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Ch. 12: Catanzaro

For half an hour the train slowly ascends. The carriages are of special construction, light and many-windowed, so that one has good views of the landscape. Very beautiful was this long, broad, climbing valley, everywhere richly wooded; oranges and olives, carob and lentisk and myrtle, interspersed with cactus (its fruit, the prickly fig, all gathered) and with the sword-like agave. Glow of sunset lingered upon the hills: in the green hollow a golden twilight faded to dusk. The valley narrowed; it became a gorge between dark slopes which closed together and seemed to bar advance. Here the train stopped, and all the passengers (some half-dozen) alighted.

The sky was still clear enough to show the broad features of the scene before me. I looked up to a mountain side, so steep that towards the summit it appeared precipitous, and there upon the height, dimly illumined with a last reflex of after-glow, my eyes distinguished something which might be the outline of walls and houses. This, I knew, was the situation of Catanzaro, but one could not easily imagine by what sort of approach the city would be gained; in the thickening twilight, no trace of a road was discernible, and the flanks of the mountain, a ravine yawning on either hand, looked even more abrupt than the ascent immediately before me.

There, however, stood the diligenza which was somehow to convey me to Catanzaro; I watched its loading with luggage-merchandise and mail-bags--whilst the exquisite evening melted into night. When I had thus been occupied for a few minutes, my look once more turned to the mountain, where a surprise awaited me: the summit was now encircled with little points of radiance, as though a starry diadem had fallen upon it from the sky. "Pronti!" cried our driver. I climbed to my seat, and we began our journey towards the crowning lights.

By help of long loops the road ascended at a tolerably easy angle; the horse-bells tinkled, the driver shouted encouragement to his beasts, and within the vehicle went on a lively gossiping, with much laughter. Meanwhile the great moon had risen high enough to illumine the valley below us; silvery grey and green, the lovely hollow seemed of immeasurable length, and beyond it one imagined, rather than discerned, a glimmer of the sea. By the wayside I now and then caught sight of a huge cactus, trailing its heavy knotted length upon the face of a rock; and at times we brushed beneath overhanging branches of some tree that could not be distinguished. All the way up we seemed to skirt a sheer precipice, which at moments was alarming in its gloomy depth. Deeper and deeper below shone the lights of the railway station and of the few houses about it; it seemed as though a false step would drop us down into their midst.

The fatigue of the day's journey passed away during this ascent, which lasted nearly an hour; when, after a drive through dark but wide streets, I was set down before the hotel, I felt that I had shaken off the last traces of my illness. A keen appetite sent me as soon as possible in search of the dining-room, where I ate with extreme gusto; everything seemed excellent after the sorry table of the Concordia. I poured my wine with a free hand, rejoicing to find it was wine once more, and not (at all events to my palate) a concoction of drugs. The albergo was decent and well found; a cheerful prosperity declared itself in all I had yet seen. After dinner I stepped out on to the balcony of my room to view the city's main street; but there was very scant illumination, and the moonlight only showed me high houses of modern build. Few people passed, and never a vehicle; the shops were all closed. I needed no invitation to sleep, but this shadowed stillness, and the fresh mountain air, happily lulled my thoughts. Even the subject of earthquakes proved soporific.

Impossible to find oneself at Catanzaro without thinking of earthquakes; I wonder that the good people of Coltrone did not include this among deterrents whereby they sought to prejudice me against the mountain town. Over and over again Catanzaro has been shaken to its foundations. The worst calamity recorded was towards the end of the eighteenth century, when scarce a house remained standing, and many thousands of the people perished. This explains a peculiarity in the aspect of the place, noticeable as soon as one begins to walk about; it is like a town either half built or half destroyed, one knows not which; everywhere one comes upon ragged walls, tottering houses, yet there is no appearance of antiquity. One ancient building, a castle built by Robert Guiscard when he captured Catanzaro in the eleventh century, remained until of late years, its Norman solidity defying earthquakes; but this has been pulled down, deliberately got rid of for the sake of widening a road. Lament over such a proceeding would be idle enough; Catanzaro is the one progressive town of Calabria, and has learnt too thoroughly the spirit of the time to suffer a blocking of its highway by middle-age obstructions.

