Old Calabria
By Norman Douglas

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It has a pleasant signification, that word “Dolcedorme”: it means Sweet slumber. But no one could tell me how the mountain group came by this name; they gave me a number of explanations, all fanciful and unconvincing. Pollino, we are told, is derived from Apollo, and authors of olden days sometimes write of it as “Monte Apollino.” But Barrius suggests an alternative etymology, equally absurd, and connected with the medicinal herbs which are found there. Pollino, he says, a polleo dictus, quod nobilibus herbis medelae commodis polleat. Pro-venit enim ibi, ut ab herbariis accepi, tragium dictamnum Cretense, chamaeleon bigenum, draucus, meum, nardus, celtica, anonides, anemone, peucedamum, turbit, reubarbarum, pyrethrum, juniperus ubertim, stellarla, imperatoria, cardus masticem fundens, dracagas, cythisus–whence likewise the magnificent cheeses; gold and the Phrygian stone, he adds, are also found here.

Unhappily Barrius–we all have a fling at this “Strabo and Pliny of Calabria”! So jealous was he of his work that he procured a prohibition from the Pope against all who might reprint it, and furthermore invoked the curses of heaven and earth upon whoever should have the audacity to translate it into Italian. Yet his shade ought to be appeased with the monumental edition of 1737, and, as regards his infallibility, one must not forget that among his contemporaries the more discerning had already censured his philopatria, his immoderate love of Calabria. And that is the right way to judge of men who were not so much ignorant as unduly zealous for the fair name of their natal land. To sneer at them is to misjudge their period. It was the very spirit of the Renaissance to press rhetorical learning into the service of patriotism. They made some happy guesses and not a few mistakes; and when they lied deliberately, it was done in what they held a just cause–as scholars and gentlemen.

The Calabria Illustrata of Fiore also fares badly at the hands of critics. But I shall not repeat what they say; I confess to a sneaking fondness for Father Fiore.

Marafioti, a Calabrian monk, likewise dwells on these same herbs of Pollino, and gives a long account of a medical secret which he learnt on the spot from two Armenian botanists. Alas for Marafioti! Despite his excellent index and seductively chaste Paduan type and paper, the impartial Soria is driven to say that “to make his shop appear more rich in foreign merchandise, he did not scruple to adorn it with books and authors apocryphal, imaginary, and unknown to the whole human race.” In short, he belonged to the school of Pratilli, who wrote a wise and edifying history of Capua on the basis of inscriptions which he himself had previously forged; of Ligorio Pirro, prince of his tribe, who manufactured thousands of coins, texts and marbles out of sheer exuberance of creative artistry!

Gone are those happy days of authorship, when the constructive imagination was not yet blighted and withered. . . .

Marching comfortably, it will take you nearly twelve hours to go from Morano to the village of Terranova di Pollino, which I selected as my first night-quarter. This includes a scramble up the peak of Pollino, locally termed “telegrafo,” from a pile of stones–? an old signal-station–erected on the summit. But since decent accommodation can only be obtained at Castrovillari, a start should be made from there, and this adds another hour to the trip. Moreover, as the peak of Pollino lies below that of Dolcedorme, which shuts oil a good deal of its view seaward, this second mountain ought rather to be ascended, and that will probably add yet another hour–fourteen altogether. The natives, ever ready to say what they think will please you, call it a six hours’ excursion. As a matter of fact, although I spoke to numbers of the population of Morano, I only met two men who had ever been to Terranova, one of them being my muleteer; the majority had not so much as heard its name. They dislike mountains and torrents and forests, not only as an offence to the eye, but as hindrances to agriculture and enemies of man and his ordered ways. “La montagna” is considerably abused, all over Italy.

It takes an hour to cross the valley and reach the slopes of the opposite hills. Here, on the plain, lie the now faded blossoms of the monstrous arum, the botanical glory of these regions. To see it in flower, in early June, is alone almost worth the trouble of a journey to Calabria.

