Fragrance in Travel Literature-The Naples Riviera by Herbert M. Vaughan

The Naples Riviera by Herbert M. Vaughan

Beati sunt mortui: here rest, we know, the priestess Mammia, the decemvir Aricius, Libella the aedile, and a host of other citizens with whose names the student or the lover of Pompeii is familiar. How many a time has this line of roadway rung with the sound of the last sad appeal, the thrice repeated valediction: “Vale, vale, vale! farewell until the day when Nature will allow us to follow thee!” How often have the wooden pyres flung up in these precincts their clouds of perfumed smoke into the clear air, now redolent with the aroma of yellow broom, of dewy thyme and of sweet marigolds! Perhaps it was amidst these lines of cypress-set tombs by the Herculaneum Gate that the poetic genius, whose verses were spurned by his own generation, composed his famous Ode to Naples, for in its opening lines Shelley tells us it was the aspect of the “city disinterred” that gave him inspiration:—
“Around me gleamed many a bright sepulchre
Of whose pure beauty, Time, as if his pleasure
Were to spare Death, had never made erasure;
But every living lineament was clear
As in the sculptor’s thought; and there
The wreaths of stony myrtle, ivy and pine,
Like winter-leaves o’ergrown by moulded snow,
Seemed only not to move and grow,
Because the crystal silence of the air
Weighed on their life....”

One prominent feature of this district has already attracted our attention; the number of deep ravines with which the whole plain is intersected. These natural clefts are marvellously lovely in their rich luxuriance of foliage, and with their precipitous sides and verdure-clad depths will recall the wonderful latomiè, the ancient stone-quarries of Syracuse. Their depths are filled with orange and lemon trees, mingled with sable spires of cypress and the tall forms of bays, which here bear jet-black berries, such as are rarely seen in our northern clime; whilst the edges of the cliffs are clothed with a serried mass of wild flowers; red valerian, crimson snap-dragon, tall blue campanulas, the dark green wild fennel, white-blossoming cistus, and a hundred other plants, gay with colour and strong with aromatic perfume.
“The quarry’s edge is lined with many a plant,
With many a flower distilling fragrant dew
From brightly coloured petals. Almond trees
Give snowy promise of sweet leaves and fruit;
Here all the scented tangle of the South
Covers the boulders, calcined by the sun
To pearly whiteness; thorn or asphodel
Sprout from each cranny of the topmost ledge
To nod against the deep blue sky, or peer
Into the verdure-clad abyss below.”

Vastly different is the aspect on this side of the peninsula to that which we have just left behind us. There is the plain below us, thickly dotted with farms and villas set amidst crops and orchards, a fertile scene of industry and population; here on the Salerno side are wild stony tracts affording only pasturage for a few sheep and goats, and covered for miles with broom, cytizus, coronella, myrtle, and numberless fragrant weeds, all struggling fiercely for existence on the dry barren soil, and filling the clear air with an incense-like perfume. Such is our first acquaintance with the Costiera d’Amalfi, that wonderful stretch of indented rocky coast-line once containing the Republic of Amalfi, which was the forerunner of the glorious Commonwealths of Florence and Venice. From the grey cliffs of Capri to the west, as far as the headland beside Salerno, stretched this diminutive state, composed of a confederacy of sister-cities, whereof Amalfi herself was the queen and metropolis. Its glories have long vanished, but the Costiera d’Amalfi remains an enchanted land, not only on account of its natural beauties, but also by reason of its historical associations which give an additional charm to every breezy headland and every little town upon this wonderful shore.