If a Hellenic or Roman city occupied this breezy summit, it has left no name, and no relics of the old civilization have been discovered here. Catanzaro was founded in the tenth century, at the same time that Taranto was rebuilt after the Saracen destruction; an epoch of revival for Southern Italy under the vigorous Byzantine rule of Nicephorus Phocas. From my point of view, the interest of the place suffered because I could attach to it no classic memory. Robert Guiscard, to be sure, is a figure picturesque enough, and might give play to the imagination, but I care little for him after all; he does not belong to my world. I had to see Catanzaro merely as an Italian town amid wonderful surroundings. The natural beauty of the spot amply sufficed to me during the days I spent there, and gratitude for health recovered gave me a kindly feeling to all its inhabitants.

Daylight brought no disillusion as regards natural features. I made the circuit of the little town, and found that it everywhere overlooks a steep, often a sheer, descent, save at one point, where an isthmus unites it to the mountains that rise behind. In places the bounding wall runs on the very edge of a precipice, and many a crazy house, overhanging, seems ready to topple into the abyss. The views are magnificent, whether one looks down the valley to the leafy shore, or, in an opposite direction, up to the grand heights which, at this narrowest point of Calabria, separate the Ionian from the Tyrrhene Sea. I could now survey the ravines which, in twilight, had dimly shown themselves on either side of the mountain; they are deep and narrow, craggy, wild, bare. Each, when the snows are melting, becomes the bed of a furious torrent; the watercourses uniting below to form the river of the valley. At this season there was a mere trickling of water over a dry brown waste. Where the abruptness of the descent does not render it impossible, olives have been planted on the mountain sides; the cactus clings everywhere, making picturesque many a wall and hovel, luxuriating on the hard, dry soil; fig trees and vines occupy more favoured spots, and the gardens of the better houses are often graced by a noble palm.

After my morning's walk I sought the residence of Signor Pasquale Cricelli, to whom I carried a note of introduction. This gentleman holds the position of English Vice-Consul at Catanzaro, but it is seldom that he has the opportunity of conversing with English travellers; the courtesy and kindness with which he received me have a great part in my pleasant memory of the mountain town. Signor Cricelli took me to see many interesting things, and brought me into touch with the every-day life of Catanzaro. I knew from Lenormant's book that the town had a singular reputation for hospitality. The French archaeologist tells amusing stories in illustration of this characteristic. Once, when he had taken casual refreshment at a restaurant, a gentleman sitting at another table came forward and, with grave politeness, begged permission to pay for what Lenormant had consumed. This was a trifle in comparison with what happened when the traveller, desirous of making some return for much kindness, entertained certain of his acquaintances at dinner, the meal, naturally, as good a one as his hotel could provide. The festival went off joyously, but, to Lenormant's surprise, nothing was charged for it in his bill. On making inquiry he learnt that the cost of the entertainment had already been discharged by one of his guests! Well, that took place years ago, long before a railway had been thought of in the valley of the Corace; such heroic virtues ill consist with the life of to-day. Nevertheless, Don Pasquale (Signor Cricelli's name when greeted by his fellow-citizens) several times reminded me, without knowing it, of what I had read. For instance, we entered a shop which he thought might interest me; the salesman during our talk unobtrusively made up a little parcel of goods, and asked, at length, whether I would take this with me or have it sent to the hotel. That point I easily decided, but by no persistence could I succeed in paying for the things. Smiling behind his counter, the shopkeeper declined to name a price; Don Pasquale declared that a payment under such circumstances was a thing unknown in Catanzaro, and I saw that to say anything more would be to run the risk of offending him. The same day he invited me to dinner, and explained that we must needs dine at the hotel where I was staying, this being the best place of entertainment in the town. I found that my friend had a second reason for the choice; he wished to ascertain whether I was comfortably lodged, and as a result of his friendly offices, various little changes came about. Once more I make my grateful acknowledgements to the excellent Don Pasquale.

