Winning Over Italy



From somewhere down in the valley below came the sound of a church bell, drifting up, distant and soulful.  Calling for prayer or communion over.  A counter melody of cowbells jangled from the small pasture above us as a small milk herd shifted and shuffled around in the warm afternoon haze.  A green and yellow butterfly danced over the tips of the bright red flowers along the terrace wall, heat-heaven for the basking lizards.  We had just finished lunch, a large lunch to celebrate Arianna’s birthday and were relaxing, waiting for coffee.  Some of us had wandered off, up behind the agriturismo we’d occupied for the day, set high above The Angitola Valley, near the top of Monterosso.  We are looking down the Red Mountain to the wide basin of the Angitola river that lies along the lush-green western slopes of the Serre Mountains in central Calabria, about 2 hours north of Reggio.

“We thought we’d choose somewhere different for you” said Arianna.  “Do you like it?”  “It’s glorious, but I hope you didn’t choose this for me.  It’s your birthday not mine”, I  replied.  She squeezed my hand and smiled. “You give us great excuses to do different things.”

We’d just enjoyed the sort of food that satisfies the soul as much as it does the appetite, with good reason.  If you ever decide to see Calabria for yourself then agriturismos are the perfect stepping stones for any tourer.  They are a type of farmhouse-restaurant with accommodation, a place the locals will use as much as the visitor.  It’s hard to do them justice with this description because they are really so much more.  They’re dotted all around the region, usually set off  the beaten track, sometimes by the coast, sometimes the mountains or the valleys in between and all of them produce their own fare.  All that you eat and drink is their own, or worse case, their neighbour’s so not so much food miles as food meters.  They are immaculately presented, spotless, providing food and wine for the gods and all the time making you feel like you’ve just come home.  High standards with low prices.

“We all have a strong environmental philosophy” says Elena, our host and, as chance would have it, VP of the local association of agriturismos.  “Even the water we use here comes from the mountain stream just behind the building”.  Elena is showing us round “Azienda Sant’Elia”, showing us large ensuite bedrooms with iron beds, large shuttered windows and views-to-go. From the entrance door to the kitchen, this is a beautifully decorated house showing the best of its two hundred year history with a tasteful combination of tradition and modern necessity.  “It was built back in the 1800’s on the site of an old monastery, which is why it’s so secluded and quiet,” continued Elena.  “All our members are in tune with the environment and their local culture, committed to protecting them and ensuring that they can both flourish together regardless of outside pressures.  We spend a lot of time controlling waste and recycling, encourage the wildlife and contribute next to no pollution whilst always using traditional methods of food production so that the local trades and skills are kept healthy.”  Everything is fresh (no tins or freezers here) so the menu creates itself, day by day.

It is true, and it is good.  Nothing is left to chance, even the soap in the toilets is made in-house.  It proves that you can be environmentally passionate and sacrifice nothing of your desire to live like royalty.  It puts the lie to the belief that corporate spreadsheets and uniformity are the only effective use of resources to provide the low-cost lifestyles we all crave.  “We get quite a range of visitors during the year,” Elena told us.  “Sometimes it’s young couples from France who disappear to their rooms with a carafe of local wine to be in love, sometimes Americans who come to find their family roots in the “old country”, we have families of young children with their pets and those who just want to discover the history around us….there’s so much of course.  They spend two days here, two days there as they take in the country over a week or two, everyone is welcome and we are only happy when they are happy.”

Back outside, Antonio was on his laptop skyping to one of his stock controllers.  “Should be 2 small in red, 3 XL’s in black and 1 in blue.”  We slapped Antonio on the back and pulled his laptop from under him.  “Time to go big boy, you can’t do everything on computer.”  We slowly made our way back to cars, a cuckoo in the woods bidding a fond farewell, or perhaps an early return.

As we drove back down into the valley towards the coast our ears popped with change in altitude, passing the bird sanctuary on the lake, heading for Pizzo.  Heading for its famous tartufo ice cream.  Within twenty minutes we were driving through the narrow streets of the medieval town, the traffic alerting us to the possibility that some event was taking place. It was communion Sunday and the main square was alive with children dancing while a small orchestra played to the side of the piazza.  Pizzo is like so many towns in this region, old fortified communities which have seen many an invader over the centuries.  They are usually set high and always seem to have a piazza which looks over a huge drop to the sea or valley below.  How on earth these towns were built is beyond me.  They make building a skyscraper look like child’s play.  How they manage to weave roads through and round them is something that would be drive a modern-day town planner to an early grave.  I can only think that they are not built, they just evolve  Because of this, they become works of art.  Grand and old, wild but harmonious, everything just goes so neatly together.  We stopped at a cafe in the main square and ordered our ice creams and behaved like Italians, watching and surveying all that walked passed.  The sun was beginning its downward cycle towards the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Aeolain Islands as a cruise ship, white and gleaming, nosed its way south towards Sicily.  Time for home then, but no food, not for me.  Content with my fill for another day at least, it was nice to know that the little money we’d spent would drip into local pockets and help sustain the old ways, the traditions and culture that makes this country so fascinating.  I heartily recommend anyone who wants to explore Calabria and experience its diversity to hire themselves a small car (for reasons that will become clear in a forthcoming post “Parking up the wrong tree”) at either Lamezia or Reggio airport and enjoy the hospitality of the agriturismos, all on a very sustainable budget.  A real agri-cultural holiday.

Many thanks to Elena at Sant’Elia.

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