Mediterranean Summer – on the road ‘write as you go’ diary of summer wanderings throughout Italy and Southern Europe

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You’ll see no Rome, Florence, Venice or Taormina in this diary. Instead, I’ll take you to small unknown places of rare beauty often harbouring next to territorial or industrial diseases, ‘ugliness’ of various kinds that makes Italy the harbour of the best and the worst. I was taken to these places in the long hot Italian summer by chance or simply by getting lost, always the best way to travel for the non-‘holiday-package’ traveller.

This is not an itinerary, a tourist guide or a suggested tour. I just happen to be in those places and I want to share my sensations and the ideas they evoked in me with you. To make you feel these spots the way I felt them. Even in the frenzy of XXI century life, this is an attempt to recollect emotions in tranquility through my inward eye.

What is summer for the Italians – and for me?

First of all, for most of us summer is a state of mind. Summer means another kind of approach to life, work and love. It means freedom, escape and holiday. It means the beach, an all-Italian shrine, an iconic place to spend the day, parallel to British clubs. Italian lidos occupy almost all of the never ending stretch of beaches that defines the Italian peninsula; they provide all the facilities you need on a hot sunny day, it is the place of love and romance, of tanning and swimming, of family’s shouted arguments and couples’ psychodramas. It’s one of the sociologist’s observation points.
If you know where to look, summer may also mean far-away stunningly beautiful solitary beaches and maritime rocks or alpine high elevation trails where you feel the sublime immensity of nature and the smallness of man, where you feel light and free, mingled with the universe.
In recent years, because of the climate change, Mediterranean summers have also stretched in lengths. In my mind set, May Day is the beginning of it, it is my first summer’s day  that usually takes place in the narrow beaches, small seaside villages and surrounding green hills of the Golfo dei Poeti, the Poets’ Gulf, in Liguria’s Riviera di Levante, the area in which Lord Byron and P.B. Shelley lived, loved and died – and made it famous. More and more often, summer stretches to Halloween: if it is sunny, I finish my summer in the same place and in the same way, feeling the sun still warm on my skin, swimming in the cooling waters, cycling uphill from Lerici in the shade of the maritime pines, admiring the shining La Spezia gulf from above in the late afternoon sun stretching to the mystical village of Porto Venere, a hamlet that  seems to have sprung from John Martin’s visionary brush. Behind the gulf, you can catch a trembling glimpse of le Cinque Terre still crowded with American tourists who, strangely enough, include this location in their modern tour. And, as far as I am concerned, the last summer’s day ends with a fresh seafood dinner in the central piazzetta. Driving back home, I shift my mode to winter, and enter another reality.
The peak of summer is August, a month that hangs suspended, almost unreal. Cities are deserted, services and shops closed, big factories and small businesses shut down, street almost deserted. Parliament is closed too, and democracy can wait. It’s a ghost town feeling, a limbo of suspension. The minority of citizens who have remained in town are at home to stay out of the inland big heat, the majority are on the popular beaches, sometimes so crowded you cannot see the sand and the water.
My attempt to run away from it all has taken me to our land’s end, the coastal village of San Vito Lo Capo in Far West Sicily, in July, from where these notes are written. Beyond the crystal clear waters and behind the surrounding mountains, Africa is waiting. It is really the end of the continent, and a good starting point to tell the tale of the different places where summer has taken me, from the Maltese islands, where we begin our journey, to Provence in Southern France, same waters but two separate Mediterranean worlds.


An old-fashioned modern day Knight of Malta (July 2017)

The shop is small, basic and hot. Outside the hot wind is blowing strong and St. Paul’s Bay waters below us are dancing gaily reverberating the yellow rays of the sun. That’s where I swim almost every day, from the beach to the top of the bay and back, one hour in the warm clear waters, with my French and Spanish friends and colleagues Christian and Alex, opposite the comfortable Salini resort where we are lodging. We are here on business, but we take our time. Again, the feeling of freedom I felt in San Vito’s waters in Sicily last year has come back to me again here in Malta: the malfunctioning of the services, notwithstanding the British heritage, is reworded by the sun, the sea, the weather, the people. I have worked here in Malta for more than twenty years now and, one way or another, I regularly come back. This southern most point in Europe, historically a crossroads of contrasting civilizations, is now a microcosm of the EU, like the resort we are staying at coordinating  students and teachers of English from all over Europe.  It is really a meeting place, a synergy of experiences, nationalities  and different lives that come together here.

