Old Calabria
By Norman Douglas

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A great project is afoot. As I understand it, a reservoir is being created by damming up the valley of the Ampollina; the artificial lake thus formed will be enlarged by the additional waters of the Arvo, which are to be led into it by means of a tunnel, about three miles long, passing underneath Monte Nero. The basin, they tell me, will be some ten kilometres in length; the work will cost forty million francs, and will be completed in a couple of years; it will supply the Ionian lowlands with pure water and with power for electric and other industries.

And more than that. The lake is to revolutionize the Sila; to convert these wildernesses into a fashionable watering-place. Enthusiasts already see towns growing upon its shores–there are visions of gorgeous hotels and flocks of summer visitors in elegant toilettes, villa-residences, funicular railways up all the mountains, sailing regattas, and motor-boat services. In the place of the desert there will arise a “Lucerna di Calabria.”

A Calabrian Lucerne. H’m. ...

It remains to be seen whether, by the time the lake is completed, there will be any water left to flow into it. For the catchment basins are being so conscientiously cleared of their timber that the two rivers cannot but suffer a great diminution in volume. By 1896 already, says Marincola San Fioro, the destruction of woodlands in the Sila had resulted in a notable lack of moisture. Ever since then the vandalism has been pursued with a zeal worthy of a better cause. One trembles to think what these regions will be like in fifty years; a treeless and waterless tableland–worse than the glaring limestone deserts of the Apennines in so far as they, at least, are diversified in contour.

So the healthfulness, beauty, and exchequer value of enormous tracts in this country are being systematically impaired, day by day. Italy is ready, said D’Azeglio, but where are the Italians?

Let us give the government credit for any number of good ideas. It actually plants bare spaces; it has instituted a “Festa degli alberi" akin to the American Arbour Day, whereby it is hoped, though scarcely believed, that the whole of Italy will ultimately be replenished with trees; it encourages schools of forestry, supplies plants free of cost to all who ask for them, despatches commissions and prints reports. Above all, it talks prodigiously and very much to the purpose.

But it omits to administer its own laws with becoming severity. A few exemplary fines and imprisonments would have a more salutary effect than the commissioning of a thousand inspectors whom nobody takes seriously, and the printing of ten thousand reports which nobody reads.

With a single stroke of the pen the municipalities could put an end to the worst form of forest extirpation–that on the hill-sides–by forbidding access to such tracts and placing them under the “vincolo forestale.” To denude slopes in the moist climate and deep soil of England entails no risk; in this country it is the beginning of the end. And herein lies the ineptitude of the Italian regulations, which entrust the collective wisdom of rapacious farmers with measures of this kind, taking no account of the destructively utilitarian character of the native mind, of that canni-ness which overlooks a distant profit in its eagerness to grasp the present–that beast avarice which Horace recognized as the root of all evil. As if provisions like this of the “vincolo forestale” were ever carried out! Peasants naturally prefer to burn the wood in their own chimneys or to sell it; and if a landslide then crashes down, wrecking houses and vineyards–let the government compensate the victims!

An ounce of fact–

In one year alone (1903), and in the sole province of Cosenza wherein San Giovanni lies, there were 156 landslides; they destroyed 1940 hectares of land, and their damage amounted to 432,738 francs. The two other Calabrian provinces–Reggio and Catanzaro–doubtless also had their full quota of these catastrophes, all due to mischievous deforestation. So the bare rock is exposed, and every hope of planting at an end.

Vox clamantis! The Normans, Anjou and Aragonese concerned themselves with the proper administration of woodlands. Even the Spanish Viceroys, that ineffable brood, issued rigorous enactments on the subject; while the Bourbons (to give the devil his due) actually distinguished themselves as conservators of forests. As to Napoleon–he was busy enough, one would think, on this side of the Alps. Yet he found time to frame wise regulations concerning trees which the present patriotic parliament, during half a century of frenzied confabulation, has not yet taken to heart.

How a great man will leave his mark on minutiae!

I passed through the basin of this future lake when, in accordance with my project, I left San Giovanni to cross the remaining Sila in the direction of Catanzaro. This getting up at 3.30 a.m., by the way, rather upsets one’s daily routine; at breakfast time I already find myself enquiring anxiously for dinner.

