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Calabria, Italy and its Genealogy, History, Culture and Language

By The Ionian Sea - Chapter IV

Chapter IV -- Taranto

Cosenza is on a line of railway which runs northward up the Crati valley, and joins the long seashore line from Taranto to Reggio. As it was my wish to see the whole of that coast, I had the choice of beginning my expedition either at the northern or the southern end; for several reasons I decided to make straight for Taranto.

The train started about seven o'clock in the morning. I rose at six in chill darkness, the discomfort of my room seeming worse than ever at this featureless hour. The waiter -- perhaps he was the landlord, I left this doubt unsolved -- brought me a cup of coffee; dirtier and more shabbily apparelled man I have never looked upon; viler coffee I never drank. Then I descended into the gloom of the street. The familiar odours breathed upon me with pungent freshness, wafted hither and thither on a mountain breeze. A glance upwards at the narrow strip of sky showed a grey-coloured dawn, prelude, I feared, of a dull day.

Evidently I was not the only traveller departing; on the truck just laden I saw somebody else's luggage, and at the same moment there came forth a man heavily muffled against the air, who, like myself, began to look about for the porter. We exchanged greetings, and on our walk to the station I learned that my companion, also bound for Taranto, had been detained by illness for several days at the Lionetti, where, he bitterly complained, the people showed him no sort of attention. He was a commercial traveller, representing a firm of drug merchants in North Italy, and for his sins (as he put it) had to make the southern journey every year; he invariably suffered from fever, and at certain places -- of course, the least civilized -- had attacks which delayed him from three days to a week. He loathed the South, finding no compensation whatever for the miseries of travel below Naples; the inhabitants he reviled with exceeding animosity. Interested by the doleful predicament of this vendor of drugs (who dosed himself very vigorously), I found him a pleasant companion during the day; after our lunch he seemed to shake off the last shivers of his malady, and was as sprightly an Italian as one could wish to meet -- young, sharp-witted, well-mannered, and with a pleasing softness of character.

We lunched at Sybaris; that is to say, at the railway station now so called, though till recently it bore the humbler name of Buffaloria. The Italians are doing their best to revive the classical place-names, where they have been lost, and occasionally the incautious traveller is much misled. Of Sybaris no stone remains above ground; five hundred years before Christ it was destroyed by the people of Croton, who turned the course of the river Crathis so as to whelm the city's ruins. François Lenormant, whose delightful book, La Grande Grèce, was my companion on this journey, believed that a discovery far more wonderful and important than that of Pompeii awaits the excavator on this site; he held it certain that here, beneath some fifteen feet of alluvial mud, lay the temples and the streets of Sybaris, as on the day when Crathis first flowed over them. A little digging has recently been done, and things of interest have been found; but discovery on a wide scale is still to be attempted.

Lenormant praises the landscape hereabouts as of "incomparable beauty"; unfortunately I saw it in a sunless day, and at unfavourable moments I was strongly reminded of the Essex coast -- grey, scrubby fiats, crossed by small streams, spreading wearily seaward. One had only to turn inland to correct this mood; the Calabrian mountains, even without sunshine, had their wonted grace. Moreover, cactus and agave, frequent in the foreground, preserved the southern character of the scene. The great plain between the hills and the sea grows very impressive; so silent it is, so mournfully desolate, so haunted with memories of vanished glory. I looked at the Crathis -- the Crati of Cosenza -- here beginning to spread into a sea-marsh; the waters which used to flow over golden sands, which made white the oxen, and sunny-haired the children, that bathed in them, are now lost amid a wilderness poisoned by their own vapours.

The railway station, like all in this region, was set about with eucalyptus. Great bushes of flowering rosemary scented the air, and a fine cassia tree, from which I plucked blossoms, yielded a subtler perfume. Our lunch was not luxurious; I remember only, as at all worthy of Sybaris, a palatable white wine called Muscato dei Saraceni. Appropriate enough amid this vast silence to turn one's thoughts to the Saracens, who are so largely answerable for the ages of desolation that have passed by the Ionian Sea.

Then on for Taranto, where we arrived in the afternoon. Meaning to stay for a week or two I sought a pleasant room in a well-situated hotel, and I found one with a good view of town and harbour. The Taranto of old days, when it was called Taras, or later Tarentum, stood on a long peninsula, which divides a little inland sea from the great sea without. In the Middle Ages the town occupied only the point of this neck of land, which, by the cutting of an artificial channel, had been made into an island: now again it is spreading over the whole of the ancient site; great buildings of yellowish-white stone, as ugly as modern architect can make them, and plainly far in excess of the actual demand for habitations, rise where Phoenicians and Greeks and Romans built after the nobler fashion of their times. One of my windows looked towards the old town, with its long sea-wall where fishermen's nets hung drying, the dome of its Cathedral, the high, squeezed houses, often with gardens on the roofs, and the swing-bridge which links it to the mainland; the other gave me a view across the Mare Piccolo, the Little Sea (it is some twelve miles round about), dotted in many parts with crossed stakes which mark the oyster-beds, and lined on this side with a variety of shipping moored at quays. From some of these vessels, early next morning, sounded suddenly a furious cannonade, which threatened to shatter the windows of the hotel; I found it was in honour of the Queen of Italy, whose festa fell on that day. This barbarous uproar must have sounded even to the Calabrian heights; it struck me as more meaningless in its deafening volley of noise than any note of joy or triumph that could ever have been heard in old Tarentum.

