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On that most American of all-American holidays, Thanksgiving, my husband Joe and I were not carving the big bird or taking extra helpings of dressing and yams. We were strapped into a helicopter, piloted by a charismatic young woman with long red curls billowing from under her helmet, on our way to a deserted island off Italy’s Adriatic coast. We departed at 8:40 from Foggia’s empty airport on a cold and cloudy November morning. In just 20 minutes, we would land on San Domino, the largest of the five Tremiti Islands.

Still overcast when we landed, we soon realized that we were probably the only two people on this planet who would venture to this island mass on the cusp of the dreary fall-winter season. Arturo Santoro, the owner of Pensione Belvedere where we made reservations for three days, quickly loaded our bags into his clunky white van and, with one door hanging off its hinge, we sped along the wild vegetation of this Robinson Crusoe-like strip.

Arturo, a world-champion scuba diver and spear fisherman, lamented this sudden cold spell and described with visibly pained remorse that he could not take us to see Tremiti’s famed shimmering-red coral reefs. A vigorous man in his mid-60s, he sported longish hair dyed a Grecian Formula orange and smoked a Parodi.

Within seconds, we arrived at our pensione, where a pleasant middle-aged woman named Laura welcomed us in the midst of her frantic tidying up. We couldn’t seem to find out if she was Arturo’s wife or girlfriend, and we saw her only in the morning. For the most part, Arturo seemed an independent seafaring spirit who was often engaged in masculine endeavors like contructing shelters or plying the rough Adriatic waters. Sissi, a little white terrier tugged on my handbag while dancing on her hind legs. Laura escorted us to our lovely hunter-green room, which faced the island of San Nicola with its famed castle, fortress and cathedral – looking like a discombobulated movie set.

The view was, no doubt, astonishing. But it also happened to sub-freezing in our room. And since we were the only travelers staying here, it took some crafty strategizing to try to persuade Arturo to turn the heat on – even if it meant that he had to heat the entire pensione. "Are you from California?" asked Laura. When we replied that Chicago was our home, she stared in disbelief that we could possibly be so sensitive to the cold. I jest not – the temperatures were in the low 30s (Fahrenheit). At night, they dropped to the low 20s. Any hearty Chicagoan embarking on an island retreat in Italy would have wimped out. Psychologically, one associates the words Italy and island with warmth.

It was definitely off season. Since no restaurants or bars were open, we agreed to take all of our meals at Pensione Santoro, prepared by the multifaceted Arturo himself. The first thing Joe and I did was grit our teeth against the chilly wind and take a walk. Long stretches of road were surrounded by trees, fields, rocks and ocean. Then something extraordinary happened.

As we walked toward the bluff, passing two curious horses grazing in an open field of weeds, an Irish Setter came loping along; then another one darted out from behind a trash-strewn yard. Soon a boxer, with low-hanging nipples, appeared and discreetly trailed us across the high grasses -- like "The Hound of the Baskervilles." Two black labradors joined in. By the time we returned from the foamy water-ensconced precipices and electrified Aleppo pines bent from the wind, a whole pack of dogs right out of a Disney film began to follow us.

We stopped in a vacant soccer field to play with this magical pack of dogs who run loose on San Domino. We became attached to one black labrador with a lovely smooth coat and that elusive boxer. These animals, however, were restricted to labradors, Irish setters, German short-haired pointers and spaniels. They followed us for the rest of our walk, sending out signals and picking up more strays until we had a whole army of canines at our heels. They even accompanied us to the pensione with us. The black labrador followed Joe inside. We regretfully shooed her out. But even when we went up to our room, she and the shy boxer waited below our window. They looked up and moaned every time we looked out of our green-shuttered windows.

Around 1 p.m., Arturo knocked on our door to let us know lunch was ready. We dined in a room whose walls were painted with giant green, orange, yellow, blue and red fish. One section featured a monster-sized mural of a lobster. A wide-screen TV stood in one corner, and a hanging cage housed a spunky yellow-orange canary who sang incessantly.

At the next table sat four handsome young men in navy-blue pea coats from the Coast Guard, looking at us curiously between rambunctious puffs of their cigarettes and bites of insalata di mare. I must admit, it did seem odd being tourists on an idyllic island when the climate became Arctic. Arturo personally served us lunch in a rugged, unassuming manner – wearing a jogging suit and puffing on his seemingly attached Parodi. We started out with an antipasto of calamari, capers, oregano and olive oil and continued with seafood risotto and grilled mint-and-olive-oil-flavored sword fish. The white ceramic dishes were inscribed with these words: "Arturo Santoro: Campione Mondiale di Pesca Subacquea."

