Go tell it on the bitter mountain

by Rudston Steward

wingding 500 x 30 px


ew places in Italy have such a spectacularly bad reputation. The very name is forbidding: Aspromonte, the bitter mountain. I’d been warned—don’t go there, under any circumstances. They will kidnap you, feed you to their pigs. The Calabrians are dangerous, a scheming and surly lot, they don’t even speak Italian. Everyone, it seemed, remembered in gory detail some kidnapping carried out by the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta mafia back in the 80s, playing out on the notorious slopes of the rugged Aspromonte.

Have you actually been there, I’d ask? No, but…

Travel is empowering: there is no better way of setting the record straight than going to see a place for yourself. Sometimes it turns out to be exactly as described, stereotypical to the point of self-parody. But sometimes it’s so different you suffer a kind of psychogeographical shock—cognitive travelling dissonance—struggling to reconcile your experience with your preconceptions. Either way, the point is there’s no short cut, no alternative to going there in person—poking about, walking around, following your nose, shooting the breeze with the locals. Walking is the ultimate antidote to so-called fake news: footfall is immune to spin and bullshit.

What I found in the Aspromonte is this: it is one of the most hospitable and generous places in Italy. In the month I spent exploring the region I never managed to pay for a coffee—someone had invariably already done so for me when I went to settle up. There were endless invitations to lunch and dinner after chance encounters with random strangers, who then welcomed me into their homes like a prodigal son. Every few days it seemed a goat was being slaughtered here or a sheep roasted there, drinking and singing ensued and I, a total stranger, was enthusiastically implored to enter the fray.


I discovered also that the Aspromonte Grecanica—the southernmost tip of the toe of Italy, south-east of Reggio Calabria—is a remarkable landscape, unlike anywhere else in Italy. The southern slope of the Aspromonte massif is dry, the vegetation gnarled and feisty, clutching at the precarious topsoil as if readying itself for a lashing from the elements. In summer the pale ochre sand is daubed with brittle-blonde grass, vivid smears of lentisk and scribbles of desiccated broom: an arid north-African palette that seems to have snuck across the Mediterranean undetected from the High Atlas mountains, or from some lost corner of Mauritania perhaps. Heat settles comfortably into the folds of the Aspromonte hillsides like a fat cat into fur, refusing to budge, or stop purring languidly, until sundown.

The Grecanic area is cut through by the fiumara (dry riverbed) of the Amendolea River. From its source on the Montalto, the Aspromonte’s highest peak to the north, an awesome bed of white boulders surges towards the coast, ever wider and whiter as it drops, like a swirling white playing field set between soaring grandstands of cliff and forest. The fiumara is skeleton-white, as if the mountain has expired and collapsed into the valley, its splayed spine of boulders picked clean by the scirocco wind: craggy lifeblood draining away into the Ionian Sea.

I learned that, indeed, the Calabrians here don’t speak Italian—they speak Greek. The smattering of towns clustered around Bova preserves the last vestiges of a Greek community descended directly from the western Byzantine Empire of the 6th Century AD, and harking back to Magna Graecia, the earliest Greek settlements on the Italian peninsula over a thousand years earlier. Theirs is an astonishing cultural history, a tale of the slow erosion of Calabro-Greek identity over thousands of years, countered by the tenacious defence of ancient Greek linguistic roots in this tiny, insular, regional backwater of modern southern Italy.

There was only one thing to do: I had to go see for myself, see more of the Aspromonte Grecanica. I had to poke about, walk around, follow my nose, shoot the breeze—in Greek. So I embarked on a four day hike along the Amendolea fiumara: from the abandoned village of Roghudi, via Bova and Amendolea town, down (and into) to the Ionian Sea. I was not kidnapped. I was not fed to anyone’s pigs; I’ll be writing about the walk and posting it here soon. I’m gonna go tell it on the bitter mountain and set the Calabrian record straight…


wingding 500 x 30 px