[pg 131]Above the terraced garden rises the orangery, well watered by many artificial rillets, and from the midst of the orange and lemon trees there emerges a path leading to the entrancing bosco, or grove, that fills the deep hollow space formed by the sheltering cliffs behind. It was mid-winter, as we have said, yet pink cyclamens and strong-scented double narcissi were blooming freely, whilst from the dark boughs of the ilex trees overhead there fell upon the ear the pleasant twittering of innumerable birds, for happily the cruel snare and the gun are strictly forbidden in this sacred spot, so that his “little sisters, the birds,” that the gentle Saint of Assisi loved so tenderly, can still sing their songs of innocence and build their nests in peace amidst the trees that no longer remain the property of the great humanitarian Order. At nightfall this garden is almost equally beautiful beneath a star-lit sky and with the many lamps of the town below throwing long bars of yellow light upon the placid waters of the Bay. As we pace the long terrace, wrapped in the glory of a million stars and revelling in the exalted yet fairy-like loveliness of the scene around us, we perceive the mellow night air to be redolent of a strange but fascinating perfume. It is the olea fragrans, the humble inconspicuous oriental shrub that from its clusters of tiny white flowers is thus giving out its secret soul at the falling of the night dews, and permeating the whole garden with its marvellous floral incense. But if the star-lit, flower-scented nights of Amalfi are to be accounted as exquisite memories, how much more glorious and exhilarating is the rising of the sun, as he appears in full majesty of crimson and gold above the classic hills [pg 132]that overlook Paestum to the east! Leaning at early dawn from the windows of the Cappuccini, we have watched the sky flush at the first caress of “rosy-fingered Eôs” and seen the fragment of the waning moon turn to silver at the approach of the burning God of Day, still tarrying behind the lofty barrier of the capes and mountains of the Lucanian shore.

It is all very well in its way, but in wet weather its surface is one sheet of slippery mud, and the streams pouring down the hillside make it chilly and damp for all who are not quick walkers. Besides this not very attractive and soon exploited walk, there are only the vicoletti, the narrow steep rocky paths running up hill, which make rough going and give little pleasure, for they are almost all bounded on either [pg 223]side by high stone walls that jealously exclude the view. So much for Sorrento in its winter dress. But when the spring comes, here truly is a transformation from cold and torpor! The soft warm air is redolent of the penetrating fragrance of orange blossom, of stocks, of jessamine, of wallflower, and of a hundred odorous plants and shrubs from each garden and grove behind the many obstructing walls. The balconies and gate-pillars are draped in scented masses of the beautiful wistaria, which in Italy produces its long pendant bunches of purple flowers before putting forth its bronze-coloured leaves. Cascades of white and yellow banksia roses fall over each confining barrier, or else their stems may be seen climbing like huge serpents up the trunks of pine and olive, to burst forth amidst the topmost boughs into floral rockets against the cloudless sky. The ravines with which the whole of the Piano di Sorrento is intersected are filled with a perfect jungle of fresh spring foliage, amidst whose varied tints of green appear here and there the bright red shoots of the pomegranate trees bursting into leaf. In the heavily perfumed air at dusk, or when the bright moonlight is flooding the whole scene and is turning the Bay into a mirror of molten silver, the song of the innumerable nightingales can be heard resounding from all sides; alas! too often sweet songs of sorrow for nests despoiled by the ruthless hands of young Sorrentine imps, as in the days of the Georgics.

From Ana-Capri we ascend to the peak of the lofty Solaro, by no means an arduous climb from this point, for we have but to follow a narrow goat-track leading across slopes covered with coarse grass and some low thickets of stunted lentisk and myrtle. The rosemary too grows plentifully on the dry wind-swept soil, and the soft sea breeze wafts its refreshing scent to our nostrils. There is a pretty legend of the people which relates the cause of this plant obtaining its perfume of unearthly sweetness:—how the Madonna one day hung the swaddling clothes of the Infant Christ to dry upon a common pot-herb in the garden at Nazareth—the rosemary is freely used in Italian cookery, and its taste is as unpleasant as its scent is delicious—whereupon the humble plant thus honoured was ever afterwards endowed with the delicate odour that is so highly prized. And beyond this, the rosemary was likewise permitted to put forth masses of flowers of the Madonna’s own colour of blue, concerning which a tradition—Celtic, not Italian—avers that on Christmas morning upon every plant of rosemary will be found by those who care to seek them expanded blooms in honour of St Joseph, the Virgin and the Holy Child. Reaching the crest of the Solaro, we are well rewarded for our climb over the stony slopes by a wide-spreading view. Owing to the central position [pg 269]of the island, we can from its airy summit, some sixteen hundred feet above sea-level, command a glorious panorama of the three bays of the Neapolitan Riviera, each teeming with a thousand associations of classical or modern history.

