Updated: Nov 20, 2020
One June day in 2018, a good friend, Raffaele Pietropaolo, and I set out on a new adventure to visit a village I’d never seen that was on the border of Irpinia and both Basilicata and Puglia. There was a strong wind blowing across Irpinia, and the clouds were a web of dramatic grey contrasts and bright white luminosity. The sun was striking these billowing puffs against an electric blue sky above us and it was a perfect day for an adventure.
There we were winding through the roads I’d come to know as my own, rounding the familiar curves in the road passing through Frigento, the sights (and smells) of Mefite and Rocca San Felice, as the open country whizzed past as we headed to Cairano, about a 45 minute drive from Gesualdo. Bales of hay dotted the green and golden straw colored summer countryside landscape as we passed through like silent intruders on the tranquility I was eagerly drinking in from the passenger seat window.
We were in no real hurry to reach our final destination, more interested really in exploring all we could find. Raffy steered the car on a twisty path to Cairano, seeking out the roads with the best views and landscapes. This mentality, this willingness, dare I say compulsion, among the people I’ve met in Irpinia to slow down and find the beauty and joy in life’s everyday activities is actually one of my favorite parts of living here. It seems just about everyone is willing to take the time to spend an extra 10 or 20 minutes driving to find the road that’s more scenic.
From the moment you first lay eyes on this village precariously perched at the top of a hill that seemingly wants to curve over onto itself like an ocean wave forming from 800 meters below the heart of the town, it’s breathtaking. It’s like seeing something in real life that had come to life from the whimsical imagination of a Dr. Seuss book or a Tim Burton film. And on our ascent to Cairano, we met various classic characters in the play of life that make up Irpinia.
First, at the base of the hill that supports the town, we met a very handsome young farmer on his tractor in the hay fields. Of course I was more than happy to stop for a chat, as that’s the polite thing to do here in Irpinia. Raffy rolled his eyes, don’t you worry. Further up our winding rise, we met my favorite recurring character in the movie that is the daily life of Irpinia, The Shepherd of Cairano with his flock of sheep. Raffy and I took one look at each other and we knew what the other was thinking. Time to stop the car and go make a friend. Raff pulled the car over and we hopped out to make friends with this grizzled, but kind-faced man. He was in jeans with a blue baseball cap on his head, a wooden staff in one hand, and there were herding dogs at our feet, steering the huge flock of sheep behind up the country road.
The Shepherd’s weathered face broke into a grin and he was happy to let us take pictures of the scene and seemed genuinely pleased we were so happy to meet him. He and Raff spoke mostly in dialect and I didn’t understand much of what was literally said, but through the magic of body language, seeing the joy on their faces, I felt like I understood. I’ve seen him a few times on return trips to Cairano (there have been many), and everytime he remembers us every time, bringing joy to my heart. No matter who I’m with, when we’re on that final leg of the climb to Cairano, we all hold our breath hoping we’ll see our Shepherd friend.
It’s another few minutes of steep winding cutbacks and curves from Shepherd’s Point (as I now like to call it) to reach Cairano. On my first trip, we breezed past Bar Mary and went straight to the town’s center. Now, we always stop for at least a chat from the car window as we’ve gotten to know the owner and he now knows Raffy’s car. It would be peak Irpinia insult to drive past someone you know without at least stopping briefly for a quick catch up, as I’ve learned through experience of making that mistake.
Once you round the final curve in the road after Mary’s Bar, it’s as if you’ve entered a scene from a movie. The cute Italian houses are stacked side by side with small chairs in the doorways where old timers will come out in the afternoons and evenings to enjoy the sun, chat with friends, mend clothes, prepare vegetables, and just relax depending on the person and the house. There are brightly colored flowers dripping from the window boxes framing the houses and there’s a strong sensation you’ve somehow transported into another dimension.
You make your way further up the street toward the heart of town and once you’ve parked the car, you’ll be on your way to climb even further high, but now on foot. You take your first few steps up ancient stone pathway and you’re greeted by the most romantic “vicoletto” (small alley in english, but the translated word doesn’t even begin to do it justice) of colored flowers arched across the narrow space, and even more flowers lining the path, filling up every possible space you can imagine.
Then there’s the ever present Angelo standing outside his small market with a Peroni in hand and a smile on his face. Stop in and get to know him, drink a beer, share some phrases in English or speak in Italian, and if he’s in the mood, he might even recite a few verses of romantic poetry or share some profound phrases from prophets past. He’s a little of a local legend in Irpinia and has become a must stop for pretty much everyone in Cairano.
You’ll then start winding your way deeper into the heart of Cairano, slowly climbing the steep stone roads past the reconstructed homes and buildings, past the town museum, past churches and some relics of the town’s history before reaching the beautiful outdoor theater, still higher is the curving very tip top of town at exactly 814 meters. Here you’ll find an expanse of grass where the wind will dance around you and if you’re lucky enough to have come on when conditions are right, you can hear the music from the organs that have been constructed to give voice to the Irpinia winds.
It’s spellbinding and mystical and it makes total sense why this village at the edge of Irpinia has become a magnet for some of the area’s most creative people. As you stand on what seems like the edge of the world, where Cairano ends and the ground seems to spill over itself curving into the abyss below like only Tim Burton could imagine, the views are breathtaking. You feel like you can see the entire expanse of Irpinia, with hills and mountains, and lowlands, and vineyards and farmland dotting the landscape, changing every few feet, or meters. As you prefer.
Heights aren’t my favorite thing, so I made my mother proud and stayed safely away from the edge of the curling cliff, because I could hear not only her warning me to be careful, but generations of moms before her in our family warning me to stay away from the steeply sloping edge. And yet, from the safety of my selected spot perched high above, I felt like I could at any moment spread my arms and soar into the air like a falcon or eagle.
One night with Raffy a few years later, we were back in Cairano at this same high perch to see the stars under the full moon after a concert in the theater. The low moans of the organ were in full effect and it seemed like we might be the only two people in the universe there in the dark sky illuminated by a bright nearly full moon. I stood in front of the largest of the three organs, bathed in pale moonlight, and surrounded by the heat of a hot summer night and staring over the rolling landscape below. I stopped thinking, closed my eyes and without thinking my arms went into that perfect Kate Winslet on the front of the boat Titanic pose. I get it Jack, I can fly here. That is the magic of Cairano.
Raffy and I descended from our perch and as we slowly started making our descent back into the heart of Cairano, he started telling me more about the town. The creator of Cirque du Soleil, Franco Dragone, or its musical director, had bought a house in the town and had made it one of his home bases of creativity. And then there was Dario Bavario, the former director of the Carlo Gesualdo Theater in Avellino, who 13 years ago bought a small house in the historic center in town. It’s now covered inside and out in murals from famous local painter Giovanni Spiniello. Dario is “un personaggio” and his energy is captivating and effervescent and you just want to be around him always once you meet him. There seemed to be no end to the artists that were from or currently inhabit the town. Musicians, painters, poets, actors, dancers. You name it, this town was teaming with creatives.
In fact, the town even began hosting an artist retreat and workshop every year and the town leadership invested in creating an outdoor theater to host more events to celebrate the arts and creativity. And winemakers have gotten involved too crafting red wines in amphora in the villages ancient cantinas that have been beautifully restored and boast gorgeous views of the Irpinia countryside. In the two years since I first set foot in this high on a hilltop village, it’s been amazing to see what’s been accomplished. Cairano is truly a beautiful blend of past and present, keeping buildings true to their history, but seamlessly bringing them into modern times. A must stop and chat in Irpinia.