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Calabria: its people places, events

S. Marco Argentano. War memorial − Serra Dolcedorme in the background.

S. Marco Argentano. War memorial − Serra Dolcedorme in the background.

Edward Mallia, a life-long environmentalist, has just published A Long Walk - Journeys in Calabria, a 700-page Kindle and DVD book, illustrated with some 400 photographs. The book features an account of more than 40 long treks in the region in search of its landscapes, its people and its social, political and religious past and present. Fellow environmentalist Joseph Agius interviewed him.

You say in this book that you were already married with young children when you went on the first of your many treks in Calabria. So, what set off this long love affair with the region?

The trigger was provided by three stints of voluntary work (summer 1967, 1968, 1969) organised by a group called Voluntary Service Overseas (Malta) set up by Tony Macelli and the late Fr Peter Serracino Inglott. We worked with gypsies in the suburbs of Reggio Calabria and in Melito di Porto Salvo, the southernmost town on mainland Italy. At the time of the first solo journey in the summer of 1970, we (myself, wife and two children) were at the end of a two-year stay at Zermatt in Switzerland, where I had been working at a high altitude solar observatory run by the University of Oxford.

Civita Ponte del Diavolo and Gole del RaganelloCivita Ponte del Diavolo and Gole del Raganello

Would I be right in saying that this book began as a diary, but then over time it became a travelogue?

The book is essentially an account of extensive travels in Calabria. A ‘model’ that may well have exerted considerable influence could be Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, published in the 1970s but read in the middle 1990s, after the same author’s better known Love and War in the Apennines. Incidentally, that starts in Msida creek where Newby boarded a submarine taking his party of “commandos” to Sicily on a sabotage mission designed to help the Santa Marija convoy.

The original “diary” had a background: a compilation of some 250 typewritten pages of social, political, economic and geographical data on the Calabria of the 1970s, put together before many journeys had actually happened. The network of “journeys” carried some reflection of that background writing.

To those hurriedly leafing through it this book might give the impression that it is meant for travellers and trekkers, as in good part it is. But though a trekker myself, albeit on a minor scale, I found your excursions into social, political and religious history, as well as your various adventures, misadventures and encounters yet more interesting, enjoyable and humorous. But what kind of audience did you have in mind when writing this account?

The content explores the land, people and culture of an area of Italy which, though quite close to us, has remained comparatively unknown.  Clearly Calabria has much to offer: spectacular sea and landscapes, a rich history and culture in an essentially Mediterranean setting, and of course, great opportunities for trekking. Thus the book can serve as introduction for readers with a wide range of interests, including academic ones related to archaeology, history of art and environment.

Two accounts of journeys in Calabria well known locally are those by Edward Lear and Norman Douglas. In what way is your book different from these, apart from the fact that it is a much more recent account?

Edward Lear and Norman Douglas had rather specific interests as is well known. Lear especially, made a brief passage through Calabria with interest mainly in “sketching” town and landscapes; his contacts were mainly local notabili, to whom he had been given letters of introduction by the chief functionary in Reggio.

Douglas recorded more than one passage in Old Calabria; a man of wide interests and erudition in areas which ranged from the historical to the literary, and to the botanical. As well as of prejudices which sometimes cut him off from contemporary and historical realities. In Old Calabria, for instance, he gives very limited attention to the protracted Byzantine presence in Calabria.

So, while acknowledging debts to both Lear and Douglas I tried to explore other avenues as well. In this respect I confess to succumbing often to a desire to set to rights some of Douglas’s “transgressions”. That, considering Douglas’s formidable gifts, may look like a mission impossible. But I still thought it worth a try.

What investment in time, physical and mental effort did this 45-year saga involve?

Investment in time on the ground must amount to well over a year of continuous stay. But one must reckon that with the advent of the World Wide Net one can keep both an ‘information’ presence and quick contact with people in Calabria while being physically far away.

While acknowledging debts to both Lear and Douglas I tried to explore other avenues as well

And use of the Net has had another effect: that of decreasing justified resentment at long absences from home and, possibly worse, days out of contact in circumstances that to the “uninitiated” appear to be, and to some extent are, physically dangerous.

