Old Calabria
By Norman Douglas

Presented by

Public Domain Books


A driving road to connect San Demetrio with Acri whither I was now bound was begun, they say, about twenty years ago; one can follow it for a considerable distance beyond the Albanian College. Then, suddenly, it ends. Walking to Acri, however, by the old track, one picks up, here and there, conscientiously-engineered little stretches of it, already overgrown with weeds; these, too, break off as abruptly as they began, in the wild waste. For purposes of wheeled traffic these picturesque but disconnected fragments are quite useless.

Perhaps the whole undertaking will be completed some day–speriamo! as the natives say, when speaking of something rather beyond reasonable expectation. But possibly not; and in that case–pazienza! meaning, that all hope may now be abandoned. There is seldom any great hurry, with non-governmental works of this kind.

It would be interesting if one could learn the inner history of these abortive transactions. I have often tried, in vain. It is impossible for an outsider to pierce the jungle of sordid mystery and intrigue which surrounds them. So much I gathered: that the original contract was based on the wages then current and that, the price of labour having more than doubled in consequence of the “discovery” of America, no one will undertake the job on the old terms. That is sufficiently intelligible. But why operations proceeded so slowly at first, and why a new contract cannot now be drawn up–who can tell! The persons interested blame the contractor, who blames the engineer, who blames the dilatory and corrupt administration of Cosenza. My private opinion is, that the last three parties have agreed to share the swag between them. Meanwhile everybody has just grounds of complaint against everybody else; the six or seven inevitable lawsuits have sprung up and promise to last any length of time, seeing that important documents have been lost or stolen and that half the original contracting parties have died in the interval: nobody knows what is going to happen in the end. It all depends upon whether some patriotic person will step forward and grease the wheels in the proper quarter.

And even then, if he hails from Acri, they of San Demetrio will probably work against the project, and vice versa. For no love is lost between neighbouring communities–wonderful, with what venomous feudal animosity they regard each other! United Italy means nothing to these people, whose conceptions of national and public life are those of the cock on his dung-hill. You will find in the smallest places intelligent and broad-minded men, tradespeople or professionals or landed proprietors, but they are seldom members of the municipio; the municipal career is also a money-making business, yes; but of another kind, and requiring other qualifications.

Foot-passengers like myself suffer no inconvenience by being obliged to follow the shorter and time-honoured mule-track that joins the two places. It rises steeply at first, then begins to wind in and out among shady vales of chestnut and oak, affording unexpected glimpses now towards distant Tarsia and now, through a glade on the right, on to the ancient citadel of Bisignano, perched on its rock.

I reached Acri after about two and a half hours’ walking. It lies in a theatrical situation and has a hotel; but the proprietor of that establishment having been described to me as “the greatest brigand of the Sila” I preferred to refresh myself at a small wineshop, whose manageress cooked me an uncommonly good luncheon and served some of the best wine I had tasted for long. Altogether, the better-class women here are far more wideawake and civilized than those of the Neapolitan province; a result of their stern patriarchal up-bringing and of their possessing more or less sensible husbands.

Thus fortified, I strolled about the streets. One would like to spend a week or two in a place like this, so little known even to Italians, but the hot weather and bad feeding had begun to affect me disagreeably and I determined to push on without delay into cooler regions. It would never do to be laid up at Acri with heatstroke, and to have one’s last drops of life drained away by copious blood-lettings, relic of Hispano-Arabic practices and the favourite remedy for every complaint. Acri is a large place, and its air of prosperity contrasts with the slumberous decay of San Demetrio; there is silk-rearing, and so much emigration into America that nearly every man I addressed replied in English. New houses are rising up in all directions, and the place is celebrated for its rich citizens.

But these same wealthy men are in rather a dilemma. Some local authority, I forget who, has deduced from the fact that there are so many forges and smiths’ shops here that this must be the spot to which the over-sensitive inhabitants of Sybaris banished their workers in metal and other noisy professions. Now the millionaires would like to be thought Sybarites by descent, but it is hardly respectable to draw a pedigree from these outcasts.

They need not alarm themselves. For Acri, as Forbiger has shown, is the old Acherontia; the river Acheron, the Mocone or Mucone of to-day, flows at its foot, and from one point of the town I had a fine view into its raging torrent.

