Monday, December 27, 2010

The pirate's cave, Lerici

One afternoon Enrico rowed us to the Grotta Azzurra, the blue grotto on a point of land a few hundred meters south of the castle. He was a fisherman in his twenties, tall for the time and well built; he evidently made it a practice to visit the castle and hit upon the foreign girls, on the no doubt well-founded theory that they were more readily available than the young women of his village, which most likely was Fiascherino or Tellaro, farther along the coast. Further, I judged that when the foreigners didn't cooperate, he switched his attention to their male colleagues. I can't be sure of this, because he never hit on me.

Google tells me that there is indeed a Blue Grotto in the Gulf of Poets, but places it four kilometers across the bay on the island of Palmaria, and on the western shore to boot. So the place Enrico took us can only be the Tana del Brigantino, the pirate's cave well known to local boys. There's a shallow bay just below the castle, into which the German bicyclists liked to dive from the heights, then a sharp promontory about 500 meters south in a straight line. This is the Maralunga peninsula, all rocky cliffs on its squared-off seaward edge and along its southern coast.

Somewhere along here, I think, was Enrico's cave. He assured us that it was prettier than Capri's famous Blue Grotto. I have no way of comparing them, having never been south of the Tiber River. But it will serve: silent in the limpid afternoon, the water dripping from Enrico's oars, illuminated in blue indeed, the light coming up through the seawater to reflect upon the walls of the cave. It was one of those enchanting reversals, as when a southern sea is warmer than the breeze blowing across it. In this case, the water contained more light than the air, so that it was our primary illumination. And we were young and would never die.

On the way back to the castle, Letitia began to ruminate upon men and their hairy chests. Enrico's chest hair--curly and black--struck her as very decorative, compared to my mine, which was considerably more sparse and a less masculine brown--a brown, morever, that was blonding almost daily under the sun. As for Giorgio, his chest was quite hairless.

Enrico smiled sweetly, understanding that whatever we were saying, he was the subject of our chat. To change the subject, he took out a pack of Nazionale and handed it around. We each took one except Giorgio, who did not smoke. Enrico smiled more broadly and said: "Will you take it from my lips?" (Letitia translated for me, since Enrico and I were the only monoglots in the party.) Ah, poor Giorgio! Enrico put a Nazionale in his mouth, lit it, took a drag on it, and passed it to Giorgio. Thus he smoked his first cigarette, much as with my help he had learned to make his own bed.

I don't think the two of them ever got it on. Giorgio often left us of an evening and took the tram to La Spezia, to cruise the waterfront for American sailors.

What was Enrico's experience during the war? I didn't ask, and not because we didn't have a language in common. (Letitia would have interpreted, as she did for the quip about the mouth-to-mouth Nazionale.) Enrico would have been a lad in 1945, but boys did their share in the war, on both sides. Nor would his pretty homeland have been spared. Not far north of Lerici, on the Italian Riviera, there's a village I came to know fairly well in later years, Vernazza by name. No road serves Vernazza, though Mussolini drove railway tracks along the shore, so it has had train service since the 1930s. Hard by the railroad station there's a plaque with the village's war dead, roughly divided in thirds: twenty or so young men who died in North Africa, about the same number Caduta in Russia--and what a shock that frozen winter on the Eastern Front must have been, to fishermen from the Mediterranean--and a final twenty or so who were killed in the Resistance. Enrico must have experienced some of that, if only at second hand.

Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

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