The advent of the mobile phone has improved the level of communication, though there is plenty of mountainous, heavily forested country where ordinary mobiles do not work.

Civita Ponte del Diavolo and Gole del RaganelloCivita Ponte del Diavolo and Gole del Raganello

The interplay of the mental and the physical can be clearly seen in the way one faces a sharp rise at the end of a long day.  You feel you need a rest before starting up; but if that rest is more than a few minutes long, calf muscles will lock in a painful cramp. So to the mental effort required to resume movement is added physical pain. A short stop will offer small physical relief but will require only mental effort to re-start. Switching to a slow plod and not stopping is best of all.

In summer, heat and dehydration are the worst enemies. The best use of water against the direct effects of high ambient temperatures, is to rinse head and neck on arriving at a source, take off shirt to soak, wring and put back on, then treat a large bandana kerchief in the same manner.

The relief afforded by wet shirt and bandana if fairly brief, is positively heavenly.  For drinking: forest streams and the public water, invariably potable, found in every village are the best sources.

In winter mere cold is usually no problem as walking with several layers under a windproof jacket and with padded trousers keeps a good body temperature; but sleeping out under tent or in huts calls for a good sleeping bag as well as a small gas stove.

Add to that modern protection against heavy rain, present also in summer thunderstorms, and main rucksack weight starts touching 25 kg.; more if one is carrying a tent. That does place some restriction on the length of winter walks especially if deep snow or ice are present.

This was indeed a long journey and an exhausting one but I felt that without the help given spontaneously by the Calabresi – lifts, food and wine, information and cover at night, and the relationship you built with them - this would have been a different story. How important was their help in this venture?

A somewhat tricky question to answer truthfully without being or seeming to be ungrateful and unappreciative of help received. The fact is that no trip was planned without a strong element of self-sufficiency worked into it. It would have been foolish to do otherwise given that practically all offers of “help” came from chance encounters.

Stillo: la CattolicaStillo: la Cattolica

But help is not any the less welcome and heart-warming for being unlooked-for. And in this respect there was little to choose between older and younger generations, particularly out in the countryside away from large towns. So I would say that without this help, my experience of Calabria would have been that much poorer.

Over these 45 years the social and physical landscape will have obviously changed. For better or for worse in your view? The 'ndràngheta too (Mafia calabrese) figures quite often in your book. Do you feel that the Calabresi in general have shaken off or at least loosened the grip of the 'ndràngheta?

As far as the physical landscape is concerned there is a clear answer on ‘improvement’. Though, particularly in the extreme south, there have been serious episodes of landslip and erosion, persistent efforts at afforestation and forestry control have managed to keep ahead of  natural and pyromaniac destruction, certainly on the Sila but also in Aspromonte, around which lie the dominant 'ndràngheta citadels.

But the great leap forward has been the establishment of the most extensive Italian national park: Il Parco Nazionale del Pollino straddles the Calabria-Basilicata border, with a spur coming down the west coast as far south as Belvedere Marittimo.

Social landscapes offer a more uncertain picture. With the advent of modern communi-cations, the former isolation of Calabria has been broken. But in the absence of robust development, movement, at times in droves, of Calabresi out of the region has not been stemmed. Despite the onslaught by the various law enforcement bodies working with an improved legal arsenal, the grip of the 'ndràngheta does not look like being broken just yet.

Yet there is one brand-new aspect of social change which deserves mention:  the post-2000 activities of the town councils of Caulonia and especially Riace. These two places have become beacons of humanity in the reception of immigrants.

Most of your treks, under a scorching sun or in bitter cold and snow, were long, hard and exhausting, and very often with no sure place to sleep at the end of the day. And they entailed also some risks, as your readers will discover. What was it that spurred you on? Had the writing of this book become a sort of mission you had to see through, or did every trek provide some great satisfaction?

If anything the drive came from a desire to publicise the hardships that over the centuries the Calabresi had to put up with, an effort to redress the “picture” of Il Bel Paese we have formed by more orthodox methods. That is not to say that individual treks were not “satisfying” but to suggest that much of the “satisfaction” came from finding out what made Calabresi tick at work, at play, in all aspects of social life. Such a demanding search requires probing the links between topography and climate which have had such a marked effect on the local character. And then gaining some understanding of how the political and religious masters of the place have added their quotas of social pressures.

