An Excerpt from Conversations in Paradise

 

 

Larino, Larino, La Bella Citta: Conversations in Paradise is a novel largely about Larino.  In this excerpt the main figure in the story enters the town from the train station a walks towards the centre of the old town.

La Bella Città
 

     The flight from Toronto to Rome was uneventful. Bruce always
wondered who designed the seats on modern aircraft. The meals had
become a parody of anything that looked like cooking. The service was
desultory. The wonderful thing was that he was on his way. Soon he’d be
far from the University and all the pain that it symbolized. It was like being
a kid again. He was anonymous, incognito, a waif launched into the great
world. He devoured the Italian newspapers, turned the audio channel to
classical music, and tried to imagine what adventures lay ahead. One of the
stewardesses was clearly taken with him. He enjoyed the playful flirtation
as though it were some type of affirmation.

    The train ride from Rome to Larino was fascinating. He bought his
ticket at an automated machine and headed to binario 18. The
compartments were small and spartan. Soon they were filled with students
and business people headed home to the province of Campobasso for the
weekend. The train was more like the vehicles used in a subway, but it was
diesel powered. It was like a trip into another world. The stations steadily
became smaller and more decrepit. It was almost as though the Italians had
given up on rail traffic.

    Bruce changed trains at Campobasso. He went under the “sottopasso”
(underpass) with his suitcase and hurried towards his connection to Larino.
It consisted of two gray and blue cars that looked like set pieces in a forties
movie. The conductors, dressed with all of the elegance of military officers
regarded him with shy interest. They assumed that he spoke no Italian and
they, of course, had no command of English. It was as though they wanted
to speak but they were rather timid. Each time they passed by they would
look at him. Bruce would nod politely and they would quickly turn away.
The diesel lurched out of the station. Once outside the provincial
capital the countryside was extraordinary. Little hill towns dotted the
horizon. The campagna was unexpectedly rugged as the train moved
smoothly across the crests of a series of steep hills. This was the terrain that
the Canadian soldiers had traveled through as they struggled against the
German troops during the Second World War. It must have been
horrendous. He knew that the Allied soldiers in the Italian theatre were
nicknamed “D Day Dodgers”. No one who had any idea of the
primitiveness of the Italian terrain could have made that terrible mistake.
In early June it was still light at 7 pm. The sky was cloudless. He
heard a couple of young passengers say something about Larino. They
collected their bags and moved towards the exit doors. Bruce asked, in his
best Italian, if this was the stop for Larino. They smiled and nodded.
Out into the glaring sunshine Bruce turned down towards the Centro
Storico. He was immediately impressed by the cleanliness and a sense of
prosperity. There had been a recent earthquake and many of the homes had
been renovated. The owners of the houses seemed to have chosen pastel
colours: lime green, terra cotta, cream, all mixed with pinks and vivid
yellows.


    It was hot and he could almost feel the weight of the sunlight. As he
passed a small park filled with broken classical columns he could see the old
town down below. It was a beautiful jumble of rectangles and orange roofs
punctuated by spires. Beyond the dark green of the rolling hills he could see
huge snow covered mountains. That must be the Abruzzo Mountains a
couple of hundred kilometers to the north, Bruce thought. They seemed so
close.

    The road snaked downward flanked by tall slender pine trees. Cars
flashed by. New cars - Mercedes, BMW’s, and luxurious four wheel drive
vehicles – were driven at breakneck speed.

    Turning into the town he recognized a monument the Capaldi’s had
laughed about. It was a statue of a man looking down at the old part of
town. Instead of some heroic figure the representation was of an emaciated
emigrant in a suit, shirt and tie. He represented the thousands of people who
had left Larino after the Second World War. At his feet was a suitcase.
Surrounding him was a well maintained little garden. This odd little figure
represented the poor souls who went to every part of the world.
Occasionally they would return from South America, Australia, France,
Germany, Canada, and the States. Bruce wondered what they would have
thought of the prosperity they found here. Would they have left if they had
known that someday Larino would have been reborn? The Capaldi’s had a
habit of saying that Italy was the “new” America.
 