the modern day knight in between the author (right) and friend and colleague Christian Costes

Down here, happiness comes to me unexpectedly and coincidentally, and it happened again two days ago, when I found myself swimming below ‘The Point’, the new hyper modern shopping centre in Sliema, as I was waiting for the shopaholics to come out of the mall. There is always a place to go swimming in the island wherever you are, and that particular stretch is breath-taking. Azure water below, Valletta Renaissance skyline on the other side of the bay on an exceptionally bright dry windy day that made the landscape look like a 3D vision.
So the shop is small, basic and hot, vintage 50s, a mini-mini market run by an old thin man. We go there to buy drinking water, a precious item on the island. Last time we went I gave him 5 extra euros by mistakes and now I have just told him, even if with a certain perplexity and shame. He immediately smiles back and tells me that he has been in the business for forty years and  that the client is always right. So he picks up a 5 euro note from his meagre income of the day and gives it back to me, smiling. I feel embarrassed and so I start a conversation that develops quickly into a friendly chat and ends up taking the picture you see here. And he gives me his mobile number too, just in case.
Also this minor incident is part of the lifestyle of the Deep South, it tells the way we were, it is an old-fashion snapshot which adds value to my Maltese experience even more.


A morning in Comino, an afternoon in the Silent City, a night in Valletta: The best of nature and Renaissance in this outpost of Christendom facing the Muslim dominion



Standing on the bastions of Fort Elmo or at upper Baracca Gardens in Valletta in broad daylight makes it difficult to imagine the Grand Harbour below filled with the floating heads of the Christian soldiers the Turks had killed during the Great Siege in the summer of 1564. The Christian Knights, to counter intimidate the Muslim attackers, loaded and shot their cannons with the Turks’ corpses’ heads. It is a 16th century splatter scene I was once told by a tourist guide; ever since, the beauty, tranquillity and serenity conveyed by the view from Valletta brings this Tarantino-style vision back to my mind. As some of you know, I used this image of horror in a chapter of my ‘noirest’ novel, Dark City. Valletta gives its best at night thanks to Renzo Piano’s recent redesigning of part of the town and to a well done programme of maintenance and renewal of the town’s array. A walk, a dinner, a drink, a concert in the open air amid the well-lighted facades of the Renaissance palaces is pure quintessential European pleasure: the aristocratic Knights of Malta brought the best of European Renaissance architecture to its Southern most borders, to this outpost of Christendom facing the Muslim dominion, as if to show the enemy their superiority through splendour, not only through the well trained army the Guardian of the Faith had.  And in case of theological disputes or suspicion of unorthodoxy, on the other side of the Grand Harbour, the Spanish inquisitor – head of the most disgusting Christian institution of all times – was there, ready to get rid of heretical thought against the given dogma. We can still see the menacing silhouette of his luxurious palace at the heart of Vittoriosa, one of the ‘three fingers’, the towns where the Knights lived before the Siege.

Comino Blue Lagoon

If you are an accidental smart tourist, take a tip from one who tried several times: forget about the heat, the noise, the stress of Saint Julian’s Paceville area, the noisiest place in the island, with its paradoxical name, home of cheap thrills and mass entertainment. Spend the morning in the blue warm crystal clear low water of the Blue Lagoon in Comino, and escape as soon as the herd of tourist invade this piece of heaven on earth. You can find peace and quiet in the old capital city of Mdina, the ‘silent city’ up the hill, the walled medieval town who dates back to the 11th century. Walk in the shade of the narrow round streets surrounded by the Norman aristocratic mansions and enjoy the view of the coast and the sea from its walls. This is the place for romance in Malta, no doubt about it: there I dated my wife for the first time long long time ago, so this spot brings back sweet memory every time I happen to be there.  But again, you’ll have to escape the old silent capital before the Comino herd follow you there in the late afternoon, filling with vulgar screams and shouts the once silent streets. It is the time to grab a cab, leave modern vulgarity behind and reach and enjoy Valletta by night. In the end, it’s such a perfect day!



