In Bruttium: Adventures in Calabria

A tiny stone street in Marano Marchesato, Calabria, Italy.

When I was a kid I used to listen to my parents’ Bill Cosby LP, I Started Out As A Child. Wore the grooves out on that damned record. There was one hilarious bit about the Lone Ranger, and another about the Wolf Man, that always slayed me. Anyway, the record had another routine about Cosby buying a pet rhinoceros, and walking it around town, just to see the reactions from others. “Oh, you have a pet rhinoceros…” they’d say awkwardly. “We used to have a pet rhinoceros.”

While in Rome last month, a lot of locals asked Luciana and me where we’d be stopping next on our trip through Italy. “We’re headed to Calabria tomorrow,” we’d say. The looks on their faces were priceless. They’d pause for a moment, collect their thoughts, and reply, “Ah, Calabria.” Secretly they were thinking, why on God’s green Earth would you go to Calabria? Calabria was our pet rhinoceros.

Well, I don’t know if Bill Cosby ever actually bought a rhinoceros – probably not, now that I think about it, since there are currently no truth-in-comedy statutes – but we actually did go to Calabria. We hopped on the train at Roma Termini, sped clear past Naples and Vesuvius, and disembarked in the town of Paola on the Tyrrhenian coast. From there we took a local train through the mountains to the regional capital of Cosenza. That’s where we ran into kind of a brick wall, because I forgot to write down the phone number of the B&B where we’d be staying.

Walking into the train station in Cosenza, a city about the same size as Bloomington, Indiana (which is a city about the same size as Bethlehem, Pennsylvania), was like stepping into a postcard circa 1972. Beyond the superficial appearance, things really were a bit behind the times, as the information desk tried looking up our B&B, Palazzo Conforti, in the yellow pages. “Does your computer have internet?” I asked, already knowing a “no” was forthcoming. That left us with one option, really, which was to take a cab up the hills to the tiny burgh of Marano Marchesato.

(We probably should have set up our cell phones for international use for just such an occasion. Live and learn.)

Our cab driver wasn’t even sure where Palazzo Conforti was, and he had to roll down his window to ask several passers-by, who also seemed not to know. As his car chugged up the steep roads to Marano Marchesato, the rain started to trickle, settling into a drizzle just as he finally found our destination and dropped us off. There was no one home.

We surmised that Francesco, owner of Conforti, was most likely out trying to find us at the train station. So we had little choice but to wait under a balcony. The smell of burning firewood wafted through the air, and we looked around us at the ancient stone houses on our lonesome street. Across the road, two donkeys stood in a yard, apathetically returning our gaze. We weren’t exactly in the middle of nowhere, but we were beginning to understand the bewildered Italian reaction to “we’re going to Calabria.”

Palazzo Conforti B&B in Marano Marchesato

Luckily, down the road was a tailor, and he let us stay in his store while we waited. He was a middle aged man, and had two middle aged male guests keeping him company while he measured, cut and ironed. The sewing machine was an ancient Singer, and the tailor pressed his shirts with an iron that was actually made of iron. His store looked like it had last been updated in 1895, with wood beams across the ceiling and a damp, cave-like climate inside. Stacks of fabric, old magazines, and other miscellany cluttered just about every space not reserved for a chair, desk, or narrow walkway that cut across the dirt floor from front to back.

We explained to our new acquaintances why we were there and that we were looking for Francesco Conforti from down the street. They helped us hunt down his cell number and to call him, and within an hour’s time Francesco had returned. The poor guy had not only gone to Cosenza’s train station, but to Paola’s as well, to search in vain for us.

Francesco took us inside Palazzo Conforti, a renovated three-level stone house with a rustic yet hip feel to it. “The building has been in my family for 400 years,” he explained. That’s cool, I thought; my parents’ house has been around for twenty. Francesco was a genial man, and not upset in the least that I had totally inconvenienced him. He looked around 45, with a face that reminded me of actor Jon Favreau. He and his girlfriend Barbara lived on the second level; the third level was all B&B, with rooms of varied bright color (red in the dining room, orange in the kitchen, yellow in the living room, and bright green in our bedroom). The first level was more of a barn-style atrium, if that’s the right word. An outdoor space off the second floor contained a swimming pool, lounge area, and stone oven for outdoor barbecues.

The B&B’s ground floor foyer.

Once we dropped our bags Francesco turned on the heat and brewed us a couple of caffe lattes in the kitchen. (There is something about the care that goes into a cup of coffee in Italy that makes me ashamed of the swill we order and down so thoughtlessly in the States.) He offered us a huge selection of pastries he’d picked up in town as a welcoming gift. Soon the dampness that had permeated our bones outside gave way to warmth and relaxation, as we started to think about where in the world we were.

