Old Calabria
By Norman Douglas

Presented by

Public Domain Books


It was to be the Sila in earnest, this time. I would traverse the whole country, from the Coscile valley to Catanzaro, at the other end. Arriving from Cosenza the train deposited me, once more, at the unlovely station of Castrovillari. I looked around the dusty square, half-dazed by the sunlight–it was a glittering noonday in July–but the postal waggon to Spezzano Albanese, my first resting-point, had not yet arrived. Then a withered old man, sitting on a vehicle behind the sorry skeleton of a horse, volunteered to take me there at once; we quickly came to terms; it was too hot, we both agreed, to waste breath in bargaining. With the end of his whip he pointed out the church of Spezzano on its hilltop; a proud structure it looked at this distance, though nearer acquaintance reduced it to extremely humble proportions.

The Albanian Spezzano (Spezzano Grande is another place) lies on the main road from Castrovillari to Cosenza, on the summit of a long-stretched tongue of limestone which separates the Crati river from the Esaro; this latter, after flowing into the Coscile, joins its waters with the Crati, and so closes the promontory. An odd geographical feature, this low stretch, viewed from the greater heights of Sila or Pollino; one feels inclined to take a broom and sweep it into the sea, so that the waters may mingle sooner.

Our road ascended the thousand feet in a sinuous ribbon of white dust, and an eternity seemed to pass as we crawled drowsily upwards to the music of the cicadas, under the simmering blue sky. There was not a soul in sight; a hush had fallen upon all things; great Pan was brooding over the earth. At last we entered the village, and here, once more, deathlike stillness reigned; it was the hour of post-prandial slumber.

At our knocking the proprietor of the inn, situated in a side-street, descended. But he was in bad humour, and held out no hopes of refreshment. Certain doctors and government officials, he said, were gathered together in his house, telegraphically summoned to consult about a local case of cholera. As to edibles, the gentlemen had lunched, and nothing was left, absolutely nothing; it had been uno sterminio–an extermination–of all he possessed. The prospect of walking about the burning streets till evening did not appeal to me, and as this was the only inn at Spezzano I insisted, first gently, then forcibly–in vain. There was not so much as a chair to sit upon, he avowed; and therewith retired into his cool twilight.

Despairing, I entered a small shop wherein I had observed the only signs of life so far–an Albanian woman spinning in patriarchal fashion. It was a low-ceilinged room, stocked with candles, seeds, and other commodities which a humble householder might desire to purchase, including certain of those water-gugglets of Corigliano ware in whose shapely contours something of the artistic dreamings of old Sybaris still seems to linger. The proprietress, clothed in gaudily picturesque costume, greeted me with a smile and the easy familiarity which I have since discovered to be natural to all these women. She had a room, she said, where I could rest; there was also food, such as it was, cheese, and wine, and-----

“Fruit?” I queried.

“Ah, you like fruit? Well, we may not so much as speak about it just now–the cholera, the doctors, the policeman, the prison! I was going to say salami.”

Salami? I thanked her. I know Calabrian pigs and what they feed on, though it would be hard to describe in the language of polite society.

Despite the heat and the swarms of flies in that chamber, I felt little desire for repose after her simple repast; the dame was so affable and entertaining that we soon became great friends. I caused her some amusement by my efforts to understand and pronounce her language–these folk speak Albanian and Italian with equal facility–which seemed to my unpractised ears as hopeless as Finnish. Very patiently, she gave me a long lesson during which I thought to pick up a few words and phrases, but the upshot of it all was:

“You’ll never learn it. You have begun a hundred years too late.”

I tried her with modern Greek, but among such fragments as remained on my tongue after a lapse of over twenty years, only hit upon one word that she could understand.

“Quite right!” she said encouragingly. “Why don’t you always speak properly? And now, let me hear a little of your own language.”

I gave utterance to a few verses of Shakespeare, which caused considerable merriment.

“Do you mean to tell me,” she asked, “that people really talk like that?”

“Of course they do.”

“And pretend to understand what it means?”

“Why, naturally.”

“Maybe they do,” she agreed. “But only when they want to be thought funny by their friends.”

The afternoon drew on apace, and at last the pitiless sun sank to rest. I perambulated Spezzano in the gathering twilight; it was now fairly alive with people. An unclean place; an epidemic of cholera would work wonders here. . . .

At 9.30 p.m. the venerable coachman presented himself, by appointment; he was to drive me slowly (out of respect for his horse) through the cool hours of the night as far as Vaccarizza, on the slopes of the Greek Sila, where he expected to arrive early in the morning. (And so he did; at half-past five.) Not without more mirth was my leave-taking from the good shopwoman; something, apparently, was hopelessly wrong with the Albanian words of farewell which I had carefully memorized from our preceding lesson. She then pressed a paper parcel into my hand.

