Hiking in Calabria

Italians can be very cautious in relation to hikers. And hiking in Calabria made me wonder if they are afraid of trees.

I may be mistaken – in which case I apologise profoundly – but I have got the feeling that many Italians are intimidated by trees, when they – the trees that is – appear in great numbers. The suspicion arose a couple of years ago in the Pollino national park near Castrovillari in Calabria, when we stopped on a deserted hilltop to enjoy the view. Close by a broad dirt road led into a group of pine trees offering shadow and refreshing coolness, so we decided to take a walk. We had not gone more than 300 metres before a police car appeared out of nowhere.

– Where are you going? The policeman asked in a not too friendly tone that ended in a regular warning: Don’t walk too far. You might get lost.

Hiking in Calabria

The episode sort of baffled me. There were no military installations around and no signs forbidding picnics, hikes or Sunday strolls, so I imagined a mob-hunt or criminal hide-out in the hills were making the area temporarily off limits to the public. We were not setting out into the Amazon jungle or going mountain climbing the Dolomites, so the idea that the landscape might pose a threat did not even occur to me. I mean, I have been scared when lost in a dense Swedish forest, where you can literally walk for days without seeing traces of human life, but a pine wood in Pollino? Come on.

And then I forgot about it – until a recent visit at Tenute Al Bano Carrisi in Cellino San Marco. Behind the cantina the famous singer is supposed to have one of the biggest original forests on Salento, but the 60 hectare of eucalyptus, fir and pine trees were all fenced in and locked up. As we were standing by the gate, a skinny man in overalls approached saying “You won’t get in there”. When asked why, he explained that it was far too dangerous to walk around in the forest on your own, as you might get lost, but in the summer Tenute Al Bano arrange guided tours in a small fairground train for those who want to explore the wilderness.

Still, I really don’t get it! I mean, Little Red Riding Hood could not be led far astray by big bad wolfs in this forest, and even on a dark moonless night with no visible pebbles, Hansel and Gretel would be able to find their way out simply by walking along the fence until they reached the gate, so what is the problem?

If everything else fails you can always adopt the Swedish tree hugging method based on the assumption that someone will find you, before you get too exhausted to shout for help, unless of course there is an altogether different explanation behind the Italians’ urge to protect tourists from getting lost in forests.

Other things to do than hiking in Calabria

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Ai Figli Caduti – war memorials in italy

Many war memorials in Italy are explicitly explicitly gruesome spelling out the suffering and death young men in uniform. The question is why?

I have started collecting war memorials in Italy. Every time I come to a new city, I photograph their ai Figli Caduti setup, like the one above from Castrovillari in Calabria. So far my collection counts about a dozen photos, but it is fairly new, and I have no doubt it will grow.

It started out with a real distaste for the grotesque war memorials occupying the main piazza in all Italian cities regardless of size. Nowhere else in Europe, have I seen so many explicitly gruesome depictions of war, suffering and death. National Mall in Washington is understated in comparison.

Italian war memorials are so extremely direct in their symbolism that you feel urged to hold your hand over the eyes of children, to protect them from the morbid sight. To increase the emotional impact, the council often adds a list of names of all the city’s fallen soldiers, so you inadvertently find yourself faced with a very personal and local tragedy, which – by the way – happens to have taken place almost a hundred years ago. It is a wonder why Italians find such revocations of history cum collective memory constructions necessary.

To search for an explanation I began to study the monuments in more detail. Some of them are tasteful and classic in the sense of a small plaque, an obelisk or an eagle on a Greek column. Others are bombastic, huge, ugly blocks of granite or concrete. And there are soldiers’ helmets with gun holes through. Piles of lifeless bodies in slightly chipped ceramics. Proud warriors ready to defend the nation. Soldiers or angels, who carry around a dead comrade, while Nike raises a laurel wreath of victory. And gigantic, arches of triumph, which in many cases seem inversely proportional to city’s size.

war memorials in Italy

Figli caduti – war memorials in Italy

Apart from that I still have not managed to see a connection between monument design and the city’s soul. Is the population of the cities showing brave soldiers willing to fight to defend the common values, happier and more optimistic than neighboring towns commemorating their dead with a hole in the head? Why do some cities prefer horror to heroes?

The deeper meaning eludes me, but at least the war memorials must have created work and a steady source of income for a small army of sculptors. So they do serve a purpose – and their diversity in design and materials is downright amazing.

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Wayside chapels in Calabria

Wondering whether wayside chapels in Calabria serve as divine post offices forwarding mail to God above. 

To me the shrines, sanctuaries and chapels dotted around the Italian landscape form a perpetual enigma. Holy statues and saints peeping out of windows from their holes in house walls are ordinary sights of comfort and wonder. The stone shrines and prayer houses along the roads appear alternately sad and cheerful, depending on whether they have been raised to commemorate a death or a miracle. And then there are the small one-man-chapels in the middle of nowhere that tend to leave a big question mark in my mind. wayside chapels in Calabria

To a non-catholic entering these sacred places seems like a transgression, but once my curiosity got the better of me, and I went inside a small chapel on a deserted mountain top in Calabria.