The Ampollina valley lies high; here, in the dewy grass, I enjoyed what I well knew would be my last shiver for some time to come; then moved for a few miles on the further bank of the rivulet along that driving road which will soon be submerged under the waters of the lake, and struck up a wooded glen called Barbarano. At its head lies the upland Circilla.

There is no rock scenery worth mentioning in all this Sila country; no waterfalls or other Alpine features. It is a venerable granitic tableland, that has stood here while the proud Apennines were still slumbering in the oozy bed of ocean–[Footnote: Nissen says that “no landscape of Italy has lost so little of its original appearance in the course of history as Calabria.” This may apply to the mountains; but the lowlands have suffered hideous changes.] a region of gentle undulations, the hill-tops covered with forest-growth, the valleys partly arable and partly pasture. Were it not for the absence of heather with its peculiar mauve tints, the traveller might well imagine himself in Scotland. There is the same smiling alternation of woodland and meadow, the same huge boulders of gneiss and granite which give a distinctive tone to the landscape, the same exuberance of living waters. Water, indeed, is one of the glories of the Sila–everywhere it bubbles forth in chill rivulets among the stones and trickles down the hill-sides to join the larger streams that wend their way to the forlorn and fever-stricken coastlands of Magna Graecia. Often, as I refreshed myself at these icy fountains, did I thank Providence for making the Sila of primitive rock, and not of the thirsty Apennine limestone.

“Much water in the Sila,” an old shepherd once observed to me, “much water! And little tobacco.”

One of the largest of these rivers is the Neto, the classic Neaithos sung by Theocritus, which falls into the sea north of Cotrone; San Giovanni overlooks its raging flood, and, with the help of a little imagination here and there, its whole course can be traced from eminences like that of Pettinascura. The very name of these streams–Neto, Arvo, Lese, Ampollina–are redolent of pastoral life. All of them are stocked with trout; they meander in their upper reaches through valleys grazed by far-tinkling flocks of sheep and goats and grey cattle–the experiment of acclimatizing Swiss cattle has proved a failure, I know not why–and their banks are brilliant with blossoms. Later on, in the autumn, the thistles begin to predominate–the finest of them being a noble ground thistle of pale gold, of which they eat the unopened bud; it is the counterpart of the silvery one of the Alps. The air in these upper regions is keen. I remember, some years ago, that during the last week of August a lump of snow, which a goat-boy produced as his contribution to our luncheon, did not melt in the bright sunshine on the summit of Monte Nero.

From whichever side one climbs out of the surrounding lowlands into the Sila plateau, the same succession of trees is encountered. To the warmest zone of olives, lemons and carobs succeeds that of the chestnuts, some of them of gigantic dimensions and yielding a sure though moderate return in fruit, others cut down periodically as coppice for vine-props and scaffoldings. Large tracts of these old chestnut groves are now doomed; a French society in Cosenza, so they tell me, is buying them up for the extraction out of their bark of some chemical or medicine. The vine still flourishes at this height, though dwarfed in size; soon the oaks begin to dominate, and after that we enter into the third and highest region cf the pines and beeches. Those accustomed to the stony deserts of nearly all South European mountain districts will find these woodlands intensely refreshing. Their inaccessibility has proved their salvation–up to a short time ago.

Nearly all the cattle on the Sila, like the land itself, belongs to large proprietors. These gentlemen are for the most part invisible; they inhabit their palaces in the cities, and the very name of the Sila sends a cold shudder through their bones; their revenues are collected from the shepherds by agents who seem to do their work very conscientiously. I once observed, in a hut, a small fragment of the skin of a newly killed kid; the wolf had devoured the beast, and the shepherd was keeping this corpus delicti to prove to his superior, the agent, that he was innocent of the murder. There was something naive in his honesty–as if a shepherd could not eat a kid as well as any wolf, and keep a portion of its skin! The agent, no doubt, would hand it on to his lord, by way of confirmation and verification. Another time I saw the debris of a goat hanging from a tree; it was the wolf again; the boy had attached these remains to the tree in order that all who passed that way might be his witnesses, if necessary, that the animal had not been sold underhand.

