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Ch. 2: Paola

I slept little, and was very early on deck, scanning by the light of dawn a mountainous coast. At sunrise I learnt that we were in sight of Paola; as day spread gloriously over earth and sky, the vessel hove to and prepared to land cargo. There, indeed, was the yellowish little town which I had so long pictured; it stood at a considerable height above the shore; harbour there was none at all, only a broad beach of shingle on which waves were breaking, and where a cluster of men, women and children stood gazing at the steamer. It gave me pleasure to find the place so small and primitive. In no hurry to land, I watched the unloading of merchandise (with a great deal of shouting and gesticulation) into boats which had rowed out for the purpose; speculated on the resources of Paola in the matter of food (for I was hungry); and at moments cast an eye towards the mountain barrier which it was probable I should cross to-day.

At last my portmanteau was dropped down on to the laden boat; I, as best I could, managed to follow it; and on the top of a pile of rope and empty flour-sacks we rolled landward. The surf was high; it cost much yelling, leaping, and splashing to gain the dry beach. Meanwhile, not without apprehension, I had eyed the group awaiting our arrival; that they had their eyes on me was obvious, and I knew enough of southern Italians to foresee my reception. I sprang into the midst of a clamorous conflict; half a dozen men were quarreling for possession of me. No sooner was my luggage on shore than they flung themselves upon it. By what force of authority I know not, one of the fellows triumphed; he turned to me with a satisfied smile, and--presented his wife.


"Mia sposa, signore!"


Wondering, and trying to look pleased, I saw the woman seize the portmanteau (a frightful weight), fling it on to her head, and march away at a good speed. The crowd and I followed to the dogana, close by, where as vigorous a search was made as I have ever had to undergo. I puzzled the people; my arrival was an unwonted thing, and they felt sure I was a trader of some sort. Dismissed under suspicion, I allowed the lady to whom I had been introduced to guide me townwards. Again she bore the portmanteau on her head, and evidently thought it a trifle, but as the climbing road lengthened, and as I myself began to perspire in the warm sunshine, I looked at my attendant with uncomfortable feelings. It was a long and winding way, but the woman continued to talk and laugh so cheerfully that I tried to forget her toil. At length we reached a cabin where the dazio (town dues) officer presented himself, and this conscientious person insisted on making a fresh examination of my baggage; again I explained myself, again I was eyed suspiciously; but he released me, and on we went. I had bidden my guide take me to the best inn; it was the Leone, a little place which looked from the outside like an ill-kept stable, but was decent enough within. The room into which they showed me had a delightful prospect. Deep beneath the window lay a wild, leafy garden, and lower on the hillside a lemon orchard shining with yellow fruit; beyond, the broad pebbly beach, far seen to north and south, with its white foam edging the blue expanse of sea. There I descried the steamer from which I had landed, just under way for Sicily. The beauty of this view, and the calm splendour of the early morning, put me into happiest mood. After little delay a tolerable breakfast was set before me, with a good rough wine; I ate and drank by the window, exulting in what I saw and all I hoped to see.

Guide-books had informed me that the corriere (mail-diligence) from Paola to Cosenza corresponded with the arrival of the Naples steamer, and, after the combat on the beach, my first care was to inquire about this. All and sundry made eager reply that the corriere had long since gone; that it started, in fact, at 5 A.M., and that the only possible mode of reaching Cosenza that day was to hire a vehicle. Experience of Italian travel made me suspicious, but it afterwards appeared that I had been told the truth. Clearly, if I wished to proceed at once, I must open negotiations at my inn, and, after a leisurely meal, I did so. Very soon a man presented himself who was willing to drive me over the mountains--at a charge which I saw to be absurd; the twinkle in his eye as he named the sum sufficiently enlightened me. By the book it was no more than a journey of four hours; my driver declared that it would take from seven to eight. After a little discussion he accepted half the original demand, and went off very cheerfully to put in his horses.

For an hour I rambled about the town's one street, very picturesque and rich in colour, with rushing fountains where women drew fair water in jugs and jars of antique beauty. Whilst I was thus loitering in the sunshine, two well-dressed men approached me, and with somewhat excessive courtesy began conversation. They understood that I was about to drive to Cosenza. A delightful day, and a magnificent country! They too thought of journeying to Cosenza, and, in short, would I allow them to share my carriage? Now this was annoying; I much preferred to be alone with my thoughts; but it seemed ungracious to refuse. After a glance at their smiling faces, I answered that whatever room remained in the vehicle was at their service--on the natural understanding that they shared the expense; and to this, with the best grace in the world, they at once agreed. We took momentary leave of each other, with much bowing and flourishing of hats, and the amusing thing was that I never beheld those gentlemen again.

