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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Italy’s Undiscovered Toe

I had a memorable dinner in New York ten years ago with Dave Noland, a good friend and talented travel writer. I’m sure the food was good, but what made the evening memorable were his enthusiastic stories about his just completed trek through the Aspromonte Mountains in southernmost Calabria, the figurative toe of the Italian boot.
I’ve traveled all over northern Italy going back to 1971, but had never been to the south. I finally got my chance in late April, and it turned out even better than Dave’s stories led me to expect. In fact, I liked it so much that Above the Clouds will offer its first Aspromonte trek in May 2011.
The first thing to hit you is the views, rugged mountains dropping straight down into the azure waters of both the Ionian and Tyrhennian Seas. Off to the west are views of the Straits of Messina and Sicily, with smoking Mt. Etna at center stage. The villages are squeezed onto the tops of steep hills, with a castle or its ruins sitting on the pinnacle. The houses are squeezed together, at least hundreds of years old, with stone walls. The fields below the village contain olives, grapes, tomatoes, lemons, or bergamotto, the latter being cultivated nowhere else in the world; it’s the distinctive flavor in Earl Grey tea.
One village, Galliciano, sits at the end of a long and twisting road, and has a population of 50. They do speak Italian, but their native tongue is Ancient Greek, unintelligible to modern Greeks and spoken nowhere else in the world. This land was part of Magna Grecia 2700 years ago, and was later overrun by, among others, the Romans, Moors, Normans, Saracens, Bourbons, and Angevins. That history helps to explain why the villages were built tightly clustered around the castle at the top of the steep hill.
The food in Calabria is unique as well, primarily due to its multi-cultural history. The Greeks brought figs, and the invaders from North Africa brought aubergine. Nowhere else in Italy is chili so widely used, most artfully in the famed sopresatta sausages that are crafted here. The lemons and onions grow to grapefruit size, and both of them have a surprising hint of sweetness. The wine isn’t Barolo or Barberesco, but how can you beat drinking a wine made from grapes grown less than a soccer pitch from where you’re drinking it, all the while hearing stories from the man who tends and crushes his own grapes?
My stomach is now telling me that writing this before lunch was not a good idea. I’ve only been gone from Calabria for two weeks, and already I miss it and can’t wait to go back next year. Why don’t you think about joining us?

~Steve Conlon
Above the Clouds

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