“Kalimera.” A spry, older woman dressed in black warmly greeted us as we stepped out of the car and began to walk up the street to the main square of Gallicianò. She was like the town sentinel and greeter all in one, speaking perfect Italian to us, then lithely pulling a cell phone out of her pocket to call our guide in a language I didn’t understand at all.
Calòs ìrtete Gaddihicianò – WELCOME TO GALLICIANÒ
I was visiting a village at the very tip of Italy, on the edge of the Aspromonte Mountains in southern Calabria, the last bastion of Greek civilization in the region. Just forty people remain in Gallicianò, which today is officially a district of the larger community known as Condofuri. They speak grecanico (Grecanic), a language that hearkens back to ancient Greece, to Magna Graecia of southern Italy, founded in the eighth century BC.
The drive up to the village, past banks of prickly pear cactus and the occasional goatherd, revealed the area’s remoteness. What were those early Greek settlers thinking? The road flanked a wide, gray, dry riverbed, the fiumara Amendolea, and climbed up wild, rugged hills that extended further inland. The town site afforded an expansive panorama of the entire area all the way out to the Ionian Sea – a natural lookout and defense, seemingly impossible to reach. In ancient times, however, the dry, rocky wash was a navigable river. Today’s vehicles, albeit few, zigzag relatively easily up to Gallicianò.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
As I began to form my first impressions of the village, we were told Mimmo L’Artista would arrive shortly for our tour. Musing as to what type of artist this Mimmo was, I started taking pictures of the old stone buildings as well as a few Greek flags and the numerous street signs written in the Grecanic language.
Before I knew it, Mimmo breezed into the square with a big smile and an even bigger enthusiasm for his culture. His name was Domenico Nucera, which may not sound all that common to an English speaker, but in Gallicianò he shares his last name with each and every other inhabitant. They manage to keep it all straight with the use of nicknames, which are inherited within families. So you just hope that your grandfather didn’t have an occupation, a personality trait or other distinguishing feature that would prove embarrassing a few generations down the line.
Mimmo told us that he was christened artista when he was on a town committee in which every member’s name was Domenico Nucera. Mimmo is short for Domenico, but with five or six Mimmos, confusion will inevitably arise; thus, the personal soprannome or nickname. His fate was decided based on the fact that he went to a high school for the arts.
TOUR OF GALLICIANÒ
Our visit that morning ranged from the ethnographic museum to the sorgente dell’amore (fountain of love), and from the rather spartan Church of St. John the Baptist to the richly decorated Orthodox Church, The Madonna of Greece. We saw where pigs were slaughtered, knives sharpened and the communal area where women traditionally washed their clothes. We were accompanied by the gentle sound of sheep bells as the animals passed through the surrounding hills and by goats, agilely running around us and up the rocky embankments.
I wouldn’t have thought we could have spent three hours visiting such a small town, but the time went by quickly listening to Mimmo L’Artista’s enthusiastic explanations of his village’s traditions. We saw old stone architectural elements to ward off the evil eye and street signs in Grecanic and Greek.
Before we knew it, our stomachs told us it was time for lunch and a woman beckoned us into a small stone building filled with the lovely aroma of freshly baked sourdough bread. A good number of loaves sat on a table covered with a simple cotton cloth. The structure’s single room had a large hearth and an old wooden floor. Various vegetables preserved in olive oil were ready to make a flavorful sandwich together with the local cheese. Delicious.
ETHNOGRAPHIC MUSEUM IN GALLICIANÒ
The town has a small museum in what was once an elementary school. Objects representing crafts and everyday life are on display, such as those that highlight the practice of creating cloth from Scotch broom, the hearty plant with bright yellow flowers that light up the hillsides of the area during spring. Our guide took us through the process of turning the fibrous plant into a workable thread that produced articles ranging from those with rougher material destined for work purposes to refined bedspreads.
Musical instruments, tools for fieldwork, items used in making cheese, baskets, shoes, soap and objects with traditional Greek patterns are amongst those on display. There is also an area that depicts a typical living space to give a feel for the old village life.
Simple daily chores, such as going to the fountain with an earthenware jug for water or washing clothes at the outdoor, communal laundry area were focal points of social interaction. The main water source is still called the Fountain of Love and recalls the place young men and women would meet with the pretext of getting a drink of water or filling a jar for use at home.
ORTHODOX CHURCH OF GALLICIANÒ
While the Church of St. John the Baptist anchors the community both architecturally and religiously, for the visitor, the jewel in the crown of Gallicianò is the smaller Orthodox Church, a short walk up the hill to the other side of town. Dedicated to the Madonna of Greece, this attractive, tile-roofed structure in Byzantine style welcomes pilgrims with colorful stonework outside and a vibrant interior full of icons. We each rang the bell at the entranceway, three times as instructed, to keep with the tradition.
Although the citizenry as a whole follow the Roman Catholic rite, the Orthodox Church serves as an important connection with not only the town’s Greek heritage, but also with the memory of the many Greek and Byzantine churches that once flourished throughout Calabria.
KEEPING THE TRADITION ALIVE IN GALLICIANÒ
Today, only forty people live in Gallicianò and actively communicate in the Grecanic language. They are very happy to welcome visitors to their village, and are pleased to share their culture with them. However, there is a tinge of melancholy, perhaps best summed up by the greeting on the stone sign located at the entrance to the town: Welcome to Gallicianò, here in the mountains full of pain and songs.
Would you like to hear the Grecanic language spoken in Gallicianò? Listen to Mimmo L’Artista welcoming visitors in Calabrian Greek.
Read more about other towns with Greek heritage on this blog, such as Pentedattilo: A Ghost Town in Calabria, The Castle of Amendolea and Palizzi: Yesterday and Today. And for an in-depth look at the beautiful land in the toe of the boot, check out Calabria: The Other Italy, my non-fiction book about daily life, history, culture, art, food and society in this fascinating southern Italian region.
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