Last Winter my husband and I were lucky enough to run across the pond and spend a couple of weeks in our village, Santa Domenica Talao in Calabria.
It was a bit chilly and downright cold at night but we did have some glorious days of almost warm and sharp, bright sunshine to explore the towns and villages near us.
On a previous property scouting trip with a friend who was looking for a house, I had had an opportunity to explore Praia a Mare a little bit and discovered just how beautiful it was.
So one bright morning I dragged my husband out for lunch and a stroll through the town.
Praia a Mare is located on the southern end of the Gulf of Policastro which is one of the most stunning sweeps of Mediterranean coastline in the world.
The Gulf runs its fingers through three regions of Italy, Basilicata, Campagnia and Calabria.
The main downtown street in Praia a Mare features a beautiful tree lined promenade which runs the length of downtown. Both sides of the street are lined with shops and apartment buildings decorated with beautiful wrought iron railings.
Behind the town the Pollino Mountains jut up wildly creating a magnificent backdrop to the charming downtown area.
A couple of blocks from downtown lies the crystal blue Mediterranean, her beaches lined with row after row of brightly colored umbrellas and lidos featuring some pretty spectacular restaurants.
All across Southern Italy one stumbles across grottos or sacred caves. Praia a Mare boasts of their own. Il Santuario Santa Maria Della Grotta is featured in the photo below. One has to peek between the buildings to see it as you perform your giro (tour) of the town.
In addition to the sacred grotto, Praia also has the Grotta Azurra or the Blue Grotto much like the one in Capri on the Amalfi Coast. The Blue Grotto is on the side of Praia A Mare’s spectacular little island, the Isola di Dino facing out to sea. You can hire one of the local boats to take you out or you can rent a peddle boat and peddle there yourself.
You can visit both caves and swim in the bright blue water surrounded by fish.
After your boat tour you will be hungry. In Italy the restaurants don’t open until about 7:00 at night and even if you go then you will be the first ones there.
So in the meantime, stop and have a gelato at one of the shops that line the main drag in Praia.
The you are ready for dinner, stop for a fabulous pizza, or delicious pasta or seafood at Ristorante Pizzeria Rinaldi da Vittorio.
Happily Ristorante Rinaldi Da Vittorio offers gluten free options including some fo the best gluten free pizza I have ever had. In a side by side taste test, my husband could barely tell the difference.
To see Praia a Mare at her best, go in Spring or in Fall. The weather is gorgeous, the trees are filled with shady leaves and the people are all out and about. Shops spill their wares out into the street adding more color and fun and there is a happy buzz of activity going on until late at night.
Pete and I are managing an apartment just up the hill from the down town area in Praia a Mare. It is far enough away from the beaches so that you will not be kept awake by the late night beach partiers but close enough to get there in a short 5 minute ride.
The apartment has sweeping views of the Mediterranean from the wrap around balcony/terrace and a large private patio just below.
Stay tuned as we are still finalizing the purchase but we will be renting it out for the Summer and Fall months when Praia is at her prettiest.
I am the luckiest person alive, I mean along with my husband, our friends Bonnie and Carolyn, and Father Ernesto.
Why you ask? Well, not to brag but I had been invited to the lunch table of one of the master chefs of Calabria and right now I can barely put my arms around my massive belly to type this to you and that, my friends, is lucky.
No, this master chef doesn’t have a syndicated TV show, nor does she even own a restaurant. She has a beautiful kitchen lovingly crafted by her adoring husband Peppino and a kitchen garden where they grow everything from tomatoes to mushrooms, to herbs and a gaggle of happy chickens.
And happily she and Peppino have chosen us as friends.
A few days ago was Valentine’s Day so my husband invited our friends to dine at the Bella Vista here in Santa Domenica Talao to celebrate. That was a fabulous meal as Michelle of Bella Vista fame is another mistress of the kitchen and her pizzas and pastas are top notch.