Another long walk was in order after this gargantuan lunch.Joe and I discovered a secret path with rickety wooden steps that wound around a secluded forest and led to the roaring ocean. As we were walking back, a black cat latched on to us and followed us all the way back to our pensione. Whenever we stopped, he stopped; whenever we took a step, he took a step.

Joe and I continued toward the other side, past rows of brick homes in the midst of refurbishment and so many animals – an entire family of kittens sleeping in a box; rabbits in cages; a solitary cow; finches; and more dogs of all ages. An old Irish Setter sat erect like a sphinx on a stoop. An elderly fisherman tipped his cap our way as he repaired his nets on his front porch. His white angora cat lounged alongside him along with the prancing hens and a rooster.

Nature flourishes here, and there’s a certain iridescence to the vegetation: red, gold, green and brown. During our stroll, an old spaniel and muscular chocolate lab (we called the "capo" because he patrolled one particular street) vied for our attention. They snarled and bit each other. But the old guy won out. It was still quite cold, so we opted to go back to our TV-less room and rest.
We emerged several hours later, summoned by a beaming Arturo, for dinner around 8 p.m. with the four Coast Guards and a table of older men chain smoking. I seemed to be the only woman around. Barely digesting our lunch, we geared up for another multi-course dinner that included rigatoni with tuna-tomato sauce and stuffed calamari. We then collapsed into bed against the light of a full moon shining illuminating the strangely still Adriatic Sea.

We awoke the next morning to a bright sun, a blue sky and the black labrador gazing up at us from under our window. It wasn’t much warmer though. We still had to don our heavy hooded coats. Laura escorted us to Arturo’s bar, which is attached to the pensione. She said that someone would come over to make us some coffee.

We waited for eons, soon growing enthralled by the photographs and newspaper articles about Arturo. He was photographed in ultra form-fitting Spidos holding humongous crustaceans and swordfish. We also learned that he starred in numerous diving-themed films and was quite the matinee idol in the 1950s and 1960s. As it turns out, the espresso machine was broken, so we had to settle for plain coffee prepared by the grizzled and faux-curmudeonly older cook, a white-haired man named Moses, who lived in a shed near the water.

Later that morning, Arturo drove us to the pier where we hopped into his hollowed-out speedboat. We simply had to brace ourselves on the side inner-tube like rim and hope we didn’t hit any bumps. There wasn’t a life vest in sight. The pier was filled with men and more dogs. One German shepherd kept barking as he was lowered off of a large supply ferry. In a blink of three minutes, we arrived on the island of San Nicola, the most historic one of them all. Arturo called the municipal office to make sure we had a guide to take us through the enormous castle and cathedral that stretch the length of the island.

Joe and I walked up a winding stone path within the walled town, past abandoned niches with crumbling statues of saints All one sees initially are rocks and gushing water framed through arches and arrow-thin ramparts. From here San Domino looks like a hulking green mound. As we proceeded to find our Italian-speaking guide, we happened upon a real town with a substantial main square colorful buildings and at least 10 more people than the five we encountered in San Domino. There was no sense of desolation here.

A youngish man with dark hair was leaning against a doorway, and he coyly signaled to as if on a secret mission. He was loaded down with several bags of fresh-baked bread. He asked if we were the Americans and led us into a little bookstore where the owner, a robust and sweet-faced woman named Laura presented me with a book on Tremiti gratis.

I explained that I would be writing about the islands, and she was overjoyed that we braved the cold and were interested in Tremiti’s history, not just the beaches. The "bread man" took us to meet a very official-looking older man in a starched blue uniform adorned with multiple medals and gold stripes. He had gray hair and a beard and was wearing sunglasses, reminding me of the military ensemble from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s "Evita". Termed "il vigile," or the watchman for the Municipio, he initially balked at taking us around – of course, he had such pressing business matters on this island of less than 100 inhabitants. But, within minutes, he warmed to us and ended up spending nearly the whole day with us -- regaling us with tantalizing historical facts and legends.

