Postcard from Sorrento, Italy: An Amalfi town overwhelmed by people like us

Our Lady of “Please Save Us and the Entire Amalfi Coast from this Latest Wave of Invaders”

Mythologically speaking, Sorrento was founded by a grandson of Ulysses and Circe, but the geographical features making it a natural fortress – a deep gorge and steep cliffs fronting the coast – placed it in high demand by all powers interested in staking out turf in the neighborhood for thousands of years.

And now the invaders are tourists. Obviously, we are among them. But visitors slipping in two by two is a far cry from the hoards cruise ships docking in nearby Naples deliver to Sorrento, viewed as the stepping stone for exploring the beauty of Italy’s Amalfi Coast. The pedestrian streets of Sorrento are lined with shoppes, as opposed to stores that would offer anything of interest to the city’s less than 17,000 residents.

The small-town streets are clean and orderly compared to the scene in Naples, but are swarming with, well, people like us. Sorrento is a place where we could enjoy a morning cappuccino in a small café for three times the price we would pay in Naples. The setting is dramatic, and the views of the Isle of Capri and Naples are beautiful. But wait, we had a wonderful view of the Isle of Capri from our apartment in Naples.

Sorrento is blessed with several handsome baroque churches, and my favorite part of the jaunt by boat over there from Naples was a visit to the Basilica Sant’Antonino. Little Saint Anthony of Sorrento (555-625) was a Benedictine monk who became a hermit. The citizens of Sorrento coaxed him into serving as abbot of their Saint Agrippinus Monastery. Saint Michael appeared to persuade him to take up their offer.

The most miraculous deed credited to Antonino during his lifetime involved a whale. A mother arrived pleading to him for help, as her son had been swallowed by a leviathan. Antonino was able to reach deep inside the creature’s mouth and pluck the boy out, safe and sound.

After his death, the grateful people of Sorrento built a crypt to house his remains and then erected a basilica above in his honor. His work was not yet done though. The saint is credited with protecting the city from a Moorish naval invasion, the bubonic plague and cholera. The walls of the crypt are lined with cases of silver milagros left by those requesting his intervention in healing various parts of the body and reliquaries of bones of other saints to multiply the potency found within. Retablos depicting some of Saint Antonino’s dramatic rescues of endangered sailors at sea are abundant.

Sorrento takes great pride in its limoncello, ceramics and lacework. We strongly recommend the perfect panini produced in the little kitchen at A’Marenna.

Oh, and the city appears taken with Sophia Loren, particularly after her mambo scene in Scandal in Sorrento.

Sophia Loren and Vittorio de Sica mambo in 1955 film Scandal in Sorrento

We enjoyed dipping our toes into the Amalfi scene at Sorrento, but by late afternoon found ourselves eager to return to the bustling chaos of Naples.

Postcards from Valencia, Spain: Wrapping up a few more museums

The façade of a Gothic palace disguised by numerous layers of ostentatious additions of Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical and maybe even Oriental decorations through the centuries houses the National Museum of Ceramics and Decorative Arts in Valencia. A prominent location and the sheer audacity of its exterior ornamentation attract crowds to the museum. Aside from a set of china with fanciful animals that I loved, the museum overall resembles a beautifully iced flavorless cake. This sounds harsh, but, if time is limited, we would recommend a trip to the under-visited House Museum José Benlliure instead.

The palace of Saint Pius V above the Turia River provides huge galleries for displaying several centuries of Spanish art, beginning with a collection of huge Gothic retablos. El Museo de Bellas Artes includes works by Velazquez, Goya, Sorolla and Valencian hometown favorites, the Ribaltas.

Sixty days after Easter, the doors of the Corpus Christi Museum swing open so the rocas, massive wooden floats about 500 years old, can be rolled out for the annual parades celebrating the feast day. Horses haul the floats over the cobblestones, the faithful bear heavy statues atop their shoulders and gigantes, 16-foot figures representing Catholics from around the world, are part of the religious fanfare. As our timing was off for the event, we visited the carriage house, Casa de las Rocas, built in the 1400s specifically to house the floats. The parade-in-a-box leaves no spare space, but the jammed together festival props provide a sense of the ancient enduring traditions.

We also left three days before the opening of PhotOn Festival, the International Festival of Photojournalism spread mounted in several venues in Valencia. When we entered the cloisters of Centro Cultural La Nau, workers were installing large prints by Joseph Eid and Natalia Sancha for “Those Who Stay.”

