The dark months of winter can be full of gloom. This is true everywhere but in the south of Italy it feels personal.
Here the point is the sun. Without it there is no light on the sea, no sun in your glass, no need for riposo.
Salerno has come up with a solution – Luci d’Artista – artists’ lights that switch on in early November and stay on for most of January.
I go to see the lights on a mild, mid-January evening. The streets are busy but not clogged, and above them a thousand tiny light bulbs paint pictures on the dark.
We start our walk through the city by the rowing club, and then move on to the Villa Comunale.
This park has been turned into an enchanted garden. It’s full with the celebrities from children’s stories – Alice in Wonderland, Captain Hook, Pinocchio and Cinderella. There are scenes from tea parties to pirate ships, with glittering animals in between – a whale, a crocodile and a life-size coach and horses.
Each scene has a large open book lit up in front of it with painted cut-outs of the heroes and villains looking in. There are no words on the open pages but the connection is there – the magic comes from books.
Recent reports show book ownership is low amongst families in the south of Italy – perhaps this will help.
We leave the park and wander through the old streets.
In the piazza by the famous garden of medicinal plants balconies blaze with window boxes, and round the corner fronds of heavily petalled flowers hang above the cobbles, and reflect off windows and into churches.
It may sound too Las Vegas for an old town at the end of the Amalfi Coast but, from what I see, it isn’t. Each section is themed and helps to highlight rather than drown the town.
The lights also make me look up, see things I may otherwise have missed: the architecture of balconies; of windows; the warmth of the old bell tower; and the dominant ruin of the castle above the town, built in the 8th century by the Duke of Benevento, Arechi II.
Angels trumpet around the Duomo, and through a door at its feet, a small crowd files into the Sala San Lazzaro to see an unusual presepe (extensive crib scene) painted by local artist, Mario Carotenuto.
At the end of the room is the holy family, but the whole town has joined them. Scenes from everyday life, depicted by cut-outs painted to look real, fill the walls. There is a group at a table; a poor couple saying grace; and a long queue of beggars, soldiers, priests, workers, bureaucrats, artisans, and us … all waiting to pay our respects.
Salerno is a big town. We don’t manage to see all of it, or all of the lights, but what we do see is a dance of stories and colour over old stones grown cold in winter – a touch of wonder in the dark.
The lights are on until 24 January 2016.
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2018