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Ch. 7: Cotrone

Night hid from me the scenes that followed. Darkling, I passed again through the station called Sybaris, and on and on by the sea-shore, the sound of breakers often audible. From time to time I discerned black mountain masses against a patch of grey sky, or caught a glimpse of blanching wave, or felt my fancy thrill as a stray gleam from the engine fire revealed for a moment another trackless wood. Often the hollow rumbling of the train told me that we were crossing a bridge; the stream beneath it bore, perhaps, a name in legend or in history. A wind was rising; at the dim little stations I heard it moan and buffet, and my carriage, where all through the journey I sat alone, seemed the more comfortable. Rain began to fall, and when, about ten o'clock, I alighted at Cotrone, the night was loud with storm.

There was but one vehicle at the station, a shabby, creaking, mud-plastered sort of coach, into which I bundled together with two travellers of the kind called commercial--almost the only species of traveller I came across during these southern wanderings. A long time was spent in stowing freightage which, after all, amounted to very little; twice, thrice, four, and perhaps five times did we make a false start, followed by uproarious vociferation, and a jerk which tumbled us passengers all together. The gentlemen of commerce rose to wild excitement, and roundly abused the driver; as soon as we really started, their wrath changed to boisterous gaiety. On we rolled, pitching and tossing, mid darkness and tempest, until, through the broken window, a sorry illumination of oil-lamps showed us one side of a colonnaded street. "Bologna! Bologna!" cried my companions, mocking at this feeble reminiscence of their fat northern town. The next moment we pulled up, our bruised bodies colliding vigorously for the last time; it was the Albergo Concordia.

A dark stone staircase, yawning under the colonnade; on the first landing an open doorway; within, a long corridor, doors of bedrooms on either side, and in a room at the far end a glimpse of a tablecloth. This was the hotel, the whole of it. As soon as I grasped the situation, it was clear to me why my fellow travellers had entered with a rush and flung themselves into rooms; there might, perchance, be only one or two chambers vacant, and I knew already that Cotrone offered no other decent harbourage. Happily I did not suffer for my lack of experience; after trying one or two doors in vain, I found a sleeping-place which seemed to be unoccupied, and straightway took possession of it. No one appeared to receive the arriving guests. Feeling very hungry, I went into the room at the end of the passage, where I had seen a tablecloth; a wretched lamp burned on the wall, but only after knocking, stamping, and calling did I attract attention; then issued from some mysterious region a stout, slatternly, sleepy woman, who seemed surprised at my demand for food, but at length complied with it. I was to have better acquaintance with my hostess of the Concordia before I quitted Cotrone.

Next morning the wind still blew, but the rain was over; I could begin my rambles. Like the old town of Taranto, Cotrone occupies the site of the ancient acropolis, a little headland jutting into the sea; above, and in front of the town itself, stands the castle built by Charles V., with immense battlements looking over the harbour. From a road skirting the shore around the base of the fortress one views a wide bay, bounded to the north by the dark flanks of Sila (I was in sight of the Black Mountain once more), and southwards by a long low promontory, its level slowly declining to the far-off point where it ends amid the waves. On this Cape I fixed my eyes, straining them until it seemed to me that I distinguished something, a jutting speck against the sky, at its farthest point. Then I used my field-glass, and at once the doubtful speck became a clearly visible projection, much like a lighthouse. It is a Doric column, some five-and-twenty feet high; the one pillar that remains of the great temple of Hera, renowned through all the Hellenic world, and sacred still when the goddess had for centuries borne a Latin name. "Colonna" is the ordinary name of the Cape; but it is also known as Capo di Nau, a name which preserves the Greek word naos (temple).

I planned for the morrow a visit to this spot, which is best reached by sea. To-day great breakers were rolling upon the strand, and all the blue of the bay was dashed with white foam; another night would, I hoped, bring calm, and then the voyage! Dis aliter visum.

A little fleet of sailing vessels and coasting steamers had taken refuge within the harbour, which is protected by a great mole. A good haven; the only one, indeed, between Taranto and Reggio, but it grieves one to remember that the mighty blocks built into the sea-barrier came from that fallen temple. We are told that as late as the sixteenth century the building remained all but perfect, with eight-and-forty pillars, rising there above the Ionian Sea; a guide to sailors, even as when AEneas marked it on his storm-tossed galley. Then it was assailed, cast down, ravaged by a Bishop of Cotrone, one Antonio Lucifero, to build his episcopal palace. Nearly three hundred years later, after the terrible earthquake of 1783, Cotrone strengthened her harbour with the great stones of the temple basement. It was a more legitimate pillage.

Driven inland by the gale, I wandered among low hills which overlook the town. Their aspect is very strange, for they consist entirely--on the surface, at all events--of a yellowish-grey mud, dried hard, and as bare as the high road. A few yellow hawkweeds, a few camomiles, grew in hollows here and there; but of grass not a blade. It is easy to make a model of these Crotonian hills. Shape a solid mound of hard-pressed sand, and then, from the height of a foot or two, let water trickle down upon it; the perpendicular ridges and furrows thus formed upon the miniature hill represent exactly what I saw here on a larger scale. Moreover, all the face of the ground is minutely cracked and wrinkled; a square foot includes an incalculable multitude of such meshes. Evidently this is the work of hot sun on moisture; but when was it done? For they tell me that it rains very little at Cotrone, and only a deluge could moisten this iron soil. Here and there I came upon yet more striking evidence of waterpower; great holes on the hillside, generally funnel-shaped, and often deep enough to be dangerous to the careless walker. The hills are round-topped, and parted one from another by gully or ravine, shaped, one cannot but think, by furious torrents. A desolate landscape, and scarcely bettered when one turned to look over the level which spreads north of the town; one discovers patches of foliage, indeed, the dark perennial verdure of the south; but no kindly herb clothes the soil. In springtime, it seems, there is a growth of grass, very brief, but luxuriant. That can only be on the lower ground; these furrowed heights declare a perpetual sterility.