While the original founding bank might have floundered when the real estate bubble burst, a palace of art remains. The spacious galleries of the Centro Cultural Bancaja are operated by a nonprofit foundation. Portraits by British artist Julian Opie were featured. We found them somewhat hypnotic despite their pared down, cartoonish lines and a peculiar flatness. Several of the large illuminated portraits of individuals featured subtle movements. The hands of a watch might move once a minute, or dot-like eyes might blink about as often as you do.

Opie’s video below made me feel as though I was relaxing at a café watching a parade of people passing by on their way to work – a kind of boulevardier spirit we cultivate while traveling.

Miracles attributed to Panchito continue to mount up in Mexico.

The Italian hill town of Assisi might be overrun by tourists and pilgrims, but the stories of the miracles of Saint Francis manage to bubble up through the clutter. The saint’s holy cards often depict him surrounded by fluttering brown sparrows, but they fail to convey some of the richer stories.

I mean stories such as how Saint Francis threw himself naked upon a rose-bush as punishment for impure thoughts only to have the thorns miraculously fall off the bush so as not to prick him. Bet he was thankful for that one. But I understand a naked man hugging a rose-bush might not be deemed appropriate for a holy card. My favorite Saint Francis miracle was his taming of the fierce killer wolf terrifying the residents of neighboring Gubbio.

On the holy card that is part of a digital collage (“¡Qué milagro! Four bullets in the back and alive to give thanks 25 years later.”) I donated for SAY Si’s annual Small Scale art sale, I felt compelled to add a few extra birds to better illustrate the claim that birds would stop mid-chirp to listen to Saint Francis’ sermons and, of course, to add a tame-looking wolf.

But what sent me digging up this holy card was a photograph from the side chapel in the Parroquia Purisima Concepcion in Real de Catorce, a former ghost town now a mecca drawing both tourists and pilgrims, in much the same way as Assisi. The walls of the entire chapel are covered with retablos, pictures and stories often painted on sheets of tin, left in gratitude by the beneficiaries of miraculous interventions by Saint Francis, affectionately known as Panchito. One retablo that caught my attention was left by Jesus Espinosa Diaz de Leon in 2006 to express his gratitude to Sr. San Francisco de Asis for saving him from bullets fired into his back on the streets of San Luis Potosi in 1981.

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The rich interior of the Parroquia in Real de Catorce reflects the origins of the town itself; the workers mining the veins of silver running through the mountains signed a commitment in 1779 to donate silver toward its construction on a weekly basis. Real was so wealthy, it not only had a palenque for cock fights but an opera house. There was such an abundance of silver, the town had its own mint coining reales. To make the town and its silver more accessible, an engineering marvel of a tunnel almost 1 1/2 miles long was carved through one of the surrounding formidable mountains in 1901.

With the silver seemingly played out, the town died. Colonial buildings began to fall into ruin, and it probably would have become a complete ghost town were it not for Panchito. Some time after the Mexican Revolution, word spread throughout the country about miraculous cures of humans and animals believed to have been granted following prayers to St. Francis of Assisi. The statue in the parish church began to attract pilgrims. Particularly on his Feast Day, October 4, they jam the tunnel and overwhelm the town to pay tribute to the patron saint of merchants, animals and ecology.

While the town has undergone a revival caused by curious travelers, there is another revival many are eyeing with distrust. New technologies now make it possible to extract more metal from the surrounding mines, and in a wonderful series of posts on Huffington Post, Tracy Barnett reveals in words and photos that the Huichols are displeased. She describes a February 6 all-night ceremony involving the sacrifice of a calf:

Soon the maraka’ate assembled and the plaintive wail of the Wixarika fiddles began to ring out in the darkness. The chants of the maraka’te rose on the wind; the ceremony had begun.

All throughout the long night these priests of ecology, as Liffman called them, sang their entreaties to the spirits that inhabit this place, an improvisation of melodies from different villages and different eras in time. They conducted their ancestral dialog with Grandfather Fire, an intermediary between the maraka’te and their deities. The sacramental peyote they had hunted in the desert the day before was working its magic.

Maybe, if the Huichols combined their dialogues with Grandfather Fire with prayers to Saint Francis of Assisi in his role as the patron saint of ecology, the potent powers would unite to spare the land from more intrusive mining.

This is an absurdly long-winded approach to suggest you take advantage of SAY Si Small Scale art sale to build your collection. More than 200 artists have contributed works to the silent auction. It will be impossible to view them all before they start disappearing off the walls during the final party on Friday, March 23. So consider going online quickly and purchasing tickets to the preview party on Thursday, March 1, or stop by SAY Si between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday or 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday until March 23. And then it will be too late.

Added on March 9, 2012: This post needed a soundtrack – Gretchen Peters’ “Saint Francis.”