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Benevento: Witches and a Back Door for Jay in Chicago

For Jay and the rest of you who like off-the-beaten-path places, I recommend Benevento! Ironic that now it's off the path, two thousand years ago it WAS the path: Benevento became the place where the via Appia cut two days' journey from the older road between Roma and Brindisi.

My father was born in a very small town near here, and Benevento was the big city. What history! The Samnites were conquered by Rome, Pyrrhus was defeated here by Rome in 275 BCE and the Romans gratefully changed the city's name from Maleventum (ill wind) to Beneventum (good wind). Benevento gets a healthy blowing breeze fairly constantly, which takes the edge off the heat (some days). Trajan erected an arch here (still the best-preserved in Italy, perhaps in the world), and relics from a temple to Isis were found nearby. The original Egyptian pieces are in the ARCOS Museum, the lower floor of the Palazzo del Governo. There is a well-preserved Roman theatre that seated 15,000 at the lower end of the city, in what became the medieval quarter.

The Longobards stopped by next, built several interesting structures. The small, hexagonal church of Santa Sofia still has original columns. There is a Museum of the Samnites in the complex through the cloister.

The Duomo complex is quite large but has been destroyed by earthquakes throughout history and Allied bombing in WWII, but the rebuilt structure retains the simplicity of the early Christian church, as well as some preserved architectural elements. Really a walk through history.

There is also a small botanical garden near the medieval quarter. And, lots of benches line the Corso Garibaldi when you need a rest! You could see everything in one day. Caffes line the main streets, restaurants are on side streets and cul de sacs. As was my B&B, Le Streghe. Some interesting facts about lodging: each municipality apparently decides what constitutes a B&B. In Benevento, the maximum number of rooms is three, so a B&B is considered an augmentation of income within a family household. (source: my B&B owner.) Price for a beautifully renovated room with breakfast was €50. Mamma comes in with baked goods (some delicious homemade ones, too) at about 8:15 and if you want breakfast after 9, it is do-it-yourself, because Mamma has a full-time job at City Hall. The fridge is well-stocked for Italian-style breakfast, so no problem if you can figure out the coffeemaker. I couldn't, so I was really happy to see her on the second morning.

That morning I met a couple on holiday from Torino, which I will get to in about three weeks. The couple and I had a lovely chat with Mamma and realized we were on the same train the next day, so decided to reserve a taxi. At breakfast the day of departure, the third guest rushed downstairs, said hello and goodbye, and left with his luggage. Turned out he was on the same train, too - we saw him again at the station. What are the odds? The couple would not let me pay for the taxi, which was very sweet of them.

Side note: a lot of B&B hosts have picked me up/dropped me off at the train station. Might have something to do with traveling solo, since Smart cars and B&B hosts seem to go together. A Smart car only has two seats; Matera's municipal police use them (mostly for parking violations).

Oh them witches! Famous in Benevento, the local liqueur is named for them (Strega; delicious, it tastes like sunset). They performed rituals weekly at a tree by the Sabato River (witches' sabbaths) until the bishop cut down the tree. Probably did in the witches, too. If you are Strega shopping, the prices are much lower in the centro storico than at the main factory/store across the street from the train station.

(Continued below)

Posted by
11613 posts

Continuing Benevento:

For me, this was a very personal trip. I spent an inordinate and perhaps impolite amount of time looking at the faces of people who looked like me. Some of them looked back in the same way. I walked down the street, overhearing conversations in the local dialect, and understood every word. I remembered my father's voice, and unconsciously took on his posture while walking, hands folded behind my back. It's a good way to walk in a city where the wind blows almost constantly.

Even in a modern city center, there are tables with old men playing cards. A group of young men is playing cards, too, at a less rustic sidewalk cafe.

I seem to be drawn to Samnite cities (Rieti is another city that has taken hold of me). Perhaps there's some history there...I feel very much at home.

I bought an inclusive museum card for €6, good for four sights over two days, and I went to all of them. I don't pressure myself to "get my money's worth" on these cards when they are so inexpensive (the Venezia, Firenze and Roma cards are a different story). This is the first time in years that I used the entire card. Everything was interesting to me, especially the Egyptian museum (Diocletian wanted original works, not Roman copies, for his temple to Isis).

But I am always most moved by the ancient ceramics. The everyday, utilitarian objects are carved or painted with scenes or vines and flowers, or a series of carefully coiled metal becomes a ring or bracelet. The oil lamps, the small jars (and huge kraters) tell stories. Someone needed to make a jar, and they decided to make it beautiful. A wealth of expression and personality of the artisan are preserved behind glass, having survived wars, earthquakes, accidents, abandonment - and still connects us to our common past with the lines of a brush, or the flecks of gold, that have survived. Seeing these things humbles me, and gives me hope.

Posted by
384 posts

Zoe, I very much enjoyed reading this post, (as well as your many other posts). I think your description of walking through the town, searching the faces of the villagers, overhearing conversations, and following in the footsteps and posture of your father is quite poignant. Your comment about looking at the faces in your father's hometown is exactly what I did when I visited my grandparents' small hometown in Sicily. I remember being amazed at meeting cousins of my mother's whose family resemblance was so strong and It brought back many childhood memories of those Italian relatives that I grew up with in the United States. I was constantly searching the faces of the villagers to make my own personal connection to the town. I marvelled at hearing people speak the same way my grandmother did and I heard words that I hadn't heard in years. I was thrilled with the experience of actually visiting the place that my grandmother had so often described and missed. Unfortunately, my grandmother never had the opportunity to return to her hometown after she left for America as a young woman. My mother also never had the opportunity to go and meet her family there but I was determined that I would do it. I felt like it was a link to my personal history that I had to see for myself. Thank you for sharing your experience and this tip about Benevento.

Posted by
11613 posts

Thanks, Pat. Loved your story, too. It is so fulfilling to find links to our pasts and to ourselves.

Posted by
679 posts

Loved your story. I remember the first time I landed in Ireland with my sister. I stepped on the soil and felt like I had returned home. It always feels that way now. Just old souls, right?

Posted by
2083 posts

This is one of the most interesting trip reports I've ever read, Zoe. Thanks for sharing.

Posted by
11658 posts

FINALLY got around to reading this beautiful report...

Being a mutt, I envy those of you who have distinct backgrounds. Walking the streets of your heritage, looking for faces which look like yours, must be a unique and very personal travel experience indeed!

Zoe, my knowledge of Samnite history could fit in a thimble so I have much reading to do, and I hear you about those utilitarian objects: folk art in its most delightful forms.

Posted by
782 posts

I mostly know of Benevento because I'm a huge calcio fan and their team just got promoted to Serie A for the first time in their history.

Interestingly enough, the team's logo is a witch on a broomstick...now I know why!