I walked all round the island part of the town; lost myself amid its maze of streets, or alleys rather, for in many places one could touch both sides with outstretched arms, and rested in the Cathedral of S. Cataldo, who, by the bye, was an Irishman. All is strange, but too close-packed to be very striking or beautiful; I found it best to linger on the sea-wall, looking at the two islands in the offing, and over the great gulf with its mountain shore stretching beyond sight. On the rocks below stood fishermen hauling in a great net, whilst a boy splashed the water to drive the fish back until they were safely enveloped in the last meshes; admirable figures, consummate in graceful strength, their bare legs and arms the tone of terra cotta. What slight clothing they wore became them perfectly, as is always the case with a costume well adapted to the natural life of its wearers. Their slow, patient effort speaks of immemorial usage, and it is in harmony with time itself. These fishermen are the primitives of Taranto; who shall say for how many centuries they have hauled their nets upon the rock? When Plato visited the Schools of Taras, he saw the same brown-legged figures, in much the same garb, gathering their sea-harvest. When Hannibal, beset by the Romans, drew his ships across the peninsula and so escaped from the inner sea, fishermen of Tarentum went forth as ever, seeking their daily food. A thousand years passed, and the fury of the Saracens, when it had laid the city low, spared some humble Tarentine and the net by which he lived. To-day the fisher-folk form a colony apart; they speak a dialect which retains many Greek words unknown to the rest of the population. I could not gaze at them long enough; their lithe limbs, their attitudes at work or in repose, their wild, black hair, perpetually reminded me of shapes pictured on a classic vase.

Later in the day I came upon a figure scarcely less impressive. Beyond the new quarter of the town, on the ragged edge of its wide, half-peopled streets, lies a tract of olive orchards and of seed-land; there, alone amid great bare fields, a countryman was ploughing. The wooden plough, as regards its form, might have been thousands of years old; it was drawn by a little donkey, and traced in the soil -- the generous southern soil -- the merest scratch of a furrow. I could not but approach the man and exchange words with him; his rude but gentle face, his gnarled hands, his rough and scanty vesture, moved me to a deep respect, and when his speech fell upon my ear, it was as though I listened to one of the ancestors of our kind. Stopping in his work, he answered my inquiries with careful civility; certain phrases escaped me, but on the whole he made himself quite intelligible, and was glad, I could see, when my words proved that I understood him. I drew apart, and watched him again. Never have I seen man so utterly patient, so primævally deliberate. The donkey's method of ploughing was to pull for one minute, and then rest for two; it excited in the ploughman not the least surprise or resentment. Though he held a long stick in his hand, he never made use of it; at each stoppage he contemplated the ass, and then gave utterance to a long "Ah-h-h!" in a note of the most affectionate remonstrance. They were not driver and beast, but comrades in labour. It reposed the mind to look upon them.

Walking onward in the same direction, one approaches a great wall, with gateway sentry-guarded; it is the new Arsenal, the pride of Taranto, and the source of its prosperity. On special as well as on general grounds, I have a grudge against this mass of ugly masonry. I had learnt from Lenormant that at a certain spot, Fontanella, by the shore of the Little Sea, were observable great ancient heaps of murex shells -- the murex precious for its purple, that of Tarentum yielding in glory only to the purple of Tyre. I hoped to see these shells, perhaps to carry one away. But Fontanella had vanished, swallowed up, with all remnants of antiquity, by the graceless Arsenal. It matters to no one save the few fantastics who hold a memory of the ancient world dearer than any mechanic triumph of to-day. If only one could believe that the Arsenal signified substantial good to Italy! Too plainly it means nothing but the exhaustion of her people in the service of a base ideal.

The confines of this new town being so vague, much trouble is given to that noble institution, the dazio. Scattered far and wide in a dusty wilderness, stand the little huts of the officers, vigilant on every road or by-way to wring the wretched soldi from toilsome hands. As became their service, I found these gentry anything but amiable; they had commonly an air of ennui, and regarded a stranger with surly suspicion.

When I was back again among the high new houses, my eye, wandering in search of any smallest point of interest, fell on a fresh-painted inscription: --


was well meant. At the sign of "Magna Græcia" one is willing to accept "hydroelectropathic" as a late echo of Hellenic speech.