You may still find the legendary shepherds here–curly-haired striplings, reclining sub tegmine fagi in the best Theocritean style, and piping wondrous melodies to their flocks. These have generally come up for the summer season from the Ionian lowlands. Or you may encounter yet more primitive creatures, forest boys, clad in leather, with wild eyes and matted locks, that take an elvish delight in misdirecting you. These are the Lucanians of old. “They bring them up from childhood in the woods among the shepherds,” says Justinus, “without servants, and even without any clothes to cover them, or to lie upon, that from their early years they may become inured to hardiness and frugality, and have no intercourse with the city. They live upon game, and drink nothing but water or milk.” But the majority of modern Sila shepherds are shrewd fellows of middle age (many of them have been to America), who keep strict business accounts for their masters of every ounce of cheese and butter produced. The local cheese, which Cassiodorus praises in one of his letters, is the cacciacavallo common all over South Italy; the butter is of the kind which has been humorously, but quite wrongly, described by various travellers.

Although the old wolves are shot and killed by spring guns and dynamite while the young ones are caught alive in steel traps and other appliances, their numbers are still formidable enough to perturb the pastoral folks. One is therefore surprised to see what a poor breed of dogs they keep; scraggy mongrels that run for their lives at the mere sight of a wolf who can, and often does, bite them into two pieces with one snap of his jaws. They tell me that there is a government reward for every wolf killed, but it is seldom paid; whoever has the good fortune to slay one of these beasts, carries the skin as proof of his prowess from door to door, and receives a small present everywhere–half a franc, or a cheese, or a glass of wine.

The goats show fight, and therefore the wolf prefers sheep. Shepherds have told me that he comes up to them delicatamente, and then, fixing his teeth in the wool of their necks, pulls them onward, caressing their sides with his tail. The sheep are fascinated with his gentle manners, and generally allow themselves to be led up to the spot he has selected for their execution; the truth being that he is too lazy to carry them, if he can possibly avoid it.

He will promptly kill his quarry and carry its carcase downhill on the rare occasions when the flocks are grazing above his haunt; but if it is an uphill walk, they must be good enough to use their own legs. Incredible stories of his destructiveness are related.

Fortunately, human beings are seldom attacked, a dog or a pig being generally forthcoming when the usual prey is not to be found. Yet not long ago a sad affair occurred; a she-wolf attacked a small boy before the eyes of his parents, who pursued him, powerless to help–the head and arms had already been torn off before a shot from a neighbour despatched the monster. Truly, “a great family displeasure,” as my informant styled it. Milo of Croton, the famous athlete, is the most renowned victim of these Sila wolves. Tradition has it that, relying on his great strength, he tried to rend asunder a mighty log of wood which closed, however, and caught his arms in its grip; thus helpless, he was devoured alive by them.

By keeping to the left of Circilla, I might have skirted the forest of Gariglione. This tract lies at about four and a half hours’ distance from San Giovanni; I found it, some years ago, to be a region of real “Urwald” or primary jungle; there was nothing like it, to my knowledge, on this side of the Alps, nor yet in the Alps themselves; nothing of the kind nearer than Russia. But the Russian jungles, apart from their monotony of timber, foster feelings of sadness and gloom, whereas these southern ones, as Hehn has well observed, are full of a luminous beauty–their darkest recesses being enlivened by a sense of benignant mystery. Gariglione was at that time a virgin forest, untouched by the hand of man; a dusky ridge, visible from afar; an impenetrable tangle of forest trees, chiefest among them being the “garigli” (Quercus cerris) whence it derives its name, as well as thousands of pines and bearded firs and all that hoary indigenous vegetation struggling out of the moist soil wherein their progenitors had lain decaying time out of mind. In these solitudes, if anywhere, one might still have found the absent-minded luzard (lynx) of the veracious historian; or that squirrel whose “calabrere” fur, I strongly suspect, came from Russia; or, at any rate, the Mushroom-stone which shineth in the night. [Footnote: As a matter of fact, the mushroom-stone is a well-known commodity, being still collected and eaten, for example, at Santo Stefano in Aspramente. Older travellers tell us that it used to be exported to Naples and kept in the cellars of the best houses for the enjoyment of its fruit–sometimes in lumps measuring two feet in diameter which, being soaked in water, produced these edible fungi. A stone yielding food–a miracle! It is a porous tufa adapted, presumably, for sheltering and fecundating vegetable spores. A little pamphlet by Professor A. Trotter ("Flora Montana della Calabria”) gives some idea of the local plants and contains a useful bibliography. A curious feature is the relative abundance of boreal and Balkan-Oriental forms; another, the rapid spread of Genista anglica, which is probably an importation.]