As we ate and the wine flowed, Peppino leaned in and told me that this Sunday, we were all having lunch at his house.
I didn’t stand up and clap my hands although I wanted to, but even though I was mid a perfect pizza, I started thinking about what magic Rosaria might have up her sleeve this time.
The last time we visited was Summer and we were invited for lunch. Rosaria allowed Pete to take video of her making tagliatelle.
And I do not exaggerate when I say, this was one of the very best meals I have ever had and I have had some epic ones.
As she cooks so also does Rosaria instruct. “These are the dishes not only of Calabria but specific to this village, Santa Domenica Talao.”
And as she moves gracefully from the stove to the cutting board to the sink, some of the most amazing smells start to emerge. Her braided Calabrian loaves of the softest white bread filled with cheese and salami are almost perfectly browned in her counter top oven and they fill the house with a yeasty goodness.
A pan lid on the stove slides to the side revealing potatoes perfectly browned, frying in a deep pan, crackling and sizzling as Rosaria turns them over and over.
Another pan lid allows one to peek inside and see wild boar cooked with peppers in an impossibly delicious sauce.
And on the bureau in the dining room lie perfect fusilli, hand made that morning and resting before their hot bath and dressing with Rosaria’s famous sugu.
We breathe in filling our noses with the hope that the smell will make us less hungry because one cannot be exposed to this kitchen without becoming ravenous.
We sit at the already set dining table catching up on the latest news from the village. Peppino tells us that the village is a grand family and the joys and losses of everyone in the village are shared. He lists some of the events and we laugh and cheer at the successes and shake our heads in sorrow at the losses.
We chat while listening for the doorbell because lunch cannot start without Father Ernesto who has raced over after saying mass in Santa Maria Del Cedro to join us.
Finally the doorbell rings and Father Ernesto appears talking in rapid Italian and filling the room with his laughter and benevolence.
Bonnie and Carolyn tell him how much the villagers miss him. He was transferred to a nearby village for some reason and it has left a giant hole in the church and in the hearts of the villagers.
But finally we are all together again and Rosaria is at her finest,
Despite wild pleas for “piccolo, piccolo!” (only a small helping please) big bowls of home made fusilli pasta appear topped with sugu (sauce) made from tomatoes and an unfortunate, though tasty wild boar who was shot by Peppino’s friend and sold off in bits to whoever is lucky enough to hear about it.
“This boar is a young one” Peppino tells us as we savor the fusilli and slurp up the sugo.
Home made fusilli is the perfect pasta. It has a hole in the middle made by rolling it over a thin piece of metal such as an umbrella spine and stretching it out sideways until it forms a hollow tube.
Rosaria cooks hers perfectly al dente creating a delightful mouth feel in addition to the super fresh flavors.
Father Ernesto says grace and with a flourish and a giant Buon Apetito! he finishes and we dive in.
The table falls uncharacteristically silent as we focus full attention on the fusilli.
From nowhere bowls of bread appear just in time to sop up the sauce and clean our plates for the next course.
With the first dish handled, we sit back and in our chairs. Our stomachs that have been torturing us all morning are happy but we still feel the tug of hunger as we know round two is on its way.
Rosaria appears again with two dishes of wild boar. The first is a stew of tomatoes and cinghiale (wild boar) and the second, cinghiale roasted with peppers.
Again silence falls with only the sounds of happy sighs and wine glasses being refilled breaking the hushed reverence.
We are full and somewhat worried because we hear a clattering of dishes in the kitchen that portends another course. We think we cannot eat another bite until Rosaria appears again, this time with plates filled with fried potatoes, thinly sliced pork sautéed in white wine and a hint of lemon, vegetable frittata and sweet chili peppers fried up to a crisp like potato chips.
I pick up a chili to try it and it crumbles in my mouth filling my tongue with sweet peppery deliciousness and a perfect blend of salt and olive oil.
Suddenly despite the first two courses I am hungry again.
And again silence falls.
