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Watching Over Amalfi’s Legends

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There’s something captivating about an old watchtower, isn’t there? Even if it’s crumbling or half ruined, its very nature tells us that there are stories – something to be protected, something to be taken, conquests, danger, mystery. Sitting in the mountains above Amalfi is a watchtower that certainly has its share of mysteries and legends to protect. Called the Torre dello Ziro, this watchtower dates from 1480 when it was constructed on the ruins of a 12th century tower. When the tower was built, Amalfi was a wealthy feudal duchy that was run by Antonio Piccolomini, the first Duke of Amalfi. This takes us back to the time when the legends of the Torre dello Ziro began. Antonio ruled Amalfi until his death in 1493, when his son Alfonso Piccolomini succeeded him as the second Duke of Amalfi. Just a few years before, Alfonso married a beautiful woman named Giovanna d’Aragona, whose name will forever be hauntingly connected with the Torre dello Ziro.

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Postcard of the Torre dello Ziro and Amalfi from 1965 (Author’s private collection)

As the daughter of Enrico d’Aragona, half-brother of King Frederick of Naples, Giovanna d’Aragona brought royal family connections to her marriage and her role as the Duchess of Amalfi. However, it was a role she was destined to play for only a short time. Her husband’s early death five months before their son was born left her Regent of Amalfi. As if that wasn’t enough drama, Giovanna’s story continues as she rules the Duchy of Amalfi and looks after the education of her children, Caterina and Alfonso – the future Duke of Amalfi. Sounds fine, right? Well that would be until Giovanna fell in love with her steward, Antonio Bologna, who she later secretly married. Too much of a shock to the social rankings of the day, they kept their relationship, marriage and three children together secret. Or so they thought.

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Old postcard of the Torre dello Ziro with inscription about Giovanna d’Aragona (Author’s private collection)

When Giovanna’s marriage was discovered by her brothers, Cardinal Luigi d’Aragona and Carlo d’Aragona, Marquis of Gerace, her story comes to a tragic end. Antonio fled Amalfi to escape the vendetta of Giovanna’s brothers, eventually meeting his death in Milan. Giovanna was captured with her children, and local legend says that they were all killed in the Torre dello Ziro watchtower. And you probably thought Amalfi was all sunshine and lemons, right?

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Postcard of the Torre dello Ziro with photograph by Ernesto Samaritani (Author’s private collection)

With its royalty, power, loss, ill-fated love and tragic ending, Giovanna’s life and mysterious death have inspired many stories, starting with  Matteo Bandello’s Novelle from 1554 and later the better known Duchess of Malfi by John Webster in the 17th century. The legend of her stormy life and sad ending have lingered with the fate of the Torre dello Ziro. While searching for some vintage postcards to illustrate this blog post, I happened across the two above, likely from the 40s or 50s, that bear the inscription: “Amalfi – Torre dello Ziro ove nel 1500 fu rinchiusa ed uccisa dai suoi fratelli la Duchessa di Amalfi Giovanna d’Aragona.” (Translation: “Amalfi- Torre dello Ziro where in 1500 the Duchess of Amalfi Giovanna d’Aragona was imprisoned and killed by her brothers.” Over 400 years after her death the legend of Giovanna’s death was being sent around the world by visitors to Amalfi who perhaps had that family member or friend with a sordid sense of humor.

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If you’re curious to find out more about this fascinating tale, track down The Mystery of the Duchess of Malfi by Barbara Banks Amendola. This detailed book by writer, art historian and Amalfi Coast local delves into the life of Giovanna and the legend of her death.

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Despite its connection with Giovanna’s tragic ending, the Torre dello Ziro sits peacefully above Amalfi and offers an incredible viewpoint of both Amalfi and Atrani. While it cannot be reached from Amalfi, it’s an enjoyable hike from Pontone in Scala to the watchtower. Just imagine what that watchtower has seen in over 500 years of looking over Amalfi. How many secrets does it hold? What really happened to Giovanna d’Aragona and her children? Those are questions we won’t be able to answer and secrets that will remain in the Torre dello Ziro for centuries to come.

 

Italy Blogging Roundtable

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This blog post is part of a monthly series called The Italy Blogging Roundtable. Every month our group of Italy based writers takes on a new theme, and you can read about this month’s topic – Myths & Legends – at the links below. We’d love to hear your thoughts and comments. Please share the stores if you’ve enjoyed them!

