Via Marina not seen by Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux on Calabria

Following one of my recent presentations about Calabria, an inquisitive audience member was inspired to look through his home library and revisit a book he had read almost twenty years earlier: The Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean by Paul Theroux. He remembered the author had mentioned Locri and told me about it a few days later. 

I hadn’t read the book, but was curious to see what the well-known travel writer had to say about a place I knew so well and about which I had written my own book, Calabria: The Other Italy. I went straight to my public library, which had a rather worn copy of the work, published in 1995. Quickly scanning the Contents, I found Chapter 9, entitled “The Ferry Villa to Calabria.” All of the chapter headings focused on the mode of transportation taken to the next destination, most of them by water.

Boarding a train in Siracusa, Theroux would arrive in Calabria by a ferry named “Villa.” Although the name of the ferry is inconsequential, the information regarding the train-ferry may be amongst the most useful in that section of the book. For those unacquainted with the trains connecting to Sicily from the Italian mainland, the description of the laborious and time consuming process of putting the train cars on the ferry to cross the Strait of Messina and then taking them off again on the other side in Villa San Giovanni, Calabria or Messina, Sicily will most likely be a bit of an eye opener.

Paul Theroux, Grand Tour of Mediterranean

The Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean by Paul Theroux (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1995)

Theroux’s writing mixes personal observation of selected local individuals and their environments with reflections on snippets of literature written about the places he visits. I quickly realized that Calabria was just a pass-through for him, and even this very brief sojourn was mired in a preconceived murkiness: “I was reading the copy of Frankenstein I had bought in Siracusa, to put myself in the mood for the gothic darkness of Calabria.” (p. 187, The Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean by Paul Theroux, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1995)

Early on in the book he gives his disclaimer to those who might have different recollections of the places he visits. “That was your trip, that was your Italy. This book is about my trip, my Italy. This is my Mediterranean.” (p. 7) I can certainly understand that. You might have a splitting headache one day and everything is colored by the incessant pounding or you may have a justifiably bad experience. Or you might just be reading Frankenstein.

Some of his observations are accurate. The passeggiata up and down Corso Garibaldi in Reggio Calabria can be quite lively, particularly on weekend evenings and holidays with the very large and enthusiastic crowd of strollers all talking and gesticulating at once. Perhaps he was dizzied by the hubbub to the point of not noticing the stately edifices lining the street, or he just hadn’t looked up.

He had arrived in the dark from Villa San Giovanni, just a few kilometers up the coast. “Our little choo-choo went clinkety clank south, to Reggio, which was dark and cold and windy. It was Sunday night in this poor town—it had once been the capital of Calabria but it had fallen on hard times like most of the south.” (p. 185) The local trains are certainly clinkety clank. The region is definitely poor, but without two words about what it actually looked like, one imagines a noisy throng of people walking to and fro in a quasi-slum. Granted, the book was written over 20 years ago and things have surely changed. One hopes for the better. However, the center of town had already been rebuilt 60-70 years earlier after the devastating 1908 earthquake, and Corso Garibaldi is lined with beautiful buildings.

Paul Theroux walked down Corso Garibaldi in Reggio.

Corso Garibaldi, Reggio Calabria

In his hurry to move on, Theroux probably hadn’t walked along Reggio’s magnificent Via Marina, a couple of very short blocks down from the Corso. He may not have seen the tourist board literature proudly quoting the famous Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio, who pronounced Reggio’s promenade, “the most beautiful kilometer of Italy.” To be fair, he didn’t explicitly say the view was unattractive; he just didn’t mention any view at all.

Of course, you can’t take in every detail when you’re just passing through. He was headed to Metaponto in Basilicata. He would take the train from Reggio around the tip of the toe and up along the Ionian coast. He wanted to visit the village where Carlo Levi had been exiled and about which he had written his famous memoir, Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli).

He mentioned the “straggling settlements” in-between. “The beaches were littered but there was no one on them, even at Locri, one of the bigger towns.” (p. 188) Of course, Italians don’t go to the beach on what they consider the off-season, which is anything outside the summer months. I, too, arrived in Locri to find the beaches empty. It was late October with beautiful, Indian summer weather…

Theroux continues the passage: “Albichiara was one of those old yellow villages built high on a ridge, almost at the skyline … and in the plains below it were fruit trees and olive groves.” Throughout Calabria there are many old villages up on hilltops with fruit trees and olive groves on the flatter land between the sea and the mountains, but I never came across an Albichiara and I can’t seem to find it on a google search.

The 7½ pages dedicated to traversing Calabria include several observations of fellow train passengers. The religious passion of an old woman stuck with him long after the journey. A nun had just given him a prayer card, which inadvertently fell from his hand. The old woman rescued it from the floor of the compartment, kissing it and returning it to him with reproach. He used it as a bookmark even after finishing Frankenstein.

