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Sperlonga

Oct. 5, 2011
Lucy Vivante

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Sperlonga is between Rome and Naples, and about an hour’s drive from each. Because of its white and cream col­ored build­ings it looks as if it could be in Greece. It’s one of four towns that make up the Riviera di Ulisse. Homer is vague about where Ulysses or Odysseus trav­elled, pre­fer­ring to describe action and adver­saries, so whether Homer had this bit of Tyrrhenian coast in mind, it can­not be known.

The medieval town is high up on a rocky out­crop, over­look­ing the sea, with sand beaches to the north and south. The newer parts of the town are below and while the archi­tec­ture is not as nice as in the old, the area is well planted and this helps soften the lines. There are olives in traf­fic islands, at the rotary, and lin­ing some streets. Sometimes they’re pruned into dec­o­ra­tive lol­lipop shapes, but mostly they’re left to their nat­ural habit. There are lots of flow­er­ing plants in both the new and old towns – cas­cades of bougainvil­lea, light blue plumbago, deep blue morn­ing glo­ries, and great drifts of yel­low lan­tana – all of which look par­tic­u­larly good against Sperlonga’s white walls.

Gaeta neigh­bors Sperlonga, just to the south, and is another of the Riviera di Ulisse towns. Gaeta is famous for its table olives, which have recently received a DOP des­ig­na­tion. For an olive to be con­sid­ered a Gaeta olive, it must be grown in Lazio, but not nec­es­sar­ily in Gaeta. In fact, most of the Gaeta olives are grown at Itri, and Itri gives its name to the cul­ti­var Itrana, the only cul­ti­var per­mis­si­ble in mak­ing Gaeta olives. The Itrana olive is unusual in that it ripens very late. It ripens in March and April, whereas the vast major­ity of Italy’s olives are har­vested in November. They are con­sid­ered ripe once they have a waxy white coat­ing, like the bloom of a plum. In local dialect, this coat­ing is called the panno or cloth.

After ripen­ing and within 24 hours of har­vest, they’re cov­ered in unsalted water for a month, then in brine for a fur­ther five months before they’re ready to be eaten. Some Itrana olives are har­vested before they’re ripe, while they’re still pale in color, and then cured. They are less costly than Gaeta olives. Itrana olives are also used for mak­ing olive oil. Colline Pontine is the geo­graphic des­ig­na­tion and the oil is medium fruity and described as hav­ing a tomato fla­vor by some.

Sperlonga’s bars serve the wine col­ored Gaeta olives in lit­tle bowls at apper­i­tivo hour and restau­rants make use of the olives in many pasta dishes, fish dishes, as well as on piz­zas. The town of Sperlonga has a web­site with a sec­tion giv­ing recipes for what sound, and look, like excel­lent dishes. While the recipes are only in Italian, a mod­er­ately expe­ri­enced cook, with a dic­tio­nary or a trans­lat­ing appli­ca­tion, should be able to fol­low along.

Looking south from the town there’s a grotto, or cave, and from a dis­tance it looks like a dark tri­an­gle. Spelunca is the Latin word for cave, and Sperlonga takes its name from this very spelunca. It is about half an hour’s walk along the sandy beach to the cave. It can be seen through a metal fence, or one can walk up the road (before the cave) which leads to entrance to the com­plex. The area by the cave was exca­vated in the late 1950s and a vast villa, said to belong to the Emperor Tiberius (42 BC — 37 AD), was dis­cov­ered. Tiberius can defin­i­tively be asso­ci­ated with the place since there are descrip­tions of a deadly cave-in at the grotto in 26 AD, when Tiberius was present, and also unhurt. The space is cool even on hot days, and the sun bounc­ing off the water cre­ates beau­ti­ful flick­ers of light on the ceil­ing of the cave. The orig­i­nal­ity of the place — and not least the idea of din­ing on a plat­form built above the water with the back­drop of the cave — is close to being a dream.

The grotto housed sculp­tures that fig­ured scenes from the Odyssey, and there are frag­ments and recon­struc­tions at the museum. One of the sculp­ture groups fig­ures the blind­ing of the Cyclops Polyphemus. This group is par­tic­u­larly apt for the loca­tion since the Cyclops trapped Odysseus and his men in a cave by plac­ing a gigan­tic boul­der at the cave’s mouth. Polyphemus kept the men in the cave, devour­ing two at a time until Odysseus came up with a plan. He plied the giant with wine, took his club made of green olive wood and sharp­ened it to a point, and then rammed Polyphemus’s eye to blind him, open­ing the way for their escape.

The museum also con­tains a nice col­lec­tion of oil lamps, and some beau­ti­ful frag­ments of mural paint­ings that make one wish more were pre­served. The large grove of olives between the villa and the museum pro­vide wel­come shade.

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