“For the love of God,” she whispered, “silence! Or we shall all be in jail to-morrow.”

It contained a dozen pears.

Driving along, I tried to enter into conversation with the coachman who, judging by his face, was a mine of local lore. But I had come too late; the poor old man was so weakened by age and infirmities that he cared little for talk, his thoughts dwelling, as I charitably imagined, on his wife and children, all dead and buried (so he said) many long years ago. He mentioned, however, the diluvio, the deluge, which I have heard spoken of by older people, among whom it is a fixed article of faith. This deluge is supposed to have affected the whole Crati valley, submerging towns and villages. In proof, they say that if you dig near Tarsia below the present river-level, you will pass through beds of silt and ooze to traces of old walls and cultivated land. Tarsia used to lie by the river-side, and was a flourishing place, according to the descriptions of Leandro Alberti and other early writers; floods and malaria have now forced it to climb the hills.

The current of the Crati is more spasmodic and destructive than in classical times when the river was “navigable"; and to one of its inundations may be due this legend of the deluge; to the same one, maybe, that affected the courses of this river and the Coscile, mingling their waters which used to flow separately into the Ionian. Or it may be a hazy memory of the artificial changing of the riverbed when the town of Sybaris, lying between these two rivers, was destroyed. Yet the streams are depicted as entering the sea apart in old maps such as those of Magini, Fiore, Coronelli, and Cluver; and the latter writes that “near the mouth of the Crati there flows into the same sea a river vulgarly called Cochile.” [Footnote: In the earlier part of Rathgeber’s astonishing “Grossgriechenland und Pythagoras” (1866) will be found a good list of old maps of the country.]

This is important. It remains to be seen whether this statement is the result of a personal visit, or whether he simply repeated the old geography. His text in many places indicates a personal acquaintance with southern Italy–Italian, says Heinsius, non semel peragravit– and he may well have been tempted to investigate a site like that of Sybaris. If so, the change in the river courses and possibly this “deluge” has taken place since his day.

Deprived of converse, I relapsed into a doze, but soon woke up with a start. The carriage had stopped; it was nearly midnight; we were at Terranova di Sibari, whose houses were lit up by the silvery beams of the moon.

Thurii–death-place of Herodotus! How one would like to see this place by daylight. On the ancient site, which lies at a considerable distance, they have excavated antiquities, a large number of which are in the possession of the Marchese Galli at Castrovillari. I endeavoured to see his museum, but found it inaccessible for “family reasons.” The same answer was given me in regard to a valuable private library at Rossano, and annoying as it may be, one cannot severely blame such local gentlemen for keeping their collections to themselves. What have they to gain from the visits of inquisitive travellers?

During these meditations on my part, the old man hobbled busily to and fro with a bucket, bearing water from a fountain near at hand wherewith to splash the carriage-wheels. He persisted in this singular occupation for an unreasonably long time. Water was good for the wheels, he explained; it kept them cool.

At last we started, and I began to slumber once more. The carriage seemed to be going down a steep incline; endlessly it descended, with a pleasant swaying motion. . . . Then an icy shiver roused me from my dreams. It was the Crati whose rapid waves, fraught with unhealthy chills, rippled brightly in the moonlight. We crossed the malarious valley, and once more touched the hills.

From those treeless slopes there streamed forth deliciously warm emanations stored up during the scorching hours of noon; the short scrub that clothed them was redolent of that peculiar Calabrian odour which haunts one like a melody–an odour of dried cistus and other aromatic plants, balsamic by day, almost overpowering at this hour. To aid and diversify the symphony of perfume, I lit a cigar, and then gave myself up to contemplation of the heavenly bodies. We passed a solitary man, walking swiftly with bowed head. What was he doing there?

“Lupomanaro,” said the driver.

A werewolf. . . .

I had always hoped to meet with a werewolf on his nocturnal rambles, and now my wish was gratified. But it was disappointing to see him in human garb–even werewolves, it seems, must march with the times. This enigmatical growth of the human mind flourishes in Calabria, but is not popular as a subject of conversation. The more old-fashioned werewolves cling to the true versipellis habits, and in that case only the pigs, the inane Calabrian pigs, are dowered with the faculty of distinguishing them in daytime, when they look like any other “Christian.” There is a record, in Fiore’s book, of an epidemic of lycanthropy that attacked the boys of Cassano. (Why only the boys?) It began on 31 July, 1210; and the season of the year strikes me as significant.

After that I fell asleep in good earnest, nor did I wake up again till the sun was peering over the eastern hills. We were climbing up a long slope; the Albanian settlements of Vaccarizza and San Giorgio lay before us and, looking back, I still saw Spezzano on its ridge; it seemed so close that a gunshot could have reached it.

