Guns and Frocks

Loving Delta and the Bannermen since 1987

Purae Sunt Plateae

Thursday 9 March 2023

The Sassi: rows and rows of yellow stone buildings cover the side of   a hill. There's a road below them, and below the road the scrubby hillside can be seen. It's a beautiful sunny day.
The Sassi

It’s my last full day in Matera. Gotta get up really early tomorrow morning — well okay, at 7 AM — to get the bus from the other side of town to take me back to the bay of Naples. So, an early night tonight.

Matera is not a big town: located in the arch of Italy’s foot, it’s got a population of about 60,000 people. And it takes about half an hour to drag a heavy suitcase from one side of the town to another, which is what I will be doing first thing tomorrow morning.

In 2014, Matera was declared the European Capital of Culture for 2019. Also in 2019, Daniel Craig came here to shoot a car chase around the streets of the town and a confrontation with one of the three facially disfigured villains in the most recent James Bond film No Time to Die. (They also shot scenes from the risible and horribly blasphemous Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ here, but I think we should all just agree as a species to forget about that film completely.)

Those aren’t the reasons I came here, obviously. The real reason — and Matera’s main claim to fame, is the Sassi — a cunningly hidden medieval city which clings to one side of a river valley on the eastern side of the town. All its buildings are constructed from large, soft, yellow blocks of limestone. But the interiors of those buildings — including some churches and monasteries — are limestone caves. Caves which may have had human inhabitants as early as 10,000 years ago.

In 1952, the Sassi were evacuated. They were malarial, and kind of unfit for human habitation. People had lived there for centuries, with no natural light and no ventilation, crowded into the caves with their families and their livestock. But over the last few decades, with the help of the EU and UNESCO, it’s been developed, and now it’s full of small businesses, bars and restaurants.

I arrived at Matera on Monday, after hanging around a bus stop with my suitcase for a few hours and travelling 3½ hours by bus south and east of Salerno. I checked into the hotel at about 7:30, went and grabbed something to eat and then went to bed.

The hotel is like the one in Salerno, only much, much cleaner. There are only four rooms here, and no one on site most of the time. There’s a four-digit code to get into the hotel and another one to get into the room. I think only one of the other rooms is currently occupied.

(This is a much better arrangement than the hotel in Salerno, which I got into using an app on my phone. One day I left my phone in the hotel room and spent an uncomfortable thirty minutes imagining myself sitting phonelessly outside the hotel for hours and hours, hoping someone nice might come by to let me in, only to remember that the keyring with my room key had two other keys on it whose purpose should have been immediately obvious.)

Each day I’ve been here, I’ve got up and wandered through the Sassi all morning, taking photos, searching for an affordable restaurant for dinner that night (unsuccessfully), and trying to find the locations where the Bond movie was shot (successfully, for the most part, although the graveyard isn’t real and that bridge Bond falls from is actually thirty kilometres away in a town called Gravina). I’ve mostly spent my afternoons reading or wandering around the rest of the town listening to podcasts. It’s been nice. Things are a bit expensive here, I think, but the streets are wide and clean and there’s nothing to hinder those who are deep in thought.

After today, there are just over seven days left in this part of the trip. Next Friday, I’ll be flying out from Rome to Delhi, where I will catch up with Calvin, and where the second, much weirder phase of the journey will begin. I’ll catch up with you before then.

Picks of the Day

In Transit

Monday 6 March 2023

Looking along a cobbled street in an Italian town. There are a few pedestrians walking along the street. On either side of the street are the usual Italian buildings; some of them have palm trees in front of them. At the end of the street, in the distance is a wooded hill,  with a motorway running across it, supported by arches.
The main street of Salerno

A brief update.

I’m just finishing a four-night stay in Salerno, just south of the Bay of Naples and north of the Amalfi Coast. It’s mostly been about walking, reading and food, to be honest. I’ll fill you in a bit more later.

I’m checking out of this grimy hotel in just under an hour. Then a walk across town to the bus stop where I’ll be catching a bus for the 3½ hour trip to Matera.

