Looking over my itinerary a few days before leaving for Puglia, I was struck by how many coastal towns I planned on visiting. Maybe, even for someone who was craving the sea, too many. But like a kid in a candy shop – or a gardener in a nursery – it was hard to say no. Each one had a special allure. Like the one I was on my way to today. It was only 10 k south of Polignano a Mare, a village I liked so much I ended up visiting it twice (‘Lunch Bis’, July 10, 2016). In addition to the seaside setting, the new town also had a medieval centre interlaced with narrow, twisting alleys. I wondered, would the two places, so geographically close, be carbon copies of each other or would they each have their own distinctive character? And there was another thing – the name of the new place. Who could pass on the opportunity to check out a town named for the most popular board game ever invented, a game so popular it has been translated into 44 languages and is played in 111 countries?
The fastest route to Monopoli was along Puglia’s main highway, which by now I had figured out went by one of three names – the E55, SS16 or SS379. It got so confusing I gave up trying to follow the carefully written directions I’d made at home. Even when it was overcast and I didn’t have the sun to guide me, as long as the sea was on my right I knew I was heading north. Close to my destination I turned off the highway and continued along the litoranea, the slower but more scenic coastal road that led to a Marine Reserve. Like the highway, this road was also lined with luxuriant oleanders, the only downside to which was a tendency to luxuriate right over the road signs. Luckily there wasn’t another vehicle in sight and I was able to do a semi-legal manoeuvre to get myself headed in the right direction and then continued, a little more slowly – didn’t want to give my guardian angel any more grief than necessary in one day – towards the beach.
With all the challenges Italy has faced over the centuries, and continues to face to this day, it is probably not surprising that environmental concerns often get short-shrift. So it is always reassuring to come across an Area Protetta. Even more so when it’s a protected area along the coast.
There are few amenities in Italy’s reserves, so locals know to bring everything they’ll need for the day. Given the overcast skies, I was surprised to see so many picnickers. Even more surprised to come across a group of women playing cards. A first in all my travels around Italy.
I left the reserve and continued north along the coastal road. Soon it began to veer away from the sea and back toward the highway. When I saw the distinctive heads of artichokes, I pulled over to the side of the road and got out. Artichokes are one of my favourite vegetables. To eat and to photograph.
As I walked towards the path between the two fields a young man was aerating, a rather large, middle-aged man appeared out of nowhere and started walking towards me. The road I had been driving along was a narrow, dirt road and I hadn’t encountered any other vehicles, but I also hadn’t seen any signs that it was PRIVATO. Nor had I seen any other people walking around. As a woman travelling on my own, I think it’s fair to say I have a pretty low tolerance for compromising situations. But it was broad daylight. To abruptly turn around and head back to my car would have been ridiculous and, I vaguely sensed, rude. As usual, I needn’t have been concerned. The looming figure was simply the owner of the fields come to check on his crops.
I explained that I was interested in plants and had stopped when I saw the artichokes. Ah signora, he sighed. Until two weeks ago the carciofi (car-cho-fee) had been sempre buoni. It was the classic gardener’s lament. ‘If only you’d been here last week … ‘ Except that in this case it wasn’t a matter of aesthetics. The flowers I found so fascinating were a sign that the artichoke season was over and the plants would soon be chopped up and spread as compost between the rows of tomato plants the young man was working on. Nothing more would happen in the artichoke field until July, when the pianta madre (mother plant – what a delightful term!) would start to sprout and by November the artichokes would be ready for harvesting again.
The artichoke is an unlikely delicacy. It’s a thistle. 2,000 years ago however, around the time of the earliest records of it being cultivated, our ancestors somehow discovered that like the caper, the unopened flower bud was not only edible, but also a rich source of vitamins B and C, antioxidants (although with their shorter life spans this might not have been as big an issue for them) and a whole host of other things. (For more on the caper, ‘Are Gardeners All a Little Crazy? La Mortella – Part I’, Jan. 26, 2014)
The exact origins of the artichoke are not known – maybe Sicily – but by the 9th century an artichoke-like plant was being cultivated by North African Moors in Spain and Saracens, another Arab group, in Sicily. The Arab name for the plant was qarshuf, which may explain, for those who wonder about such things, why it became known as carciofo in Italian, rather than Cynar – from the plant’s Latin name, Cynara cardunculus. Which of course raises the question of why Italy’s bitter – VERY bitter – artichoke-based digestivo is called Cynar.