Matera, the unbelievable ‘city of stones’: from dust to stardom


Turneresque ancient city of stones

When the bus dropped me off in the new town centre, I thought I had arrived in another example of the savage concrete bonanza, sprung out of corruption and mafia power, that degraded whole boroughs of two artistic jewels like Naples and Palermo in the 60s. But as you reach the limits of the ancient  town, an astonishing landscape awaits you. The hill in front of you, made of a white soft rock called tufo, has been transformed into a village built physically into the rock, hence the name of città dei sassi, city of stones.


The first impression is shocking because you have never seen a place like this. In prehistoric times, caves were carved out of the mountains, real cliff dwellings that reminded me of the Native American ones I saw at Bryce Canyon in Utah. Then the so-called rupestrian civilization, with its houses and churches dug into the rock and its external camminamenti – walking paths – emerged at the turn of the first millennium. In the Renaissance and Baroque periods, new external parts and facades were added to the rupestrian houses and palaces for the nobility and many churches were built too.


Today you see the houses coming out of the rock and you don’t understand what’s going on until you visit one. The town looks like a Christmas presepio, a landscape naturally Turneresque, a view certainly sublime. Next to the town is a canyon with a river running at the bottom, the Gravina, and on the other side another hill, now a belvedere, that adds natural wild beauty to the overall scene with a stroke of picturesque.



Interior of a traditional house in the sassi

Here the Middle Ages lasted up to the 1950s, literally. Matera was one of the poorest village in Southern Italy in the poorest Italian region, Basilicata, a God-forgotten area of rare natural beauty, a coast to coast mountainous territory less infested by the mafia than the other neighbouring regions, for the simple reason of the lack of lucrative business. You can visit some peasants’ traditional cliff houses, case rupestri: they lived with no water, no electricity, no toilet, in just one big room, with the animals inside the house. All they possessed was a donkey and a cart to go to the field to work. And to try and keep children from dying of starvation, they made them eat dried poppies’ leaves so the kids slept for a few days. Matera came to be known to the world in 1945, when anti-fascist writer Carlo Levi wrote Cristo si è fermato a Eboli, a shocking reportage of the area’s lifestyle and conditions.  The Middle Ages ended when the government took notice in the 50s and forced the inhabitants to move to new houses built in the new parts of town. Thanks to the social commitment of the post-war governments, the new boroughs were an outstanding example of new town blocks respectful of the landscape. It did not last long: soon concretization and corruption shaped the modern town the way you see it now when you arrive.
After the relocation programme, heritage began, and the process of moving from dust to stardust started too. The movies had its part in the course: Pier Paolo Pasolini shot Il Vangelo secondo Matteo here in the 60s: what better location could he find as objective correlative to his vision of Jesus and the apostles as peasants, working class heroes? Since then, film makers started to use Matera as setting on regular basis. Soon Hollywood came along too: Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ, shot in 2004, has Matera as Bethlehem. Since then, Hollywood visits the town regularly. Besides, the town became a UNESCO site in 1993. As a consequence, tourists started to flow in and redesigning began.

Matera sightseeing buses

That was a dangerous moment, the risk of having MacDonald’s restaurants inside the ancient rupestrian houses, motels and hotel chains nearby and, consequently, German tourists with white socks and sandals and American ones with their baseball caps and shorts roaming among the ancient street was high. Luckily, the authorities, the Sovrintendenza ai Beni Culturali, did their job well and the modernization/conservation process was carried on wisely. Today the town is almost completely renewed but maintained. Inside the sassi there are lots of B&Bs, hotels, restaurants, bars, shops, but the heritage is safe: behind modern comfort, you still have a glimpse of the way it used to be by sleeping in the original rooms and by eating the original way – exquisite and healthy delizie from the peasants’ tradition. Accordingly, tourists from all over the world and tourist operators adjusted to the style: for example, there are no sightseeing big buses, only old-fashioned ape cars from the 50s take them round. Cultural events and shows too are held here more and more frequently: Matera is 2019 European City of Culture and the town is putting on its make up for the event.
Include Matera in your Italian tour and you won’t regret it: stroll in the sassi, visit the old houses and churches, follow the path down the canyon, eat some local delizie, have a drink in the wine bars inside the caves, watch the skyline at night. Hidden Italy will surprise you once again.


To be continued…



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