A wearisome climb of two hours brought me to the Croce Greca, the Greek Cross, which stands 1185 metres above sea-level. How hot it was, in that blazing sun! I should be sorry to repeat the trip, under the same conditions. A structure of stone may have stood here in olden days; at present it is a diminutive wooden crucifix by the roadside. It marks, none the less, an important geographical point: the boundary between the “Greek” Sila which I was now leaving and the Sila Grande, the central and largest region. Beyond this last-named lies the lesser Sila, or “Sila Piccola “; and if you draw a line from Rogliano (near Cosenza) to Cotrone you will approximately strike the watershed which divides the Sila Grande from this last and most westerly of the three Sila divisions. After that comes Catanzaro and the valley of the Corace, the narrowest point of the Italian continent, and then the heights of Serra and Aspromonte, the true “Italy” of old, that continue as far as Reggio.

Though I passed through some noble groves of chestnut on the way up, the country here was a treeless waste. Yet it must have been forest up to a short time ago, for one could see the beautiful vegetable mould which has not yet had time to be washed down the hill-sides. A driving road passes the Croce Greca; it joins Acri with San Giovanni, the capital of Sila Grande, and with Cosenza.

It was another long hour’s march, always uphill, before I reached a spacious green meadow or upland with a few little buildings. The place is called Verace and lies on the watershed between the upper Crati valley and the Ionian; thenceforward my walk would be a descent along the Trionto river, the Traeis of old, as far as Longo-bucco which overlooks its flood. It was cool here at last, from the altitude and the decline of day; and hay-making was going on, amid the pastoral din of cow-bells and a good deal of blithe love-making and chattering.

After some talk with these amiable folks, I passed on to where the young Traeis bubbles up from the cavernous reservoirs of the earth. Of those chill and roguish wavelets I took a draught, mindful of the day when long ago, by these same waters, an irreparable catastrophe overwhelmed our European civilization. For it was the Traeis near whose estuary was fought the battle between 300,000 Sybarites (I refuse to believe these figures) and the men of Croton conducted by their champion Milo–a battle which led to the destruction of Sybaris and, incidentally, of Hellenic culture throughout the mainland of Italy. This was in the same fateful year 510 that witnessed the expulsion of the Tarquins from Rome and the Pisistratidae from Athens.

Pines, the characteristic tree of the Sila, now begin to appear. Passing through Verace I had already observed, on the left, a high mountain entirely decked with them. It is the ridge marked Pale-parto on the map; the Trionto laves its foot. But the local pronunciation of this name is Palepite, and I cannot help thinking that here we have a genuine old Greek name perpetuated by the people and referring to this covering of hoary pines–a name which the cartographers, arbitrary and ignorant as they often are, have unconsciously disguised. (It occurs in some old charts, however, as Paleparto.) An instructive map of Italy could be drawn up, showing the sites and cities wrongly named from corrupt etymology or falsified inscriptions, and those deliberately miscalled out of principles of local patriotism. The whole country is full of these inventions of litterati which date, for the most part, from the enthusiastic but undisciplined Cinque-Cento.

The minute geographical triangle comprised between Cosenza, Longobucco and San Demetrio which I was now traversing is one of the least known corners of Italy, and full of dim Hellenic memories. The streamlet “Calamo” flows through the valley I ascended from Acri, and at its side, a little way out of the town, stands the fountain “Pompeio” where the brigands, not long ago, used to lie in wait for women and children coming to fetch water, and snatch them away for ransom. On the way up, I had glimpses down a thousand feet or more into the Mucone or Acheron, raging and foaming in its narrow valley. It rises among the mountains called “Fallistro” and “Li Tartari"–unquestionably Greek names.

On this river and somewhere above Acri stood, according to the scholarly researches of Lenormant, the ancient city of Pandosia. I do not know if its site has been determined since his day. It was “very strong” and rich and at its highest prosperity in the fourth century B.C.; after the fall of Sybaris it passed under the supremacy of Croton. The god Pan was figured on some of its coins, and appropriately enough, considering its sylvan surroundings; others bear the head of the nymph Pandosia with her name and that of the river Crathis, under the guise of a young shepherd: they who wish to learn his improper legend will find it in the pages of Aelian, or in chapter xxxii of the twenty-fifth book of Rhodiginus, beginning Quae sit brutorum affectio, etc. [Footnote: Brunii a brutis moribus: so say certain spiteful writers, an accusation which Strabo and Horace extend to all Calabrians. As to the site of Pandosia, a good number of scholars, such as old Prosper Parisius and Luigi Maria Greco, locate it at the village of Mendicino on the river Merenzata, which was called Arconte (? Acheron) in the Middle Ages. So the Trionto is not unquestionably the Traeis, and in Marincola Pistoia’s good little “Cose di Sibari” (1845) the distinction is claimed for one of four rivers–the Lipuda, Colognati, Trionto, or Fiuminica.]

