Steve was absolutely spot on. Mick was, indeed, a prick. And an incomprehensible prick as well. From the moment, he came crashing through the front door with his ludicrous bandana and silly goatee beard, effing, blinding and screaming “Och aye the noo” – or whatever – I decided that I would save an awful lot of time by taking an instant dislike to him. And his behaviour, over the next few weeks – smoking drugs in the kitchen, playing loud house music at all hours of the day and night, pretentious pseudo-intellectual prattling – gave me no cause to think that I might have been harsh on him. With the arrival of Mick on the scene, the harmony of the Nick, Bimbo and Roger days were definitively over.
I needed to get out of the house for a bit. Most of the exploring of Naples I had done of Campania up until this point had been within the province of Naples itself. Capri and Ischia, although they have about as much in common with Naples as Sophia Loren with Godzilla, say, are still part of the province of Naples. I quite fancied a visit to another of the region’s provinces and, after a little reading, I settled on Benevento. Benevento was the chief town of the Samnites, who took refuge here after they had been defeated by the Roman Republic in 314 B.C. Back then, the town went by the name of Maloeis (from the Greek word for “apple”) and then Maleventum, which the Romans took to mean “place of bad events”. For a fun-loving bunch of chaps like the Romans, this name was hardly a laugh-a-minute, and so when a Latin colony was set up here bin 268 B.C., they changed the name to Beneventum – “good events”, in honour of their defeat of Pyrrhus and his elephants some seven years previously.
It’s probably just as well that they did, for although modern-day Benevento hardly lives up to the “Florence of the South” epithet that its inhabitants have bestowed upon it, it is, indeed, a cheery-looking little town that exudes an air of faded prosperity. In a naturally strong position, protected by two rivers that have, like most rivers in Italy, seen happier times, and medieval fortifications nearly two miles long, Benevento beckons the visitor from its perch up on a hill at 400 feet above sea level. In the early Middle Ages, Benevento was one of the most important cities in Southern Italy, both in commercial and cultural terms. There was a peculiar Beneventan script which was used for writing Latin manuscripts, and even a Beneventan chant that was superseded by the Gregorian chant only as late as the 11th century.
Giovanna and I liked Benevento immediately. While it is true that the more recent living quarters are hardly what you would call “charming”, they have, at least, managed not to suffocate the historical centre. Benevento has expanded outwards, rather than upwards and the preservation of its old town is something that you don’t come across very often in Southern Italy. Neither has the modern town succumbed to the unbridled degeneration and urban decay of a metropolis like Naples, and it was very refreshing to be there. The old town was lovely. Although earthquakes have rocked Benevento fairly frequently and the people of the city will tell you that a great deal of damage has been done over the years, you can see precious little evidence of it, unless you know where to look.
We took in the delightful Santa Sofia church complex, built in around 760 and tastefully modernised, and which has a splendid 12th century cloister. And we went to Mass in the cathedral, originally built in the 9th century and then rebuilt in the 12th, with its lovely façade, unfinished bell-tower and bronze doors with bas-reliefs that were added at a later date. Benevento really did feel like a “place of good events”. Sleepy and peaceful, but by no means dull, it had a religious sense of well-being and I felt the tribulations and stress of recent days begin to lift from me.
The Papacy had ruled Benevento until unification in 1860, with a short break from 1806 to 1815, when Napoleon gave it to his minister Tallyrand and made him Sovereign Prince, and it still has an air of sanctified pomp about it today. It is a city that is, quite simply, very pleasant to stroll around, just absorbing what it has to offer. Occasionally you will come across an ancient inscription or a fragment of an Egyptian obelisk created in honour of Domitian. Perhaps the most impressive monument in Benevento is the Arch of Trajan, erected in A.D. 114 and beautifully preserved, with illustrations of the exploits of Trajan himself. It no longer has the portcullis that 18th century depictions of the Arch portray, but it is a super spot for a picnic and Giovanna and I sat in its shade and enjoyed a lunch of substantial bread rolls filled with local cheese and ham and a side dish of artichokes in olive oil, washed down with a bottle of Solopaca, all of which we had bought from a nearby salumeria. Benevento is known for this kind of fare.
Being inland, at quite a distance from the sea, it feels mountainous, and this is reflected in its cuisine. Artichokes feature heavily, as do apples and mushrooms. Fresh pasta with woodland sauces, followed by hearty meat grills are excellent. Autumn seems to come sooner in Benevento than it does in the more coastal regions of Campania, and it can be difficult to convince yourself that you are not in central Italy, rather than the south. After a surfeit of southern excess, Benevento can be something of a tonic.
The city also has rather a sweet tooth. This is the home of Torrone, a sickly, fudge-like concoction, as well as the Strega, or “witch” liqueur, an ultra-sugary brew that is not everyone’s cup of tea, and certainly not mine, but which is enormously popular around these parts.
Benevento is, in fact, witch-central, thanks, in part, to its past as the seat of a Lombard duchy. It is said that, in order to honour the god Wotan, the Lombards celebrated their pagan rituals around a sacred walnut tree outside of the city walls. Satanists and witches would, according to popular legend, also meet there to dance around the tree and indulge in all sorts of diabolical shenanigans. On a recent trip to the San Carlo Opera House in Naples, I accompanied a colleague to see Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, which the artistic director had seen fit to set in the 1950s. The peasant youth Nemorino is sold a bottle of common-or-garden Bordeaux by the loveable rogue Dulcamara, who has convinced him that it is, in fact, a powerful love potion. “What nonsense!” snorted my colleague after the performance. “Are we really expected to believe that, as late as the 1950s, even a poor peasant boy would be gullible enough to fall for a stunt like that?
In the middle of the 20th century?” Well, had Nemorino been a native of Benevento, then the answer would probably have been “yes”. Until just a few decades ago, self-proclaimed wizards and witch-doctors roamed the area of Benevento, and the local population would turn to them, in full confidence, to sort out their love, health and work problems, by means of filters, potions, medicines and amulets, all of which would take effect only provided that elaborate rituals were followed to the very letter. Nowadays, the wizards and witch-doctors have disappeared from the streets, but still do a roaring trade from the comfort of a local television studio, while callers, many of whom, I would wager, troop piously to Mass every Sunday morning, are royally fleeced as they hold the line, waiting to be put through to the great miracle-worker himself, so that they might be told how to win back their lost love, put a curse on their neighbour, or conceive a longed-for child, all by supernatural means. “A tax on stupidity” is how one renowned Neapolitan philosopher has referred to the phenomenon.
We chugged back to Naples in a little regional train that was Spartan and slow, but very enjoyable, for the local yobs had somehow resisted the temptation to tear up the seats and cover the panelling in scribbled obscenities. As we rolled into the seething pit of Napoli Centrale, I pondered on the feasibility of finding a small flat in Benevento and commuting to Naples during the week. But I spotted a notice proclaiming a sciopero on all services for the following Wednesday, and the idea was dead in the water.