Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Italian sketches - II


No. II.


We had been advised by a friend, who was well acquainted with all the beautiful country in the neighbourhood of Naples, to go over a mountain pass leading from what is called the Campagna Felice to Amalfi, instead of pursuing the usual coast road. He assured us that we should meet with no difficulties worth naming; while, on the other hand, the scenes through which this pass would lead us were most varied and striking. We went part of the way by railroad, having engaged our donkeys with their attendants to meet us at the station where we left the train; and accordingly there we found them in readiness; and, in the midst of a degree of noise and uproar that none but Italians of the lower orders can make, we were soon mounted, and on our way. The first mile led us through the hot dusty street of the little town of Nocora; we then passed through a rude gate which led us into a meadow in which the peasants were already cutting a very luxuriant crop of grass (the second week in May); from this meadow the ascent of the mountain begins at once, very steep even at first; the path was nothing but a green turf road, very narrow in some places, with a deep precipice going sheer down on one side; and as one turned and twisted round the sharp angles of the mountain, the donkey’s feet, seeming to touch the extreme verge, it required no small degree of coolness to feel perfectly at one’s ease; but these moments were never of long duration, and the guides were always at hand to cheer and encourage one with the oft-repeated, “Va bene, signora, benissimo.”

At length we found ourselves at the highest point of the ascent, where stood a half-ruined tower which gives its name to the pass (Torre del Chiunse”). In the lower room lives a peasant with his wife; most picturesque-looking people; the woman’s dress (a snowy bodice, bright red petticoat, and blue jacket) was most becoming and pretty; and I found her very ready to converse in her soft Italian patois, and very proud of my notice of her little brown baby, with bright black eyes, which, according to the fashion of the country, was so tightly swathed up that it resembled nothing but an odd-shaped bundle, leaving only the bright eyes to testify to its natural liveliness. They brought out some deliciously cool wine, which was most welcome after the intense heat, and while we were resting she gave me some account of their winter-life in this lonely spot. They have to descend to Nocera, or more frequently to Majori, the village on the other side of the mountain, for all the small commodities they require; and, in winter, the path is almost impassable, owing to the frequent torrents which, rushing down from the heights, wholly obliterate every trace of pathway.

I asked her if she did not find it very dull. She looked surprised at the question, and had evidently not a wish for a change in her lot. She was a very pretty young woman in the first freshness of that very short-lived charm—Italian bloom. With women of that country it is gone while they are still in early youth, and they turn all at once into old women, and finally into something so hideous and repulsive that they resemble nothing but witches. I suppose it is partly owing to climate, and partly to the fact that they do all the out-door work which usually falls to the share of men.

My pretty friend, Caterina, told me that she cultivated their patch of ground; got in the crop of Indian corn; took care of the goats, and of the beautiful poultry we saw pecking about round the tower; dressed the vines, and so on; while her husband spent the greater part of his time at Majori, where he had a boat, which, in summer, was a source of profit to him, being constantly used by artists frequenting the neighbourhood for the sake of the beautiful scenery with which it abounds.

After a two hours’ rest, we remounted our donkeys and began the descent of the mountain; the heat was really intense, and it was with feelings of great satisfaction that we caught glimpses of the blue sea, and found ourselves entering the beautiful chestnut woods which cover this side of the mountain. The shade was most delightful: beautiful plants nodded here and there, as if dreaming under the deep shadows; huge fig trees, of the most picturesque forms, sometimes bent right across our path, plainly proving how little it was frequented; the ground was carpeted with beautiful mosses, studded with the deep crimson flowers of the cyclamen, with their white-veined leaves; pink and white rose trees climbed from branch to branch of the large trees; the ferns were rare and beautiful, convolvuli of every shade of pink and purple lent their aid to brighten the brilliant scenes, while the distant view increased in loveliness at every step.

At length a sudden turn brought us within view of Majori, nestled in a deep ravine between two wooded hills, the sea forming a very deep bay, while on the shore the peasants and boatmen were assembled, watching an English cutter which had just glided into the bay. I was the first to arrive, and, quickly dismounting, I turned back to gaze at the scene; the wooded heights we had descended forming the background, their summits seeming lost in the soft summer haze (the mountain we had just crossed was of considerable height), a silvery stream falling from one of the high rocks, glittered and sparkled in the sunshine, the long cavalcade of donkeys winding down the hill, with all their picturesque accompaniments, the ravine studded with cottages, the bright golden Indian wheat hung all over the front, as is the custom in all this country; and what could be wanting to make the picture perfect?