We have here not the Greece of mediaeval Byzantine times, much less that of the Albanians, but the sunny Hellas of the days when the world was young, when these ardent colonists sailed westwards to perpetuate their names and legends in the alien soil of Italy.

The Mucone has always been known as a ferocious and pitiless torrent, and maintains to this day its Tartarean reputation. Twenty persons a year, they tell me, are devoured by its angry waters: mangia venti cristiani all’ anno! This is as bad as the Amendolea near Reggio. But none of its victims have attained the celebrity of Alexander of Molossus, King of Epirus, who perished under the walls of Pandosia in 326 B.C. during an excursion against the Lucanians. He had been warned by the oracle of Dodona to avoid the waters of Acheron and the town of Pandosia; once in Italy, however, he paid small heed to these words, thinking they referred to the river and town of the same name in Thesprotia. But the gods willed otherwise, and you may read of his death in the waters, and the laceration of his body by the Lucanians, in Livy’s history.

It is a strange caprice that we should now possess what is in every probability the very breastplate worn by the heroic monarch on that occasion. It was found in 1820, and thereafter sold–some fragments of it, at least–to the British Museum, where under the name of “Bronze of Siris” it may still be admired: a marvellous piece of repoussee work, in the style of Lysippus, depicting the combat of Ajax and the Amazons. . . .

The streamlet Trionto, my companion to Longobucco, glides along between stretches of flowery meadow-land–fit emblem of placid rural contentment. But soon this lyric mood is spent. It enters a winding gorge that shuts out the sunlight and the landscape abruptly assumes an epic note; the water tumbles wildly downward, hemmed in by mountains whose slopes are shrouded in dusky pines wherever a particle of soil affords them foothold. The scenery in this valley is as romantic as any in the Sila. Affluents descend on either side, while the swollen rivulet writhes and screeches in its narrow bed, churning the boulders with hideous din. The track, meanwhile, continues to run beside the water till the passage becomes too difficult; it must perforce attack the hill-side. Up it climbs, therefore, in never-ending ascension, and then meanders at a great height above the valley, in and out of its tributary glens.

I was vastly enjoying this promenade–the shady pines, whose fragrance mingled with that of a legion of tall aromatic plants in full blossom–the views upon the river, shining far below me like the thread of silver–when I observed with surprise that the whole mountain-side which the track must manifestly cross had lately slipped down into the abyss. A cloud-burst two or three days ago, as I afterwards learned, had done the mischief. On arrival at the spot, the path was seen to be interrupted–clean gone, in fact, and not a shred of earth or trees left; there confronted me a bare scar, a wall of naked rock which not even a chamois could negotiate. Here was a dilemma. I must either retrace my steps along the weary road to Verace and there seek a night’s shelter with the gentle hay-makers, or clamber down into the ravine, follow the river and–chance it! After anxious deliberation, the latter alternative was chosen.

But the Trionto was now grown into a formidable torrent of surging waves and eddies, with a perverse inclination to dash from one side to the other of its prison, so as to necessitate frequent fordings on my part. These watery passages, which I shall long remember, were not without a certain danger. The stream was still swollen with the recent rains, and its bed, invisible under the discoloured element, sufficiently deep to inspire respect and studded, furthermore, with slippery boulders of every size, concealing insidious gulfs. Having only a short walking-stick to support me through this raging flood, I could not but picture to myself the surprise of the village maidens of Crepolati, lower down, on returning to their laundry work by the river-side next morning and discovering the battered anatomy of an Englishman–a rare fish, in these waters–stranded upon their familiar beach. Murdered, of course. What a galaxy of brigand legends would have clustered round my memory!

Evening was closing in, and I had traversed the stream so often and stumbled so long amid this chaos of roaring waters and weirdly-tinted rocks, that I began to wonder whether the existence of Longobucco was not a myth. But suddenly, at a bend of the river, the whole town, still distant, was revealed, upraised on high and framed in the yawning mouth of the valley. After the solitary ramble of that afternoon, my eyes familiarized to nothing save the wild things of nature, this unexpected glimpse of complicated, civilized structures had all the improbability of a mirage. Longo-bucco, at that moment, arose before me like those dream-cities in the Arabian tale, conjured by enchantment out of the desert waste.

The vision, though it swiftly vanished again, cheered me on till after a good deal more scrambling and wading, with boots torn to rags, lame, famished and drenched to the skin, I reached the bridge of the Rossano highway and limped upwards, in the twilight, to the far-famed “Hotel Vittoria.”

Soon enough, be sure, I was enquiring as to supper. But the manageress met my suggestions about eatables with a look of blank astonishment.