The snowy peaks of the Pollino Mountains in Calabria’s north impressed him. “Mountains seemed so unlikely, and the snow was an added bonus.” (p. 190) All in all, Calabria didn’t fare too poorly at a hurried glance. Upon leaving Italy to continue his journey of the Mediterranean after his quick trip up the Adriatic coast, he mused, “I had been happy—well-treated and well-fed. Now I was boarding the train into the unknown—the new nation of Slovenia and its neighbor, the crumbling republic of Croatia.” (p.114)

Featured image on top of article – Angle of Via Marina in Reggio Calabria

Interested in Southern Italy? Check out Calabria: The Other Italy, an award-winning, nonfiction book that explores daily life, culture, history, the arts, food, society and tourism of this fascinating Italian region. For a detailed view of Calabria: The Other Italy‘s Contents, go to About the Book.

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Comments 7

  1. G’day Karen

    I have read your latest blog with great interest because a few years ago I spent 3 weeks in Italy (December 2014/January 2015), mostly in Calabria (Reggio Calabria, with trips to Scilla, Pentedattilo, Bova Marina and Superior, Pellaro, and Motta San Giovanni), a brief sojourn through Sicily (Messina, Palermo, Agrigento, & Siracusa), then north to Bologna, and finally back to Rome before flying home to New Zealand.

    I was fortunate enough to spend nine days in Reggio with a friend (who I met as a PhD student conducting field work in NZ a few year prior) and her family, the highlight of the trip was being treated to a traditional Italian Christmas with all the bells and whistles. Although I must admit, coming from a NZ summer to a Calabrian winter, and how Christmas is celebrated was certainly very different from what I was use to – long hot summer days, BBQ Christmas, beaches, swimming, eating, drinking, sleeping. You get the picture.

    But in those almost two weeks I spent in the south, I did get a feel for what I saw around me – the sights, the sounds, the smells, the food, the history and culture, the architecture, neighborhoods (especially how housing is constructed), the surrounding hinterlands, the notorious Trenitalia (actually, I was pleasantly surprised by the service as it was my main mode of transportation through Italy), the language (I didn’t speak a word of Italian), and the DRIVING habits of Italians to name just a few. So my Kiwi sensibilities had to adjust very quickly to my new environment.

    I found Reggio Calabria to be a city that somehow continues to survive despite the fact that it lives very close to the margins. It is a city rich in history and culture, the people are bright and vibrant, and take great pride in their appearance. Yet, beneath this beautiful facade, however, is a city that is falling apart around them as it struggles economically, ruled by an invisible hand. Reggio Calabria is an enigma because despite all of its faults and all of its flaws it is an attractive city, and if I had the opportunity to visit Reggio Calabria again I would so at the drop of a hat.

    I was at Fiumicino Airport waiting for my flight to Zurich when I struck up a conversation with a lovely young Roman woman – she was flying onto Abu Dhabi, while I was off to Shanghai then home to New Zealand. Curious, she was very eager to know where I had visited and what I thought of Italy. So when I said, “Calabria, Reggio Calabria.” Well her immediate reaction was one of utter shock.

    “Calabria?! Ma perché?”

    “I’m sorry?” Feeling a little confused.

    “Ma perché! Why, why Calabria?”

    I shouldn’t have been surprised by her reaction, I mean, tell any non-Calabrese you’re travelling to Calabria and you’ll get the standard, often overly melodramatic and incredulous, “Ma perché?” Ok, so Calabria is a region largely ignored by Italians, often bypassed by tourists, and occupied by the nefarious activities of the ‘Ndrangheta. But much to my surprise, she seemed sufficiently intrigued enough, and suitably impressed that I “survived” so-to-speak that we kept talking to each other all the way to Zurich.

    They say that Calabrians wake up every morning to be “kissed by the sun” and it is true. I found them to be warm and generous, kind and affectionate, loud and expressive, while their love of family is infectious.

    By the way, while visiting the Riace Bronzes at the National Museum of Greater Greece in Reggio Calabria, I purchased your English language version book detailing the Riace Bronzes from the gift shop. This was before stumbling across your website/blog.

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      Howdy Albert,
      Thanks for your comment, impressions and recounting of your experiences in Calabria. It sounds as though you had a wonderful trip, the retelling of which will surely inspire a few of your countrymen to head on over to Calabria and answer the “Ma perche’?” question for themselves. If they’d like to read about it ahead of time, let them know that in addition to my blog there are various e-versions of my book as I’ve discovered that shipping to the other end of the world usually costs more than the book itself. I’d love to visit New Zealand, by the way, and that is a country about which no one would question your motives to see. But as you say, Calabria also doesn’t disappoint, and I’m glad you got to see the Riace Bronzes on their feet!

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  2. I love to read about other traveler writers’ experiences in the places I have visited, but Theroux hit it on the nail when he wrote, “That was your trip, that was your Italy. This book is about my trip, my Italy. This is my Mediterranean.” How true that we each bring to a destination our own flavors to it colored by our past and the emotions we go through while there. I had not realized that Mary Shelley had written “Frankenstein” in Calabria. How intriguing! Thank you so much for this little peep into the literary past.

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      Yes, we each bring our own unique perspective to our travels. Just a note about “Frankenstein,” though. Theroux was reading it while in Calabria as he associated the region with its “gothic darkness.” Shelley wrote it in Switzerland, I believe.

  3. Greatly enjoyed reading all the comments …….. especially ‘Albert’s’ !!! HOPEFULLY, someday, we too, will visit Calabria!

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