Speaking of shops, I must describe in detail the wonderful pharmacy. Signor Cricelli held it among the sights of Catanzaro; this chemist's in the main street was one of the first places to which he guided me. And, indeed, the interior came as a surprise. Imagine a spacious shop, well proportioned, perfectly contrived, and throughout fitted with woodwork copies from the best examples of old Italian carving. Seeking pill or potion, one finds oneself in a museum of art, where it would be easy to spend an hour in studying the counter, the shelves, the ceiling. The chemists (two brothers, if I remember rightly) pointed out to me with legitimate pride all that they had done for the beautifying of their place of business; I shall not easily forget the glowing countenance, the moved voice, which betrayed their feelings as they led me hither and thither; for them and their enterprise I felt a hearty respect. When we had surveyed everything within doors I was asked to look at the mostra--the sign that hung over the entrance; a sort of griffin in wrought iron, this, too, copied from an old masterpiece, and reminding one of the fine ironwork which adorns the streets of Siena. Don Pasquale could not be satisfied until I had privately assured him of my genuine admiration. Was it, he asked, at all like a chemist's shop in London? My reply certainly gratified him, but I am afraid it did not increase his desire to visit England.

Whilst I was at the chemist's, there entered a number of peasants, whose appearance was so striking that I sought information about them. Don Pasquale called them "Greci"; they came from a mountain village where the dialect of the people is still a corrupt Greek. One would like to imagine that their origin dates back to the early Hellenic days, but it is assuredly much later. These villages may be a relic of the Byzantine conquest in the sixth century, when Southern Italy was, to a great extent, re peopled from the Eastern Empire, though another theory suggests that they were formed by immigrants from Greece at the time of the Turkish invasion. Each of the women had a baby hanging at her back, together with miscellaneous goods which she had purchased in the town: though so heavily burdened, they walked erect, and with the free step of mountaineers.

I could not have had a better opportunity than was afforded me on this day of observing the peasantry of the Catanzaro district. It was the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and from all around the country-folk thronged in pilgrimage to the church of the Immaculate; since earliest morning I had heard the note of bagpipes, which continued to sound before the street shrines all day long. Don Pasquale assured me that the festival had an importance in this region scarcely less than that of Christmas. At the hour of high mass I entered the sanctuary whither all were turning their steps; it was not easy to make a way beyond the portico, but when I had slowly pressed forward through the dense crowd, I found that the musical part of the service was being performed by a lively string-band, up in a gallery. For seats there was no room; a standing multitude filled the whole church before the altar, and the sound of gossiping voices at moments all but overcame that of the music. I know not at what point of the worship I chanced to be present; heat and intolerable odours soon drove me forth again, but I retained an impression of jollity, rather than of reverence. Those screaming and twanging instruments sounded much like an invitation to the dance, and all the faces about me were radiant with cheerfulness. Just such a throng, of course, attended upon the festival of god or goddess ere the old religion was transformed. Most of the Christian anniversaries have their origin in heathendom; the names have changed, but amid the unlettered worshippers there is little change of spirit; a tradition older than they can conceive rules their piety, and gives it whatever significance it may have in their simple lives.

Many came from a great distance; at the entrance to the town were tethered innumerable mules and asses, awaiting the hour of return. Modern Catanzaro, which long ago lost its proper costume, was enlivened with brilliant colours; the country women, of course, adorned themselves, and their garb was that which had so much interested me when I first saw it in the public garden at Cosenza. Brilliant blue and scarlet were the prevailing tones; a good deal of fine embroidery caught the eye. In a few instances I noticed men wearing the true Calabrian hat--peaked, brigandesque--which is rapidly falling out of use. These people were, in general, good-looking; frequently I observed a very handsome face, and occasionally a countenance, male or female, of really heroic beauty. Though crowds wandered through the streets, there sounded no tumult; voices never rose above an ordinary pitch of conversation; the general bearing was dignified, and tended to gravity. One woman in particular held my attention, not because of any exceptional beauty, for, indeed, she had a hard, stern face, but owing to her demeanour. Unlike most of the peasant folk, she was bent on business; carrying upon her head a heavy pile of some ornamented fabric--shawls or something of the kind--she entered shops, and paused at house doors, in the endeavour to find purchasers. I watched her for a long time, hoping she might make a sale, but ever she was unsuccessful; for all that she bore herself with a dignity not easily surpassed. Each offer of her wares was made as if she conferred a graceful favour, and after each rejection she withdrew unabashed, outwardly unperturbed, seeming to take stately leave. Only her persistence showed how anxious she was to earn money; neither on her features nor in her voice appeared the least sign of peddling solicitude. I shall always remember that tall, hard-visaged woman, as she passed with firm step and nobly balanced figure about the streets of Catanzaro. To pity her would have been an insult. The glimpse I caught of her laborious life revealed to me something worthy of admiration; never had I seen a harassing form of discouragement so silently and strongly borne.


George Gissing