Was there nothing in the house, then? No cheese, or meat, or maccheroni, or eggs–no wine to drink?

“Nothing!” she replied. “Why should you eat things at this hour? You must find them yourself, if you really want them. I might perhaps procure you some bread.”

Avis aux voyageurs, as the French say.

Undaunted, I went forth and threw myself upon the mercy of a citizen of promising exterior, who listened attentively to my case. Though far too polite to contradict, I could see that nothing in the world would induce him to credit the tale of my walking from San Demetrio that day–it was tacitly relegated to the regions of fable. With considerable tact, so as not to wound my feelings, he avoided expressing any opinion on so frivolous a topic; nor did the reason of his reluctance to discuss my exploit dawn upon me till I realized, later on, that like many of the inhabitants he had never heard of the track over Acri, and consequently disbelieved its existence. They reach San Demetrio by a two or even three days’ drive over Rossano, Corigliano, and Vaccarizza. He became convinced, however, that for some reason or other I was hungry, and thereupon good-naturedly conducted me to various places where wine and other necessities of life were procured.

The landlady watched me devouring this fare, more astonished than ever–indeed, astonishment seemed to be her chronic condition so long as I was under her roof. But the promised bread was not forthcoming, for the simple reason that there was none in the house. She had said that she could procure it for me, not that she possessed it; now, since I had given no orders to that effect, she had not troubled about it.

Nobody travels south of Rome. . . .

Strengthened beyond expectation by this repast, I sallied into the night once more, and first of all attended an excellent performance at the local cinematograph. After that, I was invited to a cup of coffee by certain burghers, and we strolled about the piazza awhile, taking our pleasure in the cool air of evening (the town lies 794 metres above sea-level). Its streets are orderly and clean; there are no Albanians, and no costumes of any kind. Here, firm-planted on the square, and jutting at an angle from the body of the church, stands a massive bell-tower overgrown from head to foot with pendent weeds and grasses whose roots have found a home in the interstices of its masonry; a grimly venerable pile, full of character.

Weary but not yet satiated, I took leave of the citizens and perambulated the more ignoble quarters, all of which are decently lighted with electricity. Everywhere in these stiller regions was the sound of running waters, and I soon discerned that Longobucco is an improvement on the usual site affected by Calabrian hill-towns–the Y-shaped enclosure, namely, at the junction of two rivers–inasmuch as it has contrived to perch itself on a lofty platform protected by no less than three streams that rush impetuously under its walls: the Trionto and two of its affluents. On the flank inclined towards the Ionian there is a veritable chasm; the Trionto side is equally difficult of approach–the rear, of course, inaccessible. No wonder the brigands chose it for their chief citadel.

I am always on the look-out for modern epigraphical curiosities; regarding the subject as one of profound social significance (postage stamps, indeed!) I have assiduously formed a collection, the envy of connaisseurs, about one-third of whose material, they tell me, might possibly be printed at Brussels or Geneva. Well, here is a mural graffito secured in the course of this evening’s walk:

Abaso [sic] questo paese sporco incivile: down with this dirty savage country!

There is food for thought in this inscription. For if some bilious hyper-civilized stranger were its author, the sentiments might pass. But coming from a native, to what depths of morbid discontent do they testify! Considering the recent progress of these regions that has led to a security and prosperity formerly undreamed of, one is driven to the conjecture that these words can only have been penned by some cantankerous churl of an emigrant returning to his native land after an easeful life in New York and compelled–"for his sins,” as he would put it–to reside at the “Hotel Vittoria.”

Towards that delectable hostelry I now turned, somewhat regretfully, to face a bedroom whose appearance had already inspired me with anything but confidence. But hardly were the preliminary investigations begun, when a furious noise in the street below drew me to the window once more. Half the town was passing underneath in thronged procession, with lighted torches and flags, headed by the municipal band discoursing martial strains of music.

Whither wending, at this midnight hour?

To honour a young student, native of the place, now returning up the Rossano road from Naples, where he had distinguished himself prominently in some examination. I joined the crowd, and presently we were met by a small carriage whence there emerged a pallid and frail adolescent with burning eyes, who was borne aloft in triumph and cheered with that vociferous, masculine heartiness which we Englishmen reserve for our popular prize-fighters. And this in the classic land of brigandage and bloodshed!

The intellectual under-current. . . .

It was an apt commentary on my graffito. And another, more personally poignant, not to say piquant, was soon to follow: the bed. But no. I will say nothing about the bed, nothing whatever; nothing beyond this, that it yielded an entomological harvest which surpassed my wildest expectations.



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