An adapted excerpt from Amare, A True Italian Love Story, 2009, by Sheila Wright
For my first Christmas in Italy, Gino suggests a trip to the mountains of Abruzzo, a definite change of scenery from our life on the Gulf of Naples. His family is full of sighs when we tell them the news. They are disappointed but not angry, assuming all Canadians must have an undeniable penchant for white Christmases.
We decide to take the train to Alfedena. Gino has heard of a mountain village called Villetta Barrea, not far from the station. He suggests we rent a chalet where we can cuddle up together in front of a blazing fire while snow falls silently outside. I agree. Abruzzo is famous for its salamis and wines, so we add these to our tableau. A quick call to the tourist office in Villetta Barrea reassures us that there will be no problem finding accommodations once we arrive. We are eager for an adventure.
The train station at Alfedena lies at the foot of the mountains, with Villetta Barrea nestled somewhere over the other side. Alfedena isn’t even a town, just a station in the middle of nowhere. Stranded as we are, I am relieved to find balmy weather and not a speck of snow in sight.
We will be blessed with angels on this trip and the first one shows up in the form of Signor Ponte. He acts as if there is nothing he would rather do than give us a lift over the mountains, he’s going that way anyway, nessun problema. On the way, Signor Ponte tells us about his life and we do the same. He drops us off at the tourist office in Villetta Barrea, gives us his business card and makes us promise to call if we are ever back in the area. We promise sincerely.
The tourist office directs us to our next angel, Signora Luca, who has a chalet-type apartment for rent, complete with view of the valley and wood-burning stove.
“My husband and I will be hiking into the mountains with some amici tomorrow morning. Our destination is a cave which hides a hidden spring. We make this pilgrimage every Christmas Eve. Would you like to join us?”
We don’t hesitate. “We’d love to!”
“Benissimo. Pack a lunch. It will take most of the day to get there and back.”
During the hike through misty air and golden chestnut leaves, we take deep breaths, fuelling our bodies with heady earth scents. Every once in a while we cross a burbling stream that must surely be the issue of our destination. The walk is long, but not strenuous. The last bit is a steep climb over rocky terrain, but then the mouth of the cave is above us, welcoming us. The headwaters bubble out of a fissure in the back wall, surging over the cave’s lip to cascade down the rocks.
We climb inside; there is plenty of space for the six of us. After we drink from the spring, Signor Luca pulls a bottle of champagne from his pack. We solemnly toast the true spirit of Christmas, of angels and blessings. The bubbles of the champagne become one with the gurgle of the spring and we are instantly giddy, anointing ourselves with this purest of waters. Infused with rapture, we emerge joyfully into the afternoon.
The spirit of the cave, the water, the chestnuts―this is my natural religion. I feel it quickening now within me. Gino feels it. The others feel it. It is the reason they make the pilgrimage every year to drink at this eternal fountain of nature.
The walk back is like floating on mist. Evening is setting in when we arrive effortlessly back in the village. Christmas lights welcome us to a scene from an Italiannativity scene. We bid buon natale to our companions and retire to our chalet. As night falls, so do large flakes of snow. They drift past the dark window, illuminated by our fire.
Snow at Christmas has always been magical, but this snow is special. It seems to be the risen spring water descending in another form to blanket the sacred earth. We watch, mesmerized by the constant whirl of flakes and the flickering warmth of the fire. Our eyes begin to droop; we make our way to the bedroom where we snuggle together and sleep the blissful slumber of the truly serene.
Christmas morning we step out into deep snow, something all too familiar to me. Something Gino has never done before. Peaked chalet roofs hang with snow icing. The lake below shimmers like crinkly foil, not ice but icy cold. I am struck by the diversity of Italy. This Alpine village is just as picturesque as the Amalfi coast or the Sorrentine peninsula, but entirely different. The snow begins to melt as the sun rises higher and we walk the lake trail without jackets. Thank you, Italy, for this taste of a gentler winter. One which bestows splendid shining moments, then melts away into jaunty rivulets.
Sheila's love of travel is limitless, even if most days she really enjoys living the simple life in the small village of Warkworth, Ontario. She loves beaches, horses, pugs and sweaters. A published author, her book Amare recounts her adventures in Italy while teaching English in Sorrento. Amare is available online at Amazon in hard and soft cover as well as ebook. The book is also sold at Chapters, Barnes and Noble and other bookstores.