The foreign tourist imagery about Italy is captured by pictures of the Coliseum, postcards of Michelangelo’s David and Milano Fashion week. Tuscany countryside rules when you talk about landscape; so clean and orderly to look like it was designed by a landscape architect. But the South of Nation offers stronger emotions and, if you decide to ride in it, you’ll feel the same sensations as if you were traveling very far from Europe. For a long time Calabria, the foot of this boot-shaped peninsula, remained isolated from the rest of Italy because of political and historical reasons. Notably, the southernmost tip maintained its wild and unexplored character until now. Its name is Aspromonte, which translated sounds like “ The Rough Mountain.”
More than a geographic definition, Aspromonte is a state of soul, whose essence escapes inhabitants of other Calabrian areas. For a long time, the last stretch of the Apennine Mountains represented a mysterious land like its people, as it was wrapped in a halo of imminent danger. It was the eighties, a time of the internal war of ‘ndrangheta’ (the local mafia), when the mountain roads were patrolled by the Army, attempting to put under pressure a dark enemy which kept in check a whole territory, revealed itself to the world by kidnapping rich industrialists from the north with the purpose to gain its capital. Many things changed since then, and the threatening atmosphere seems to belong to the past. Though what remains is the sense of unexplored land, the charm of the border, the end’s fascination: end of Apennine, end of Italy, end of that undefined stuff we call Europe. Although my family comes from that area, I never went deep in it: I always preferred to explore the remote land. Then I realized that, just around the corner, there’s a complex world to discover that I always looked at with detachment. Until now I had explored the world as a Calabrian, it was time to look at my homeland with the stateless eyes of a world traveler.
As Rough as White
The Route 106 runs parallel to a white fine sand beach, nearly desert, where to enjoy the sea in freedom and solitude. On the other side, over the railway, in the hinterland the peaks of first reliefs stand out harshly, rearguards of white clay calanques reflecting the lights of a pitiless sun, among yellow fields punctuated by olive trees. “Aspro” refers not only to its roughness but derives from Greek “aspros”, white, the color by which the first colonizers qualified the mountain for the dazzling white clay they first met. The landscape here is a mixture of opposite emotions and chromatic contrasts. This region, peninsula within a peninsula, is like a big mountain planted in the middle of the Mediterranean and Aspromonte Range, end of the line of Apennine crossing the whole nation from north to south, is the most prominent example. This play of geological fractals affects every village in this mountain, perched to scope and peaks like eagle’s nest, chosen by the ancient founders to escape invasions that everytime ravaged coasts, or simply because they found good condition. Territory’s rhythm is given by torrents that found their way to the sea in thousands of years, digging the mountain which generated them. Small rivulet in summer, suddenly inflating in winter, violently overflowing whenever they want, changing earth’s face. Alexandre Dumas described Calabria as “the God’s caleidoscope” because earthquakes, floods and landslide force all the time inhabitants to restart from zero. Edward Lear, the first Englishman to venture into Aspromonte at the time of Grand Tours, sketched these villages made of poor houses sticking onto rocks, enchanted by man’s desperate attempt to build houses also onto crumbling soil. The complicated expanse of ramps and stairsteps within a Tetris-like embedded volumes surely impressed Cornelius Escher who visited these villages in 1930, taking inspiration for his famous prospective illusions. Looking at drawings by Lear and Escher little seems to have changed. The news is concrete as building material, whose use is unanimously considered the reason for coastal and rural landscape mess. But Architecture, as Landscape, is direct expression of cultural and economic condition of people living a territory: the southern unfinished buildings, with their declinations of hollow bricks, aluminium windows and rod steels on roof have the same linguistic value of Patagonia’s wooden houses, adobe in Atacama desert and raw bricks villages in the Pamirs. And equally, surprises travelers.
Blow Horn Please!
