Irpinia, where tradition and innovation meet in Italy
Originally published in November 2016 issue of Dream of Italy.
It is ironic how little known Irpinia is, given how many Italian-Americans have their roots here in the mountainous sub-region just east of Naples (if it sounds familiar it may be because the fictional Tony Soprano’s family hailed from Avellino) and the fact that the area is less than an hour from the exceedingly popular Amalfi Coast. Anyone with family from the province of Avellino hails from Irpinia which Italians call the green heart of Campania. Serious wine lovers know Irpinia by prestigious labels like Feudi di San Gregorio and Mastrobernardino.
Right now, Irpinia is the ideal destination for those travelers who understand that quality does not necessarily correlate with top 10 lists and obsequious service. This is a land for curious travelers and serious Italophiles who want to see how ancient and contemporary Italy can be beautifully integrated. Irpinia is what Tuscany was decades ago – a place you could sit with a medieval fresco in a small church all by yourself, or wander around an ancient hilltown for the afternoon and find yourself invited to a local’s home for dinner that evening.
Land of Contradictions
Avellino, the capital city of Irpinia is nothing like busy, chaotic Naples, less than an hour drive away. When I recently arrived in Avellino after spending nine days in Naples, I find myself inexplicably exhausted.
"It's because it’s blissfully quiet," my husband explains with a relaxed smile. I sleep as soundly that night as when I visited the Highlands of Scotland.
A light mist veils the green mountaintops. Serpentine roads open up onto spectacular panoramic views where you can see rain clouds heavy over one town and the sun shining down on the next. Cozy villages nestle into the soft corners in between hilltops which are often fortified with crumbling medieval towers. Sometimes smoke appears funneling from the earth because of the intense geothermal activity in Irpinia that the Romans believed were portals to the underworld.
The prettiness is sometimes interrupted by a dour factory or industrial town, but then this is also the joy of Irpinia— it’s a real and vital place, not a living museum like Venice or Siena that must restrict its expression of contemporary life in servitude to the tourism industry.
The mountains keep summers in Irpinia cool, getting up to around 80 degrees Fahrenheit and even though it isn’t far from the sunny Amalfi Coast, the 200 plus days of rain annually make it feel more like Portland than Positano. There’s even a ski resort in the town of Laceno. At the top of the chairlift, you can see the Tyrrhenian Sea sparkling on the other side the Appenines.
Irpinia is an especially ancient territory whose name derives from the Oscan word hirpus which means wolf. Oscan tribes known as Hirpini because of their wolf totem migrated here from Umbria in the 3rd century B.C.E. and settled among the Samnites. The Roman poet Virgil loved Irpinia and legends describe him foraging herbs on Monte Partenio for healing remedies.
Catholicism remains a strong cultural influence, especially in the isolated mountain villages, but ancient stories have been woven into its very fabric. Local legend says that Saint William (Gugliemo) set off to build the Sanctuary at Montevergine, at the summit of Monte Partenio, but a wolf emerged from the woods and killed his donkey. Saint William then enlisted the wolf's help who stayed by him and hauled stones for his greatest work.
Montevergine may be the best place in Irpinia to discover the unexpected. An important point of pilgrimage since the 12th century, it is a long and difficult climb, so arduous in fact that during World War II, the Shroud of Turin was brought there to hide it from the Nazis.
The sanctuary was built over an ancient temple to Cybele, an earth goddess who was attended by devotees who would castrate themselves, literally sacrificing their gender for dutiful worship. In the Middle Ages Cybele’s worship was absorbed by an icon known as “Madonna Schiavona” or serving mother who is also one of Italy’s famous black Madonna’s whose dark skin is symbolic of the earth. The ancient foundations of Montevergine have attracted transgender people who dedicate a pilgrimage every February 2nd to the icon they call the “Madonna of Transformation.
LGBT pilgrims come to Montevergine to sing and pray before the icon as well as do the ancient tammurriata dance in the main piazza, celebrating long into the night. They especially recall the legend that in 1256, the Madonna interceded when two men on pilgrimage to Montevergine were attacked by an angry mob for displaying their affection for each other. They were stripped bare, put in chains and left to die of exposure in the cold snow. The Madonna seeing the mens’ love for each other interceded, broke their chains and held them up as an example of love.