Nor is its classical lore the only feature of the Bay of Baiae, for though its actual scenery cannot compare with the grandeur of Capri nor its vegetation with the rich luxuriance of Sorrento, yet these shores have a quiet beauty of their own. Vine, olive and almond abound on all sides, and everywhere we see the groves of orange and lemon that in spring time scent the air with their perfumed blossoms. And in the early months of the year every patch of warm-coloured, up-turned earth is gay with sheets of that beautiful but rapacious weed, hated of the peasant, the oxalis, with its clusters of pale yellow flowers: a species of sorrel that is allied to our own white-blossomed variety. From many a point on the little ridges that rise behind Pozzuoli magnificent views can be obtained, whilst to those who care to study the scientific results of volcanic action the Phlegraean Fields afford endless occupation and interest. Every one of course visits the Solfatara, that curious semi-extinct crater, the Forum Vulcani of Strabo, which has remained for over seven hundred [pg 304]years in its present condition of languor. A strange experience it is to enter the heart of a volcano that is still comparatively active, and to observe woods of poplar and a large pine tree beneath which grow masses of spring flowers—bright blue bugloss, the crimson vetch, starch hyacinths, purple self-heal, and golden spurge—and to pass from these thickets on to a space of bare white-coloured ground that trembles and sways under the feet like a sheet of insecure ice. Beyond, one sees the little fissures (fumaroli) emitting fumes of sulphur, and the guides take us to stifling caverns in the hill-side where we are shown the beautiful primrose-coloured crystals.

The appearance of the Image of “Il Divo,” upon which the sunbeams were playing in dazzling coruscations of light, was greeted with a murmur of applause and satisfaction from the expectant crowd in the open. Hats were doffed; knees were bent; prayers were muttered, as with slow and cautious steps the bearers of the Image and its canopy began to descend. Having gained the lower ground in safety, a momentary halt was made, during which we were able to note the mass of votive offerings—jewels, chains, rings, watches, seals—suspended round the Saint’s neck, amongst them being many silver fishes, doubtless the gifts of grateful mariners. And at this point we were spectators of a pretty incident. A little girl with black ringlets and eager eyes was dexterously lifted on to her father’s shoulder, in order that she might present “Il Divo” with a golden chain, which the tiny fingers deftly clasped round the bejewelled neck of the silver bust. The crowd saw and applauded; it was a moment of triumph for the dark-eyed child, for the Church, and for the approving throng. With the new addition of the child’s necklet to the treasury of the Saint, the procession pursued its way through the square towards the Valley of the Mills, with banners waving, with priests chaunting in harsh monotonous tones, and with clouds of incense rising into the sun-kissed air. It was truly a beautiful and curious sight, this festival of the Church amidst people so devout and surroundings so appropriate.

Casting a longing look behind we quit Amalfi in [pg 169]the cool of the evening, in order to cover the eight intervening miles of coast road that lie between us and Salerno. We pass Atrani, with its tall parti-coloured tower, and proceed towards our destination with the smooth plain of waters below us and the fertile slopes above our heads, and thus we quickly gain Minori, another of the busy little settlements that once helped to make up the collected might of the old Republic. We meet with bare-footed sun-embrowned peasants, in their suits of blue linen and broad shady straw hats; lean sinewy figures, returning from a long day’s work in the fragrant orange groves by which the town is surrounded.

In these days of easy travelling there lies a choice of two routes to Paestum and its temples: one by driving thither direct from La Cava or Salerno, in the mode of our forefathers; and the other by taking the train to the little junction of Battipaglia, and thence proceeding southward by the coast line to the station of Pesto itself, that stands almost within a stone’s throw of the chief gate of Poseidonia. A third, and perhaps a preferable way, consists in using the railway beyond Battipaglia to Eboli, a town of no little interest in the upper valley of the Silarus, and thence driving along the base of the rocky hills that enclose the maritime plain and through the oak wood of Persano that was brigand-haunted within living memory. But though the scenery between Eboli and Paestum undoubtedly owns more charm and variety than the marshy flats can boast, yet the strange loneliness of the sea-girt level has a fascination of its own, which will appeal strongly to all lovers of pristine undisturbed nature. For the larger portion of these Lucanian plains still remains uncultivated, so that thickets of fragrant wild myrtle and lentisk, of coronella and of white-blossomed laurustinus, stud the landscape; whilst [pg 199]the open ground is thickly covered with masses of hardy but gay flowering weeds. The great star-thistles run to seed unchecked by the scythe, and the belled cerinthia and the glaucous-leaved tall yellow mulleins seem to thrive heartily on the barren soil. Boggy ground alternates with patches of dry stony earth, and in early summer every little pool of water affords sustenance to coarse-scented white water-lilies, and clumps of the yellow iris that are over-shadowed by masses of tall graceful reeds.