On a shady eminence at the foot of these mountains, in a most picturesque site, there stands a large castellated building, a monastery. It is called Colorito, and is now a ruin; the French, they say, shelled it for harbouring the brigand-allies of Bourbonism. Nearly all convents in the south, and even in Naples, were at one time or another refuges of bandits, and this association of monks and robbers used to give much trouble to conscientious politicians. It is a solitary building, against the dark hill-side; a sombre and romantic pile such as would have charmed Anne Radcliffe; one longs to explore its recesses. But I dreaded the coming heats of midday. Leone da Morano, who died in 1645, belonged to this congregation, and was reputed an erudite ecclesiastic. The life of one of its greatest luminaries, Fra Bernardo da Rogliano, was described by Tufarelli in a volume which I have never been able to catch sight of. It must be very rare, yet it certainly was printed. [Footnote: Haym has no mention of this work. But it is fully quoted in old Toppi’s “Biblioteca” (p. 317), and also referred to in Savonarola’s “Universus Terrarum,” etc. (1713, Vol. I, p. 216). Both say it was printed at Cosenza; the first, in 1650; the second, in 1630.]

The path ascends now through a long and wearisome limestone gap called Valle di Gaudolino, only the last half-hour of the march being shaded by trees. It was in this gully that an accidental encounter took place between a detachment of French soldiers and part of the band of the celebrated brigand Scarolla, whom they had been pursuing for months all over the country. The brigands were sleeping when the others fell upon them, killing numbers and carrying off a large booty; so rich it was, that the soldiers were seen playing at “petis palets"–whatever that may be–with quadruples of Spain–whatever that may be. Scarolla escaped wounded, but was afterwards handed over to justice, for a consideration of a thousand ducats, by some shepherds with whom he had taken refuge; and duly hanged. His band consisted of four thousand ruffians; it was one of several that infested south Italy. This gives some idea of the magnitude of the evil.

It was my misfortune that after weeks of serene weather this particular morning should be cloudy. There was sunshine in the valley below, but wreaths of mist were skidding over the summit of Pollino; the view, I felt sure, would be spoilt. And so it was. Through swiftly-careering cloud-drifts I caught glimpses of the plain and the blue Ionian; of the Sila range confronting me; of the peak of Dolcedorme to the left, and the “Montagna del Principe” on the right; of the large forest region at my back. Tantalizing visions!

Viewed from below, this Pollino is shaped like a pyramid, and promises rather a steep climb over bare limestone; but the ascent is quite easy. No trees grow on the pyramid. The rock is covered with a profusion of forget-me-nots and gay pansies; some mez-ereon and a few dwarfed junipers–earthward-creeping–nearly reach the summit. When I passed here on a former trip, on the 6th of June, this peak was shrouded in snow. There are some patches of snow even now, one of them descending in glacier fashion down the slope on the other side; they call it “eternal,” but I question whether it will survive the heats of autumn. Beyond a brace of red-legged partridges, I saw no birds whatever. This group of Pollino, descending its seven thousand feet in a precipitous flight of terraces to the plain of Sibari, is an imposing finale to the Apennines that have run hitherward, without a break, from Genoa and Bologna. Westward of this spot there are mountains galore; but no more Apennines; no more limestone precipices. The boundary of the old provinces of Calabria and Basilicata ran over this spot. . . .

I was glad to descend once more, and to reach the Altipiano di Pollino–an Alpine meadow with a little lake (the merest puddle), bright with rare and beautiful flowers. It lies 1780 metres above sea-level, and no one who visits these regions should omit to see this exquisite tract encircled by mountain peaks, though it lies a little off the usual paths. Strawberries, which I had eaten at Rossano, had not yet opened their flowers here; the flora, boreal in parts, has been studied by Terracciano and other Italian botanists.

It was on this verdant, flower-enamelled mead that, fatigued with the climb, I thought to try the powers of my riding mule. But the beast proved vicious; there was no staying on her back. A piece of string attached to her nose by way of guiding-rope was useless as a rein; she had no mane wherewith I might have steadied myself in moments of danger, and as to seizing her ears for that purpose, it was out of the question, for hardly was I in the saddle before her head descended to the ground and there remained, while her hinder feet essayed to touch the stars. After a succession of ignominious and painful flights to earth, I complained to her owner, who had been watching the proceedings with quiet interest.

“That lady-mule,” he said, “is good at carrying loads. But she has never had a Christian on her back till now. I was rather curious to see how she would behave.”

Santo Dio! And do you expect me to pay four francs a day for having my bones broken in this fashion?”

“What would you, sir? She is still young–barely four years old. Only wait! Wait till she is ten or twelve.”

