Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Travels with Cadfael: Finding the Infinite

There are some images that you see as a child and wonder what it would be like to be there. For me, the Terrace of the Infinite was one of those images. It was so exotic, those ancient Romans perched against the infinite blue of the water and the sky. I had no idea where it actually was. Then one day Cad and I took a road up into the heavens, to the exquisite town of Ravello, and, in the always consulted Lonely Planet guide, I found, to my surprise, where to find the childhood vista.

The terrace is on the grounds of the Villa Cimbrone, that exotic hideaway for Stokowski and Garbo. Friends of Cadfael’s from his language school were camping on the Campania, and so we met up for lunch and to ramble through the gardens and hang out with those ancient Romans. It was infinitely enjoyable.

The next day was our trip to Caserta--to the palace of Naples under the Bourbon Kings Charles, Duke of Parma, and then his son. Ferdinand IV, who ruled the Two Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily in the eighteenth century.

Modeled on Versailles, the palace has 1,200 rooms, two-dozen state apartments, and a royal theater, as we toured through a never-ending series of room upon room.

But it’s the promenade out to the formal English gardens that put us back into the infinite, with miles of its parallel lines that connect the palace with the gardens. We walked under the hot August sun for what felt an eternity, and still were only in the middle of these parallel lanes.

And so we decided to abandon this endlessness for a very specific kind of Italian infinite—-hospitality. A young Roman friend of Cad’s was visiting his family who lives in Caserta, and he invited us over for lunch. We went from the cold, empty grandeur of the Naplese past to the warmth of a modest middle-class home.

Mother, father, 2 brothers and a sister all came in and out to say hello to the American monk and his New Yorker friend. We ate a perfect meal of spaghetti Bolognese with a Limoncello chaser accompanied by hilarious conversation between Italian and English. We took our leave and went into the city of Naples for the afternoon.

I first heard of the Bay of Naples, in Ireland. In college my backpacker friend Karen and I stopped in the town of Dalkey enroute to Dublin, and there saw a view of the Irish sea that was widely claimed to rival the beauty of the Bay of Naples. And lo so many years later now, I was looking at the original itself. It is stunning, from many angles.

It was time to get back to Amalfi, and that meant driving on some of that extraordinary coast road in the pitch dark. Taking all those hairpin turns in the dark caused a disorienting sensation. The motion of the turns, punctuated by intermittent oncoming headlights, made me feel like we were in a giant pinball machine.

Switchback after switchback upon dizzying turns started to have a hypnotic effect on us both, more problematic for Cad than me. And there was a slightly sickening sensation that a mistake on Cad’s part would put us over the edge and into the final infinite.

But Cadfael’s skill triumphed as usual, and we lived to travel another day.