Such an unusual looking plant was the perfect stuff of Greek legends. As usual this one started with Zeus, who was down in the sea visiting Poseidon one day. When he came up – for air? – he saw a mortal female who was of course, this being a legend, beautiful and young. As was his wont, Zeus promptly seduced the young thing, whose name was Cynar. He so enjoyed her charms that he made her a goddess so she could stay up in Olympia and be right at hand whenever Hera, his inconvenient wife, was away. All went well for a while. Hera, who could be quite brutal with the objects of her philandering husband’s desires, didn’t suspect a thing. But Cynar was homesick. So one day, when Hera was around and keeping an eye on Zeus, she slipped down to earth for a quick visit with her mother, whom she missed terribly. When Zeus heard about the escapade, he went into a rage, transformed his newly made goddess into a prickly thistle and hurled her back to earth.
Despite the inauspicious legend, the ancient Greeks and later the Romans considered the artichoke a delicacy. To be precise, an aphrodisiacal delicacy, that according to some, had the additional benefit of increasing the chances of a male birth. I’ll spare you my usual rant and rave on that one. By the 16th century, when there should have been plenty of time to reach a more scientifically accurate understanding of such things, the artichoke was prized for its ability to increase men’s potency, as well as women’s desirability. Increasing the desirability of the male never occurred to anyone and worse, when it did occur to some fool or other that there was a danger that along with a woman’s desirability, the artichoke might also increase her sexual power, women were prohibited from eating it. Again, no comment.
In any event, now that the artichoke season was over, my increasingly eager guide’s attention was focused on his tomato plants.
He crouched down to show me the beginnings of what was obviously a prized crop and I, by now feeling more than a bit wary – he had done or said nothing untoward, but I was getting ‘that’ vibe – politely crouched down with him to get a good look. When we got up he asked me about my plans for the day. Undeterred by my vaguely accurate answer, he invited me to his house, in a village nearby, where he would show me all his photos of artichokes and make me a real pugliese lunch. One of the things I love about the Italian language is how easily it lends itself to appearing gracious in ambiguous circumstances.
As we walked back to the road, I was sure I saw a couple of squeakers amongst the decaying artichokes. But I didn’t dare say anything.
While I was immersed in artichokes and tomatoes, the clouds had started to lift and by the time I reached Monopoli, it had turned into a lovely day.
I managed to find a parking spot, no small deal any day of the week, and on a Sunday in the middle of a ponte (bridge) even more of an impresa (undertaking), as a local discouragingly put it, than usual. Despite the aggravation – over 20 minutes of driving up and down the narrow roads that surround the historic centre – I have fond memories of that parking spot. As I drove round and round I kept going by an open spot only a few steps from the centro. There was obviously some prohibition against parking in that spot. But by the third, maybe fourth time round, when I was hungry as well as exasperated, the empty spot, like a siren, had become irresistible. I decided to check it out.
Interpreting Italy’s parking signs is almost as challenging as finding a spot. I still struggle with giorni festivi and giorni feriali. Festivi sounds, well, festive, as in a holiday. But feriali is awfully close to ferie which means holidays or vacation. (For the record, giorni festivi are Sundays and days of festa, like Christmas and the Festa della Repubblica, a national holiday held on June 2 to commemorate the day in 1946 when Italians voted, by a surprisingly slim margin, against the monarchy and in favour of a republic. Giorni feriali are all the other days.) However, there is one aspect of the parking regulations that is fairly straightforward. The colour of the lines around the spots. Yellow means no parking, blue is for paid parking and white is free. The lines around this spot were blue. But – and this was where things got murky – the sign next to it bore the red slash across a blue background that means ‘No Parking’. I really wanted to park in that spot. But I also really did not want to get a ticket, which is a nasty, unpleasant, expensive business in Italy. Even if you’re in the right! As I sat there pondering, a car drove out of a white-lined spot on an alley a few metres away. But before I could get the key back into the ignition, another car zipped right into it. By now I was thinking how stupid an idea it was to visit a town just because it had the same name as a board game. Especially one I always lost. In any event I walked over and asked the driver about the sign. It turned out that in Monopoli, unlike any other place in Italy I had ever been to, only local residents are allowed to park between the blue lines. I laughed and said ‘Era troppo bello‘. (‘It was too beautiful’.) As I was walking back to my car, he called out, Signora! And to my astonishment – and enormous gratitude – proceeded to outline a solution to my parking dilemma. Being a local, he had the requisite tessera that allowed him to park between the blue lines. He would back out of the spot he had just driven into and, no doubt anticipating how long it would take me to get into the new spot – in fairness, both streets were senso unico which meant a lot of backing up, and there’s nothing like having someone watching to rattle the nerves – he would stand in front of it to block anyone else from zipping into it. I thanked him with all the Italian words of gratitude I could think of and as we shook hands good-bye asked him, since he was so good at solving things, if he could arrange for a bit more sun. (Dark clouds had been gathering again.) He laughed. His ragazza (girl friend) who lived in a town not far inland – probably not too far from where I had been invited to lunch – had just called to say that they were in the midst of a deluvione. A violent downpour.