Sanctuary of Montevergine
Via Santuario, 83013 Mercogliano AV, Italy
Hours: July 15 – September 15 Monday.-Friday.: 9.30-12.30 / 3.00-6.00, Saturday-Sunday.: 9:30-1:00 / 3:00-6:00
September 16 – July 14: Saturday.-Sunday.: 9: 30-1:00 / 3:00-5:00
The climb to Montervergine is steep, but there is a funicular from Viale San Modestino in the village of Mercogliano. €3 round-trip. The schedule changes every month and can be confirmed at: http://www.santuariodimontevergine.com/orario-delle-corse/
Ancient Vineyards Reborn
What’s most striking about Irpinia is how well it blends the ancient and modern worlds, a direct result of the devastating earthquake of 1980. Many villages in the outskirts of Avellino were completely destroyed. Nearly 2,500 people were killed and 250,000 were left homeless. Rebuilding has been a slow process which also gave rise to the Camorra who siphoned off funds from the Italian government that were dedicated to rebuilding.
But the rebuilding also opened the door to new opportunities, most notably Feudi Di San Gregorio, one of Italy’s best and most prestigious wineries. It was established in 1986 specifically to contribute to the redevelopment of the region and now the largest wine producer in southern Italy.
Italian designer Massimo Vignelli created the brand’s signature labels to express Feudi’s marriage of innovation and tradition. Hikaru Mori designed the state-of-the-art facility that opened in 2004. Travertine pavement lines an herb garden laid out on a grid pattern, every step an illustration of old and new Italy. Visitors are greeted in a library also designed by Vignelli.
Next to barrels of Aglianico in an aggressively sleek and modern cantina, the owners have installed a presepio made to look like the nearby Goleto Abbey, a medieval structure also destroyed by the earthquake, but which has also been lovingly rebuilt over three decades.
Feudi di San Gregorio Spa
Loc. Cerza Grossa
83050 Sorbo Serpico (AV)
Tel. +39 0825.986683
Contact person to arrange a vineyard tour : Lilyan Mele
The wine cellar at Caggiano in Taurasi looks ancient compared to Feudi, but it was also re-built after the earthquake. Antonio Caggiano who in addition to being a winemaker is an artist and photographer who hates to see anything go to waste. He builds beautiful chairs out of old wine barrels and re-built the entire cellar from ancient stones that had been displaced by the earthquake.
Caggiano mostly leaves the winemaking now to his sons who have made their Macchia dei Goti (Stain of the Goths) one of Italy’s most prestigious wines. Caggiano has won several important wine awards including the Bibenda and Tre Bicchieri that larger producers only dream about.
Azienda Agricola Antonio Caggiano
Contrada Sala, 4
83030 Taurasi (Av)
Tel: +39 0827 74723
Contact person : Giuseppe Caggiano
Irpinia is one of the best, and at once undervalued wine regions in the world as well as one of the most ancient. The influence of Greece is evident in the varietal names like Aglianico from Hellenikos meaning simply Hellenic or Greek Greco di Tufo and Coda di Volpe, meaning “tail of the wolf” in reference to the way the vines on this particularly grape curl, also grow here.
Bouts of intense sunshine combined with cool evenings create ideal conditions for growing and producing wines of quality, complexity, balance, terroir and longevity. Proximity to the Tyrrhenian Sea and extremely active volcanic, and seismic activity infuses the vines with key minerals. Irpinia produces 4 different DOCG varietals: Taurasi Aglianico, Greco di Tufo, Falanghina and Fiano Di Avellino. Aglianico from Taurasi has long been referred to as the “Barolo of the South” due to its tannic structure, depth, and aging potential which can rival Nebbiolo.
One of the star winemakers of Irpinia is Salvatore Molettierri whose winery is in his ancestral home of Montemarrano. Many of the Moletierri family emigrated to New York (including my great-grandmother), though many also returned. Familial pride and a fierce passion for their territory is central to every wine in the Molettierri line, a darling of Robert Parker and his scoring system and of Eric Asimov in the New York Times. My husband who is a sommelier regularly says that Salvatore is one of his heroes.
On our second visit, his entire family was there on the terrace to greet us, even though it is a Sunday evening and the October crush is swiftly approaching. As we sit in his tasting room together, Giovanni Moletierri, an enologist and Salvatore’s son, pours wine while his own 5-year old daughter Angela follows closely behind, playing peekaboo with the guests.
