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Viola—a Donkey Serenade
We all have strangeness scattered through our lives, giving a dreamlike quality to the most fortunate of our memories. One of mine was discovering Antonio Gaudí, the magical Catalan architect; his Sagrada Família cathedral in Barcelona is a stalagmite of weird geometries—wet sand dripping down through the fingers of a playful giant from another dimension.
I added another memory a few weeks ago on Ischia. I had just finished ploughing through an imposing German tome on the island. It was full of footnotes and umlauts. In fact, you are almost reading about the late Stone Age, the Bronze Age, Pithecusa (the original Greek name for the island) and how the Greeks found in Ischia's Mt. Epomeo another Olympus, another safe hiding place for their Gods. (You can read all that at the 'Pithecusa' link in the previous sentence.) So, be glad I found Viola, a lovely brown donkey mare, who took me up the slopes of Epomeo, where the spirit of Gaudí dwells.
After making the long storm-tossed crossing from Neapolis and quelling a native uprising at my hotel, I betook me to the quaint outpost of Fontana, the most convenient base camp from whence to begin the climb up the 800-meter high mountain. It was then that I saw Viola—beautiful brown eyes, long lashes, even longer ears, and a mane stroked by, alas, who knows how many coarse hands. She was standing in the main square in Fontana, reluctantly looking for passengers. She looked like Rocinante hoping against hope that Don Quixote had wandered away and would never come back.
"Oh, a donkey," I exclaimed, a veritable Julian Huxley finally seeing his way through to some great biological truth.
"You are, indeed, most perceptive, bwana-sahib," croaked the wizened Chargé du Donkeé. He genuflected in the traditional fashion of his ancestors, touching first his forehead, then his heart, then my wallet. "She will take you right to the top for a mere trifle."
"Hmmm, that's not even a pittance a pound. Not bad. But, am I not too stout—all solid muscle, of course—but a bit too hefty for this delicate steed?"
"Not to worry, O wise one, for it is written that this is the life they are born to."
Viola, naturally, had heard this Bible-thumping fundamentalist interpretation of Genesis 1:26 many times before and was not amused. But, with that floppy-lipped snort that donkeys emit when they dream of their great stallion cousins flashing like Pegasus free and unshod across Arabian dunes, she acquiesced. I climbed aboard and we went straight up, first on a paved road and then the last two-hundred yards or so along a precise trail, partially hewn out of the rock, but mostly just plain worn down by the methodical sculpting of countless plodding hooves.
The summit of Epomeo is a castle carved out of rock. There is no building; all the chambers in the one-time home to an order of Franciscan monks are in the rock. Again, Gaudí's giant friend must have poked his fingers into the lava when it was still warm and pliant, yet firm enough to hold impressions which an age later would become the chapel, dining hall and cells for the monastery of San Nicola.
If you go when there is a mist blowing up the slopes, the jagged rock that forms a watchtower on the summit tears at the stream of whiteness swirling by. It sticks up like a crown on a ghostly head calling you into a fairy-tale, and if you are in the fanciful mood that accepts fairy-tales, then that will be your "strange" moment, the one you remember.
That and the sunrise,
because sadly for the monks but happily for you, this
mountain retreat is now an inn. You can ride or walk
up in the evening and stay in one of the cells. (It's
not as bleak as it sounds; each cell has a balcony
with a breathtaking view, the beds are clean, and when
you run out of gruel, you can go to the restaurant).
From the watchtower and various points around the
summit, there is a stunning view straight out over the
island and the gulf to Vesuvius and the Sorrentine
Peninsula. Here, it is pardonable to believe in the
illusory astronomy that the Earth is the center of all
things, as the sun paces the passage of eternity,
slowly shifting, sunrise by sunrise, inexorably along
the rim of the mountains and back again. On Ischia,
"to watch the dawn from Epomeo" is a metaphor of
splendour—to be up there in monastic stillness
watching the night become day and to feel that you are
the first ever to watch this timeless ritual.
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