I set out for the centro storico under clouds that no longer seemed quite so dark.
The town of Monopoli has of course nothing to do with the board game and tourists’ lame jokes about the name may fall even flatter with the locals here than the comments tourists make when they first set eyes on Neuschwanstein, the 19th century castle of mad King Ludwig in southern Germany, ‘Oh! It looks just like the castle in Disney World!’ The monopolitani may have even more reason to be irritati than their German counterparts. Monopoli was settled by the Messapians around the 5th century B.C. – the medieval centre I was wandering around was built on the ruins of their ancient fortifications – which puts it at roughly 2400 years before the board game was invented. The town’s name comes from monos polis, Greek for ‘unique city’ and what made it unique had nothing to do with games. It was the first settlement in the area to convert to Christianity.
While a bit scruffier than other coastal towns I visited in Puglia, Monopoli has the same labyrinth of narrow, winding alleys and white-washed façades. It also has a rather large number of churches.
For anyone who has ever played Monopoly, it may come as a surprise to learn that it was originally created (in 1903) to demonstrate the injustices of an economic system that puts no constraints on the creation of monopolies, and that the original rules allowed for cooperation amongst players, who could form pacts and refuse to pay unfairly high rents. Human nature being what it is, such a game would of course never have taken off, and by the mid-1930’s when Parker Brothers – who had originally rejected it – took over, it had morphed into the now familiar ruthless quest to gain absolute control of the board and drive all the other players into bankruptcy.
The owners of the distribution company for Italy, Editrice Giochi, which had been specifically created for the game – giochi (joh-key) means ‘games’ – wanted a board exactly like the original American one. But under the Fascist regime – this was 1935 – the use of English words was prohibited. To get around the law they came up with a brilliant, and possibly foolhardy idea. They would italianizzare the name, while keeping the English pronunciation. The Italian word for monopoly is monopolio which is pronounced moh-noh-poh-lee-oh. The plural is monopoli (moh-noh-poh-lee) which would have been the grammatically correct Italian name. But instead it was marketed as Monòpoli. The accent on the second ‘o’ was to ensure it was pronounced ‘correctly’. In case you are tempted to dismiss such things as the arcane triflings of pedants, a recent class-action lawsuit in Portland Maine, which resulted in an award of $10 million, hinged on the use of a comma. (‘3 truckers, $10 million and 1 missing comma’, Daniel Victor, Toronto Star, March 18, 2017).
The biggest church in town is the Basilica Cattedrale Maria Santissima della Madia. Like many of Puglia’s cathedrals, the most diplomatic way I can think of describing the exterior is to say it is unprepossessing. You have to step inside to see the riches. A deliberate ploy?
Madia comes from the Spanish almadìa. Amongst the various legends surrounding the Madonna della Madia I haven’t yet come across an explanation as to why she isn’t called Madonna della Zattera, the perfectly good Italian word for raft. On the other hand, I have found several versions of how she came to arrive in Monopoli. The most popular – in a nutshell, as anything to do with the Byzantine Empire has a tendency to get very byzantine very quickly – during the 8th and 9th centuries the Eastern Church of the now divided Roman Empire went through two periods in which the depiction of holy figures was condemned as idolatrous. Images were destroyed and anyone caught venerating an image was persecuted. To protect it from destruction, one of the outlawed images was smuggled out of a church somewhere in Asia Minor and, shades of Baby Moses, placed on a raft that drifted across the sea to the safety of the harbour of Monopoli on the night of December 16, 1117. A rather precise date for a legend. In any event, the Madonna then appeared in a dream to a priest by the name of Mercurio and told him of her arrival. She also told him that she had brought with her the wooden beams that were needed to complete the new cathedral the Bishop was building. Mercurio, a particularly pious priest, rushed to deliver the news to the Bishop. Annoyed at having been awakened out of a sound sleep, the Bishop accused Mercurio of being drunk and sent him away. On the poor priest’s third unsuccessful attempt, the angels decided to give him a hand and set the bells of the town’s churches ringing. That got everyone’s attention and all the townspeople, including the Bishop, rushed to the harbour.
