By Norman Douglas
Public Domain Books
XXXII. ASPROMONTE, THE CLOUD-GATHERER
Day was barely dawning when we left Delianuova and began the long and weary climb up Montalto. Chestnuts gave way to beeches, but the summit receded ever further from us. And even before reaching the uplands, the so-called Piano di Carmelia, we encountered a bank of bad weather. A glance at the map will show that Montalto must be a cloud-gatherer, drawing to its flanks every wreath of vapour that rises from Ionian and Tyrrhenian; a west wind was blowing that morning, and thick fogs clung to the skirts of the peak. We reached the summit (1956 metres) at last, drenched in an icy bath of rain and sleet, and with fingers so numbed that we could hardly hold our sticks.
Of the superb view–for such it must be–nothing whatever was to be seen; we were wrapped in a glacial mist. On the highest point stands a figure of the Redeemer. It was dragged up in pieces from Delianuova some seven years ago, but soon injured by frosts; it has lately been refashioned. The original structure may be due to the same pious stimulus as that which placed the crosses on Monte Vulture and other peaks throughout the country–a counterblast to the rationalistic congress at Rome in 1904, when Giordano Bruno became, for a while, the hero of the country. This statue does not lack dignity. The Saviour’s regard turns towards Reggio, the capital of the province; and one hand is upraised in calm and godlike benediction.
Passing through magnificent groves of fir, we descended rapidly into anothsr climate, into realms of golden sunshine. Among these trees I espied what has become quite a rare bird in Italy–the common wood-pigeon. The few that remain have been driven into the most secluded recesses of the mountains; it was different in the days of Theocritus, who sang of this amiable fowl when the climate was colder and the woodlands reached as far as the now barren seashore. To the firs succeeded long stretches of odorous pines interspersed with Mediterranean heath (brayere), which here grows to a height of twelve feet; one thinks of the number of briar pipes that could be cut out of its knotty roots. A British Vice-Consul at Reggio, Mr. Kerrich, started this industry about the year 1899; he collected the roots, which were sawn into blocks and then sent to France and America to be made into pipes. This Calabrian briar was considered superior to the French kind, and Mr. Kerrich had large sales on both sides of the Atlantic; his chief difficulty was want of labour owing to emigration.
We passed, by the wayside, several rude crosses marking the site of accidents or murders, as well as a large heap of stones, where-under lie the bones of a man who attempted to traverse these mountains in winter-time and was frozen to death.
“They found him,” the guide told me, “in spring, when the snow melted from off his body. There he lay, all fresh and comely! It looked as if he would presently wake up and continue his march; but he neither spoke nor stirred. Then they knew he was dead. And they piled all these stones over him, to prevent the wolves, you understand-----”
Aspromonte deserves its name. It is an incredibly harsh agglomeration of hill and dale, and the geology of the district, as I learned long ago from my friend Professor Cortese, reveals a perfect chaos of rocks of every age, torn into gullies by earthquakes and other cataclysms of the past–at one place, near Scido, is an old stream of lava. Once the higher ground, the nucleus of the group, is left behind, the wanderer finds himself lost in a maze of contorted ravines, winding about without any apparent system of watershed. Does the liquid flow north or south? Who can tell! The track crawls in and out of valleys, mounts upwards to heights of sun-scorched bracken and cistus, descends once more into dewy glades hemmed in by precipices and overhung by drooping fernery. It crosses streams of crystal clearness, rises afresh in endless gyrations under the pines only to vanish, yet again, into the twilight of deeper abysses, where it skirts the rivulet along precarious ledges, until some new obstruction blocks the way–so it writhes about for long, long hours. . . .
Here, on the spot, one can understand how an outlaw like Musolino was enabled to defy justice, helped, as he was, by the fact that the vast majority of the inhabitants were favourable to him, and that the officer in charge of his pursuers was paid a fixed sum for every day he spent in the chase and presumably found it convenient not to discover his whereabouts. [Footnote: See next chapter.]
We rested awhile, during these interminable meanderings, under the shadow of a group of pines.