Asphalt came to roads too, although very late than the rest of Italy. Secondary roads spreading from SS106 to hinterland start their path along torrents then rise more or less quickly with windy and often steep pace. The repeated sharp turns wind their way along collapsed ridges whose rubbles scatter patched asphalt, while view alternatively closes in a turn, opening soon after on a rocky valley with the indefinite end, where sunburst plains changes quickly in a conifers forest. Here you must drive slowly with an eye on landscape, paying attention to avoid holes and stones on the road, blowing horn just before the more hazardous turns. Often you have to pass over or around a landslide few dozen metres long, or just within the bed of a torrent. When shepherding and agriculture was the only activities and people moved by feet, a dense net of path crossed torrents and valleys allowing relatively quick connections. We ride on the old one between Palizzi and Bova, rising higher and higher dominating the sunburst valleys underneath, whose bottom is hidden by the late afternoon shadow. The blue of Ionian Sea blends with the sky in an undefined horizon while, on the other side, we go ahead backlit immersed in the warm sun slowly getting closer to the wavy skyline, on which the unmistakable profile of Bova’s castle stands out. Nothing but strewn goatherds’ shacks, kept under watch by rather submissive dogs. A fenced-in fountain, a goat looking at us uncertain and vain. The tracks is by now a rocky path made for goats and mules. And for enduro bikes too. Paved again, the road leads us down to the torrent then rise up on the south side where we find, over the sea, the imposing and just veiled silhouette of Etna Volcano.
La terra dell’abbandono
But the hardest track is the one leading to the ghost town of Africo Vecchio, starting as a pleasant white road among pine trees, turning into a hard rock mule track carved among olive trees, so harsh to make us walk by feet for the last five hundred meters before we reach the village’s ruins, overran by a thorn- bush forest. The big building of primary school at the beginning is the only emerging from bushes, counterbalanced in the back by the San Leo Church that we cannot reach because of the hick vegetation. In between, laying on the side of mountain, the stone ruins of the most isolated and undeveloped one in the unfamous villages of South. There was 2500 people living in the thirties, all forced to move away in 1951 after a flood. This was just an excuse, as confirmed by official history, to carry out a big building speculation which had fateful consequences. Villager became refugees in their own country, spread throughout many shantytowns before being relocated, in 1980, in new prefab houses very far from their original place. It was a real deportation interrupting relationship within a centuries old community, whose people found themselves with nothing of what they had before. Other small villages had the same destiny: Ferruzzano, Roghudi, Pentedattilo, old communities disintegrated with the excuse their town would be collapsing at any moment. Villages are still there, instead, venerated by their exiled people as sacred Places of Remembrance, to be visited almost tiptoe. Abandonment is a recursing topic in the Aspromonte, and maybe what remains of everything is the lifeblood of surreal atmosphere in the whole area. Abandonment and rediscovery are the ends of a thread linking villages, language and music. All over the Ionian Coast ancient Greek was currently used until XVII century, when Rome sent catholic bishops to spread Latin and convert a population practicing Orthodox worship, whose influences are still alive in New-Latin dialects. The Greek-Byzantine matrix stayed alive in inner settlements, handed down orally by shepherds and farmers communities transmitting, without knowing it, handicraft and musical traditions from overseas. Twentieth century modernity considered Grecanic as the language of backwardness, something to be ashamed of. For this reason people stopped transmitting the language of their fathers: also speaking Dialect was a step beyond indeed. Same fate for traditional music and dance for their straight rules reflecting an archaic society, whose practices stayed alive in small communities of what is officially called Grecanic Area.