But on the day of my visit, apart from a few tourists, the focus of attention was on two statues to the left of the altar. Sitting at a makeshift table next to the statues were a couple of locals. When I got closer, I saw why they were there. The robes of the two statues were covered with jewellery. REAL jewellery.
The statues were of the Santi Medici Cosma e Damiano, the Doctor Saints. Born in the eastern regions of the Roman Empire in the second half of the 3rd century, the two brothers had devoted their lives to healing the sick, and were known far and wide for their kindness, especially towards the poor and the abandoned. In addition to physical ailments, they also attended to the spiritual well-being of those who sought their help, and in a period when their fledgling religion was still frowned on, converted many ‘pagans’ to Christianity. Their efforts eventually led to arrest and they were subjected to a martyrdom that was considered unusually fierce even for those times. First they were stoned, but the rocks bounced back and hit the soldiers who were throwing them; next they were shot at with arrows, but like the rocks, the arrows also bounced off the saints; then they were thrown into the sea with an enormous boulder tied around their necks, but the ropes undid themselves and the two rose to the surface unharmed; after that they were chained and thrown into a burning furnace from which they once again emerged unharmed. Finally – and it’s probably as much a miracle he himself didn’t drop dead of cardiac arrest from rage – Diocletian had them decapitated.
Next to the Doctor Saints was another statue. No jewellery weighed down the robes of this one, but the cloth was more sumptuous, and the head covering was that of a high-ranking figure. This was San Cataldo. Or to be more precise – Saint Catald, the 7th century Irish – yes, IRISH – priest from Lismore County, Waterford, who on his return home from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem was shipwrecked and washed up on the shores of Taranto in the north-west of Puglia. The locals, sensing something about the stranger, invited him to stay and despite his longing for solitude, which is why he had set out on the pilgrimage, he accepted their invitation and in time, due to his good works and occasional miracle – plagues and floods that afflicted neighbouring settlements bypassed Taranto – he was made Archbishop.
On my way out I noticed a poster. I took a photo, for ‘local flavour’ as it were, but I should have paid more attention to the specifics of the various festivities advertised on the poster. In particular the entry for domenica 5 giugno. Sunday, June 5, the day of my visit, according to which, at ore 19,oo (7 pm) there was to be a solenne processione dei Santi Medici e S. Cataldo partendo dalla cattedrale. A solemn procession of the Doctor Saints and St. Catald, starting at the cathedral.
While I was in the cathedral the deluvione inland had reached Monopoli. The restaurants were overflowing – Sunday lunch, as I’ve written before, is the most celebrated meal of the week and this was the Sunday in the middle of a ponte, the long weekend of the Festa della Repubblica – but a lovely couple who had come down for the day from Bari invited me to join their table. This post is already far too long, so I’ll just say that it was with mixed emotions that I listened to their observations of what it was like to live in the region I was so enjoying as a visitor.
The rain had stopped while we were eating and when we stepped outside the restaurant we were astounded to see blue skies. We wished one another una buona giornata and went our separate ways. I had no desire to visit all of Monopoli’s churches, but there was one more that had caught my interest while I was researching the town. As one British visitor put it, ‘Never in my ABC (another bloody church) of visiting sacred places on holidays have I ever come across a church like this’.
The façade of Santa Maria del Suffragio, more commonly known as La Chiesa del Purgatorio is unmistakable.
No matter where you look there are skulls and skeletons.
The church was built by the Fraternity of Purgatory, whose members prayed for the souls of those who, although ultimately destined for heaven, first had to be purified of their sins. The doors are – well, let’s just say not the sort of thing you’d want to have in the background of your wedding photos.
It wasn’t just the exterior of the church that had astounded the ABC visitor. Near the entrance on the left was a display not easily forgotten.
The cadavers were of 18th century governors of the town. Why were they here? Who and why had it been decided not to bury them, but to put them on display? Had the governors themselves issued a decree?
The most disturbing cadaver looked like that of a small child.
It was a relief to leave the church and be back outside where the skies were still blue and the sun still shining. And there was a lot going on.
Pied Piper style, the band marched through the town, picking up strays on its way to the piazza in front of the cathedral I had visited earlier.
I watched for a while as the crowd organized into groups and joined the procession, and then, thinking of the long ride back to the B&B, decided it was time to leave. Easier said than done.
Monopoli’s medieval centre was much bigger than Gallipoli’s and so was the crowd of determined faithful.
I suppose I could have barged my way through, but it felt disrespectful. And it’s not every day you get to witness locals take back their town.