“Do you see that square patch yonder?” said my man. “It is a cornfield. There Musolino shot one of his enemies, whom he suspected of giving information to the police. It was well done.”
“How many did he shoot, altogether?”
“Only eighteen. And three of them recovered, more or less; enough to limp about, at all events. Ah, if you could have seen him, sir! He was young, with curly fair hair, and a face like a rose. God alone can tell how many poor people he helped in their distress. And any young girl he met in the mountains he would help with her load and accompany as far as her home, right into her father’s house, which none of us would have risked, however much we might have liked it. But every one knew that he was pure as an angel.”
“And there was a young fellow here,” he went on, “who thought he could profit by pretending to be Musolino. So one day he challenged a proprietor with his gun, and took all his money. When it came to Musolino’s ears, he was furious–furious! He lay in wait for him, caught him, and said: ’How dare you touch fathers of children? Where’s that money you took from Don Antonio?’ Then the boy began to cry and tremble for his life. ’Bring it,’ said Musolino, ’every penny, at midday next Monday, to such and such a spot, or else-----’ Of course he brought it. Then he marched him straight into the proprietor’s house. ’Here’s this wretched boy, who robbed you in my name. And here’s the money: please count it. Now, what shall we do with him?’ So Don Antonio counted the money. ’It’s all there,’ he said; ’let him off this time.’ Then Musolino turned to the lad: ’You have behaved like a mannerless puppy,’ he said, ’without shame or knowledge of the world. Be reasonable in future, and understand clearly: I will have no brigandage in these mountains. Leave that to the syndics and judges in the towns.’”
We did not traverse Musolino’s natal village, Santo Stefano; indeed, we passed through no villages at all. But after issuing from the labyrinth, we saw a few of them, perched in improbable situations–Roccaforte and Roghudi on our right; on the other side, Africo and Casalnuovo. Salis Marschlins says that the inhabitants of these regions are so wild and innocent that money is unknown; everything is done by barter. That comes of copying without discrimination. For this statement he utilized the report of a Government official, a certain Leoni, who was sent hither after the earthquake of 1783, and found the use of money not unknown, but forgotten, in consequence of this terrible catastrophe.
These vales of Aspromonte are one of the last refuges of living Byzantinism. Greek is still spoken in some places, such as Rocca-forte and Roghudi. Earlier travellers confused the natives with the Albanians; Niehbuhr, who had an obsession on the subject of Hellenism, imagined they were relics of old Dorian and Achaean colonies. Scholars are apparently not yet quite decided upon certain smaller matters. So Lenormant (Vol. II, p. 433) thinks they came hither after the Turkish conquest, as did the Albanians; Batiffol argues that they were chased into Calabria from Sicily by the Arabs after the second half of the seventh century; Morosi, who treats mostly of their Apulian settlements, says that they came from the East between the sixth and tenth centuries. Many students, such as Morelli and Comparetti, have garnered their songs, language, customs and lore, and whoever wants a convenient resume of these earlier researches will find it in Pellegrini’s book which was written in 1873 (printed 1880). He gives the number of Greek inhabitants of these places–Roghudi, for example, had 535 in his day; he has also noted down these villages, like Africo and Casalnuovo, in which the Byzantine speech has lately been lost. Bova and Condofuri are now the head-quarters of mediaeval Greek in these parts.
From afar we had already descried a green range of hills that shut out the seaward view. This we now began to climb, in wearisome ascension; it is called Pie d’lmpisa, because “your feet are all the time on a steep incline.” Telegraph wires here accompany the track, a survival of the war between the Italian Government and Musolino. On the summit lies a lonely Alp, Campo di Bova, where a herd of cattle were pasturing under the care of a golden-haired youth who lay supine on the grass, gazing at the clouds as they drifted in stately procession across the firmament. Save for a dusky charcoal-burner crouching in a cave, this boy was the only living person we encountered on our march–so deserted are these mountain tracks.