Each wine, a bold expression of the land, tells a different story. Salvatore sits with us and explained how he considers himself the father of the wine, partner to Mother Nature. The bees are his workers and when the environment is healthy, the children will also be a healthy expression of the land, something he emphasizes above all else.
Visit by appointment only
Contact person: Salvatore Molettieri
Tel: 0827 63722
Irpinian food is forest food. Cured pork is made especially delicious by the abundance of acorns. Caciomano cheese made from sheep’s milk cheese is a signature. Chestnuts that grow here are among the best in the world as are the black truffles from Bagnoli Irpino.
The high quality of the local ingredients combined with a reverence for simplicity make Irpinia a tremendous place to eat well without feeling bloated and heavy. At Marennà, the Michelin starred restaurant at Feudi di San Gregorio, local ingredients are expressed through fine dining preparations and nothing is ever served out of season. I swooned over a plate of baby zucchini scapece over sheep’s milk ricotta stuffed raviolini and a hunk of veal braised in Aglianco.
The name Marennà comes from the verb merere “to deserve” in keeping with the mission of the kitchen to provide a worthy reward for a hard-earned hunger. The dining room is a jewel box of Massimo Vignelli’s peerless design sense and service is executed with attention to every detail. Guests are invited to watch the chefs at work in the open kitchen.
While this meal of a lifetime should be the standout of my travels in Irpinia, the one I may never forget takes place at Nonna Pina Country House, a guest house in Bagnoli Irpino. A sweet dog who they found years ago abandoned on a road, an old cranky cat and a pair of friendly kittens are to greet us as we arrive via a long gravel driveway. Behind the house are breathtaking views of the mountains, a medieval abbey and tower and more farmland where a baby goat runs around among chickens and ducks beneath fig trees.
Lunch begins with a plate of cheese and cured meats, so simple yet each with flavors that were so pure that it was like tasting mozzarella for the first time. The main course is handmade ravioli stuffed with freshly made ricotta and local caciocavallo cheese and smothered in Bagnoli black truffles. While we feast, the proprietor runs out to fields to pick fresh figs for our fruit course. A sponge cake made from their own amareno cherries is truly the single most delicious dessert I have had or could ever imagine eating in this lifetime.
But what makes the experience so searing was the tremendous pride our hosts had in their olive oil, their cheese and fruit, how they had grown it, shaped it, how it tells a story about Irpinia and how much they loved their land and history. Hospitality at Nonna Pina is about sharing as generously as possible.
Castles and Abbeys
Irpinia has more than sixty medieval castles, many of which look like fairy tale illustrations like the Castello Lancellotti (Lancelot) in Lauro. Lombards and Longboards were here as well as the Normans, Angevins and Aragonese. Some castles still stand alongside a fortified village while others are in ruin adjacent to a modern town or along a roadside.
But the most impressive and the most romantic ruin is that of Goleto Abbey. About 40 minutes from Avellino after passing by a characteristic mix of beautiful mountains as well as industrial towns and factories, the abbey rises up in a remote, grassy field. Surrounded by feral olive trees and wildflowers, the entire basilica is now exposed. Lizards scamper over sculptures of wild beasts that once served to scare away demons and evil spirits. The abbey was almost completely destroyed during the earthquake, but it has been slowly and lovingly rebuilt over the past 30 years.
Established by Saint William in 1114 before he built Montevergine, it was originally a convent for nuns with a small, separate cloister for monks. During what is called the “Age of the Nuns” the abbey became very wealthy with gifts and support from the local aristocracy. On the second floor is a chapel where frescoed portraits of the Abbesses with their shepherd’s staffs have been reaffixed to the walls.
After the plague caused the convent to decline, the “Epoch of the Monks” began when the last abbess passed away in 1515. In 1807, Joseph Bonaparte, the king of Naples and brother-in-law of Napoleon ordered the monastery closed and the body of Saint William which was buried at Goleto was moved to Montevergine. His original tomb is still at Goleto, set quietly against a wall.
Goleto Abbey was completely abandoned between 1807 and 1973 when a monk from Montevergine received permission to reconsecrate the site. Since 1989 it has been under the care of a religious order who continue to conduct research and restoration and hold religious services there. The sacred architecture broken, but now open to the sky makes the ruin feel tremendously peaceful and like a temple to the ever changing but sun, wind and rain in the fierce but gentle landscape.
Contrada San Guglielmo
83054 Sant'Angelo dei Lombardi
+39 0827 24432 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Admission is free. Call for an appointment.