I first learned about Matera a couple of years ago, in a house meeting organised by my colleague Caterina Rupolo. It’s a town with a surprising history and a unique geography; almost as importantly, it was one of the locations used in the most recent James Bond film No Time to Die.

My phone, AirPods and Kindle are all charged, and I’m ready for a long day of looking out the window of the bus at the passing countryside. The worst thing about travelling is the actual going-from-place-to-place part, which I’ve tried to minimise on this trip as much as possible. It makes me cross. But I’ve paid for the ticket, I’ve located the inadequately signposted bus stop, and I’m ready to go.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

Among the Ruins

Thursday 2 March 2023

A tall stone pedestal in the middle of a roundabout. On top is a bronze statue: a figure on horseback in uniform with a massive plumed helmet. Text on the pedestal says A VITTORIO EMANUELE II MDCCCXCVI. Behind the statue are some grimy but glamorous buildings, just a few storeys high.
I would like a hat like that

The first time I came to Naples was in 2008. I didn’t stay there for long: I got off the train at Napoli Centrale, walked a few hundred metres to Napoli Piazza Garibaldi and caught a train from there straight to Sorrento. Maybe thirty minutes tops.

It was the height of the Neapolitan waste management crisis, which had started some time in the 1980s and would continue until about 2011. Pulling into Napoli Centrale, I could see hundreds of black plastic bags piled up beside the railway tracks. A beloved colleague in Grammar’s history department, David Patrick, knew that I wanted to visit Pompeii and Herculaneum and had warned me to avoid Naples at all costs and had advised me to stay in Sorrento instead.

The second time in came here, it was just for a few hours. It was a rainy day in December 2017. I walked from Napoli Centrale to the National Archaeological Museum, spent a couple of hours in the museum, and then walked back again and caught the next train to Sorrento. I didn’t see any black plastic bags, but it was all a bit filthy and run down, and for some reason I never really noticed that even the shabbiest parts of the city have a kind of faded glamour.

I’m in my hotel room in Naples now: after five nights here I will be leaving. I think I said before that Calvin had booked it for me. “Apparently it is not a good and safe area at the holiday inn,” He warned me. I was dismissive: “I’ll be okay. I’ve been to Naples before.”

I really warmed to Naples the last time I came here. It was on the school’s 2019 Classics Tour — the last time I travelled abroad before the pandemic. We stayed in a nice hotel not far from the monument pictured above and a short work from the historic centre of Naples: a maze of cobbled streets full of churches and bookshops and bars and restaurants. It’s grimy and faded and a bit run down, but it’s beautiful as well.

Vastly unlike the historic centre of Naples is the windswept and largely deserted shopping precinct that surrounds this hotel, and the train station that services it. It’s got a real Chatswood-six-months-after-the-Apocalypse vibe. Take a look.

Anyway, I’m actually going to be sorry to leave. The hotel was nice. I did my professionally mandated trips to the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum and to the National Archaeological Museum, and I thoroughly enjoyed them all. And I got to wander the streets soaking up the grimy grandeur of the place. I’ll be back, deo volente.

The Week and Pizza

Saturday 25 February 2023

Looking out across a small harbour in the evening.  There are some small yachts in the foreground and a wooded hill  in the background. The sky is dark with blue clouds,  and the sun has just set.

I’m writing this in the Holiday Inn in Naples, in a large hotel room, in a skyscraper, surrounded by graffiti and urban decay. Calvin booked the hotel for me — using points — after I decided that I would spend my time in Sorrento just relxing and that I would start my sightseeing the following week from Naples. And although this hotel is some distance from Naples’ beautiful centro storico, it’s very close to a train station that will take me wherever I need to go.

After writing my last post, I spent a couple more nights in Sorrento, and then I caught a train to Naples and a ferry to Ischia, which I have wanted to visit for years now. (There are ferries that go directly from Sorrento to Ischia, but they don’t run during February.)