At Home in TuscanyOf Starvation and Cannibalism in Pisa

Bleeding EspressoNatuzza Evolo: Calabrian Mystic

BrigolanteCommon Myths and Misconceptions Regarding Italian Culture Fostered by Guidebooks

Girl in FlorenceHow Not To Learn Another Language As An Adult

Italy Explained4 Italian Myths Debunked

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A Rose-tinted Morning

 

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Sometimes the curiosities of the night and weird places my dreams carry me linger on after waking. I suppose that happens to everyone now and again. This morning I woke up even earlier than usual and couldn’t settle down again to rest. We all carry things from long ago inside us, even if we choose not to think about them, seemingly forget them or try our darnedest to move on. But that’s fine, it’s the way it is. I’ve never been one to focus much on the past—in its good or bad moments—but I think the very nature of being an expat means you have left things behind. Family, friendships, experiences, possibilities. Of course, those are very often replaced by new family, new friends, new experiences and a new world of possibilities. But there is a piece, sometimes large pieces, of your life left behind when you move to another country.

I padded across the bedroom floor in the dark and heard my husband stirring. I hoped I hadn’t woken him up, but I sensed he was awake, too. Toulouse stretched in that satisfying way only cats can stretch in the morning and followed me out of the room. I went into the adjacent bedroom and opened the windows. The sky was ablaze with a rose-tinted sunrise over Ravello. In that moment, the sadness of the night’s dreams floated away. It was another day in the place I love most in the world.

Wherever you are at right now or whatever things from the past might be weighing you down, there are always new possibilities ahead. Maybe it’s a rose-tinted way of looking at the world, but it makes me smile and look forward to all the adventures ahead!

Amalfi Reflections

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I love it when the Amalfi Coast takes me by surprise. Sometimes the surprise is just how often that still happens, even after being here for nearly 10 years now. While the typical colors that evoke the Amalfi Coast are the pastel hues of Positano’s houses or the brilliant yellow of the Amalfi lemons or the many shades of blue of the sea from turquoise to cobalt blue. While walking along the port in Amalfi recently, I glanced down into the water and caught these incredible red and white reflections dancing across the water. Somewhat hidden in the center is a white mask that reminded me of something you might find during Carnevale in Venice. The striking and powerful colors felt like they were of another place. Yet the reflection came from something that couldn’t be more traditionally Amalfi Coast – a local fishing boat!

 

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In a Landscape Surrounded by Lemons

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If there’s one symbol of the Amalfi Coast that brings together the historical, cultural and gastronomic identity of the Amalfi Coast, it would have to be the lemon. Not just any lemon, a unique variety called the sfusato amalfitano that is only grown on the Amalfi Coast. This special citrus fruit has left its mark on the area, its economic history and quite literally has transformed the landscape of the Amalfi Coast. Where once the mountainside dropped uninterrupted to the sea, there are now terraces of lemon groves, each one painstakingly constructed stone by stone and cultivated in the most extraordinary manner.

This one glorious fruit brings the history and culinary traditions of the Amalfi Coast directly to the table. It is a symbol of the Amalfi Coast that is very close to the hearts, or should I say stomachs, of the locals. Let’s take a look closer at the lemons of the Amalfi Coast. You’ll never look at the terraces of lemons quite the same way again!

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The sfusato amalfitano lemon takes its name from the word “fuso” meaning “spindle” due to its distinctive long and tapered shape. They are prized for their thick and highly scented skin, the low acidity of the juice and few seeds. Due to the limited and unique growing area, the sfusato amalfitano has been awarded the IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) recognition, which means Amalfi Coast lemons are only authentic if grown along the coastline.

While the sfusato amalfitano lemon is so strongly tied to the Amalfi Coast, it isn’t in fact native to this area. Originally from the Himalayas, the variety as we know it today was primarily cultivated by Arab farmers. In today’s world of global trade and travel, it’s humbling to think of the epic journey the first lemon plants took to arrive in Sicily and then later to Amalfi. In the Middle Ages, the Republic of Amalfi had trading ships crisscrossing the Mediterranean and to Byzantium. That’s a long journey for a lemon tree!

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Yet lemons have been cultivated in Campania for much longer. Frescoes preserved at Pompeii and Herculaneum reveal that long, tapered lemons much like the sfusato amalfitano were grown by the ancient Romans since the first century. While it seems they were more interested in the plant for its decorative features, it’s clear that lemons loved the temperate climate and fertile soil of this area. That long journey was worthwhile!

Intense cultivation of lemons on the Amalfi Coast began between the 10th and 12th centuries, primarily between Amalfi and Cetara. As you can imagine, finding room to grown anything on the Amalfi Coast is a significant challenge. Over time the landscape of the area has been transformed by this tradition, with entire swaths of mountainsides cut into the now distinctive terraces supported by stone walls. They’re especially easy to spot in the winter when the terraces are covered with a black netting to protect the trees from freezing rain and also to control their growth.

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Harvesting the lemons of the Amalfi Coast has always been backbreaking work. So, naturally, before the days of trucks, the lemons were hauled to the closest beach to be loaded up on ships to be exported. Around Minori and Maiori, which was once the largest production area along the Amalfi Coast, the lemons were carried down to the beach in Maiori where they were painstakingly packed in crates and loaded on to ships to be sent all around the Mediterranean and even as far as North America.

