Though not Italy’s most touristed region, Calabria has experienced a regular onslaught of visitors – mostly of the historic invading kind. This familiar conquering stratification is strongly felt in the weatherworn southern city of Cosenza, a mountainous expanse slightly inland from the Tyrrhenian Sea. I’m well acquainted with the area through multiple visits over almost 20 years to my husband Joe’s relatives, many of whom reside on a lived-in, picturesque white-stucco and orange-tile-roofed farm enclave in the nearby town of Belsito.
We’ve spent many indelible moments traversing the grounds teeming with livestock and vegetable patches; enjoying fresh rustic gnocchi, sopressata and hare- and pork-based meals around intrepid matriarch Pina’s well-ordered dining room table across from a cozy wood-burning stove; and watching the rambunctious children seemingly grow up before our eyes. I have vivid memories of little Giulia in a Chita Rivera bob dancing with her handsome partner in an outdoor ballo liscio competition; walking solemnly in a living Stations of the Cross reenactment through the hushed cobblestone streets of Belsito on Good Friday; and jumping over a stone wall to visit the feudal estate once tended to by my husband’s relatives (who now share ownership of this untouched gorge-enclosed village of farmhouses, a one-room school and chapel).
One time the children stuck tiny flowers into my knit top, turning it into a wearable garden. We’ve been regaled with tales of wolves coming down from the mountains and devouring their dogs, and paged through countless photo albums of weddings and christenings. Then there were the long, insightful talks with the elders of the family, particularly the fedora-topped Francesco, as he led his mule (hauling firewood) down a hill and stated how he found his personal paradise in the land that he cultivates with his own two hands. We also got caught up in an absurdist adventure of nearly getting crushed on a malfunctioning escalator at a mega-mall in Rende, and we attended a local beauty pageant incongruously named Miss Bowling, the Miss pronounced MEEZ.
But throughout these endlessly memorable moments, Joe and I have been required to partake in one unchanging ritual: a slow amble with gregarious cousin Pina and her laidback husband Luigi through Cosenza’s historic center. The legend most strongly burned in my mind is that of Alaric I, the Visigoth king responsible for the sacking of Rome – a fascinating period unto itself when a declining Roman Empire was succumbing to the power of its Germanic mercenaries. As we ate our almond gelato at the fabled Zorro gelateria (festooned with Hollywood posters of the masked swordsman), we looked out at the murky Busento River that flows under a tunnel-shaped stone bridge. Alaric, his horse and his treasure are allegedly buried deep inside the riverbed.
After arriving in Cosenza in 410 AD, Alaric died of malaria. In an act akin to Moses parting the Red Sea, his entourage figured out a way to temporarily redirect the Busento River in order to bury their king and his loot. Then, through more deft engineering usually not associated with these longhaired nomadic tribes of yore, the water was released back over the tomb. The slaves forced into this superhuman task were later slaughtered to keep the secret among the more elite barbarians. Yet apparently no one has succeeded in locating Alaric and his ingeniously submerged treasure.
Today, the Busento River literally splits Cosenza in two: the modern and vintage sections, the latter typically holding the greatest appeal. Narrow, winding and evocative, the old part – surprisingly compact in scope — is lined with crumbling staircases and tall ancient stone buildings in slate gray and caramel hues punctuated by bright potted flowers. One main street, Corso Telesio, leads to the most important attractions, including a more recent unveiling of Roman ruins fitted with plastic walkways where cats perpetually lounge. The locals congregate around the Duomo, which faces Calabria’s dramatically sloping landscapes and a Risorgimento-era café. Darkly lit and Byzantine in style – with the usual Baroque add ons – the main cathedral embodies a certain medieval-crypt ambience complete with crown-and-chainmail tomb effigies and stained glass windows of Charlemagne design.
A short walk off Corso Telesio leads to the 13th century Chiesa di San Francesco D’Assisi, with its uncharacteristic gleaming-white Baroque interior at odds with the leathery body of a medieval-era Franciscan monk displayed near the choir loft. The church holds another prized possession: a golden Byzantine crucifix said to contain a splinter from Christ’s cross – the relic a gift from the omnipresent Frederick II. Nevertheless, the eras constantly collide.
Calabria, in general, once flourished as a repository of the Magna Grecia, or ancient Greek presence in Southern Italy. Greek ruins can be found throughout the region, as well as Basilicata, Puglia and Sicily. Many artifacts are on display in Reggio di Calabria’s National Museum, which houses the fully preserved Greek Riace Bronzes, muscular nude warrior-athletes (with elaborately curly beards) dating from the Fifth Century BC. They were dredged fully intact from Riace Marina in 1972. Most recovered sculptures in Italy tend to be Roman copies of Greek originals; here, the Riace Bronzes stand out for the fact that they are believed to have been fashioned by genuine Hellenic hands.
Cosenza, however, is more closely tied to Norman conquest – epitomized by its looming ruin of the Norman Castle visible in the distance from the tidy Piazza Prefettura. Accessible via a steep and strenuous hike, the medieval relic originally built by Saracens was reconstructed by prolific castle builder Frederick II. Now a ruin of Romantic proportions, it’s set in a field of overgrown grass. Its roofless abode is prone to the elements (including earthquakes) and sports a few fluted columns and intriguing open-air chambers that provoke the imaginative spirit.
Back down in Piazza Prefettura, we admired the pensive statue of Calabrian Renaissance philosopher-scientist Bernardino Telesio wearing a ruffled Elizabethan collar. He is credited with, among many groundbreaking theories for his time, insisting on a solid scientific method versus abstract reasoning. He fronts the rebuilt (after World War II) Rendano Theater, a prestigious neoclassical opera house inaugurated in 1909 with a production of Verdi’s Aida. Red, white and gold, its plush interior forever brings to mind satin-gloved ladies and their aristocratic escorts in heavy sideburns and tails. Several years ago, Joe and I spent a long evening with some of his relatives viewing a contemporary ballet performance of The Phantom of the Opera at Rendano Theater. In one scene, various masked phantoms were stationed in the ornate boxes before one sleek male dancer soared onto the stage in a skull mask and a unitard decorated with a human skeleton (in the style of Christopher Guest’s Nigel Tufnel in This Is Spinal Tap) – an arresting sight that simultaneously terrified me and made me break into hysterics.
In a more serious vein, there is one place that instantly yanks me back into Italy’s tumultuous era of Unification: the Gran Caffe Renzelli, a weighty historic coffee house (once a royal confectionery) of the velvet-mahogany-crystal-teardrop-chandelier variety. It’s a breath away from Rendano Theater and once hosted Risorgimento patriots, the Bandiera brothers, who were captured here by the Bourbons and executed under a nearby aqueduct. At times, while sipping a caffé macchiato and nibbling on a glazed brioche, I’ve closed my eyes and could almost feel myself becoming engulfed by cigar smoke, the abrupt snap of Mazzini’s underground newspaper, and impatient young revolutionaries debating with be-suited landed gentry in a maddening muddle of patriotism and self-interest.
My fantasy eventually evaporates, only to return as we all continue our wanderings across a city cloaked in conquest and revolution.