Ischia is a small volcanic island about 10 kilometres across, just off the coast of the Cape of Misenum, at the end of the northern arm of the Bay of Naples. The Romans called it Pithecusa or Pithecusae, a name that includes the nearby islands of Procida and Vivaria. In Metamorphoses Book 14, Ovid says that the island is named after the little yellow apes that were once its inhabitants — formerly a race of people, the Cercopes, whom Jupiter transformed into apes as punishment for their deceit and trickery. (Pliny the Elder says that the island is named after its clay deposits, but that is just the sort of thing that he might be expected to say.) Aeneas stopped on the island on the way to Cumae, according to Ovid, which is why it’s also called Aenaria, a name that it has passed down to a number of thermal spas and restaurants.

A hill juts out of the sea. There are walls built up the side facing us, and on top of those walls and the hill is a castle the same colour as the rock of the hill. A stone bridge leads from the bottom of the hill towards us.

It had become apparent during my stay in Sorrento that there’s nothing much open there during February. And so every night I would start wandering around at about half past five, hunting for somewhere to eat. This continued to be a problem when I arrived in Ischia. During my first hunt, I found the Castello Aragonese, pictured above, sitting atop a volcanic plug connected to Ischia by a stone bridge. When I came back to visit the castle the next day, it was closed. The thermal spas were also closed. And the restaurants were closed. The bars were open, for the locals I suppose, and so I was still able to eat bar snacks and burgers and toasted sandwiches, but I couldn’t find anywhere that served the sort of Italian food that was really my main reason for coming to Italy.

Last night, my hunt was successful. I realised a few days ago that I just needed to be more patient: restaurants here don’t really open for dinner until 7 PM, which is more than an hour after I usually eat dinner. So I held off, and was rewarded with the sort of food I had been imagining since I arrived on the island. It was at a restaurant by the port called Pane e Vino, whose owner told me that, while living in London as a young man, he had discovered that Australians are much more fun and relaxed than English people.

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that I’ve walked and read and relaxed and listened to podcasts, but I haven’t actually done any proper sightseeing. So tomorrow I’ll catch the train to Herculaneum, which isn’t closed on Sundays, and then I’ll work out what to do after that. But in the meantime, tonight, in the hotel restaurant, I will be eating pizza.

Raining in Sorrento

Sunday 19 February 2023

A view of the marina from the top of a cliff in Sorrento. There's a long jetty jutting into the water with a ferry standing nearby. In the distance is a forested headland, closer are some large hotels perched on the top of the cliff.

I arrived in Sorrento the day before yesterday. This is my third time here. I first came here in 2008 and then again in 2017 (when I stayed for about ten days).

I like Sorrento. It’s a bit touristy, particularly on the weekends, but it’s very pretty and there’s lots of places to eat, to walk, and to sit quietly and read. And it’s close to other things, like Capri, Pompeii and Herculaneum.

This time I’m not going to any of those places. I’m here for two more nights, and I plan to take it very easy. This morning I had breakfast at the hotel, sat at a bar drinking coffee and reading, and then took a walk down the cliff to the marina, followed by more sitting and reading. But then it started raining, so now I’m back in the hotel writing this. If it doesn’t ease up soon, I might start doing some podcast or website things until I head off for drinks and dinner.

A few of the water from the top of a cliff in Sorrento. In the foreground are the red roofs of some buildings, further off in the background are some massive hotels perched on the top of a cliff.

Some random thoughts about the trip so far, in no particular order.

Picks of the day

I’m currently enjoying the podcast If Books Could Kill, in which Michael Hobbes critically revisits the dark side of some of the most famous airport non-fiction of the last few decades, including Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner’s Freakonomics. Hobbes is really thoughtful and funny, and he gets extra points for pushing back on Twitter against centrist dunderhead Jonathan Chait’s credulous bullshit take on healthcare for trans children, which was published in The New York Times in the last week or so.

And while we’re on the subject of The New York Times’s appalling coverage of trans issues, here’s The Onion’s take on it — the most blistering satirical article I’ve seen from them in decades.

Hm. It’s stopped raining. Off for a walk. Chat soon.