Filed under: Travel — Mary Stampa @ 1:47 pm
I had been looking forward to staying a few days in the Monastery of Santa Maria di Polsi and talking with the Superior, who was known to be an expert on Calabrian history. As I descended to it, I saw groups of people washing themselves in the stream. I washed too and asked the reason for their visit. A big festa, they said. In the monastery kitchens people crowded round cauldrons of revolting-looking meat. After a quick chat with the Superior who promised to get me a mule for the remainder of my journey, I left. I had wanted to find a deserted monastery in the true romantic tradition, and the sight of so many people taking advantage of a well-earned festa would have interrupted my train of thought.
I passed through villages so primitive they seemed conjured up out of the imagination—clusters of crudely plastered houses huddling together on a slope, doors opening onto stone steps. In these narrow passage-ways, the conversation of the day was exchanged: it was the domain of the women. The men sat in the cafés and it was rare to find their wives accompanying them. In one village I was told how the priest would settle the engagement between a young couple. He would drop his spectacles in front of them—if they broke, the engagement was ended. I wondered with what force the priest dropped the spectacles and exactly what factor would influence his choice.
Journeying through Calabria is not the ideal holiday, as we find when reading Edward Lear’s Journals or Gissing and Norman Douglas. Its harshness, which promises yet even more beauty beyond, attracts the Englishman; he wants to prise open this oyster, however laborious it may be, and experience both the hostility and the hospitality of a remote country at first hand. They continually complained about Calabria, yet, as continually, they returned to it.
Crotone, on the Ionian Sea, the cradle of Greek civilization in Italy, is celebrated for its doctors and athletes rather than for wealth and riches. It was here that the basic principles of medicine were conceived and developed and where Pythagoras took refuge. The Greek love of beauty is found at its apex in Crotone, where it is said the excellent climate accounts for the beauty of its citizens. Here too lived Milo, the celebrated athlete, so victorious that he was forced to stop taking part in the Olympics.
Milo not only excelled in athletics but also in philosophy. He was one of Pythagoras’s most devoted disciples and stood as a symbol of that harmony which Greeks believe existed between learning and athletics. Energy of the mind and energy of the body were coordinated in this ideal, and its universal appeal could easily be understood in Crotone.
`Near by,’ chants the chorus of the Trojan women of Euripides, ‘near by, as you voyage in the Ionian Sea, is the city nourished by that fairest of rivers, the Crathis. Its marvellous waters burnish the hair to a glowing chestnut.’ Alas, though I often tried, I could never find a place on the course of the Crati River, the ancient Crathis, which flows into the Gulf of Taranto, where I felt tempted to dip my hair and wait for the chestnut glow. Reduced to a muddy trickle by the deforestation of the mountains, the magnificence of the Crathis had become as legendary as the city of Sybaris which lies somewhere deep beneath the alluvial deposits at its mouth. But from the Sila Greca, the northern part of the mountain plateau to the east, one can still see why the Crathis became famous in the ancient world as much for its beauty as for forming a trade route from the Ionian to the Tyrrhenian, cutting short the journey between Greece and Etruria.
The view is at its most splendid from San Demetrio Corone, 1500 feet above the valley. This is one of the villages of the Albanian community—they settled in Calabria in the 15th century, refugees from the Turks. Here each day, in the late afternoon, the villagers make their passeggiata along the main street, which forms a continuous belvedere. By that time the haze has slightly lifted and the sun is sinking towards the pale silhouette of the mountains that skirt the Tyrrhenian Sea; the mass of Mount Dolcedorme gains a few revealing shadows from the new light and seems to advance a little across the plain of Sybaris, a great shimmering apron attached to the blue and brown valley. It is in this light that the sea and the plain cease to merge into one—the graceful sweep of the Ionian coast is only lost in haze to the north towards Cape Spulico.
Each time I made this promenade I was unable to give the panorama as much attention as I would have wished; for unlike the severe inhabitants of most mountain villages in Calabria, the Albanians welcome a stranger with ceaseless attention, gather round him to chat as he eats in the trattoria, sing for him, introduce him to their families and delight in their knowledge of folklore and custom. The Albanians have none of that Italian love of smartness and brightness which has spread even into the Calabrian soul and gives to the most dilapidated village at least one chromium cafe, one well-established barber’s shop. The Albanians are not worried by a little dirt, would not want to change their dingy cafés and trattorias. Tall, fair and blue-eyed for the most part, they differ physically from their neighbours, and though all can speak Italian they use their national language among themselves and have remained Greek Orthodox in religion in spite of one-time persecutions by the Roman Church. And even down to small matters like the tight-swaddling of babies and the extreme décolletage of the women’s national costume, their life is their own.
To appreciate the unique strangeness of Calabria one needs time to sit and talk, to share in the life of the villages, still fresh and untouched by our standards. The mountain peaks have proved a serious barrier to communication, but also a safe refuge for malcontents. One cannot expect to put Calabria on a two-week tourist itinerary—it is not an excursion, but an experience.