    Bruce followed down Via Cluenzio, one of the town’s main streets.
Three storey buildings leaned in from each side. Some of them had Coats-of-
Arms just above the front portal. The dates were fairly consistent. They
mainly indicated that the houses had been built, or rebuilt, in the mid
eighteen hundreds.He knew he was within minutes of seeing the tower that figured so
prominently in the conversations at the Capaldi home. At Gino’s house they
talked of Larino constantly. It was a living presence for them. In fact, it was
more real than their life in Canada. The older Capaldi’s never completely
integrated. Even now, he thought, Gino talks of coming back here. Mrs.
Capaldi said that the nostalgia the Larinese felt for this town was “una
malattia,” a sickness … a beautiful sickness.

    Via Cluenzio led into a huge piazza where an unexpectedly large
building loomed. This was the “new” façade of the Palazzo Ducale (Duke’s
Place). This huge neoclassical structure had been designed by the same
architect who had created the Neapolitan residence of the Bourbon monarchs
in the town of Casaerta near Naples.The Ducal Palazzo in Larino was built around a core that was likely eleventh century Norman French. The structure was stunning. The top
façade was in sunflower yellow capped by orange terra cotta tiles. The walls
of the palace were painted in alternating lines of dark grey and a brilliant
white likely to mimic alternating lines of stone and shadow. Bruce knew
from the Capaldi’s that some Larinese found it garish. It certainly was
unusual, but in the fading sunlight of early evening it seemed to glow.
 

    Bruce walked towards the Piazza Duomo where he knew he’d find the
ancient cathedral. It was built on the foundation of a much older church in
the thirteen century. The enormous stone façade with its huge circular glass
window was grander than he expected. He had seen scores of pictures of
this national monument, but nothing prepared him for its reality. The
doorway was a splendid intricate interweaving of columns, mythical
creatures, and Christian symbolism. He could pick out what looked like the
French Fleur de Lys, English roses, and tiny stone faces of men and women
who may have lived seven centuries ago. “And,” whispered Bruce audibly, “just behind me should be my home for the next three months.” Bruce held his breath. He turned to his right and
there was the tower. He’d been told the story a thousand times. It was a
rectangular tower. Originally it had been a campanile which contained the
bells of a Franciscan monastery. Pope Clement V had ordered its
construction in 1312. Napoleon had ordered its suppression and closure
when his troops invaded Italy in the 1800’s. It was the height of a four
storey building. Its grey simplicity was in stark contrast to the cathedral.
Near the top there were two balconies. The openings for the bells were now
glass doors that admitted light into a small bedroom.


    To reach the doorway to the tower he had to pass the front of another
newly renovated church, the Chiesa di San Francesco. It had a dazzling
coral façade. The sides of the structure were fashioned from irregular light
grey stones bonded by ochre toned cement. 

    It seemed strange that a cathedral, a church, a tower, and the remains
of a convent should be clustered so closely together. The other buildings
which formed the square of the Piazza Duomo once housed the first
Seminary in the Christian world. It was even stranger that the world seemed
to have forgotten about Larino and its architectural treasures.
He entered the shadows of Vico Duomo (Cathedral lane), the little
passageway that lay between some tiny houses and what was once the front
of the old convent. The Capaldi’s had told him that these cottages had been
built in the late seventeen hundreds because of a feud between the Bishop in
the Cathedral and the Monks in the monastery. They simply did not want to
see each other and the houses provided a wall that separated their tiny
worlds.Bruce stopped for a moment to look at the archway beneath the
tower. It was the same type of structure he had once seen in Westminster
Abbey in London. In those long ago days the skills of stonemasons must
have pervaded all of Catholic Europe from Rome to London. He could still
see the marks made by the cane that had been used to form the arches. The
ponderous stone base was formed by dressed rectangles of stone that looked
as though they had been taken from other earlier structures.


Then he headed
towards the heavy oak door that would take him into his new home. The
brass plaque on the door read, “Eduardo e Teresa Capaldi”. He turned the
key.


The entrance way had walls made of stone and antique roman bricks.
He climbed two sets of stairs with a wrought iron balustrade. Another
doorway at the second floor led to a darkened room. He switched on the
light and was amazed to find a vaulted ceiling with great arches formed from
ancient orange bricks arranged in such a masterful way they actually
provided strength to the expanse of ceiling. Light was cast by a five armed
porcelain chandelier. This was the room that was once the monks’ refectory
where they had their meals.