In the historic photograph below, taken in 1915, you can see woman carrying crates on the beach in Maiori. If you’ve thought climbing the steps on the Amalfi Coast was tough, just imagine doing it with a crate of lemons on your back. Incredibly, that is still the way lemons are harvested today!

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This was 1915, in the peak period of lemon production, where steam ships would arrive and carry the Amalfi Coast lemons even further than ever before. The terraced lemon gardens are still quite active since the cultivation of lemons remains an important part of the local economy. One of my favorite walks this summer was along the Sentiero dei Limoni, The Pathway of the Lemons, a stone path surrounded by terraces of lemons that leads from Minori to Maiori. From those very terraces 100 years ago lemons where carefully harvested and carried down the mountain to the beach far below. While the method of transportation has changed, the landscape and atmosphere of the quiet lemon terraces high above Minori could easily be a century ago.

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Naturally, it’s not just the landscape where lemons have left their mark. They have worked their way onto the table and into the culinary traditions of the area. From the antipasto to the famous lemon-infused liqueur limoncello, there isn’t a course where you won’t find the lemon. Squeezed over fried calamari, dressing salads, creamy risotto with a zest of lemon, provolone grilled on lemon leaves, served atop fish, lemon cakes, lemon gelato and the list could go on and on. In Amalfi, you can even get a small slice of lemon rind added to your espresso.

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Of course, the most noted and also widely exported lemon specialty of the Amalfi Coast is limoncello. This strong liqueur is traditionally served at the end of a meal straight from the freezer in chilled glasses. It is made by infusing pure alcohol with the rinds of lemons and then blending it with a sugar syrup. Many families and restaurants produce their own, so it is often served with pride to visitors. If you can stand a bit of a punch, it really does capture the intense flavors of the sfusato amalfitano.

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Goethe captured the allure of southern Italy when he described it as “the land where lemons grow.” They have certainly left their mark on the Amalfi Coast, one that is appreciated just as much today by locals squeezing lemon juice on top of a dish of lemon and shrimp risotto and travelers sipping their first limoncello. I hope that lemons will continue to be cultivated here according to the traditional methods for many more centuries to come. That depends upon the continued appreciation of its unique properties and integral role in uniting the best of the Amalfi Coast’s culture and traditions – all in one tart, deliciously yellow lemon.

 

Italy Blogging Roundtable

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This blog post is part of a monthly series called The Italy Blogging Roundtable. Every month our group of Italy based writers takes on a new theme, and you can read about this month’s topic – From Farm to Table – at the links below. We’d love to hear your thoughts and comments. Please share the stores if you’ve enjoyed them!

ArtTravEat Local: Farm to Table options in Florence

Bleeding EspressoFrom Farm to Table: The Sila Potato

BrigolanteFrom Tours to Tables: Umbria’s Farm Bounty

Girl in FlorenceGourmet Tuscany: Restaurants that Embrace a Farm-To-Table Philosophy

Italy ExplainedPacking the Perfect Picnic in Italy

Italofile – Yogurt in Paestum

Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to Georgette from Girl in Florence to The Italy Blogging Roundtable!

Book Review | Only in Naples by Katherine Wilson

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Given my passion for reading and great love of the Amalfi Coast, as soon as I saw the title of Katherine Wilson’s book Only in Naples: Lessons in Food and Famiglia from my Italian Mother-in-Law I knew it would be a book I would enjoy. And I certainly did! With Katherine’s engaging writing style and lighthearted yet perceptive look at her experiences in Italy, it was the perfect beach read this summer.

The book follows Katherine from her arrival in Naples as an intern at the U.S. Consulate in Naples to meeting her husband and being welcomed into his family. As the title suggests, there are many lessons along the way, and I enjoyed seeing how her relationship with her mother-in-law grew and developed over the years. Naples has always fascinated me, and I loved the glimpse behind the scenes of family life and the author’s impressions of the city over the years. She captured the spirit of Naples when she wrote, “I should have realized by then that in Italy, and particularly in Naples, anything is possible. Magic happens.” Some of that magic filters through her stories and fills the pages with that intoxicating blend of light, chaos and vibrancy that is Naples.

The “Lessons in Food” part of the title carries through the entire book, and will most certainly have you hungry along the way. Knowing that readers would be tempted the stories of her mother-in-law’s cooking, Katherine painstakingly documented some of her best recipes that she lovingly writes about in the book. So as soon as you’re done reading you’ll be ready to tie on your apron and get to work whipping up the dishes in your own kitchen!

While sometimes the Amalfi Coast feels very different from Naples, some of Katherine’s stories really resonated with my life here and had me laughing out loud. For those of you Amalfi Coast fans, there are even some stories about the author’s summer holidays in Positano.

If you love Italy, and especially the Naples area, put this book on your reading list. Food, family, Naples – what’s not to love?