Monday, November 29, 2010

Busy last days

As I prepare to leave Italy, more and more things to do crop up.

This morning, for example, Stella and Elio took me to Bar Danilo for coffee. Then as Barbara and Frances and I sat in the kitchen around 1 pm, some friends of Frances' stopped by to invite us to take a drive with them to Giurdignano to see ancient monoliths, enchanted massi (rocks) and crypts used by the Byzantine monks that fled Greece to escape persecution.  

The generous couple, Stefania and Luigi, know the legends and stories of the Salento intimately. In fact, Luigi has written a book on the subject. But although this is their shared passion, they make their living as teachers. Their usual charges are school children but they also work in a prison, work which is partly paid and partly volunteer. They use drama as a vehicle for getting insight into their behaviour (they're working with people imprisoned for sexual crimes at the moment) and for improving self-esteem.

We spent an enchanted afternoon with them. Our hands touched Bronze Age stone Dolmen (two vertical slabs with a horizontal one on top) and Menhirs (a single vertical tower of stone) -- Puglia's version of Stonehenge. Unlike Stonehenge, however, these structures are scattered in Giurdignano and stand along dirt roads in the countryside. Needless to say, they are not protected against vandals or thieves.

The Dolmen were likely used as sacrificial altars. Some of them have buried recesses in the stone where human remains were placed. The Menhirs honoured the Sun god. Their orientation and the way they were arranged in relation to each other in a neighbourhood suggest they formed a path marking the position of the sun. 

We visited the Massi Della Vecchia, gigantic slabs of limestone that erosion over millennia has turned into sculptures. So impressive are they that legend infused them with magic:  witches guarding treasure who'd release it only if the person could answer certain questions or risk being turned into stone. We got home at 4:30.  

At 5 pm I went with Elio to a book fair near Lecce.  I wandered up and down publishers' displays with as much pleasure as if the books had been in English. I came across one little gem: the smallest book I've ever seen. The publisher told me it was written by a clockmaker. The story was written on a single sheet of paper in a way the clockmaker with his facility for making tiny things could fold the sheet over and over until it formed a book. The display had a whole row of them lined up on a miniature bookcase.

The editor told me the book tells a real story -- but not a very good one.  The author is a clockmaker, after all, not a writer, he said.  

How much, I ask? Twenty Euros.  He said, It’s a lot for a little book but the high price will prevent buyers from throwing it away. (No, I didn’t buy it.)

A Menhir in the town of Giurdignano
A Menhir along a country road with a crypt or grotto of San Paolo beneath it

The grotto's interior is decorated with frescos

Stefania (in white) leads our little troop up to the top of an enchanted massi

More enchanted limestone sculptures created by erosion

La Grotta di San Giovanni, once used by Byzantine Basilian monks was restored in 1990

Gorgeous fresco and within the grotto of San Giovanni

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