San Giuseppe and Dog the Blasphemer

Santa Domenica Talao
Santa Domanica Talao, Calabria, Italy

 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.

Piazza Santa Domenica talco
The Piazza, Santa Domenica Talao

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.

Santa Domenica Talao
Santa Domenica Talao

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.

Piazza Santa Domenica Talao
Piazza Santa Domenica Talao

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.

Our village at night
Our village at night

Christ Stopped at Eboli But You Should Go On to Matera, Italy

Matera
Matera Morning
Matera Morning

Every Italian schooled in Italy has read Carlo Levy’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 Levy 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.

 

Street sign in Aliano
Aliano street sign directing you to the house of Carlo Levy

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 Levy’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.

 

Matera in the evening
Matera in the evening

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.

 

Detail Church of the Pergatory, Matera
Detail Church of the Purgatory, Matera

For these reasons the locals told Levy 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.

Levy’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.

 

Street sign Aliano
Street sign Aliano

Last Fall my husband and I visited Matera and Aliano. We had read and reread Levy’s book and we wanted to see where this intriguing story had played out.

 

The church Aliano
Even the church in Aliano had Gli Occhi (The eyes)

Aliano was fascinating to us as we coud see the actual location where Levy had experienced his exile. We watch his story spring to life.

 

View from Aliano
View from Aliano
The View from Aliano

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.

 

Carlo Levy's exile
Buildings of Carlo Levy’s exile

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.

 

Street scene in Matera
Street scene in Matera
Street Scene in Matera

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.

 

Street shops in Matera
Street shops in Matera
Street Shops in Matera

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 Sassi looking up to the shopping district
The Sassi looking up to the shopping district
Matera looking up to the shopping district

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.

 

Sassi of Matera
Sassi of Matera

Matera hosts many music festivals and events throughout the year as well.

As the sun set the music drifted out over the town and the Sassi. Matera has come into her own.

Matera is absolutely worth the time and effort to get there. It is not that difficult and the landscape on the drive over changes dramatically and is never boring.

Getting to Matera by car is easiest although you can get there on public transport.

The Hill Behind Me was Where Mel Gibson’s The Passion Was Filmed

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.

 

Gluten free pizza
Gluten Free Pizza

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.

Photo credits, Chris Ellis and Pete Sobolev