To do him justice, however, he tried to make amends in other ways. And he certainly knew the tracks. But he was a returned emigrant, and when an Italian has once crossed the ocean he is useless for my purposes, he has lost his savour–the virtue has gone out of him. True Italians will soon be rare as the dodo in these parts. These americani cast off their ancient animistic traits and patriarchal disposition with the ease of a serpent; a new creature emerges, of a wholly different character–sophisticated, extortionate at times, often practical and in so far useful; scorner of every tradition, infernally wideawake and curiously deficient in what the Germans call “Gemuet” (one of those words which we sadly need in our own language). Instead of being regaled with tales of Saint Venus and fairies and the Evil Eye, I learnt a good deal about the price of food in the Brazilian highlands.

The only piece of local information I was able to draw from him concerned a mysterious plant in the forest that “shines by night.” I dare say he meant the dictamnus fraxinella, which is sometimes luminous.

The finest part of the forest was traversed in the afternoon. It is called Janace, and composed of firs and beeches. The botanist Tenore says that firs 150 feet in height are “not difficult to find” here, and some of the beeches, a forestal inspector assured me, attain the height of 35 metres. They shoot up in straight silvery trunks; their roots are often intertwined with those of the firs. The track is not level by any means. There are torrents to be crossed; rocky ravines with splashing waters where the sunshine pours down through a dense network of branches upon a carpet of russet leaves and grey boulders–the envious beeches allowing of no vegetation at their feet; occasional meadows, too, bright with buttercups and orchids. No pines whatever grow in this forest. Yet a few stunted ones are seen clinging to the precipices that descend into the Coscile valley; their seeds may have been wafted across from the Sila mountains.

In olden days all this country was full of game; bears, stags and fallow-deer are mentioned. Only wolves and a few roe-deer are now left. The forest is sombre, but not gloomy, and one would like to spend some time in these wooded regions, so rare in Italy, and to study their life and character–but how set about it? The distances are great; there are no houses, not even a shepherd’s hut or a cave; the cold at night is severe, and even in the height of midsummer one must be prepared for spells of mist and rain. I shall be tempted, on another occasion, to provide myself with a tent such as is supplied to military officers. They are light and handy, and perhaps camping out with a man-cook of the kind that one finds in the Abruzzi provinces would be altogether the best way of seeing the remoter parts of south and central Italy. For decent food-supplies can generally be obtained in the smallest places; the drawback is that nobody can cook them. Dirty food by day and dirty beds by night will daunt the most enterprising natures in the long run.

These tracks are only traversed in summer. When I last walked through this region–in the reverse direction, from Lagonegro over Latronico and San Severino to Castrovillari–the ground was still covered with stretches of snow, and many brooks were difficult to cross from the swollen waters. This was in June. It was odd to see the beeches rising, in full leaf, out of the deep snow.

During this afternoon ramble I often wondered what the burghers of Taranto would think of these sylvan solitudes. Doubtless they would share the opinion of a genteel photographer of Morano who showed me some coloured pictures of local brides in their appropriate costumes, such as are sent to relatives in America after weddings. He possessed a good camera, and I asked whether he had never made any pictures of this fine forest scenery. No, he said; he had only once been to the festival of the Madonna di Pollino, but he went alone–his companion, an avvocato, got frightened and failed to appear at the last moment.

“So I went alone,” he said, “and those forests, it must be confessed, are too savage to be photographed. Now, if my friend had come, he might have posed for me, sitting comically at the foot of a tree, with crossed legs, and smoking a cigar, like this. ... Or he might have pretended to be a wood-cutter, bending forwards and felling a tree . . . tac, tac, tac . . . without his jacket, of course. That would have made a picture. But those woods and mountains, all by themselves–no! The camera revolts. In photography, as in all good art, the human element must predominate.”

It is sad to think that in a few years’ time nearly all these forests will have ceased to exist; another generation will hardly recognize the site of them. A society from Morbegno (Valtellina) has acquired rights over the timber, and is hewing down as fast as it can. They import their own workmen from north Italy, and have built at a cost of two million francs (say the newspapers) a special funicular railway, 23 kilometres long, to carry the trunks from the mountain to Francavilla at its foot, where they are sawn up and conveyed to the railway station of Cerchiara, near Sibari. This concession, I am told, extends to twenty-five years–they have now been at work for two, and the results are already apparent in some almost bare slopes once clothed with these huge primeval trees.

There are inspectors, some of them conscientious, to see that a due proportion of the timber is left standing; but we all know what the average Italian official is, and must be, considering his salary. One could hardly blame them greatly if, as I have been assured is the case, they often sell the wood which they are paid to protect.

The same fate is about to overtake the extensive hill forests which lie on the watershed between Morano and the Tyrrhenian. These, according to a Castrovillari local paper, have lately been sold to a German firm for exploitation.