Well, I am glad my path to-day did not lead me to Gariglione, and so destroy old memories of the place. For the domain, they tell me, has been sold for 350,000 francs to a German company; its primeval silence is now invaded by an army of 260 workmen, who have been cutting down the timber as fast as they can. So vanishes another fair spot from earth! And what is left of the Sila, once these forests are gone? Not even the charm, such as it is, of Caithness. . . .

After Circilla comes the watershed that separates the Sila Grande from the westerly regions of Sila Piccola. Thenceforward it was downhill walking, at first through forest lands, then across verdant stretches, bereft of timber and simmering in the sunshine. The peculiar character of this country is soon revealed–ferociously cloven ravines, utterly different from the Sila Grande.

With the improvidence of the true traveller I had consumed my stock of provisions ere reaching the town of Taverna after a march of nine hours or thereabouts. A place of this size and renown, I had argued, would surely be able to provide a meal. But Taverna belies its name. The only tavern discoverable was a composite hovel, half wine-shop, half hen-house, whose proprietor, disturbed in his noonday nap, stoutly refused to produce anything eatable. And there I stood in the blazing sunshine, famished and un-befriended. Forthwith the strength melted out of my bones; the prospect of walking to Catanzaro, so alluring with a full stomach, faded out of the realm of possibility; and it seemed a special dispensation of Providence when, at my lowest ebb of vitality, a small carriage suddenly hove in sight.

“How much to Catanzaro?”

The owner eyed me critically, and then replied in English:

“You can pay twenty dollars.”

Twenty dollars–a hundred francs! But it is useless trying to bargain with an americano (their time is too valuable).

“A dollar a mile?” I protested.

“That’s so.”

“You be damned.”

“Same to you, mister.” And he drove off.

Such bold defiance of fate never goes unrewarded. A two-wheeled cart conveying some timber overtook me shortly afterwards on my way from the inhospitable Taverna. For a small consideration I was enabled to pass the burning hours of the afternoon in an improvised couch among its load of boards, admiring the scenery and the engineering feats that have carried a road through such difficult country, and thinking out some further polite remarks to be addressed to my twenty-dollar friend, in the event of our meeting at Catanzaro. . . .

One must have traversed the Sila in order to appreciate the manifold charms of the mountain town–I have revelled in them since my arrival. But it has one irremediable drawback: the sea lies at an inconvenient distance. It takes forty-five minutes to reach the shore by means of two railways in whose carriages the citizens descend after wild scrambles for places, packed tight as sardines in the sweltering heat. Only a genuine enthusiast will undertake the trip more than once. For the Marina itself–at this season, at least–is an unappetizing spot; a sordid agglomeration of houses, a few dirty fruit-stalls, ankle-deep dust, swarms of flies. I prefer to sleep through the warm hours of the day, and then take the air in that delightful public garden which, by the way, has already become too small for the increasing population.

At its entrance stands the civic museum, entrusted, just now, to the care of a quite remarkably ignorant and slatternly woman. It contains two rooms, whose exhibits are smothered in dust and cobwebs; as neglected, in short, as her own brats that sprawl about its floor. I enquired whether she possessed no catalogue to show where the objects, bearing no labels, had been found. A catalogue was unnecessary, she said; she knew everything–everything!

And everything, apparently, hailed from “Stromboli.” The Tiriolo helmet, the Greek vases, all the rest of the real and sham treasures of this establishment: they were all discovered at Stromboli.

“Those coins–whence?”


Noticing some neolithic celts similar to those I obtained at Vaccarizza, I would gladly have learnt their place of origin. Promptly came the answer:


“Nonsense, my good woman. I’ve been three times to Stromboli; it is an island of black stones where the devil has a house, and such things are not found there.” (Of course she meant Strangoli, the ancient Petelia.)

This vigorous assertion made her more circumspect. Thenceforward everything was declared to come from the province–dalla provincia; it was safer.

“That bad picture–whence?”

“Dalla provincia!”

