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.
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.
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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