The day of Madonna di Pollino. Sounding trumpets and “Gothick” Castles.The day of Madonna di Pollino. Sounding trumpets and “Gothick” Castles.

You say that you often spent the last hours of daylight reading, particularly when sleeping out. What kind of books do you take with you?

Books pose a particular problem in trekking: they are heavy. There is a necessary minimum of “paperweight” that needs to be carried: maps, trekking manuals and books acquired en route. For ‘holiday’ reading, novels were restricted to Camilleri and Sciascia and one or two Corrado Alvaro.  Recent works about Calabria and southern Italy include those by Nicola Gratteri (Fratelli di Sangue), Rosy Canale (La Mia 'ndràngheta). Hagiography was represented by “Lives” of Francesco di Paola and Nilo of Rossano; books on ecology and environment. And last but not least (and repeatedly) Tolkien’s The Hobbit and individual volumes of The Lord of the Rings, both books involving long “treks”!

Which are your most vivid memories, pleasant or not, of places, people, and events?

It is a little difficult to disentangle neatly vivid memories of places, people and events.   Take the particular case of the start of the last day of the donkey journey. After retreating from the extremely dangerous situation I had blundered into the previous evening (but not having the time to relate that here I leave it to the book), I had arrived at a point very appropriately called Puntone Vividdu.

It provided brilliant panorama of the southern flank of Aspromonte - a line-of-sight down into the course of the fiumara Amendolea with the cluster of houses of Roghudi on the crown of a hill far below and the brilliant white twists of the river bed. A memorable view indeed and the setting for a memorable encounter.

Up the very narrow unfenced path coming up from Ghorio di Roghudi, with a near-vertical drop of 200 metres to the first houses, came a man leading a white horse, preceded by a young woman riding a donkey side saddle. I nudged my donkey up the slope on the inside of the path; but on meeting, the woman’s donkey shied away towards the outer edge of the path. The woman started screaming, I was having kittens and the man, after a powerful tug on his donkey’s bit had got it back on the straight and narrow, put on a face as black as thunder. All I could do was mutter apologies and hurry down out of sight. Place, people and event were memorable indeed, in very different ways.

PentedattiloPentedattilo

Then again, most memorable places often also carry memorable (historical) persons: Gerace – Robert and Roger d’Hautville; Stilo – Giovanni Terestis; Serra S. Bruno – Bruno of Cologne and Roger; Rossano and the Patirion – Nilo and Bartolomaios; Buonvicino – S. Ciriaco; Paola – S. Francesco; Le Castella – Giovanni Dionigi Galleni, in later life Uccialì who fought for the Turks in the Great Siege of 1565. But almost all of these places also carry glowing memories of living persons, recorded in the text.

Of landscapes, the sheer western edge of Aspromonte, between Scilla and Palmi stands out; while between Montalto and Bova there are the quintessential landscapes of Aspromonte. In the circuit of Morano, Civita and  Madonna di Pollino, the heartland of the Parco del Pollino, with Serra Dolcedorme and La Fagosa as the core, provided delight in all seasons.

From what you write one concludes that Calabria could well be a tourist destination for many of us Maltese. Would you suggest it?

Certainly, though it does require careful planning in all cases. The main problem is that of first access: the Malta-Reggio Calabria air connection has unfortunately been discontinued; the Malta-Catania is not convenient and the Malta-Bari even less so. Regular sea connections only go as far as Pozzallo. One hopes that both these connections will improve in the near future.

Once inside Calabria, private transport – car or coach – is a must for almost all types of tourist. That can be arranged on the spot of course. There is now a small number of groups particularly in the north (Civita, Cerchiara) who arrange trekking holidays. Individual guides take small parties in Aspromonte and on the Sila.

One last question. Is it now rest time with more nights in, or do you still need your ‘nights out’?

Not easy to give a straight answer. I have just returned from a couple of weeks in Calabria, time spent in a non-trekking mode. I still have some loose ends to see to; so I am planning what may well be a final trip.

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