His name was Antonio, and he accompanied us across the length of the island in a pronounced chesty gait with his wiry Dachshund mix, Bosco, scampering across the rocky terrain. Our first stop was a tiny underground "museum," where research was being conducted on ancient mosaics, statues and amphoras recovered from the sea. Another floor displayed prehistoric hand tools and stones from the Mesozoic period.

We then entered the castle gate and the tenth century Embattled Knight’s Tower, from which soldiers shot hot arrows and large stones doused in boiling oil at the marauding bands. Besides being the island Roman Emperor Augustus exiled his niece Julia, Tremiti is closely associated with the Greek mythological figure of Diomedes believed to be buried here. His shipmates were allegedly transformed into the unusual seagulls that inhabit the island.

During the 11th and 12th centuries, the wealthy Benedictines controlled all of Tremiti. After nearly two centuries of economic prosperity, the Benedictine community experienced a progressive decline in its affairs with the world and within its tightknit order. In 1237 the head of the order, Fra Pietro, was forced to give up his title as Abbot to Cardinal Raniero da Viterbo. By order of Gregory IX, the monastery was given to the Cistercians of St. Mary of Casanova.

The Cistercians were, in turn, massacred a century later by the pirates of the Dalmatian coast. They took the monastery via an ingenious plan most likely inspired by Ulysses’ account of the Trojan Horse. The pirates convinced the monks to preside over the burial of one their shipmates. They carried the coffin into the church and, just as the monks were beginning the service, the "corpse" jumped out of the wooden box wielding swords and daggers. A riot and massacre ensued, leaving only one Cistercian to live and write about it.

The Tremiti Islands later came under the jurisdiction of Venice. In the 14th and 15th centuries, San Nicola attracted Venetian sculptors and painters to decorate the cathedral of Santa Maria di Tremiti. This area also served as a penal colony for political prisoners between the periods of World War I and II.

Various parts of the castle are being repaired, but it’s an incredibly weighty and haunting experience to walk around these curves and arches that represent several layers of history co-exiting with modern times. The Benedictine crosses can be found on the sides of various buildings here, together with the Guelph "Merli" or M’s. The church of Santa Maria di Tremiti is a stark yet rich example of Benedictine architecture. The façade still displays the canon holes from various infractions of the 18th century.

Antonio delivered a rather theatrical lecture as he led Joe and me through travertine arches a crumbling well opening onto the sea. He had his own personal key to the main church, which houses a famous gold-painted, Byzantine-style crucifix from the 13th century. Antonio was especially proud of the floor mosaic dating back to 1045, with its elaborate eagle and floral motifs. Our guide matched his own foot to a footprint made of mosaics to signify the original artist's signature. Directly behind us stood a 15th century Venetian altar piece of the assumption and coronation of the Virgin surrounded by the apostles and saints.

Meanwhile, Joe had wandered past into another chamber of this heavy gray-stone Romanesque church. He walked over to me, in the midst of Antonio’s bombastic speechifying, and whispered, "See that room over there, there’s a dead guy layin’ in there." We all marched over to a plain side chapel and stumbled right onto a dirty plastic case which held the skeletal remains of one Beato Tobias. His elongated skull stared directly at us. He was right there in the middle of the floor. Bosco, the dachshund, hopped atop the coffin and panted loudly. Antonio was still rambling on about the pavement mosaic, acting very nonchalant when we inquired more about this saint relegated to such shamefully unholy conditions.

In the next room, the skeleton’s original wooden casket – which was shaped like a boat – was pushed in a corner. It was filled with fragments of disintegrating red and purple satin and velvet lining, and a few candy wrappers.

We continued our journey through a Romanesque cloister all the way up to a little piazza with a Renaissance colonnaded courtyard modeled after Urbino’s Palazzo Ducale. Antoino explained that the squiggly geometric stones were taken from ancient Roman ruins. He also shared an amusing story about how those columns were recovered. During one of the wars of the 18th century, the French carted off some of the columns. But their ship sank, and the Italians recovered the columns from the shipwreck.

On San Nicola, one walks the length of civilizations constantly surrounded by the alternately calm and menacing ink-blue sea.

In one building, Antonio pointed out a huge rusted 17th century anchor. A lot of restoration work was being done. San Nicola officials have been trying to build a museum since the 1950s. Their efforts have been stalled by bureaucratic haggling and pillaging. One section, however, was slowly being wired for Internet access.