“Have you really no catalogue?”

“I know everything.”

“And this broken statue–whence?”

“Dalla provincia!”

“But the province is large,” I objected.

“So it is. Large, and old.”

I have also revisited Tiriolo, once celebrated for the “Sepulchres of the Giants” (Greek tombs) that were unearthed here, and latterly for a certain more valuable antiquarian discovery. Not long ago it was a considerable undertaking to reach this little place, but nowadays a public motor-car whirls you up and down the ravines at an alarming pace and will deposit you, within a few hours, at remote Cosenza, once an enormous drive. It is the same all over modern Calabria. The diligence service, for instance, that used to take fourteen hours from San Giovanni to Cosenza has been replaced by motors that cover the distance in four or five. One is glad to save time, but this new element of mechanical hurry has produced a corresponding kind of traveller–a machine-made creature, devoid of the humanity of the old; it has done away with the personal note of conviviality that reigned in the post-carriages. What jocund friendships were made, what songs and tales applauded, during those interminable hours in the lumbering chaise!

You must choose Sunday for Tiriolo, on account of the girls, whose pretty faces and costumes are worth coming any distance to see. A good proportion of them have the fair hair which seems to have been eliminated, in other parts of the country, through the action of malaria.

Viewed from Catanzaro, one of the hills of Tiriolo looks like a broken volcanic crater. It is a limestone ridge, decked with those characteristic flowers like Campanula fragilis which you will vainly seek on the Sila. Out of the ruins of some massive old building they have constructed, on the summit, a lonely weather-beaten fabric that would touch the heart of Maeterlinck. They call it a seismological station. I pity the people that have to depend for their warnings of earthquakes upon the outfit of a place like this. I could see no signs of life here; the windows were broken, the shutters decaying, an old lightning-rod dangled disconsolately from the roof; it looked as abandoned as any old tower in a tale. There is a noble view from this point over both seas and into the riven complexities of Aspromonte, when the peak is not veiled in mists, as it frequently is. For Tiriolo lies on the watershed; there (to quote from a “Person of Quality “) “where the Apennine is drawn into so narrow a point, that the rain-water which descendeth from the ridge of some one house, falleth on the left in the Terrene Sea, and on the right into the Adriatick. . . .”

My visits to the provincial museum have become scandalously frequent during the last few days. I cannot keep away from the place. I go there not to study the specimens but to converse with their keeper, the woman who, in her quiet way, has cast a sort of charm over me. Our relations are the whispered talk of the town; I am suspected of matrimonial designs upon a poor widow with the ulterior object of appropriating the cream of the relics under her care. Regardless of the perils of the situation, I persevere; for the sake of her company I forswear the manifold seductions of Catan-zaro. She is a noteworthy person, neither vicious nor vulgar, but simply the dernier mot of incompetence. Her dress, her looks, her children, her manners–they are all on an even plane with her spiritual accomplishments; at no point does she sink, or rise, beyond that level. They are not as common as they seem to be, these harmoniously inefficient females.

Why has she got this job in a progressive town containing so many folks who could do it creditably? Oh, that is simple enough! She needs it. On the platform of the Reggio station (long before the earthquake) I once counted five station-masters and forty-eight other railway officials, swaggering about with a magnificent air of incapacity. What were they doing? Nothing whatever. They were like this woman: they needed a job.

We are in a patriarchal country; work is pooled; it is given not to those who can do it best, but to those who need it most–given, too, on pretexts which sometimes strike one as inadequate, not to say recondite. So the street-scavengering in a certain village has been entrusted to a one-armed cripple, utterly unfit for the business–why? Because his maternal grand-uncle is serving a long sentence in gaol. The poor family must be helped! A brawny young fellow will be removed from a landing-stage boat, and his place taken by some tottering old peasant who has never handled an oar–why? The old man’s nephew has married again; the family must be helped. A secretarial appointment was specially created for an acquaintance of mine who could barely sign his own name, for the obvious reason that his cousin’s sister was rheumatic. One must help that family.

A postman whom I knew delivered the letters only once every three days, alleging, as unanswerable argument in his defence, that his brother’s wife had fifteen children.

One must help that family!

Somebody seems to have thought so, at all events.



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Old Calabria (Marlboro Travel)
By Norman Douglas
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