’s not too late. If you are fortunate enough to have the time and the inclination, it is all there - waiting for you.

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