Fortunately--as the carriage proved to be a very small one, and the sun was getting very hot; with two companions I should have had an uncomfortable day. In front of the Leone a considerable number of loafers had assembled to see me off, and of these some half-dozen were persevering mendicants. It disappointed me that I saw no interesting costume; all wore the common, colourless garb of our destroying age. The only vivid memory of these people which remains with me is the cadence of their speech. Whilst I was breakfasting, two women stood at gossip on a near balcony, and their utterance was a curious exaggeration of the Neapolitan accent; every sentence rose to a high note, and fell away in a long curve of sound, sometimes a musical wail, more often a mere whining. The protraction of the last word or two was really astonishing; again and again I fancied that the speaker had broken into song. I cannot say that the effect was altogether pleasant; in the end such talk would tell severely on civilized nerves, but it harmonized with the coloured houses, the luxuriant vegetation, the strange odours, the romantic landscape.

In front of the vehicle were three little horses; behind it was hitched an old shabby two-wheeled thing, which we were to leave somewhere for repairs. With whip-cracking and vociferation, amid good-natured farewells from the crowd, we started away. It was just ten o'clock.

At once the road began to climb, and nearly three hours were spent in reaching the highest point of the mountain barrier. Incessantly winding, often doubling upon itself, the road crept up the sides of profound gorges, and skirted many a precipice; bridges innumerable spanned the dry ravines which at another season are filled with furious torrents. From the zone of orange and olive and cactus we passed that of beech and oak, noble trees now shedding their rich-hued foliage on bracken crisped and brown; here I noticed the feathery bowers of wild clematis ("old man's beard"), and many a spike of the great mullein, strange to me because so familiar in English lanes. Through mists that floated far below I looked over miles of shore, and outward to the ever-rising limit of sea and sky. Very lovely were the effects of light, the gradations of colour; from the blue-black abysses, where no shape could be distinguished, to those violet hues upon the furrowed heights which had a transparency, a softness, an indefiniteness, unlike anything to be seen in northern landscape.

The driver was accompanied by a half-naked lad, who, at certain points, suddenly disappeared, and came into view again after a few minutes, having made a short cut up some rugged footway between the loops of the road. Perspiring, even as I sat, in the blaze of the sun, I envied the boy his breath and muscle. Now and then he slaked his thirst at a stone fountain by the wayside, not without reverencing the blue-hooded Madonna painted over it. A few lean, brown peasants, bending under faggots, and one or two carts, passed us before we gained the top, and half-way up there was a hovel where drink could be bought; but with these exceptions nothing broke the loneliness of the long, wild ascent. My man was not talkative, but answered inquiries civilly; only on one subject was he very curt--that of the two wooden crosses which we passed just before arriving at the summit; they meant murders. At the moment when I spoke of them I was stretching my legs in a walk beside the carriage, the driver walking just in front of me; and something then happened which is still a puzzle when I recall it. Whether the thought of crimes had made the man nervous, or whether just then I wore a peculiarly truculent face, or had made some alarming gesture, all of a sudden he turned upon me, grasped my arm and asked sharply: "What have you got in your hand?" I had a bit of fern, plucked a few minutes before, and with surprise I showed it; whereupon he murmured an apology, said something about making haste, and jumped to his seat. An odd little incident.

At an unexpected turn of the road there spread before me a vast prospect; I looked down upon inland Calabria. It was a valley broad enough to be called a plain, dotted with white villages, and backed by the mass of mountains which now, as in old time, bear the name of Great Sila. Through this landscape flowed the river Crati--the ancient Crathis; northward it curved, and eastward, to fall at length into the Ionian Sea, far beyond my vision. The river Crathis, which flowed by the walls of Sybaris. I stopped the horses to gaze and wonder; gladly I would have stood there for hours. Less interested, and impatient to get on, the driver pointed out to me the direction of Cosenza, still at a great distance. He added the information that, in summer, the well-to-do folk of Cosenza go to Paola for sea-bathing, and that they always perform the journey by night. I, listening carelessly amid my dream, tried to imagine the crossing of those Calabrian hills under a summer sun! By summer moonlight it must be wonderful.

We descended at a sharp pace, all the way through a forest of chestnuts, the fruit already gathered, the golden leaves rustling in their fall. At the foot lies the village of San Fili, and here we left the crazy old cart which we had dragged so far. A little further, and before us lay a long, level road, a true Roman highway, straight for mile after mile. By this road the Visigoths must have marched after the sack of Rome. In approaching Cosenza I was drawing near to the grave of Alaric. Along this road the barbarian bore in triumph those spoils of the Eternal City which were to enrich his tomb.

By this road, six hundred years before the Goth, marched Hannibal on his sullen retreat from Italy, passing through Cosentia to embark at Croton.


George Gissing