Coffee in the kitchen of Palazzo Conforti.

The area around Marano Marchesato and its twin village Marano Principato has a settlement history that predates Roman and even Greek times. The ancient town of Pandosia once lay here, possibly settled by the Oenotrians, an Italic people whose love of wine and vineyards probably gave the Greeks their word for “wine” (oinos) and our term for wine lovers (oenophiles). (Also, Alexander the Great’s uncle was probably killed here.) But the towns’ modern history arrived with a devastating earthquake that ripped through the province of Cosenza on March 27, 1638 – Palm Sunday in fact. Ten thousand people were killed, and in the aftermath many of the inhabitants of nearby Rende and Castelfranco fled the destruction and settled in the neighboring hills. As the nascent village coalesced (probably including our B&B), a dispute arose over who should receive taxes: the Prince of Castelfranco or the Marquis of Rende. The squabble went on until 1684, when a court in Naples (this taking place in the Kingdom of Naples, then under Spanish rule) sent a mediator to settle matters. Who knows what kind of political horse trading went on, but he succeeded in dividing the territory between the prince and the marquis, hence Marano Principato and Marano Marchesato.

The towns and the region of Calabria remained part of the Kingdom of Naples through Habsburg, Spanish Bourbon, and Napoleonic rule, until they joined with Sicily and became the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (a throwback name to Sicily’s medieval dominance of southern Italy). The Two Sicilies was the wealthiest Italian state prior to the unification in 1861. That all ended when the Mezzogiorno’s agrarian economy crashed and burned after the breakup of the feudal system. Aristocratic landowners were evicted, but the plots that were divided among the working class were so miniscule that they became unprofitable. To further exacerbate matters, northern Italians were handed the jobs of policing and governing the unruly area (brutally suppressing at least one rebellion); the poisonous mixture of squalor and suspicion rapidly bred organized crime. By the turn of the 20th century, the ongoing widespread poverty in the region triggered a wave of emigration, from Sicily and Southern Italy, including Cosenza, Marano Principato and Marano Marchesato.

A typical street in Marano Marchesato.

That wave included my great-grandparents, who like many of their fellow Maranesi moved to the greater Chicago area. Antonio and Teresa Tenuta (nee Ruffalo) arrived in Kenosha, Wisconsin in the 1910s. (According to the 1940 Census they lived a few doors down from a family named Conforti, Francesco’s surname.) They settled into a brick two-flat, and along the way on their new American journey, begat several children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, including yours truly. I’m 25% Italian, of the Marano/Calabrese variety.

As I’ve written before (and will write again in greater detail), because Antonio did not naturalize as an American until after having my grandfather, he technically passed down the right to Italian citizenship to his son, and subsequently his granddaughter (my mother), and me. After a long and arduous process, my application to be recognized as an Italian citizen jure sanguinis (right of blood) was finally accepted by the consulate in February. The protocol is for the consulate to send the documents to the ancestor’s comune, which in my case is Marano Principato. There my Italian birth certificate would be minted, officially recognizing me as a dual citizen. (I say “recognizing” because technically the citizenship is attained at birth.)

Luckily, Francesco said he was more than willing to drive us to the civil office in Marano Principato the next day. In fact, he had an entire day planned driving us around the area as our tour guide. But that was for tomorrow. For that evening, he drove us to a neighborhood pizzeria, Macrito, where the owners treated us warmly, especially considering they also had to attend to a huge birthday party for some kid going on a few tables over. The festive atmosphere made our dinner feel more like a family event, even if Luciana and I were simply onlookers. And the pizza – buonissimo – e buon mercato! (Cheap!)

Enjoying pizza and a nearby birthday party.

The next morning brought abundant sunshine, and an insanely huge and delicious breakfast (cream-filled croissants, buffalo mozzarella, torta pasqualina or Easter cake, prosciutto, fresh bread, egg, cheese, yogurt, cereal, juice, and of course coffee). Francesco then drove us to the civil office in Principato. It was a small and unprepossessing building, with a sign near the door that read, “Qui las ‘Ndrangheta Non Entra,” meaning, “the ‘Ndrangheta” – or local mafia – “Not Welcome.” Though not as famous as Sicily’s Cosa Nostra, the ‘Ndrangheta, sadly, still generates annual revenue of around 40 billion euros, or 3.5% of Italy’s GDP, mostly through the time-honored scumbag practices of drug trafficking, kickbacks, and extortion.