These non-Italian villages date from the centuries that followed the death of Scanderbeg, when the Grand Signior consolidated his power. The refugees arrived in flocks from over the sea, and were granted tracts of wild land whereon to settle–some of them on this incline of the Sila, which was accordingly called “Greek” Sila, the native confusing these foreigners with the Byzantines whose dwellings, as regards Calabria, are now almost exclusively confined to the distant region of Aspromonte. Colonies of Albanians are scattered all over South Italy, chiefly in Apulia, Calabria, Basilicata, and Sicily; a few are in the north and centre–there is one on the Po, for instance, now reduced to 200 inhabitants; most of these latter have become absorbed into the surrounding Italian element. Angelo Masci (reprinted 1846) says there are 59 villages of them, containing altogether 83,000 inhabitants– exclusive of Sicily; Morelli (1842) gives their total population for Italy and Sicily as 103,466. If these figures are correct, the race must have multiplied latterly, for I am told there are now some 200,000 Albanians in the kingdom, living in about 80 villages. This gives approximately 2500 for each settlement–a likely number, if it includes those who are at present emigrants in America. There is a voluminous literature on the subject of these strangers, the authors of which are nearly all Albanians themselves. The fullest account of older conditions may well be that contained in the third volume of Rodota’s learned work (1758); the ponderous Francesco Tajani (1886) brings affairs up to date, or nearly so. If only he had provided his book with an index!

There were troubles at first. Arriving, as they did, solely “with their shirts and rhapsodies” (so one of them described it to me)–that is, despoiled of everything, they indulged in robberies and depredations somewhat too freely even for those free days, with the result that ferocious edicts were issued against them, and whole clans wiped out. It was a case of necessity knowing no law. But in proportion as the forests were hewn down and crops sown, they became as respectable as their hosts. They are bilingual from birth, one might almost say, and numbers of the men also express themselves correctly in English, which they pick up in the United States.

These islands of alien culture have been hotbeds of Liberalism throughout history. The Bourbons persecuted them savagely on that account, exiling and hanging the people by scores. At this moment there is a good deal of excitement going on in favour of the Albanian revolt beyond the Adriatic, and it was proposed, among other things, to organize a demonstration in Rome, where certain Roman ladies were to dress themselves in Albanian costumes and thus work upon the sentiments of the nation; but “the authorities” forbade this and every other movement. None the less, there has been a good deal of clandestine recruiting, and bitter recriminations against this turcophile attitude on the part of Italy–this “reactionary rigorism against every manifestation of sympathy for the Albanian cause.” Patriotic pamphleteers ask, rightly enough, why difficulties should be placed in the way of recruiting for Albania, when, in the recent cases of Cuba and Greece, the despatch of volunteers was actually encouraged by the government? “Legality has ceased to exist here; we Albanians are watched and suspected exactly as our compatriots now are by the Turks. . . . They sequestrate our manifestos, they forbid meetings and conferences, they pry into our postal correspondence. . . . Civil and military authorities have conspired to prevent a single voice of help and comfort reaching our brothers, who call to us from over the sea.” A hard case, indeed. But Vienna and Cettinje might be able to throw some light upon it. [Footnote: This was written before the outbreak of the Balkan war.]

The Albanian women, here as elsewhere, are the veriest beasts of burden; unlike the Italians, they carry everything (babies, and wood, and water) on their backs. Their crudely tinted costumes would be called more strange than beautiful under any but a bright sunshiny sky. The fine native dresses of the men have disappeared long ago; they even adopted, in days past, the high-peaked Calabrian hat which is now only worn by the older generation. Genuine Calabrians often settle in these foreign villages, in order to profit by their anti-feudal institutions. For even now the Italian cultivator is supposed to make, and actually does make, “voluntary” presents to his landlord at certain seasons; gifts which are always a source of irritation and, in bad years, a real hardship. The Albanians opposed themselves from the very beginning against these mediaeval practices. “They do not build houses,” says an old writer, “so as not to be subject to barons, dukes, princes, or other lords. And if the owner of the land they inhabit ill-treats them, they set fire to their huts and go elsewhere.” An admirable system, even nowadays.

One would like to be here at Easter time to see the rusalet–those Pyrrhic dances where the young men group themselves in martial array, and pass through the streets with song and chorus, since, soon enough, America will have put an end to such customs. The old Albanian guitar of nine strings has already died out, and the double tibia–biforem dat tibia cantum–will presently follow suit. This instrument, familiar from classical sculpture and lore, and still used in Sicily and Sardinia, was once a favourite with the Sila shepherds, who called it “fischietto a pariglia.” But some years ago I vainly sought it in the central Sila; the answer to my enquiries was everywhere the same: they knew it quite well; so and so used to play it; certain persons in certain villages still made it–they described it accurately enough, but could not produce a specimen. Single pipes, yes; and bagpipes galore; but the tibia: pares were “out of fashion” wherever I asked for them.

