Thursday, 8 January 2015

Castelmezzano, Italy

Here I present a tale of epic proportions where a Desi girl with her very Desi parents set out to conquer the harsh Italian mountains armed with a GPS, 3G internet and very little  Italian.

The story begins with our desire to not waste a long weekend at home. With our trusty GPS Jane, the weather forecast and some wiki-knowledge, off we went to Potenza. The drive from Puglia, in southern Italy, to Potenza, which lies in the Basilicata region, is very Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge-esque.  We drove past orange farms, olive orchards, vineyards, and the occasional clusters of small, decrepit houses. With clear skies framing the gorgeous landscape, it was hard to not stop at roadside bays every few kilometers to take in the scenes (and maybe  an occasional selfie).

However, once we reached the city center of Potenza we were quite disappointed because it appeared to be an industrial town that just happened to be on top of a mountain. By this time, the Fazals clan was also edging towards the dreaded- “Hangry” (Hungry+Angry) phase, not having eaten any solid food for the last couple of hours. Like every true-to- their-roots desi family we obviously had our lunch packed from home- some paranthas, fried chicken, beef curry and pickle (yes, we carry the pickle bottle around with us. ) But since the Italians take their siesta time very seriously, we were not able to find any places in the city center where we could eat our home-cooked meal. So we drove out of the city, found an isolated gas station, parked our car and made our boot a makeshift table. That’s how seriously we take food. 

It was getting darker, and there wasn’t much to see anyway, so we decided to call it a day and checked into Hotel La Piana. This is where our language woes began. Overestimating our prowess over Italian, we weren’t carrying a phrase book along with us. Talking to the receptionist was literally a game of dumb charades. By the time we checked into the room, we were exhausted of miming our questions. The next day we had a disappointing breakfast where I managed to fill the dining room with smoke when I forgot to take the bread out of the toaster. Just the beginning of the many fiascoes to come up in this trip.

Our next stop was Castelmezzano a small hilltop village half an hour away from Potenza. It was a beautiful drive to the top, as we drove through snow laced roads curving around the famed dolomite mountains of Basilicata. As we climbed higher up the steep roads, we were exposed to breathtaking views of a cluster of tiny yellow houses set against the background of imposing mountains. It was out of this world.  

As we were admiring this picture postcard view, my father realized that we had hit reserve fuel. And there obviously wasn’t any fuel station in the vicinity of this isolated village. So in another characteristic desi move we decided to solve this problem over food.  Castelmezzano being a Lilliputian village, allows only the inhabitants’ cars inside their narrow lanes. So we parked our car at the base and made our way to the nearest 'Ristorante' . On entering we were greeted by Antoinetta, the chef cum owner cum Server. With broken English and animated gestures she informed us that she was aware of our dietary requirements (No alcohol, no pork etc.). When she found out we are Indians she told us that many years ago Sonali, the wife of Raj, used to live here. We guessed she was talking about Sonia Gandhi, but don’t know how far the story is true…

For lunch we feasted on Baccala,  spinach and ricotta Ravioli, and Spaghetti and weren’t disappointed, except with one dish- Fried eggs with truffles -which was just disgusting.We decided to check into a Bed &Breakfast (B&B)  in Castelmezzano for the day. On exiting the restaurant I saw directions to a B&B that I had seen on, so I told my dad I’ll just check it out and come back.  Now on the website it says that it is just 300 mts away from the city center, so I was sure I could have a look and be back soon. I was wrong. 

Castelmezzano has incredibly narrow cobbled streets lined by small box-like houses. The streets go up and down and it is very easy to lose track of how much you have walked once you are inside the maze like formation.  So I kept walking and forgot that my parents were waiting for me near the restaurant. I finally reached the B&B and found a kindly looking Italian lady there. She spoke no English at all but I managed to convey to her that I wanted to have a look at her B&B. She let me in.   By this time, she was under the assumption that I was going to take the room for sure and was asking for my documents.  After 10 mins of miming I managed to convey that I need to go see my parents first. We stepped outside to find my parents frantically knocking at another door. It was half an hour since I’d left and they had been running up and down the isolated, narrow alleys of Castelmezzano shouting out my name. My mom was convinced that I’d been kidnapped and my dad thought I’d fainted somewhere because of the high altitude. After being reassured that I was neither kidnapped, nor sick, they launched into a full tirade in Malayalam about how irresponsible I’d been (which I quietly accepted). After my parents calmed down (which wasn't that easy!), I asked the now scared  B&B lady to take us in for another look.  My parents had a look and did not like it. Uh oh. We said no, and stepped outside with the B&B lady shouting what I am sure is not goodbye in Italian. After five minutes my father realizes he has left his phone at the B&B when we went in. I wanted the earth to swallow me right then. We turned back to find that the B&B lady was following us with a suspicious look on her face, muttering something in rapid Italian into her phone. We mimed that we had forgotten the phone in her place and then she lost it. So again we turned back and went towards the B&B, the lady now fuming. On reaching, she entered in and shut the door on my face before I could enter.After a few torturous minutes that seemed like forever, she stepped out with the phone. It’s a wonder that she didn’t throw it at us. In her fiery Italian peppered with  gestures that did not look polite, I could pick out a few phrases like ‘dishonest’ , ‘racist’  etc. and decided it best to leave the place as soon as possible. We began almost jogging back when this lady stops us again, runs up to us and asks us to leave a good review about her B&B on Yes, that happened. And we still don’t know what to make of it. However, it was a lesson learned. Lesson 1- Do not overestimate your miming skills. CARRY A PHRASEBOOK. Oh, and don’t piss off random Italian B&B owners and desi parents at the same time.