Rosaria disappears once again and emerges with a platter filled with individual rectangles of orange sponge cake filled with orange pastry cream and dusted with powdered sugar. it is impossibly light and so freshly orangy that I have to help myself to a big slice instead of “being good” and sticking to a small one.
Finally Rosaria emerges once again this time with tiny coffee cups and thick, powerful coffee perfectly sweetened to end the meal.
In case you have not divined this yet, lunch with Rosaria is a work of loving art unequalled by anything anywhere.
And the company is also unequalled.
Although we live far away and are gone for months at a time and although Father Ernesto is now watching over a new flock in another village, it is as though we were never apart. The Winter sun shines in Rosaria’s dining room and we are all together loving each other and enjoying Rosaria’s works of culinary art. It is a moment that seems like it will last forever.
And I think to myself “How did I ever get this lucky?”
And no matter what happens in the future and where I might find myself, I will hold this feeling close to me and never lose it.
Tomorrow I will go to the flower shop in the piazza, I will climb the steps filled with flower pots and plants next to the little fountain the runs all year round, and I will chose something very special for Rosaria.
To repay love with love.
As you may know from reading previous posts, Pete and I are opening a BNB here in Santa Domenica Talao. I have asked Rosaria if she would be willing to teach our clients how to cook her amazing Calabrian dishes and she is ready to roll. If you are interested in joining us in a Calabrian culinary experience, please write to me.
It is with light hearted and educated finger that I take to my keyboard today to tell you I have been taking a class on essay writing through The Great Courses.
I love these courses and I can study everything from mental math (Still haven’t cracked the cellophane on that one) to Latin 101 (Its coming along but I have a ways to go) and Renaissance Italy which I lap up like a St. Bernard with a bowl of ice cream.
Our first assignment is to write about a place we know intimately.
Of course our village, Santa Domenica Talao, Calabria comes instantly to mind.
Our village, perched on a hilltop overlooking the Mediterranean has been, until recently, somewhat sequestered.
Back in the day when it was not as easy to get around, most everyone stuck around the villages and unique personalities and cultures emerged in the minds and lives of the people.
When you go to Southern Italy and visit the hill towns, you will be struck by the fact that each one has its own unique character.
Maiera, which is close by, clinging to the hilltop like mushrooms on a tree trunk, is humble and reverent.
Grisolia, high above the clouds overlooking the shimmering Mediterranean is warm and friendly.
The beach resort of Scalea is untamed and a mix of cultures and colors, and our village is aesthetically beautiful, loving and playful.
One thing however, that is taken seriously by all of these different villages, is faith.
As any Italophile can tell you, the predominant religion in Italy is Catholicism. And although it is one religion, it has many expressions and runs deep in the culture of the tiny towns and villages all over Italy.
Our village piazza is dominated by a thirteenth century stone church that rises up in the middle of the village and, like a pin, holds the village together.
Babies are blessed there, young couples are married there and when someone’s journey ends for whatever reason, they are given over to God there in a solemn ceremony and then a sad procession up the steep road to the cemetery that overlooks the village on the hill just above it.
A villager has perished and the village is sadly diminished by one.
In the church, from a special niche, the patron saint of the village, San Giuseppe, watches over his flock.
Every year, in celebration of his day, the statue of San Giuseppe is taken from the church and in a loving procession is carried through the tiny vias and alleyways of the village.
The villagers hang their best linens out the window as he passes and the medieval windows are dressed up in their finest clothes for a celebration.
The statue of San Giuseppe is quite heavy and although he is carried by several strong men and jostled about as they make their way up and down stairs and steep alleys, winding through the village, he remains calm and unmolested.
He seems grateful that they are willing to take him out on a tour so he can see what has elapsed since his last sojourn, and happy despite the villagers thwarted best efforts to carry him gracefully.
When I arrived to Santa Domenica this trip, I had no idea it was patron saint day.
Nonetheless, my beautiful house looked pretty neglected when I first walked up after a year of being gone. So I got out a broom and a trash bag and started cleaning her up.
