The city of Benevento, in the foothills of the Apennines, is near the little town of Chianchetella, where my great grandfather was born and returned to at the end of his life and therefore it held a fascination for me. We enjoyed the dramatic views of the mountains all around us as we drove higher and higher inland and away from the sea, with Mt. Vesuvius at our side for part of the journey.
Benevento's origins are prehistoric. It was the leading town of the "Samnites" an apparently warlike mountain people who worked hard to resist Roman domination but finally succumbed. It became an important stop along the Appian Way. We laughed when we heard that originally its name had been "Malevento" (ill wind) but I guess that was bad for PR and it became "Benevento" (good wind) - either way we figure it must have been plenty blustery up there!
Its history is littered with the same kinds of conquests we learned about in Sicily, the Lombards, Charlemagne, the Normans etc etc. We decided with all the wind and cold described in our guidebooks that it might be better to visit this city sooner than later and as the day was sunny we headed north.
The Allied bombings left their mark here too but the citizens have managed to preserve and restore many of their more precious monuments, like the fabulous Trajan's Arch, which some people claim is more beautiful than the one in Rome! Covered with sculptural reliefs, it lies quite impressively at the end of a long promenade and marks the spot where the Appian Way entered Benevento. Recently restored and not a smidge of scaffolding we were lucky to see it bathed in beautiful afternoon light.
In the main piazza we came upon the church and cloister of Santa Sofia built in the late 8th century. The façade is a creamy yellow color and in front of it there is a fountain with an obelisk. The bell tower stands apart from the church with a curious Batman figure emerging from a large bronze plaque on one side.
I Cantori della Vecchia Napoli
As we walked along the Corso Garibaldi, a pedestrian-only zone, we heard the sound of music. Bob first thought it was just someone's radio playing but to me it sounded like a live band and I was immediately drawn to the sound, like the kids in that fairy tale and the pied piper. What we found totally surprised and delighted us. In a little coffee/snack bar called the Caffe'Dell'Artista" a short round man wearing a tan sweater with a red "coca cola" bar apron tied around his waist was perched on a stool next to an electric keyboard playing a mandolin. The music was so beautiful and he beckoned for us to sit and enjoy, without skipping a beat. We were mesmerized. It was like an entire orchestra was in this tiny room, with two pinball games to one side and a few little tables in the corner. Above the pinball machines was a painting of a bare-breasted beauty and a little stand in the corner held an assortment of potato chips and snacks. The room we had entered held the bar and all its accoutrements. Paolo played many of the old Napolitano favorites like "Torna Sorrento" and "Funiculi Funicula" and others whose names I do not know but whose melodies were straight from my childhood. He was wonderful. He told us that he plays in a 3-piece band (I Cantori della Vecchia Napoli"), brought out a poster with a photo of them that included their phone numbers (347/7244199 or 348/4646148). They are available for parties and will be playing on the 25th of November in a little town near Benevento called Pagliara at 9 in the evening and we will try to find it. It will surely be a hoot.
Strega and further Enchantment in Benevento
Everywhere we went in the city we saw signs for the famous liquor called "Strega" that the town is famous for and wondered about the origin of this name. I did some research on it and found many references.
The Legend of the Witches of Benevento: (excerpted from www.futurewine.it, an interesting site about wine and the territories it comes from in Italy. We found it while searching for information on the Witches. We can't recommend this site or its wines as we have not tried them, but wanted to credit them with this information on the history of Benevento.)
"After the fall of the Roman Empire (476 AD), it was the Lombards who, in the VIII century, made Benevento the capital of a principality that extended over almost all of southern Italy. During this period an "esoteric" legend sprang up that was to become linked with the name of the town; it is said that on the northern slopes of the hill, barbarian warriors used to perform ancestral rites around a famous "walnut tree", later uprooted by the man who converted the Lombards to Christianity, Bishop Barbato.
These rites nevertheless lived on in popular beliefs. In fact in the XIV century, young women accused of witchcraft "confessed" before the court of the Inquisition to "having flown to the walnut tree of Benevento to celebrate the witches' sabbath".
This story, this popular belief also has links with "Strega", the famous liqueur made with saffron. Its fame is inspired by the magical mystery of its origins, the legend of the "Witches of Benevento", still alive in popular tradition. According to the legend, the Witches used to prepare a love potion, which would unite forever a couple that drank it.
In 1053, following the death of the last Lombard prince, the town passed into the hands of the Church, under whose dominion it remained until the unification of Italy."
The Pasticceria called Ambrosino
After our little private concert, we were in a euphoric state and were immediately drawn inside the beautiful Pasticceria called Ambrosino along the Corso Garibaldi like Hansel and Gretel to the witch's house. Once inside, we were treated to some of the most delicious candies we had ever eaten! (we were so captivated, we neglected to even take one photo and hope to go back and do this!) The knowing smile of the woman on the other side of the counter as she offered us a taste should have been a giveaway! We ended up buying a box of Croccantino allo Strega (crunchy hazelnut candies made with the famous Strega liquor covered in chocolate and a bag of assorted "torroncini" - hand made right on the premises) Are we ever in trouble!! We have been bewitched!
Promising to return, we took an alternate route back to Vietri through the very lack-luster Avellino. Our guidebook says that the city has been wrecked so many times by earthquakes and invaders that little remains to be seen. From our very quick zip through the center, we would have to agree. The outskirts are downright dreary and the center, while it is obvious they are trying to fix it up, still didn't have anything that really grabbed our interest. There are so many other truly incredible places here, we can certainly skip Avellino.
It was late afternoon by the time we returned to Vietri and we stopped to pick up a few things at the alimentari and fixed a simple dinner at home.
(to be continued: A day in Ravello on the Amalfi Coast)