Remnants of Tiberius’ palaces, all of which are said to have been razed to the ground by order of the Roman Senate at his death, are scattered thick as fallen leaves in Vallombrosa over the whole surface of the island, and it is to the ruins of the Villa Jovis at its eastern crest that the visitor will in all probability first direct his steps. The way thither from the little city of Capri leads through narrow lanes along a stony but populous hill-side, to which the flat-roofed dazzling white houses with their small iron-barred windows lend [pg 255]an oriental aspect; an illusion that is aided by the appearance of an occasional date-palm over-topping some low wall, and by clumps or hedges of the prickly pear. This latter plant, of Indian extraction as its name of Ficus Indica betrays, grows in profusion over the sun-baked rocky slopes of southern Italy, especially in the neighbourhood of the sea. The peasants find it most useful, for it makes impenetrable hedges, and its coarse pulpy leaves when pounded up afford good provender for their goats and donkeys. The fruits of the prickly pear, those quaint crimson or yellow knobs attached to the edges of the leaves, are likewise gathered and eaten by the people, or else cleaned of their protecting layers of spiny hairs and despatched in baskets to Naples, where the cactus-fruit forms an important item of the popular fare. The fruit itself has a lovely colour and a fragrant scent, which give promise of a better flavour than it actually possesses, for it is hopelessly insipid to the taste, although the Neapolitans declare that the pulp, when mashed up into patties and iced, is very palatable.

But besides wine and oil, the island is likewise celebrated for its beautiful and varied flora, and it is amongst the olive groves and lanes of the western side of the island that the wild flowers can be found in the greatest profusion. Amongst the tender green shoots of the young springing corn are set myriads of brilliant hued anemones, purple, scarlet, and white with a crimson centre; and even in January can be found in warm sheltered nooks the pretty mauve wind-flower, one of the earliest of spring blossoms in Italy. The grassy pathways that intersect the various holdings are gay with rosy-tipped daisies, white “star-of-Bethlehem,” dark purple grape-hyacinth, and the tiny strong-scented marigold, that seems to bloom the whole twelve-month round. Amongst the loose stone-work of the walled lanes, where beryl-backed lizards peep in and out of every crevice, can be found fragrant violets and the delicate fumitory with its pink waxy bells. In moist places flourish patches of the wild arum or of the stately great celandine, the “swallow-wort” of old-fashioned herbalists, who believed that the swallow made use of the thick yellow juice that runs in the veins of this plant to anoint the eyes of her fledgelings! And with the disappearance of the anemones as the season advances, their place is taken by blood-red poppies, by golden hawkweeds and by masses of tall magenta-coloured blooms of the wild gladiolus, the [pg 268]“Jacob’s Ladder” of our own English gardens. Strange enough amongst these familiar homely flowers appear the sub-tropical clumps of prickly pear, and the hedges of aloe which here and there have thrown up a gigantic spike of blossom eight or ten feet in height, a triumphal favour of Nature that the plant itself must pay for by its subsequent death.

Leaving behind this region of houses and of cultivation, the zone of forest is reached, covered with woods of chestnut and oak, with a thick undergrowth of heather, myrtle, laurustinus and sweet-scented yellow coronella; there is grass under our feet, and long-stemmed daisies, violets, mauve anemones and small fragrant marigolds everywhere. Through the trees comes the nasal but [pg 292]not unmelodious singing of an unseen charcoal-burner, or the plaintive note of the little goat-herd’s rustic pipe, accompanied by the musical jingling of his goat-bells;—for a moment we try to fancy ourselves in the pastoral Italy of Theocritus, where nymphs and shepherds, peasants and dryads, lived together on terms of amity in the woods.