By the time we reached our car, we were in no mood to stay back in this place and decided to shorten our trip and drive back that day itself. Just then comes in Domenico who owned a B&B away from the main cluster of houses at the village. It was a beautiful house with a small courtyard in the front. A hairy dog which couldn’t make up its mind about whether he was fascinated or terrified with the strange new visitors greeted us at the entrance. 

There were a couple of chairs outside to enjoy the view, and bundles of firewood stacked at the entrance, where I found three cats staring suspiciously at me. Domenico and his sister (who spoke English!) welcomed us in. The place had dark wooden floors, a nice fireplace, cozy rooms that opened into tiny balconies with a great view of the mountains. It was quiet, homely and away from the B&B lady who we’d pissed off. It was just what we needed.

After settling in we remembered that we were still out of fuel and could be stranded on a mountain top if we don’t do something about it right away. So we drove back to Potenza, filled the tank, bought some margherita for dinner and drove back to the B&B in Castelmezzano. A trip that could have been completely avoided had we checked the fuel the first time around. Lesson 2: CHECK THE DAMN FUEL.   

Once we had our pizza and got our dose of ze internet, we settled into a comfortable sleep.  The next day, well rested and recovered from the Adrenaline high of the previous day,  we were served a scrumptious Italian breakfast of eggs, cheese, bread, cakes, coffee, and juice at the B&B. We made plans to go to Pietrepertosa,which is one of the highest points in the Basilicata region. In summers there runs a zip wire-'Volo Dell' Angelo' (‘Flight of the Angel)-where you are strapped to a cable and literally propelled face down from Castelmezzano to Pietrapertosa. Since it was closed, we had to drive there. The weather forecast showed chances of snow, but good Indians that we are, we ignored it and went forward with our trip, trusting God and our GPS.  As we neared Pietrapertosa, the snow became heavier,the curves sharper, and the roads narrower and steeper.

My mother started getting panicky and demanded we turn back. If only we’d done that. We went forward and then we couldn’t. Our car did not have snow tires, so we found ourselves lodged into ice unable to move an inch. On stepping out to inspect, we realized that if we’d tried moving we would have landed the car into a deep ditch. We were stuck in ice, in a narrow road, with no one around.  The silence was so loud that it hurt. And then it started snowing. Now it was full on panic, I started hyperventilating, my father tried calling Domenico for help, and my resourceful mother used the GPS to locate an emergency number.  She saved the day. Our GPS not only gave us the number but also the exact coordinates we were stranded at. The emergency service operator informed the local carabineri (Police) of our details and told us they would get to us soon. Once the call was done, my panic-attack subsided and I burst into tears. I’d really thought that this was how I was going to die -of hypothermia in an Isolated mountain top in Italy. I thought of all the things that I still had to achieve, spiritually and otherwise, and thanked God for helping us yet again.

The call made, now all we could do was wait. Now calm, we just started peeling oranges from our food stack and eating. Yes, that is what we do when stranded in the middle of nowhere, with the prospect of being snowed in. We eat oranges.

My mother meanwhile, was all psyched because she had such an interesting, masala-filled story to tell her sister back in kerala. She immediately called my aunt and before she could finish her sentence "guess where I am…”,my aunt started talking about her fish pickles. Every time there was a pause and my mother opened her mouth to tell the exciting story that we found ourselves in, my aunt started yet another  tale of the trials of being in the pickle business.  Eventually, my mother surrendered, and waited till all details of the pickle business were known and then slid in a glib “Oh we are stranded in a snowy mountaintop, by the way” which wasn’t met with expected shrieks of WHAT HAPPENED?! Poor mum.

After about an hour and a half, a recovery jeep approached us. Out step our saviours- Augestino, who looks every bit like what a mountain-top-rescuer-of-stranded-Indian- tourists would look like, and Daniel, a local police and sidekick to our Hero. After gently chiding us for our stupidity and informing us that the road is actually not in use, Augestino and Daniel set to work. While Daniel took down our details, Augestino pulled the car out of its temporary home of snow and then, to our amazement, expertly reversed our car uphill, all the way back to the main road. Daniel proudly informed us that Augestino was the 'snow man' - snow expert- of this town.

 He then came back, bundled us into his jeep and drove us to our freshly rescued car. It still was not over. My father had to now drive our car in front, slowly and without braking because the tires could slide on the ice, while my mom and I sat in the jeep with Augestino and Daniel and followed him.  We finally reached the base without any problem, Alhamdulillah. After profusely thanking our rescuers in English and whatever broken Italian we could muster, we were on the road again to Brindisi. Lesson 3: Do not, ever, EVER, ignore the weather forecast and go on an adventure to an isolated,  snow -capped mountain in Italy on a Public Holiday.

My parents obviously did not learn the lesson and actually had the audacity to ask me if we should take the alternative road and go to Pietrapertosa. After encountering my death stare they decided to settle for just a simple lunch at an unheard Indian restaurant- Gandhi- on the way back. The restaurant was closed, obviously. But a true desi never lets silly matters like closed restaurants get in the way of their appetite. We drove another hundred kilometers and had lunch at a Pakistani kebab shop.

So that was our three day adrenaline filled adventure which probably landed us in the Mafia hit-list and on the Interpol. Now for the next one…  


  1. What a lovely adventure and beautifully written! Brings back memories of the road trip we took when I was in Brindisi. Hope we can do it again some day! :)

  2. Nice Photos Nazreen, article as usual

  3. indeed, quite an adventure ....and loved the charming description of your escapade

  4. Masha Allah... Superb article! Looooved it... Especially d part about oranges.. Laughed out loooud!!:D