What has become of the ruins of Croton? This squalid little town of to-day has nothing left from antiquity. Yet a city bounded with a wall of twelve miles circumference is not easily swept from the face of the earth. Bishop Lucifer, wanting stones for his palace, had to go as far as the Cape Colonna; then, as now, no block of Croton remained. Nearly two hundred years before Christ the place was forsaken. Rome colonized it anew, and it recovered an obscure life as a place of embarkation for Greece, its houses occupying only the rock of the ancient citadel. Were there at that date any remnants of the great Greek city?--still great only two centuries before. Did all go to the building of Roman dwellings and temples and walls, which since have crumbled or been buried?

We are told that the river AEsarus flowed through the heart of the city at its prime. I looked over the plain, and yonder, towards the distant railway station, I descried a green track, the course of the all but stagnant and wholly pestilential stream, still called Esaro. Near its marshy mouth are wide orange orchards. Could one but see in vision the harbour, the streets, the vast encompassing wall! From the eminence where I stood, how many a friend and foe of Croton has looked down upon its shining ways, peopled with strength and beauty and wisdom! Here Pythagoras may have walked, glancing afar at the Lacinian sanctuary, then new built.

Lenormant is eloquent on the orange groves of Cotrone. In order to visit them, permission was necessary, and presently I made my way to the town hall, to speak with the Sindaco (Mayor) and request his aid in this matter. Without difficulty I was admitted. In a well-furnished office sat two stout gentlemen, smoking cigars, very much at their ease; the Sindaco bade me take a chair, and scrutinized me with doubtful curiosity as I declared my business. Yes, to be sure he could admit me to see his own orchard; but why did I wish to see it? My reply that I had no interest save in the natural beauty of the place did not convince him; he saw in me a speculator of some kind. That was natural enough. In all the south of Italy, money is the one subject of men's thoughts; intellectual life does not exist; there is little even of what we should call common education. Those who have wealth cling to it fiercely; the majority have neither time nor inclination to occupy themselves with anything but the earning of a livelihood which for multitudes signifies the bare appeasing of hunger.

Seeing the Sindaco's embarrassment, his portly friend began to question me; good-humouredly enough, but in such a fat bubbling voice (made more indistinct by the cigar he kept in his mouth) that with difficulty I understood him. What was I doing at Cotrone? I endeavoured to explain that Cotrone greatly interested me. Ha! Cotrone interested me? Really? Now what did I find interesting at Cotrone? I spoke of historic associations. The Sindaco and his friend exchanged glances, smiled in a puzzled, tolerant, half-pitying way, and decided that my request might be granted. In another minute I withdrew, carrying half a sheet of note-paper on which were scrawled in pencil a few words, followed by the proud signature "Berlinghieri." When I had deciphered the scrawl, I found it was an injunction to allow me to view a certain estate "senza nulla toccare"--without touching anything. So a doubt still lingered in the dignitary's mind.

Cotrone has no vehicle plying for hire--save that in which I arrived at the hotel. I had to walk in search of the orange orchard, all along the straight dusty road leading to the station. For a considerable distance this road is bordered on both sides by warehouses of singular appearance. They have only a ground floor, and the front wall is not more than ten feet high, but their low roofs, sloping to the ridge at an angle of about thirty degrees, cover a great space. The windows are strongly barred, and the doors show immense padlocks of elaborate construction. The goods warehoused here are chiefly wine and oil, oranges and liquorice. (A great deal of liquorice grows around the southern gulf.) At certain moments, indicated by the markets at home or abroad, these stores are conveyed to the harbour, and shipped away. For the greater part of the year the houses stand as I saw them, locked, barred, and forsaken: a street where any sign of life is exceptional; an odd suggestion of the English Sunday in a land that knows not such observance.

Crossing the Esaro, I lingered on the bridge to gaze at its green, muddy water, not visibly flowing at all. The high reeds which half concealed it carried my thoughts back to the Galaesus. But the comparison is all in favour of the Tarentine stream. Here one could feel nothing but a comfortless melancholy; the scene is too squalid, the degradation too complete.

Of course, no one looked at the permesso with which I presented myself at the entrance to the orchard. From a tumbling house, which we should call the lodge, came forth (after much shouting on my part) an aged woman, who laughed at the idea that she should be asked to read anything, and bade me walk wherever I liked. I strayed at pleasure, meeting only a lean dog, which ran fearfully away. The plantation was very picturesque; orange trees by no means occupied all the ground, but mingled with pomegranates and tamarisks and many evergreen shrubs of which I knew not the name; whilst here and there soared a magnificent stone pine. The walks were bordered with giant cactus, now and again so fantastic in their growth that I stood to wonder; and in an open space upon the bank of the Esaro (which stagnates through the orchard) rose a majestic palm, its leaves stirring heavily in the wind which swept above. Picturesque, abundantly; but these beautiful tree-names, which waft a perfume of romance, are like to convey a false impression to readers who have never seen the far south; it is natural to think of lovely nooks, where one might lie down to rest and dream; there comes a vision of soft turf under the golden-fruited boughs--"places of nestling green for poets made." Alas! the soil is bare and lumpy as a ploughed field, and all the leafage that hangs low is thick with a clayey dust. One cannot rest or loiter or drowse; no spot in all the groves where by any possibility one could sit down. After rambling as long as I chose, I found that a view of the orchard from outside was more striking than the picture amid the trees themselves. Senza nulla toccare, I went my way.


George Gissing