Oxford Mail
January 2000


The Bones of Dead Men: A journey in Calabria
Amanda Castleman spends her honeymoon among the bloodthirsty bandits of Italy


Scilla


Our Tuscan friend breaks into English to make his point unmistakably clear to the stupidi touristi: "No, no, you must not go to Calabria. The banditi sell people like you there, as slaves.

Over 2000 years ago Greeks colonised the southernmost tip of Italy. The neighbourhood went rapidly downhill.

A quick look at the only guidebook available, written by gentleman-explorer Norman Douglas in 1915, reveals that "in a single month they are said to have committed 1,200 murders in Calabria. These were the bands described by British officers as 'our chivalrous brigand-allies.'"

Italy's toe is now apparently the cradle of the Mafia, but it is also home to the fading Graecanico culture. The coast once rivalled Athens as a cosmopolitan centre in eighth century BC: the mystic philosopher Pythagoras preached vegetarianism there alongside the decadent Sybarites.

Sadly Magna Graecia – Greater Greece – has been reduced to five small bilingual towns, hidden in the hills between the Ionian and Tyrrhenian seas, with a rough reputation. This is a land of earthquakes and malaria, where the brigand Mammone refused to dine without a skull brimming with human blood at the table: good a place as any to honeymoon

Gazing at the palm trees and crisp blue Strait of Messina soothed us, as did the labrinythine streets of Scilla. A nice place. Peaceful. Lovely. Yet even this town, like a perfect cameo carved from jagged rock, has a bloodthirsty mythology. Here Odysseus confronted Skylla, the many-tentacled monster, lurking on the cliffs; Kharybdis devouring the dark tides with her whirlpool gullet, and the Sirens "on their sweet meadow lolling ... bones of dead men rotting in a pile beside them and flayed skins shrivel around the spot."

We turned inland, away from the visions of carnage superimposed over white sands. Arcades of aspens lined the road, golden and graceful through the fog. Alpine-style ski chalets appeared like confused Fellini characters. Each bend harboured mushroom hunters, as Aspromonte is also known as "the Cloud Gatherer", a damp condition that produces fabled fungi.

The harsh mountain is also home to Italy's most recently anointed national park, which is collapsing back into damp wilderness. Not much has changed in 2,000 years. Homer complains of "a sharp mountain piercing the sky, with storm cloud round the peak dissolving never ... No mortal man could scale it, nor so much as land there, not with twenty hands and feet, so sheer are the cliffs."

Twenty hands and feet fell short of the task, as did our modest Fiat Punto en route to San Luca, where pilgrims used to flock each September, honouring the Madonna of the Mountains. We retreated over the shattered asphalt, passing far too many shrines on hairpin corners. More dead men's bones: it was becoming a rather Gothic honeymoon.

Yet the sun illuminated the coastal towns and a fresh swath of countryside yielded an agriturismo pensione, specialising in local produce and traditional recipes. The patio was strewn with withered olives, and a bent couple approached smiling. The woman's scalp shone through a fluff of dark hair. For the next two days, she would reach out a liver spotted hand each time we met, and rub my stomach, intoning "bambini, bambini".

Despite the peasant fertility incantation, the pensione was delightful: our remote bungalow bordered fields of Roman ruins (ancient mosaics weathering uncovered among grazing animals) and the dessert wine was Vino di Graecanico, a sweet local flavour made from pressed raisins.

Nearby gleamed the Ionian shore, down a path lined by pomegranates and orange trees bearing bitter, spicy fruit. It became more understandable why the Greeks had colonised these shores 2,800 years ago, and why everyone – Byzantines, Germanic warriors, Saracens, Normans, Turks and Bourbons – had been invading since. Even the Pope got in on the act, forcibly converting the last Greek Orthodox stronghold in 1573.

The papal achievement is all the more impressive upon viewing the crumbling, aerial fortress of Bova. The houses, half deserted, lean and pile upon each other, leading to the Norman castle on the peak. Neighbouring Gerache, though the Graecanico town of choice for the rare tour buses, is more disappointing for its commercial veneer.

The vast church crowded by Greek domes, courtyards and ornate pillars (pirated from ancient buildings) charges admission, which destroys the remote aura of the town. The Locri Epizefiri ruins below restored our faith somewhat: the vast network of ancient potsherds stretches unmolested by souvenir stands or even explanatory signs.

Yet it is Pentadillo, "five fingers" of sandstone crumbling down onto an abandoned town, which brings together the bittersweet nature of Calabria. Once the site of a grisly ambush in the 17th century, the bloody hand prints of the slaughtered Alberti family are said to be visible, pressed in stone.

Strangely enough, we didn't mind. Even bones can be beautiful.

This is a land
of earthquakes and
malaria, where the
brigand Mammone
refused to dine without
a skull brimming with
human blood at the table:
good a place as any to honeymoon, really.

Bova
The woman's scalp
shone through a fluff
of dark hair. For the
next two days, she
would reach out a
liver-spotted hand
each time we met
and rub my stomach,
intoning "Bambini,
bambini".


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