At Campo di Bova a path branches off to Staiti; the sea is visible once more, and there are fine glimpses, on the left, towards Staiti (or is it Ferruzzano?) and, down the right, into the destructive and dangerous torrent of Amendolea. Far beyond it, rises the mountain peak of Pentedattilo, a most singular landmark which looks exactly like a molar tooth turned upside down, with fangs in air. The road passes through a gateway in the rock whence, suddenly, a full view is disclosed of Bova on its hill-top, the houses nestling among huge blocks of stone that make one think of some cyclopean citadel of past ages. My guide stoutly denied that this was Bova; the town, he declared, lay in quite another direction. I imagine he had never been beyond the foot of the “Pie d’Impisa.”
Here, once more, the late earthquake has done some damage, and there is a row of trim wooden shelters near the entrance of the town. I may add, as a picturesque detail, that about one-third of them have never been inhabited, and are never likely to be. They were erected in the heat of enthusiasm, and there they will stay, empty and abandoned, until some energetic mayor shall pull them down and cook his maccheroni with their timber.
Evening was drawing on apace, and whether it was due to the joy of having accomplished an arduous journey, or to inconsiderate potations of the Bacchus of Bova, one of the most remarkable wines in Italy, I very soon found myself on excellent terms with the chief citizens of this rather sordid-looking little place. A good deal has been written concerning Bova and its inhabitants, but I should say there is still a mine of information to be exploited on the spot. They are bilingual, but while clinging stubbornly to their old speech, they have now embraced Catholicism. The town kept its Greek religious rites till the latter half of the sixteenth century; and Rodota has described the “vigorous resistance” that was made to the introduction of Romanism, and the ceremonies which finally accompanied that event.
Mine hostess obligingly sang me two or three songs in her native language; the priest furnished me with curious statistics of folklore and criminology; and the notary, with whom I conversed awhile on the tiny piazza that overlooks the coastlands and distant Ionian, was a most affable gentleman. Seeing that the Christian names of the populace are purely Italian, I enquired as to their surnames, and learned what I expected, namely, that a good many Greek family names survive among the people. His own name, he said, was unquestionably Greek: Condemi; if I liked, he would go through the local archives and prepare me a list of all such surnames as appeared to him to be non-Italian; we could thus obtain some idea of the percentage of Greek families still living here. My best thanks to the good Signor!
After some further liquid refreshment, a youthful native volunteered to guide me by short cuts to the remote railway station. We stepped blithely into the twilight, and during the long descent I discoursed with him, in fluent Byzantine Greek, of the affairs of his village.
It is my theory that among a populace of this kind the words relative to agricultural pursuits will be those which are least likely to suffer change with lapse of years, or to be replaced by others.
Acting on this principle, I put him through a catechism on the subject as soon as we reached our destination, and was surprised at the relative scarcity of Italian terms–barely 25 per cent I should say. Needless to add, I omitted to note them down. Such as it is, be that my contribution to the literature of these sporadic islets of mediaeval Hellenism, whose outstanding features are being gnawed away by the waves of military conscription, governmental schooling, and emigration.
Caulonia, my next halting-place, lay far off the line. I had therefore the choice of spending the night at Gerace (old Locri) or Rocella Ionica–intermediate stations. Both of them, to my knowledge, possessing indifferent accommodation, I chose the former as being the nearest, and slept there, not amiss; far better than on a previous occasion, when certain things occurred which need not be set down here.
The trip from Delianuova over the summit of Montalto to Bova railway station is by no means to be recommended to young boys or persons in delicate health. Allowing for only forty-five minutes’ rest, it took me fourteen hours to walk to the town of Bova, and the railway station lies nearly three hours apart from that place. There is hardly a level yard of ground along the whole route, and though my “guide” twice took the wrong track and thereby probably lost me some little time, I question whether the best walker, provided (as I was) with the best maps, will be able to traverse the distance in less than fifteen hours.
Whoever he is, I wish him joy of his journey. Pleasant to recall, assuredly; the scenery and the mountain flowers are wondrously beautiful; but I have fully realized what the men of Delianuova meant, when they said:
“To Montalto, Yes; to Bova, No.”