    Up three marble steps there was a separate small dining room,
furnished in “legno povero” or “simple woods”, looking out at the laneway,
the Franciscan church, and the Palazzo Ducale. A little house at the end of
the Vico was painted in an apricot colour. The roof of the cottage was
covered in a variety of ancient tegole or tiles in soft golden tones that looked
strangely like wheat. At the side of the doorway there were mossy grey
planters with a dark red oleander bush and a purple Bougainvillea plant both
in full bloom. Bruce was not used to such a vivid range of colours. The
bright sunlight, seemed to make the tones throb. He felt the need for
sunglasses and he welcomed the shade when he closed the shutters on the
tall wooden doors.


    Bruce could hardly wait to see the bedroom upstairs. He climbed up a
tight little circular cast iron staircase, mounted a second primitive wooden
ladder, and found himself in the small rectangular area that would be his
bedroom. This was where the bells had been located before Napoleonic
troops had stolen them in 1809. He could hardly believe his eyes. From one
of the balconies he looked right at the Bishop’s palace and the gothic façade
of the Cattedrale. Beyond the cathedral stretched miles of open countryside,
the glimpse of small hill towns, and beyond the hills were the white
mountains. Even now, in the heat of late spring, they were covered in snow.The sky was beginning to turn a reddish gold as the setting sun caught some
thin strands of cloud.


    He turned and went up another stone staircase that took him to the
highest point in the tower, the terrazzo. To enter the highest level he had to
pull a glass panel that rolled on casters. This had been newly installed after
the earthquake. The metal handle was hot to the touch and the air blasted in
as he pulled the skylight backwards. The terrazzo was framed by a wall of
old orange brick. It was fashioned in such a way that it left a tracery of
spaces in the form of scores of little crosses. The tiles on the floor were
recent but they were sufficiently irregular, in their reddish brown tonality,
that they created a beautiful image.


    The tower was the highest point in the town. Below him was a sea of
red tiled roofs, little roof-top gardens, and the sense that he was at the centre
of everything. The countryside, in late spring, was lush and ordered and
had the impression that it was one huge garden. He shaded his eyes to see
the thousands upon thousands of olive trees. In the distance he could see a
swath of yellow. “Sunflowers,” he muttered. “Why on earth did the
Capaldi’s leave?”



   A soft warm breeze touched his face.On the top landing were two folding deck chairs. He extended one of them into a type of hammock and sat looking at the sky. The jet lag, the train journey, the stress of anticipation, all caught up with him and he fell
into a deep sleep. When he awoke he was staring at millions of stars. He
gasped as he tried to get his bearings. It took him a few seconds. It struck
him that there was no pollution here, nothing to obscure what was invisible
in a North American city. The moon was full. His eye traveled to the
silhouette of the cathedral spire and the amber light cast by the ornate street
lamps. The only sound was the distant barking of some dogs and voices
talking lightly in one of the narrow streets below. He felt suddenly bereft as
though he were standing on the edge of the known world.

**************************************************************




Larino, Larino, La Bella Citta`

 

*Another excerpt from Larino, Larino, La Bella Citta`: Coversations in Paradise.  This time the chapter is drawn from the EBook version of the novel published by Lulu.com and distributed by ITunes, Lulu.com, Barnes and Noble, and Google Books.

Gerione

In which Bruce learns about FABIO MASSIMO (280 BC to 203 BC) and HANNIBAL in the environs of Larino.

As Bruce shaved in the small bathroom of the tower he thought about Don Ricci, the town priest.  He had been immediately attracted to this dynamic man   Some people in this world radiated energy.  The priest had that capacity.  Almost too much energy, thought Bruce.  It was as though he might explode.  His facial colouring was a little too red.  Don Ricci was a man in a hurry; a man with a mission.

 Bruce knew that the priest had changed the town.  He was a gifted musician and he had created two or three choirs.  Anyone could join, even if they had little native ability.  Somehow or other he would transform those willing souls into something that sounded wonderful.

 Once more Bruce penetrated to the monochromatic world of the cathedral to find the priest in the back room busy with his papers.  Only this time Don Ricci was wearing a light blue jacket, jeans, running shoes, and a bike helmet rested on the table.