It is useless to lament the inevitable–this modern obsession of “industrialism” which has infected a country purely agricultural. Nor is it any great compensation to observe that certain small tracts of hill-side behind Morano are being carefully reafforested by the Government at this moment. Whoever wishes to see these beautiful stretches of woodland ere their disappearance from earth–let him hasten!

After leaving the forest region it is a downhill walk of nearly three hours to reach Terranova di Pollino, which lies, only 910 metres above sea-level, against the slope of a wide and golden amphitheatre of hills, at whose entrance the river Sarmento has carved itself a prodigious gateway through the rock. A dirty little place; the male inhabitants are nearly all in America; the old women nearly all afflicted with goitre. I was pleased to observe the Calabrian system of the house-doors, which life in civilized places had made me forget. These doors are divided into two portions, not vertically like ours, but horizontally. The upper portion is generally open, in order that the housewife sitting within may have light and air in her room, and an opportunity of gossiping with her neighbours across the street; the lower part is closed, to prevent the pigs in the daytime from entering the house (where they sleep at night). The system testifies to social instincts and a certain sense of refinement.

The sights of Terranova are soon exhausted. They had spoken to me of a house near the woods, about four hours distant, inhabited just now by shepherds. Thither we started, next day, at about 3 p.m.

The road climbs upwards through bare country till it reaches a dusky pinnacle of rock, a conspicuous landmark, which looks volcanic but is nothing of the kind. It bears the name of Pietra-Sasso–the explanation of this odd pleonasm being, I suppose, that here the whole mass of rock, generally decked with grass or shrubs, is as bare as any single stone.

There followed a pleasant march through pastoral country of streamlets and lush grass, with noble views downwards on our right, over many-folded hills into the distant valley of the Sinno. To the left is the forest region. But the fir trees are generally mutilated–their lower branches lopped off; and the tree resents this treatment and often dies, remaining a melancholy stump among the beeches. They take these branches not for fuel, but as fodder for the cows. A curious kind of fodder, one thinks; but Calabrian cows will eat anything, and their milk tastes accordingly. No wonder the natives prefer even the greasy fluid of their goats to that of cows.

“How?” they will ask, “You Englishmen, with all your money–you drink the milk of cows?”

Goats are over-plentiful here, and the hollies, oaks and thorns along the path have been gnawed by them into quaint patterns like the topiarian work in old-fashioned gardens. If they find nothing to their taste on the ground, they actually climb trees; I have seen them browsing thus, at six feet above the ground. These miserable beasts are the ruin of south Italy, as they are of the whole Mediterranean basin. What malaria and the Barbary pirates have done to the sea-board, the goats have accomplished for the regions further inland; and it is really time that sterner legislation were introduced to limit their grazing-places and incidentally reduce their numbers, as has been done in parts of the Abruzzi, to the great credit of the authorities. But the subject is a well-worn one.

The solitary little house which now appeared before us is called “Vitiello,” presumably from its owner or builder, a proprietor of the village of Noepoli. It stands in a charming site, with a background of woodland whence rivulets trickle down–the immediate surroundings are covered with pasture and bracken and wild pear trees smothered in flowering dog-roses. I strolled about in the sunset amid tinkling herds of sheep and goats that were presently milked and driven into their enclosure of thorns for the night, guarded by four or five of those savage white dogs of the Campagna breed. Despite these protectors, the wolf carried off two sheep yesterday, in broad daylight. The flocks come to these heights in the middle of June, and descend again in October.

The shepherds offered us the only fare they possessed–the much-belauded Pollino cheeses, the same that were made, long ago, by Polyphemus himself. You can get them down at a pinch, on the principle of the German proverb, “When the devil is hungry, he eats flies.” Fortunately our bags still contained a varied assortment, though my man had developed an appetite and a thirst that did credit to his Berserker ancestry.

We retired early. But long after the rest of them were snoring hard I continued awake, shivering under my blanket and choking with the acrid smoke of a fire of green timber. The door had been left ajar to allow it to escape, but the only result of this arrangement was that a glacial blast of wind swept into the chamber from outside. The night was bitterly cold, and the wooden floor on which I was reposing seemed to be harder than the majority of its kind. I thought with regret of the tepid nights of Taranto and Castrovillari, and cursed my folly for climbing into these Arctic regions; wondering, as I have often done, what demon of restlessness or perversity drives one to undertake such insane excursions.



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Old Calabria (Marlboro Travel)
By Norman Douglas
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