We climbed the top of the Knight’s Tower, looked out of a craggy arch and spied a minuscule stone chapel nestled in the stones while a now neon-green sea hammered against the rocks. Once on top of a cliff about 400 feet high, we could see as far as the former Yugoslavia to the East. The view was death-defying. But Bosco didn’t seem to mind. He ignored Antonio’s shouts and bolted from boulder to boulder, his agile limbs clamping onto the shaved granites. The intrepid Bosco met up at the far end of the castle, on a deserted road where San Nicola essentially ends.

From here, we caught sight of the smaller island of Capraia, named for its abundant capers – which explains why these bittersweet green nuggets have been showing up in nearly every dish we’ve eaten here. Early in the 20th century, an industrialist built a castle on Capraia. But upon discovering that, due to the lack of vegetation, the island was uninhabitable, he and his family abandoned their efforts. So the castle seems a folly-like apparition surrounded by a barren brown rock.

We strolled back to the main square the same route (since there are no other streets) and were in for another surprise. Antonio asked us to gaze inside a window with iron bars. Our eyes fell upon hundreds of amphoras (many of them broken) recovered from the sea. A group of three people joined us to look inside. One was an architect, who was working on the proposed museum. He looked like Joss Aklund from a James Bond flick and spoke a little English. When he found out we were Americans, he exclaimed, "Ah, Red Cross!" Joe and I smiled, then shot each other a baffled look. He introduced his architect son and his son’s architect girlfriend.

This same architectural triumvirate was seated in the Municipal Office when we returned with Antonio to discover that Laura -- the woman from the bookstore -- also happens to be Antonio’s wife and the mayor of Tremiti! They loaded me down with more books on the history of the islands. Joe and I had about five minutes to catch the ferry back to San Domino. We ran to the port and waited briefly with various seafaring men on the pier near a huge freighter leaving for Termoli – "Joss Aklund," with briefcase in hand, grinned and waved our way as he boarded.

Our own elongated boat, with wooden benches inside, arrived. It was filled with many people (98 percent men) nearly foaming at the mouth to disembark. They were speaking all at once at exceptionally high volumes. Then they started to pour out even before the boat was anchored. They were tossing luggage onto the pier and rolling it. One man got off with his two anxious spaniels. Then Joe and I boarded with a handful of men. One happy fellow named Michaele introduced himself to us and shook our hands. The "bread man" boarded, too, guarding his precious loaves.

It turned cloudy again. When we got back to the port of San Domino, we realized it was quite a lengthy walk back to Arturo’s place. The bread guy took pity on us and drove us back to the pensione – his yeast-filled cargo tucked against the rear window of his little car.

When we returned in late afternoon, Arturo set out prosciutto, salami, bread, cheese and olives for us. The canary sang, and we watched TV. After a nap in our room, I wrote in my journal as a small group of men gathered under our window and argued with impassioned gusto about sports and politics – at least that’s all I could discern from the Tremiti dialect, which sounds like it has no vowels.

As Joe and I dressed for dinner – about all there is to look forward to here at this time of year – I looked out at the moon, wrapped in a blinding orange hue, hanging very low over the water half-immersed in clouds. It was a mystical sight. It got considerably colder. We walked only a few feet to Arturo’s loud-colored restaurant to have dinner with the Coast Guards, some older men smoking pipes and a good-natured, red-haired young man we dubbed the Italian Conan O’Brien. We dined on bucatini with pepperoncini and capers, linguine and shrimp, and swordfish bathed in a tomato-caper sauce.

The Coast Guards beckoned us to pull up our chairs and watch some old marine-biology films (very Jacques Cousteau-esque) starring Arturo. As he served the food and reminisced about jelly-fish stings and shark attacks that cost him a couple of fingers, Arturo puffed on his ash-encrusted Parodi dangling from the corner of his mouth. Realizing that we had no TV in our room, Arturo insisted that he bring a small unit up. We really didn’t need it. He then mumbled something about stopping by our room later.

Around 2 a.m., a firm knock at our door rocked us from our sleep. It was Arturo with a mini TV in tow and the Parodi stump still hanging from his lips. For at least an hour, we tried to get a picture. There was a lot of snow on the screen, then the sound went. So we gave up. As he was leaving, Arturo mentioned the possibility of a boat ride the next day to Capraia if the weather stayed nice.