 “Signor Cooper!”  The priest looked delighted to see him.  “I’m just finishing off signing some certificates and then I’m off to Gerione.”

 “Gerione?  Is that nearby?  I’ve never heard of it.”

 Don Ricci laughed.  “Maybe that’s because it really doesn’t exist anymore.”

 “How’s that?”

 The priest looked impish and he said, with a flourish, “It was destroyed by Hannibal two hundred years before Christ.”  He stared at Bruce for a moment.  “Would you like to come with me?  I’m not much of a biker.  It’s only about fifteen minutes away.”  He bustled into the back room and reappeared with a rusting black mountain bike.  “This is my favourite old bike, and you could try out the new one.”

 Bruce was taken off guard.  “That would be fun,” he said.  “I could go back to the tower and put on a t-shirt and some lighter pants.  I’ll only be two minutes.  But I insist on taking the older bike.”

 “Never argue with a priest.  I’m supposed to be a bit of a self sacrificer.”  He chuckled at his own joke.  Then Don Ricci disappeared again and returned with a gleaming helmet.  “Wonderful!  This will be fun.”  He glanced at his watch.  “I have about five hours before the next mass.  That should be plenty of time.”

 Almost immediately they were moving along the roadway towards the town of Casacalenda.  All of the cars that passed slowed down and then beeped enthusiastically as the drivers recognized Don Ricci.  Bruce soon realized that Don Ricci was an accomplished rider and the pace was swift.

 Bruce pulled along side.  “Where are we headed, exactly?”

 “Casacalenda is only ten kilometers up the road.  There’s a new entry way into a valley and then there are new bike trails that take you to the site of the ancient town.”  Don Ricci started to move ahead as they glided down a steep hill.  “Don’t expect too much,” he yelled as he picked up speed.  “The ruins disappeared generations ago.”

 Bruce was in good physical condition.  Even in the winter he swam in the university pool almost every day.   Don Ricci, though, was clearly feeling competitive.  In spite of himself, Bruce broke into a sweat and he had to struggle a bit as he headed up the next hill. 

 “Great, Bruce.  At this rate we’ll be there in minutes.”

 Bruce was delighted that the priest had used his first name.  The road skirted deep valleys with endless lines of hills stretching towards the horizon.  He’d read somewhere that most of the roads in this part of the world followed the sheep and cattle herders paths.  Even the old Roman roads were based on the same migratory routes. 

 “We’ll turn to the left just after the next hill, Bruce.”

 Up ahead Bruce could see the town of Casacalenda clinging to hilltop ridge.  He turned down the rutted little road in pursuit of Don Ricci and bounced down a steep incline. 

 Don Ricci had come to a stop beside a small rock strewn brook.  “”Bruce, if you look up towards that hill where the microwave towers are located you’ll see where Gerione was located.  We can leave the bikes here and walk up, if you like.  The view of the surrounding countryside is well worth seeing.”

 “Do you walk as quickly as you ride your bike?” laughed Bruce.

 Don Ricci turned and smiled.  “Now that the people in the town know that you like biking you’ll be bothered by everyone.  Mountain biking has become a passion.  There are thousands of little roads covering every inch of Molise.  It’s much more fun than driving.”

 They struggled up a steep incline along a road that was rutted by the pathways carved by water from the nearby steep hills.

 It took about twenty minutes of hard climbing to reach the summit of the hill.  The terrain was dotted with scrub trees and long grass.  What struck Bruce was the silence.  Except for the light wind there wasn’t a single sound   Where Gerione had once existed was clearly one of the highest vantage points in this part of Molise.  Great valleys swept away in every direction.  Every inch of the landscape seemed cultivated.  On distant hills Bruce could see the characteristic hill towns where the church spires dominated the silhouette.

 “Don Pasquale, you said that Hannibal destroyed Gerione.  How did that happen?”  He intentionally had used the Priest’s first name.  He hoped he didn’t mind.