Respect is the keyword
Despite the fact they were small villages far from the rest of the world, sense of hospitality is still very strong in Grecanic Culture. Welcoming a stranger was, and still is, an important part of social rites. When you’ll come in any village, with no doubt someone will offer you a coffe at the bar and then ask you where are you from, what are you doing in your life, why are you visiting his town and not any other place. It’s hospitality, but control of territory too, a clear role declaration: I’m in charge here, while you’re just a guest. Vincenzo, goatherd and bagpiper, explain me their sense of hospitality:”It doesn’t matter to me where are you from: door is open and I have to give you an opportunity, otherwise how can I know if we could be friends?”And friendship here is a matter of respect, as for rules of traditional dance. Before fascism imposed the word Tarantella to describe folk music, in his attempt to build a pan-italic culture through elimination of cultural localisms, music and dance accompanied every moment of public and domestic life, just as work in fields. Tambourine kept their obsessive 6/8 rhythm, accompanied by accordion or bagpipe which never played together. Musicians used to define themselves players, because there were no academic study of musical theory. The best ones, elaborating standards in their own personal way, were called Constructors (of melodies). There were no stages and they used to play home or in the street looking dancers straight in the eyes, all together in a circle called Rota (Wheel). Dancers used to pay respect to players and Sound: they were not allowed to dance by their own outside the Wheel because it was a great offense. At the Wheel’s center stood the Master of Dance, an important man of community (or home master in domestic parties, the bride’s father in wedding parties and so on) who called people to dance according to good sense rules, avoiding to put together who was torn apart by discord. They danced two at a time, called at the centre by the Master who determined the duration of every dance shift. It was good manners for men to greet players and the lady by a discreet gesture at the beginning of every shift. Movements were free but prompted by a precise language: man moved by daring step and wide gestures of his hands: acting fingers like knives if dancing with another man, miming the flight of a dove if accompanying a lady. Woman kept a more measured attitude, by small steps with hands on her hips keeping her skirt gently, never looking straight at the man, but following his moves out of the corner of her eyes. Like in everyday life men and women couldn’t touch one another unless they were married or brother and sister. Dance was an occasion to launch and receive public declarations of love, proclaim hostility and make peace. Contradicting the Master of Dance, or substituting him without his permission, was an extremely serious offense potentially leading to a knife fight.
Fascism declared Master of Dance illegal, saying this figure was an expression of ‘ndrangheta power. It was right, but doing this it disrespected an entire population and its sense of community, increasing their indifference to the rules of central state.
Respect is the real, subtle border within popular culture and mafia attitude. This Mountain has all along been a rough virgin land, going on forging the character of a complicated people, keeper of a complex and layered culture, way too easy to define archaic, too shallow to define mafia. It’s not easy to distinguish between love for family and clan affiliation, between respect and submission, between sense of belonging and control of territory. There’s not a clear limit within knowledge of roots and refusal of cultural advance. This land has to be accepted like it is.
Tales from the Eighties
The last stage, in the heart of the Mountain, is necessary for me to understand how times has changed, although things remained still. From Ardore, on the Ionian coast, we rise up straight to centre of the region, crossing all possible landscapes from dry valley to the dark forest. The Cross of Zervó appears in the shadowy green, planted in a crossroad among chestnuts. His wooden Jesus, just covered by a small roof, became famous when Angela Casella went there to pray, asking for solidarity from calabrian women and the liberation of his son Cesare, kidnapped in the north and kept in Aspromonte for two years. Her resounding demonstration, there where the ransom were payed and no one could visit freely, was decisive to stop kidnapping industry whose power had his roots in the dark of silence. The Christ still stands here, protected by a low iron fence. But instead of the military checkpoint there’s a stall selling cheese, sausage and honey. Some ball exposed on the fence, just in case you need to play. A group of young boy scouts eating their packed lunch nearby, under a big oak, while I have a chat with the seller which, cracking a smile, asks me where are we from and why are we there. A spark of curiosity lights in his eyes when I tell him my family name.
Our day finishes on the Tirrenian Coast, when we reach Bagnara through a windy and broken road through a green landscape, completely different from the other coast. While temperature grows at every turn I ask myself what makes this land so special. Visiting Calabria, even more the Aspromonte is not easy. You have to sweat it out: very few transportations and services, phones not working, roads are crumbled. Unfinished rules urban landscape and every valley has a different dialect. Here you can meet no one for hours, but you can put up a tent with no danger. Going there means going over a thick barricade of common beliefs and ancestral fears. But just facing these problems, you’ll be allowed to enjoy the experience of a pure and pristine land, whose beauty pretends to be earned mile by mile. These are not the Alps with their proven touristic professionality. This is the outskirts of Europe: having a trip here is real discovery trip as you can live at thousand miles from home.
Staring at Sicily on the other side of the sea where I finally can chill, I surprise myself feeling like I just came down from a Himalayan trip. I look at the imminent mountain at my back. And yet I want to go there again.