The boatmen assembled on the landing chanted in low tones the Ave Maria, or evening hymn,—a universal practice. A good-sized boat was in readiness, in which we embarked for Amalfi. Most delightful was the change from the uneasy motion of the donkeys, and the oppressive heat, to the repose of sitting in the boat, gliding along, refreshed by the cool evening breezes, and with every sense gratified! The moon rising over the wooded cliffs, fire flies flitting about everywhere, and the phosphoric lights shining on the water with a bright unearthly splendour.

When we arrived just opposite Amalfi the boatmen told us that we could not get close in shore owing to the rocks under the water, and they proposed to carry us the short distance, which they did with great dexterity, and no discomfort even to the ladies of the party.

As we were to remain two nights at Amalfi, we deferred all sight-seeing till the next day, when we were out at a very early hour, as we wished to see the sun rise. When we left the inn the whole scene still lay buried in as much of darkness as ever visits these favoured regions at any part of the night; but just as we arrived at the entrance of Le Val des Montins, the first faint tinge of rosy light appeared in the east, and gradually as we advanced it deepened and spread till the whole sky was one mass of rose-coloured clouds. The valley in all its loveliness lay around us, bright with the beautiful light, the sound of rushing waters falling on the ear: every leaf and tiny blade of grass glittering with the abundant dew that is so grateful to the thirsty vegetation in these hot countries, acacia trees filling the whole air with their perfume, while now and then a glimpse of the sea completed the matchless charm of the scene! Such colouring as can only be seen in southern skies was now displayed; no painter would dare to imitate it, even were it possible to catch the delicate tints; the singular half-rosy, half-golden clouds looked like floating islands from the Garden of Paradise, while the soft masses of rosy vapour just caught the golden light here and there; then again the rosy clouds turned to the most vivid crimson, and glowed like jewels set in a golden ground, purple, gold, crimson, and softest blue, all blended together in one gorgeous mass. What a sight it was! The Tower of Amalfi is built on so steep a rock that the houses seem piled one on the other; the streets are narrow passages between tall houses; lanes with high walls of rock on either side intersect the streets; steps up, steps down, wonderful labyrinths of curious passages: such is the interior of the town. In most places lamps were burning; had it not been so, it would have been quite dark in the interior parts of the town.

We ascended to a small picturesque tower, from whence is to be seen the lovely bays of Majori and Minori; from the tower a narrow little path winds between aloes and myrtles: following it we were soon overshadowed by luxuriant vines trained over an arched walk, near which were some perfectly beautiful remains of ancient sculpture let into the stone wall, as is frequently the case in these old towers; there were wreaths of leaves carved in marble, most finished and beautiful, and a clasped hand, with part of the arm, the fingers holding a delicate spray of that lovely fern called Maidenhair, that was as perfect in the design and execution as any sculpture I have ever seen. There were other exquisite morsels also let into the wall, surrounding a small burial-ground.

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On our return through the Val des Montins we stopped to see one of the largest macaroni manufactures that is to be found in Italy. Let no one fancy the exquisite scenery I have described marred by the unsightly buildings, the discordant sounds of a manufactory, such as we see it in England, as there is nothing of the kind to be found here, only a very extensive group of rather picturesque low buildings, where this much sought-after article of food is prepared. I was too much pressed for time to make any lengthened stay in the manufactory. The process seemed a very simple one; to a certain extent it is carried on in all southern Italian villages. It is made of the beautiful flour that comes from the Indian corn, and when first run off in the liquid state into the grooved trays where it assumes its pipelike form, it is of the most beautiful golden primrose colour; this fades by degrees as it goes through one process after another till it becomes the colour we see it as it arrives in England. In all the Neapolitan villages one sees wooden frames standing outside the doors, on which the macaroni is hung in all its different stages for the benefit of drying in the sun; some of the strips are two, three, and even four yards long—not only the macaroni, but vermicelli—so fine as to render the threads scarcely visible—is placed on these frames; and I was told by those conversant with the subject that it is the want of this drying process which has caused the failure of all attempts to produce macaroni in England. It is after it comes from the manufactory that it goes through this baking process under that burning sun. Even before the corn is ground it goes through this drying process. All the cottages have frames against the walls where the golden heads of corn are placed; and the effect is strikingly ornamental, as they cover the whole front of the dwelling with this glowing façade.

Towards eleven o’clock on the second morning we were again on our way; and, entering our boat, we rowed along the coast, hoping to reach Salerno by twelve o’clock. Pæstum we had already seen, and I propose to give an account of it elsewhere. We could not have seen the enchanting scenery of the coast to greater advantage; and the pleasure of the excursion was greatly enhanced by the harmonious singing, or rather chanting, of our six boatmen, who gave us a succession of beautiful old Roman Catholic chants and hymns, and, being accustomed to sing together, the harmony was perfect.

