Eventually, I came to a small stone house with logs piled up to the roof and a couple of tables covered piled with Kale under a lean-to. Faded letters announced: ‘Ostaria Lolli.’ I was a little late for lunch but, telling me to leave my backpack outside, Signora Lolli showed me to a table by the window and went to see what was left in the kitchen. A few other diners – obviously friends of the owners – quizzed me about where I had come from and started to offer advice about the road ahead. A younger Lolli stoked the Osteria’s huge integral hearth to a roaring blaze – the firelight to compete with the the grey mountains out the window and tungsten glow from the rustic coronae hanging on iron chains. The timbered walls of the Osteria were lined with pictures of Padre Pio, the Grotto at Lourdes, ancient casks, bits of metal pertaining to anachronistic methods of husbandry and faded photographs of three generations of dead Lollis (or, judging by the average age of the population around here, not-dead Lollis).
Soon, oily, crackling Bruschetta arrived with a small carafe of the local red, followed by tender roast chicken in lavender and a steaming mound of Kale over a single soft bulb of Garlic; the flavours mud-wrestling each another to a frenzied stranglehold only to be calmed by the force of freshly baked bread, arriving on my palate with the sage impartiality of a judge presiding over a particularly acrimonious child custody case.
“And now how about a little Dolce with your coffee?” Suggested Signora Lolli. I could have eaten there all day, but too much of a wholesome thing is not good for a halfsome lifestyle and, fearing a final course as delicious as the last, asserted my need to commit myself to the fresh blasts of mountain air which wafted with the foul scent of cigar smoke from the lean-to outside. Signora Lolli obviously couldn’t help herself, and three deliciously dark biscotti flavoured with Cinnamon and Fennel arrived at my elbow anyway – along with a freezer-bag bag of the same ‘per il tuo viaggio.’
A few hours later, I rounded a bend to see another collection of ancient houses clinging like static crustaceans to a tidal rock high above me. I knew I ought to press on along the main road (by now a fairly deserted dual carriageway), but – stuff it – I’d spent last night sleeping in an abandoned house and why not try to find a hotel for once?
This rash diversion led to a chain of events which has completely altered the whole trip. The town itself – Piglio – was extraordinary. I’ve already blown the relevant adjectives on Cave – but, in relative terms, we’re talking about a place where Kowloon Walled City gets Mediaeval. No cars can come near the centre – or, I should say, the summit. I entered by a minor gate and headed up an alley so steep that I twice used my hands in the climb. Some of the thoroughfares were hewn straight out of the rock that the town rested on. Others appeared to have been formed when water froze in its natural fissures. I saw streets which were staircases. I saw Piazzas two Vespas abreast. A false turning led me down a passage which terminated with a hole in the town wall and a sheer 300ft plunge to the forest below. Whatever the inconveniences of living up a street that makes the Spaccanapoli look like Avenue des Champs-Élysées, I don’t imagine the place has ever suffered a town drunk for more than a couple of consecutive nights.
The town seemed virtually deserted. Many of the buildings appeared derelict and there was hardly a sound in the streets. I saw just one person my own age – a girl leaning out of an upstairs window in a bid for signal or suicide or both.
Eventually, I came across a little church, where evening mass was being said. Ah! Here they all were!
When it was over, I went to the town’s main hotel, only to discover that it had closed for Winter. Deciding to seek the advice of a local, I wandered the empty streets until I found a solitary figure wandering home, and asked her to direct me to a Penzione. Thrilled to be of service, she immediately rang her hotelier nephew who, alas, was in Corfu – having closed the town hotel for winter.
“Never mind,” I insisted, but she was already ringing her friend, Maria-Rosa, who ‘knew everybody.’ Maria-Rosa said she would ask Anna-Maria, Mariachiara, Marianna and Maria-Lucia. I started to panic. The nonna-network had flown into action.
I have developed a pavlovian fear of groups of old women with telephone books (perhaps someone can suggest a Greek term for it in the comments below). Their councils, in my experience, tend to cumulate in traumatic introductions to people as hopeless as myself, offers of internships or, God forbid, a J-O-B.
But it was too late. The shock-batallion was assembling with terrifying speed, appearing from every alley; chattering and worrying and saying that I’d be cold and trying to help each other switch on their smartphones. At this rate, I would be personal secretary to President Reinzi by the end of the evening. It was awful because I could so easily have pitched my tent and yet I knew the Marian mob would turn nasty and hold the entire town ransom before that could be allowed happen.
Just as I was starting to regret every Hail Mary I’d ever said – one of them exclaimed “What about Maria?”
“Oh yes! How could we have forgotten?” they said, casting their stare up to a building nestled among the trees on the dark mountain above us. “The monks!”
Of course, one of their friends was friends with the the brothers up at the Monastery – who kept several vacant rooms for guests and pilgrims. So, to my great relief, we piled into a car (they all had to come), and drove up to the Monastery of San Lorenzo – where I was to be put into a cell for the night.
The Monasteries of my experience have tended to embrace rather harsh extremes of poverty and wealth. You either freeze and starve in a draughty cell like my little brother, or you find yourself gassed with Montecristos and waterboarded with Cognac in some Baroque palace. The three brothers at San Lorenzo, it has to be said, seemed to have struck a temperate middle ground of hot and cold running water, a badly-tuned upright piano and wholesome supper – including Uovi Fragole, an odd type of local grape which has a slightly pink iridescence on it’s black velvet skin and tastes like strawberries.
So there I stayed for the night. Mass was said at 7:30am.
The Monastery seemed to observe a particularly strong devotion to Saint Maximilian Kolbe – a Polish priest who had stayed here (in my room), briefly in early February 1937, before returning to Poland. There, he worked for the underground press before finally being martyred (at a slight stretch of the definition), in Auschwitz. The monks seemed surprised I so readily recognised the black and white photographs in the hallway. I had once lined him up as my Patron saint before I opted out of the sacrament of Confirmation as a teenager.
There was much banter over breakfast, during which I told the monks that many of my family had been in monastic boarding schools, normally staying ahead of the downward curve by being thrown out ahead of the disastrous decisions to admit girls (a final solution to poor grades in humanities, I suspect). Appeals for cash in aid of this slightly bizarre social experiment were always met with some hilarity when the glossy brochures hit the breakfast table at Chateau Shaw.
“What are they going to build with it? A maternity ward?” (concurrent waves of conspiratorial Catholic cackling).
Many thanks to the nice ladies of Piglio and P. Angelo Di Giorgio