The cool darkness and bare white-washed walls contained an altar with altar cloth, prayer candles, a wooden cross and – most surprisingly – small plastic trinkets, notes and letters to God. A few of these letters were very private and personal, but most of them resembled wish lists of the material ‘Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a colour tv’ kind.

Perhaps the wayside chapels serve as a divine post office forwarding mail to the world above. Or perhaps the altar corresponds to our shopping centre Santas to whom we whisper a list of wishes that magically manifest themselves as presents in a stocking or under a tree at Christmas. I just hope that all God’s pen pals including those with a laboured and shaky handwriting will have as much success with their wish lists.

More on religion and wayside chapels in Calabria and elsewhere

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Calabrian chili: Hot weekend at the Mar Tirreno

Calabrian chili is a local delicacy and Calabrians can sniff their way to the strength of chili on the Scoville scale. According to a chili vendor I met along the road.

Calabrian chiliCalabrians are fond of their peperoncini. Every gas station sells chili pepper vines, earthenware dishes with chili motifs, chili sauces with scary names such as bomba calabrese, strong ndjuja sausages with chili taste, grappa with chili , etc., etc. Consequently, it does not come as a surprise that a town like Diamante this weekend hosts a Chili  Festival for La cultura piccante, as they say. From the 9th-13th September, the town wallows in photo art, street theatre, concerts and gourmet cuisine with chili as a more or less far-fetched common denominator. There will even be an exhibition of 800 different chili of varying strength. Left-over beachgoers are in for a truly hot weekend at the Mar Tirreno.

Perhaps they will learn to sniff their way to the strength of chili according to the Scoville scale, like a Calabrian chili vendor tried to teach me a few months ago. He was standing by the side of the road with a van filled with yellow, red and orange chili peppers.

– Senti, he said, smell this, and lifted first one and then another chili pepper up in my face. Can you smell the difference? Some chillies are dolce, others are molto piccante and piccante, and the red one is sweet. It tastes of nothing at all, while the yellow one has a nice sting. The yellow are definitely the best.

Meanwhile, his friend tried to figure out whether it would be worthwhile to immigrate to Denmark to find unskilled work in a factory.

You cannot support a family by cultivating chili fruits, dragging them on a string and selling them for 5 euro per vine. Unless an initiative like the one in Diamante really succeed in making the demand increase.

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Reggio Calabria to Taranto

Reggio Calabria to Taranto: A road trip through south Italy

Driving down Europe Road 90 from Reggio Calabria to Taranto resembles a scene from an American road movie.

From Reggio Calabria to Taranto there is 491 kilometres asphalt connecting lawless truckers with Magna Grecia monuments, Mediterranean scents, old fishing villages and new construction sites.

There is no music score accompanying the drive, but otherwise Europe Road 90 resembles a scene from an American road movie where an endless streak of asphalt stretches out under a blazing sun, while the deep-blue sea, the mountains and deserted yellow plains in the background set a colour scheme to make any Swede happy. Dotted along the way are local workers trying to earn a few euros by selling chili on a string without interference from La Fiamma Gialla; shirtless camionisti with black sunglasses, Christmas light chains in the windshield, Padre Pio dangling under the rear view mirror, and trailers loaded with smuggled goods; and Schumacher clones, flashing their red Ferrari in sleepy holiday villages. A cocktail, that makes Statale 106 one of the most dangerous roads in Italy.

Crashed cars, flower bouquets by the roadside, frequent speed checks and road sections that are blocked by traffic accidents or road works, testify to the latent danger, and turn the 500 kilometres drive into an all-day project. These years the road is being expanded from one lane in each direction to an expressway with four lanes and concrete blocks to separate oncoming cars, but construction takes time, and for the time being long queues is part of the fun. The same goes for the urge to drive faster and wilder when occasional gaps occur in traffic. Mortality on Statale 106 is still above average for Italian roads.

reggio calabria to taranto

Road works on the Ionian highway can block the traffic for hours.

The road is rich in contrasts other than the contrast between the dense traffic and a depopulated landscape. Electric red plastic palm trees stand right beside the real thing. There is a slot machine for every saint statue. New shopping malls and holiday resorts in bright colours pop up in the neighbourhood of ancient Doric columns. Cultivated agricultural land alternate with forest-clad mountains stretching down to the water’s edge. And the orange groves and eucalyptus trees masks the stench of smelly oil refineries.
Yet conditions have changed radically since the English travel book writer Augustus Hare a hundred years ago warned foreigners against all travel in the South:

“The vastness and ugliness of the districts to be traversed, the bareness and filth of the inns, the roughness of the natives, the torment of zinzare, the terror of earthquakes, the insecurity of the roads from brigands, and the far more serious risk of malaria or typhoid fever from the bad water, are the natural courses which have hitherto frightened strangers away from the south.”
Augustus Hare: Cities Of Southern Italy And Sicily

More on road trips and driving in Italy in addition to Reggio Calabria to Taranto

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