After much sweeping and digging the weeds out of the cracks in the stairs, I had her looking pretty spiffy. She looked like someone cared about her again and we were both happy.
My neighbor, a sweet lady, paid me a compliment about what a nice job I had done on the walkway, porch and stairs.
I accepted it and apparently had unthinkingly ingratiated myself to her as she thought I was doing it for San Giuseppe.
Later that day I was on my balcony breathing in the crystal blue Mediterranean when I heard someone yelling.
This person was obviously outraged and I wondered what could make any of our peaceful, loving neighbors so angry.
I came out on the porch and looked. The medieval houses across the via from me rose up to the sky.
The windows thrust open and heads thrust themselves out like a giant advent calendar.
I looked at the stair leading to my house and there, perched on the top one was a perfectly shaped dog turd.
Not just any dog turd this, but obviously one that this particular dog had put some thought into.
Not a dog to just crank out something and call it art, he went the extra mile.
It looked more like a perfect chocolate custard than a real turd but its placement gave away its true identity.
Yep, It was a turd, still wet and stinky in its freshness and it had been just recently been deposited
My neighbor was livid and I secretly felt that she was vindicating me. How dare this dog defile my perfectly manicured steps! How dare he thumb his nose at my back breaking labor!
Although, I thought, she is being a little excessive. I mean, I could just get a dustpan and handle it right there.
Every head that was thrust out of a window had something vital to add to the conversation.
My tiny neighbor stood yelling in outraged Italian, her shawl shaking in indignation and the Greek chorus of disembodied heads from the advent calendar were all singing in unison that yes, indeed it was a disgrace! Yes, an outrage even and how could anyone, even a dog (vile beast that this one obviously was) be so disrespectful?
The cacophony went on for quite a while and finally died down. The advent calendar lost interest and one by one the windows closed against the heat of the Calabrian sun.
My neighbor, still muttering went inside to nurse her grievance.
I snuck out and retrieved the turd and relegated it to the trash.
As I was idly chatting with Nunzia who holds court from her little market in the piazza, I learned that today was San Giuseppe’s day.
A tiny lady in the doorway took my hand in both of hers and talked excitedly about the procession, the music and the lights. Her eyes lit up like a child’s talking about an upcoming birthday party.
I had seen the procession of the Madonna Festival in Scalea just the week before and I learned that it was out of respect that you hung your prettiest linens out of the window as she passed, in her honor.
Later in the day I went onto the trunk of linens that had come with the house. The lady who sold it to us had left us all the bedding and linens when we bought the place.
I found a pretty bedspread and hung it from my kitchen window which could be seen by the villagers and San Giuseppe as they walked by.
As the procession began my husband and I went up to the church to watch the faithful spill out. The villagers had spent hours making special baskets with flowers and ribbons that they carried on their heads in front of San Giuseppe as he made his way through the village.
Then we raced back to our house and met our neighbors who were sitting on their porch watching the parade as it looped and wound its way through every tiny or forgotten via in Santa Domenica.
The women were crying with love and gratitude. It was quite moving.
And then I understood why my neighbor was so upset.
This was her saint, the one who watched over the village and whom every villager loved with all their hearts. This calm and beautiful wooden statue was a symbol of perfect love, peace and harmony. And they adored him.
Later there was music. Men, women and children were dancing the Tarantella in the piazza, the giant flowered tiles under their feet acting as their dance floor.
The steps of the church became seating for those watching the spectacle and the giant bell tower that wakes me every morning to the heavenly sounds of church bells watched over the village while San Giuseppe watched over the church once again from his perch.
I am sure he was smiling calmly as he always does.
Every Italian schooled in Italy has read Carlo Levi’s book Christ Stopped at Eboli.
Eboli is a town just south of Salerno in Southern Italy. Once you go south past Amalfi, you enter the REAL Italy.