They moved towards some boulders and rested their backs against what may have been an old foundation of a defensive structure.  Don Pasquale removed a small bottle of mineral water from his haversack along with two plastic glasses.   “It’s not generally realized that Hannibal defeated the Romans every time they had a pitched battle.  When the Romans picked Fabio Massimo as their Dictator he adopted a new strategy.  He knew that Hannibal had to feed his troops and his elephants so he continually harried the Carthaginians without ever coming into direct conflict.”

 “And did they fight here?”

 “Yes.  Right at this site.”  The priest paused for a moment.  “The Romans eventually became ashamed of Fabio’s tactics and they gave equal power to a young general named Minucius in about 217 BC.  Minucius ridiculed the old Dictator at every opportunity.  Finally Minucius saw a chance to humiliate Hannibal’s forces.  It could have been in that valley beneath us.  The Carthaginians were searching for fodder for their animals.  They had already captured Gerione where we’re located now.  It was likely more of a grain storage area than a town.  But it was probably well fortified.”

 Bruce’s eyes scanned the vast expanse of the plain that lay below the town of Casacalenda.  “What happened then?”

 “Hannibal called on his troops to retreat and Minucius foolishly thought that he could win a great victory.  But it was a trap and soon Minucius’ troops were surrounded by Nubian cavalry and the sheer force of the Carthaginian Elephants.”

 “I can almost imagine how the valley would have been filled by fighting men.  How many troops were there?”

 “It has all been fairly carefully documented.  It’s estimated that there were six thousand Carthaginians and about five thousand Romans.”  Don Pasquale stood up.  “Over on that hill near Larino Fabio had camped his troops.  Naturally he heard the terrible noise of the battle.  The Romans were being slaughtered.”

 “Fabio must have felt vindicated.”

 “Not at all.  He sounded the alarm and marched immediately to help his co-commander.  Hannibal had a great respect for Fabio and when he saw his legions approaching he retreated.”

 “Were troops from Larino involved?”

 “Yes.  In those days the Frentani cavalry were very famous and the young men from Larinum had a considerable reputation as courageous soldiers.”

 “Was Minucius killed?”

 “No, he survived.  In fact he marched to the fringes of Fabio’s encampment.  The watching soldiers thought, for a moment, that there might be some kind of confrontation.  However, Minucius simply said that his father had given him life, and Fabius had saved his life and therefore was like a second father.  He apologized for his arrogance and laid down his command saying that he was not fit to lead when he was in the presence of such a great man.”

 “What an amazing story!”  Away in the distance Bruce could see a herd of goats moving through some pasture land.  It was strange to think that a scene of such violence and death could now seem so peaceful.  “So the Romans won out after all?”

 “Only for the moment.”  The priest started back down the hill.  He glanced at his watch.  “We’d better hurry back, Bruce.  I can’t be late for mass.”

 The two men almost ran down the steep incline, dodging outcroppings of stone in the sandy roadway.  Bruce called out to the Don Pasquale who was now fifteen feet ahead of him.  “So how did it all end?”

   “When Fabio Massimo retired the Romans forgot his wisdom and attacked Hannibal frontally and were almost wiped out.  Eventually, though, Hannibal did not have sufficient resources to beat the Romans on their own soil and he abandoned his plans to conquer the country.  Fabio’s strategy had weakened him so much that he lost the war.  If he had won, the world would be a very different place.”  Don Pasquale was slightly out of breath as he half walked, half slipped down the incline.  “Even two centuries before the birth of Christ, Larino was a thriving community.  It was ancient when Caesar was a child.  That’s why it must be respected.  There are some scholars who insist that there was a city here when the Romans lived in thatched huts.”  They stopped for a moment in the shade of a huge gnarled olive tree.

   “Do you believe that?” said Bruce.

  The priest’s face looked intense. “Completely.  That sense of pride has sustained us.  Larino should have disappeared a thousand times and yet it still survives.”

 Bruce said quietly.  “I love this place, Don Pasquale.  It’s like some old dowager empress who persists in spite of everything.”

 “Think of this, Bruce.  If you said the name Larinum to Caesar or Cicero or Pompey, they would all have known and respected our ancient community.  Even the Greeks of Magna Grecia (Greater Greece) came here.  It’s almost incomprehensible.”

 They both stood in silence watching some great dark rain clouds move in from the Adriatic.  Lightning scarred the sky and the rumble of thunder sounded like the clash of armies. 

 

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