It is but a short quarter of an hour by train from Torre Annunziata to Castellamare di Stabia, the ill-fated Stabiae of the Romans, which shared the evil lot of Pompeii and Herculaneum. On our right we have the sea, with the castle-topped islet of Revigliano, whilst on looking to the left we can survey the fertile valley of the Sarno, and the shapeless mounds which hide that precious goal of every traveller to these shores, the buried city of Pompeii. Everywhere thrives sub-tropical vegetation:—cactus and aloe draped in wreaths of smilax; tall straggling masses of scarlet geranium that cling for protection to the Indian fig, and blossom in security amid their spiky but safe retreats; shrubs of fragrant yellow genista; clumps of purple-leaved ricini, as the Italians name the castor-oil plant. If it were summer time, the daturas would be covered with their great white floral trumpets, and every oleander bush would be one blaze of the coarse carmine blossoms that are here called Mazza di San Giuseppe, or St Joseph’s nosegay, and a very gaudy rank bouquet they make. But in spring-time the oleander can but display long greyish leaves and pods of snowy fluff, which is blown hither and thither like thistle-down on the air; and it is only in flaming summer that these regions are brightened by St [pg 27]Joseph’s flower, or by the still more gorgeous masses of the mesembryanthemum, which clambers on all sides over the lava rock and hangs in crimson festoons from tufa cliffs, making impossibly splendid splashes of colour in the landscape.

If the garden of the Hotel Palumbo seems a fitting place wherein to idle or to dream, might not it also appeal to some historian, not tied to time nor to the hard necessity of money-making, as a suitable spot for the conception of a history of the origin, rise, decline and fall of the great maritime Republic, whose dominions, still smiling and populous, surround Ravello on all sides? Gibbon found the first suggestion for his Roman History whilst musing upon the ruins of the Capitol, and he finished his great work in a Swiss garden amidst the scent of acacia bloom; might not the annals of the Amalfitan Republic likewise spring from reflections made upon this terrace, where the memories of a former greatness still beautiful in its decay must operate so powerfully? Well, perhaps some future Gibbon—or more probably some budding Mommsen—may in time present the world with a true impartial and erudite history of the Costiera d’Amalfi.

The fruit of commerce is propagated by means of grafting the sweet variety on to the stock of the bitter orange—said on doubtful authority to be indigenous to this district—which is fairly hardy and can be grown in the open as far north as Tuscany, so that every aranciaria ought to possess a nursery of flourishing young sweet-orange shoots, ready in case of necessity. For eight long years the grafted tree remains as a rule profitless, but having survived and thriven so long, it then becomes a valuable asset to its proprietor for an indefinite period;—as a proof of the longevity of the orange under normal conditions we may cite the famous tree in a Roman convent garden, which on good authority is stated to have been planted by St Dominic nearly six hundred years ago. As to the amount of fruit yielded, the growers of Sorrento commonly aver that one good year, one bad year and one mediocre year constitute the general cycle in the prospects of orange farming. Two crops are gathered annually, the principle one in December and the other at Eastertide, the fruit produced by the later and smaller crop being far finer in size and flavour than those of the Christmas harvest. Mandarin oranges are gathered on both occasions, but the large luscious loose-skinned fruit of March and April—Portogalli as they are commonly termed—are far superior to the small hard specimens that appear in December, and seem to consist of little else than rind, scent and seeds. The oranges begin to form in spring time, almost before the petals have fallen, when the peasants anxiously draw their conclusions as to the expected yield. But however valuable the fruit, the wood of the tree is worthless for commerce, except to make [pg 233]walking-sticks, or to serve the ignoble purpose of supplying hotels and cafés with tooth-picks! Lemons, which are far more delicate than oranges and require to be kept protected by screens and matting during the sharp winter nights, are less common at Sorrento than on the warmer shores of the Bay of Baia or the sunny terraced slopes of the Amalfitan coast.