Carlo Levi was a doctor, a writer and painter who originally lived in Turin in the northern province of Piedmonte.
He was an outspoken opponent to the creeping Fascism during the time that Hitler and Mousellini were teaming up to unleash hell on the entire planet.
Because he was not quiet about his beliefs, he was sent into exile for two years to a tiny southern Italian hill town in the southern province of Lucania called Aliano.
It was not unusual at that time for people to be exiled. In Aliano there were a few exiles, They had strict rules of conduct that they had to adhere to.
The reason Levi’s book is so significant is that his writings went on to shed light on what was later called the Shame of Italy.
The Shame of Italy was the fact that the people of the nearby hill town of Matera lived in abject squalor. They had dug caves out of the rock and lived in medieval houses made from the white stone that is ubiquitous in that region.
Because the landscape in Southern Italy is arid, in the days before large scale irrigation, people lived on the meager fare they could scratch out on the farms and their livestock.
Many times the animals would live in the houses with the families for warmth in Winter.
Malaria was rampant throughout Matera and the conditions made it hell.
For these reasons the locals told Levi that “Cristo si e Fermata A Eboli”, Christ stopped at Eboli, north of them and not even Christ himself had cared to come this far south.
Levi’s book caused an uproar and finally the people of Matera were moved out and into government built houses. They were provided food and medicine and Matera sat lonely and vacant for awhile.
Finally in recent years, the beauty and history of Matera has drawn new interest and people have moved back and created a new and vibrant Matera.
Matera is now a cultural Mecca drawing not only tourists but musicians, artists and film makers.
Some of the scenes from Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ were filmed here.
Last Fall my husband and I visited Matera and Aliano. We had read and reread Levi’s book and we wanted to see where this intriguing story had played out.
Aliano was fascinating to us as we coud see the actual location where Levi had experienced his exile. We watch his story spring to life.
Although being exiled there today would not be much of a hardship, back then it was a rough existence filled with illness, hopelessness, superstition and endless arbitrary bureaucratic red tape that made the smallest effort to make things better suddenly illegal.
Today Aliano is a lovely hill town springing up in the middle of arid land. It is sleepy and unhurried. Businesses thrive and the restaurants are good, even great.
Buses filled with school children file into the town and later, out again because the students are still studying Christ Stopped at Eboli and probably will for a very long time to come.
But superstition still dips its hat there as the restaurant we had lunch in was called “La Laconda Con Gli Occhi” or the “Inn of the eyes”.
The building itself sports the architectural design that when you look at it from the front, looks like a face with eyes. It is said that the eyes keep evil spirits away.
This seems to work fabulously as the food and service were amazing and we highly recommend it.
As we later arrived in Matera, we were taken aback by the modern buildings and streets. It was teeming with tourists despite the fact that it is a bit of a trek to get to.
We had booked an AIR BNB there overlooking the Sassi de Matera (the old town). This is where the people lived as illustrated in Levy’s book. Our balcony overlooked the Sassi and in the evening the gold lights came up making it look like a fairy town.
As dinner time approached we walked to the town center. Matera is a vision of white stone streets and houses.
The people were out taking the passagiata, the charming custom of walking and talking to each other that happens every night, eveywhere in Italy.
As you wander through the town you hear music everywhere. Matera, having elected itself a cultural center has several music academies there. On our walk we alternately heard jazz, opera and rock music filtering through the Sassi.
Matera has done a lot to cater to tourists. I had no trouble finding several gluten free restaurants and vegetarian dishes are available at many places. In fact the gluten free pizza and beer I had was way better than any GF pizza here in the states.
Before you go, read Levy’s book. Although his book paints a dreary but true picture of what Matera was like, you will see a true life happy ending when you arrive
The best time to go is during shoulder season. The weather can be brutally hot in Summer and cold in Winter. Spring and Fall are magnificent.
If you are interested in visiting Matera or anywhere in Italy, contact me.
IF you have seen Matera, please leave a comment about your experiences there.