(A U.S. cable leaked by Wikileaks in 2011 resulted in sensational headlines, quoting one American official expressing the opinion that Calabria would be a “failed state” were it not part of Italy due to the vast corruption of the mob. That seems like a stretch. No doubt the region has problems, but to put it on a level with Somalia or Haiti is ridiculous. Not to mention the U.S. government’s obsession with seeing state failure in just about every crevice on Earth. Besides, my right foot would be a “failed limb” were it not connected to my body. But I digress – as these parentheses denote.)

Inside we met Sig. Gianfranco Lupo of the registry office, who brought me my Italian birth certificate, while his assistant brought us all espressos. That was a trip – picking up a document showing me born an Italian national, in the town where my great-grandfather was born and raised. Afterward, Francesco drove us around the two towns, stopping by the address where Teresa was born (according to her birth certificate) in 1901. A brand new house stood on the lot, but next to it was one of those old, stone buildings that at least provided some idea of what the place might have looked like. Francesco asked a few gentlemen nearby if they knew of anyone named Ruffalo who’d lived there or nearby. Of course they all knew a Ruffalo; in Marano Marchesato, the surname is about as rare as air molecules. I had a hard time explaining to them that Teresa died nineteen years ago, and anyway she moved to Kenosha around 1917 or so. Probably not a high likelihood any of them took her to the Spring soiree. “Ah, Ke-nosh,” they all smiled and nodded. Everyone there knows Ke-nosh, center of the Marano diaspora.

Conversing with the locals. The house to the right stands next to the address listed as my great-grandmother’s place of birth.

(I find it curious that a people speaking a language that can’t stand ending a word with a consonant would drop a vowel from the end of a foreign name, but go figure.)

We bade them farewell and drove to the heart of Cosenza, specifically Cosenza Vecchia, the old town. It’s a beautiful but sad place. Beautiful because its architecture and history rivals Rome’s famous centro storico, but sad because, according to Francesco, few people dwell there anymore besides squatters and elderly holdovers. Francesco drove us through the narrow streets to a piazza seemingly hidden and unknown to all of humanity. In it stood the Cathedral of Cosenza, an 11th century church (rebuilt in the 12th century after an earthquake). Looking down on the old town from atop a hill sat Hohenstaufen Castle, a 1,000-year-old edifice built by Saracens (Arab Muslims) and restored in 1239 by Frederick II, the German-born Holy Roman Emperor (hence the out of place name).

The curious streets of Old Cosenza.

Francesco drove us past a slew of other historical landmarks: Rendano Theatre, one of Calabria’s great opera houses; the Palazzo del Governo, across the same piazza from the theatre; and Palazzo Armone, a former prison now serving as local seat of the National Gallery. That was followed by downtown Cosenza’s open air art museum, a series of modern sculptures lining the sidewalks of an outdoor shopping mall that looks much classier than it sounds. Unfortunately at that time Francesco got a call from Barbara – she’d been in a car accident. (She was okay but the car was totaled.) He drove us back to Marano Marchesato and dropped us off at Il Corallo, a local seafood restaurant, introduced us to the owner, and then departed for the hospital to take care of Barbara.

A sculpture in Cosenza’s open-air museum.

As with Macrito Pizzeria, our treatment at Il Corallo was top notch. We were brought a cart of seafood, a little bit of nearly everything off the menu, including tuna, salmon, swordfish, mussels, clams, shrimp, anchovy, etc., each prepared a different way. Needless to say we stuffed ourselves, and for a modest price.

Absent Francesco, Luciana and I walked off our midday meal by hiking uphill toward Palazzo Conforti. We weren’t exactly sure where it was, but we knew it was up. There is one main viaduct, but Marano Marchesato contains several picturesque stone backstreets that function as wormholes between the elongated turns of the main road.

After breakfast the following morning, Francesco told us he’d drive us to Paola so we could catch our train to Sicily. (Yes, the train goes to Sicily. More on that in another post.) The bill for the room came to 60 euro per night, and although I repeatedly offered something extra for the gas, the inconvenience, and the all-around exceptional service, he simply would not accept. Part of this was Francesco being gentlemanly, but I could also tell that he earnestly enjoyed showing us around the area he was from. He liked being an ambassador for Marano, Cosenza, and Calabria, and obviously hoped more people would pass through this overlooked region.

The highway to Paola cut through and wrapped around jutting, tree-covered mountains that are still home to packs of wolves, the kind that famously gave to Rome its birth legend but disappeared from that area long ago. Referring to its natural surroundings and sparse population, Francesco observed, “Calabria is still wild.”

That’s what we liked about it. It’s untamed. Like a pet rhinoceros.

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One Response to In Bruttium: Adventures in Calabria

  1. Pingback: Announcing A New Blog About Calabria & The Mezzogiorno | Little Earthquake Travelogues

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