Here, in the Greek Sila, I was more fortunate. A boy at the village of Macchia possessed a pair which he obligingly gave me, after first playing a song–a farewell song–a plaintive ditty that required, none the less, an excellent pair of lungs, on account of the two mouthpieces. Melodies on this double flageolet are played principally at Christmas time. The two reeds are about twenty-five centimetres in length, and made of hollow cane; in my specimen, the left hand controls four, the other six holes; the Albanian name of the instrument is “fiscarol.”

From a gentleman at Vaccarizza I received a still more valuable present–two neolithic celts (aenolithic, I should be inclined to call them) wrought in close-grained quartzite, and found not far from that village. These implements must be rare in the uplands of Calabria, as I have never come across them before, though they have been found, to my knowledge, at Savelli in the central Sila. At Vaccarizza they call such relics “pic"–they are supposed, as usual, to be thunderbolts, and I am also told that a piece of string tied to one of them cannot be burnt in fire. The experiment might be worth trying.

Meanwhile, the day passed pleasantly at Vaccarizza. I became the guest of a prosperous resident, and was treated to genuine Albanian hospitality and excellent cheer. I only wish that all his compatriots might enjoy one meal of this kind in their lifetime. For they are poor, and their homes of miserable aspect. Like all too many villages in South Italy, this one is depopulated of its male inhabitants, and otherwise dirty and neglected. The impression one gains on first seeing one of these places is more than that of Oriental decay; they are not merely ragged at the edges. It is a deliberate and sinister chaos, a note of downright anarchy–a contempt for those simple forms of refinement which even the poorest can afford. Such persons, one thinks, cannot have much sense of home and its hallowed associations; they seem to be everlastingly ready to break with the existing state of things. How different from England, where the humblest cottages, the roadways, the very stones testify to immemorial love of order, to neighbourly feelings and usages sanctioned by time!

They lack the sense of home as a fixed and old-established topographical point; as do the Arabs and Russians, neither of whom have a word expressing our “home” or “Heimat.” Here, the nearest equivalent is la famiglia. We think of a particular house or village where we were born and where we spent our impressionable days of childhood; these others regard home not as a geographical but as a social centre, liable to shift from place to place; they are at home everywhere, so long as their clan is about them. That acquisitive sense which affectionately adorns our meanest dwelling, slowly saturating it with memories, has been crushed out of them–if it ever existed–by hard blows of fortune; it is safer, they think, to transform the labour of their hands into gold, which can be moved from place to place or hidden from the tyrant’s eye. They have none of our sentimentality in regard to inanimate objects. Eliza Cook’s feelings towards her “old arm-chair” would strike them as savouring of childishness. Hence the unfinished look of their houses, within and without. Why expend thought and wealth upon that which may be abandoned to-morrow?

The two churches of Vaccarizza, dark and unclean structures, stand side by side, and I was shown through them by their respective priests, Greek and Catholic, who walked arm in arm in friendly wise, and meekly smiled at a running fire of sarcastic observations on the part of another citizen directed against the “bottega” in general–the shop, as the church is sometimes irreverently called. The Greco-Catholic cult to which these Albanians belong is a compromise between the Orthodox and Roman; their priests may wear beards and marry wives, they use bread instead of the wafer for sacramental purposes, and there are one or two other little differences of grave import.

Six Albanian settlements lie on these northern slopes of the Sila–San Giorgio, Vaccarizza, San Cosimo, Macchia, San Demetrio Corone, and Santa Sofia d’ Epiro. San Demetrio is the largest of them, and thither, after an undisturbed night’s rest at the house of my kind host–the last, I fear, for many days to come–I drove in the sunlit hours of next morning. Along the road one can see how thoroughly the Albanians have done their work; the land is all under cultivation, save for a dark belt of trees overhead, to remind one of what once it was. Perhaps they have eradicated the forest over-zealously, for I observe in San Demetrio that the best drinking water has now to be fetched from a spring at a considerable distance from the village; it is unlikely that this should have been the original condition of affairs; deforestation has probably diminished the water-supply.

It was exhilarating to traverse these middle heights with their aerial views over the Ionian and down olive-covered hill-sides towards the wide valley of the Crati and the lofty Pollino range, now swimming in midsummer haze. The road winds in and out of gullies where rivulets descend from the mountains; they are clothed in cork-oak, ilex, and other trees; golden orioles, jays, hoopoes and rollers flash among the foliage. In winter these hills are swept by boreal blasts from the Apennines, but at this season it is a delightful tract of land.



[Buy at Amazon]
Old Calabria (Marlboro Travel)
By Norman Douglas
At Amazon