We thought it was supposed to be a sunny day, but it turned more frigid and overcast. We could hear the angry sea slapping against the boulders from our room. So Capraia was out. Joe and I sipped our watery cappuccino in the attached bar, served by the moody Moses (the machine was still broken). We reluctantly snacked on stale pre-packaged tarts and pound-cake slices, then took a long walk through a thick forest of pine trees filled and other low-growing trees with winding reptilian limbs that looked like petrified Hydras. Perhaps, like the hefty white-breasted seagulls, they were transformed mythic figures, too.

Steps led down to windswept rocks and promontories. Palm trees swayed next to the pine trees. The hard and craggy San Domino is not an especially scenic island; it’s also not tropical. We felt like we are stranded on a rock. Garbage was dumped haphazardly on sidewalks and along scenic trails. Laura at the pensione, however, insisted that Tremiti is at its most sublime in the spring when millions of flowers bloom.

The dogs joined us again. As we were walking down the same sleepy street for the umpteenth time, our beautiful black labrador found us. She came running from behind and jumped on us, groaning and wagging her tail. She followed us all the way back, even jumped on a bench next to me and crawled in my lap. Surrounding us was the perpetual smell of burning leaves. Joe gave our sweet friend some cookies, and she nibbled on them daintily.

Arturo found us and began regaling us with the dire state of relic retrieval from the Tremiti Islands. Since he is a champion deep-sea diver, he believes amphoras and other ancient ruins should be left at the bottom of the sea where they could better be viewed on diving excursions rather than falling into disrepair in abandoned store rooms.

Joe and I then hung out in our room for a while before going downstairs for yet another big lunch with the Coast Guards and the warbling canary. We dined on rigatoni with a tomato-gorgonzola sauce and eggplant parmesan. Afterwards, we walked again and ran into the low-key bread man, who just let his pointer and setter puppies out for the first time. We also came across a goat and dog who shared living quarters.

Other than that, nothing was going on, and it kept getting colder. So Joe and I headed back to the room and fell asleep – knowing we would have no other choice but to eat another big meal. I awoke to the overpowering scent of laundry detergent against tile floors. When we went downstairs, more guests had arrived and Arturo was cooking up a storm – a spinach, dough, broth and egg concoction served atop crusty bread. After dinner, Joe and I watched the orange moon sink under the night clouds over San Nicola – wandering what Beato Tobias was doing up there all alone.

We arose early in preparation to catch our helicopter back to Foggia. It was chilly and foggy today. We now were anxious to get off this desolate rock and back on the mainland but feared the fog might prevent us. A rooster crowed; dogs yelped. The unshaven Moses ascended the little hill form his hut and began sweeping the front porch.

Our helicopter was departing at 9 a.m., and we began to worry when Arturo didn’t show up until almost 9 a.m. We still had to settle the bill – quite a comical experience. He couldn’t find the receipts or a pen or a calculator that worked. He also waited until the last second to get our passport numbers and signatures. When we got to Arturo’s van, it barely started – something was wrong with the battery. It was so cold, we could see our breath, and panicked over the real possibility that we might be stranded here. But Arturo remained undaunted. He got the van revved up, and we arrived at the windswept airfield in five minutes.

While waiting, Arturo explained his passion for scuba diving. A native of San Domino, he has been diving in this vast sea since the age of 2. He promised he would take us to the Violet Grotto when we returned, preferably in the spring. Then we heard the pattering of helicopter blades. As we boarded, Arturo surprised us by whipping out a video camera and filmed us as we waved goodbye – the helicopter blades whirring violently above our heads.

Once belted in, Joe and I (the only passengers) looked out and saw Arturo pause for a few seconds in his rickety white van until we got off the ground. He waved – the smoke from his Parodi cigar mingling with the morning mist and ancient spirits. Our black labrador gazed up mournfully as she trailed the van.

The gently smiling pilot told us that it was a slow day. If we liked, he could circle around all five islands. From this vantage point, we could get an eerily comprehensive view of San Nicola noticing for the first time a large cemetery perched on the farthest tip. San Domino appeared one curvilinear stretch of green, and Capraia looked like a forlorn fossil. Even in their dormant state, the other primitive islands of Cretaccio and Pianosa rose from the sea like pulsating monoliths – a testament to nature’s immortality. •

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