Onwards we glided softly over the deep blue sea; the very sky above us looked pale, as though that glittering sea had robbed it of its brightness. How beautiful Salerno looked as we approached it! The whole coast to the right was one mass of brilliant colouring—a beautiful confusion of objects, as it were—while the vast open lanes lay like colonnades down in the sea, within which played the heavy billows. Upon the projecting point of rock stood a castle with turreted walls, on whose summit floated a small cloud.

We left our boat, and made our way through the usual crowd of boatmen, lazzaroni, peasants, men, and boys,—indeed, a greater crowd than usual, for the flower feast of the season was to be held that very day. The entire long, gently-ascending street of the town was covered over with flowers, the ground colour blue, and over these lay, in long strips, green leaves, alternated with the most gorgeous crimson and rose-coloured blossoms; at some distance, again, another similar strip, and between these a layer of dark purple flowers, so as to form, as it were, a broad border to the whole flower carpet. The middle was a mass of yellow, round, star-like flowers. The whole was a living flower mosaic floor, richer in gorgeous colouring than the most luxuriant fancy can dream of. The sun shone intensely hot over our heads, the bells rang, while the processions of the different flower-girls in their picturesque dresses moved along this exquisite flower carpet.

The people of Salerno certainly had every advantage in their command of flowers, which filled the air with a luscious perfume; and let it be borne in mind that all this brilliant display was seen on the 4th of May. And yet the natives called it a very backward season. The railway, to which we now returned, passes through the Campagna Felice; and, though I had seen it before, its wondrous fertility seemed to strike me anew. Not a spot of ground was wasted, the whole earth seemed to teem with produce.

The sun was slowly sinking beneath the horizon as we drove up to the Hôtel de Rome, and again found ourselves in our comfortable quarters there But I had scarcely retired to my room half-an-hour, thinking with pleasure of a good rest after all our fatigues, when there came a vigorous knock at my door, and then a voice calling to me to come at once to the top of the house, as the Mountain (it is never spoken of in any other terms at Naples) was in a state of great activity. So they describe a coming eruption.

I was not long in obeying the summons, and soon found myself, with the rest of our party, on the flat-terraced roof of the hotel, and immediately facing the mysterious mountain.

A sudden change had occurred in the weather, and the whole sky was dark with heavy gathering clouds. Distant thunder was already heard, and against the dark background of the gloomy sky the bright flames pouring forth from the mountain shot up clear and bright into the heavens like a magnificent column of fire, flashing and glowing—now golden, now red—in the midst of the inky darkness.

We gazed in awe-struck admiration, the flames at times giving place to showers of red-hot stones and cinders, the red torrent making its way down the sides of the mountain. All Naples seemed in a commotion, and we saw from our elevated position crowds hurrying along in the direction of Vesuvius. It was a glorious sight, and nowhere could we have seen it to greater advantage than where we were. At times the whole mountain seemed enveloped in flames, then volumes of murky smoke and vapour burst forth, and the flames died away for a time, while the angry torrents only glowed the more fiercely from the surrounding gloom. And then, again, while we watched intently, such a mass of flame burst forth from the crater that one closed one’s eyes, fairly dazzled for a time by the overpowering brightness. For four hours the eruption continued with unabated fierceness; then, as if this had only heralded the coming storm, it burst forth with a degree of violence startling even to those used to these southern storms. The wild tornado of wind seemed as though it would sweep everything from the face of the earth in its furious gusts; the lightning came not at intervals, but in one blinding, continued sheet of blue and livid light; the thunder roared and cracked all round, and all nature was in a state of the wildest tumult. We could see the white crests of the waves as they heaved themselves against the rocks; and one could scarcely believe that raging, stormy sea was the transparent blue water we had so lately seen in all its calm loveliness. At length, to the relief of all those who were watching this conflict of the elements, the rain began to fall—not in drops or showers, but in literal sheets of water, extinguishing the fiery torrents rolling down the mountain, and telling all the experienced witnesses of the scene that the danger of the eruption was over for the present.

Awful as it was to witness, there was something inexpressibly grand in this magnificent sight. It had not been wholly unexpected, for the knowing observers of the mountain had told us that the entire absence of all smoke or flame from the crater for many weeks past portended some outbreak of the fierce elements sooner or later; and so it came to pass.

And thus ended our visit to Naples and its beautiful environs.