Imagine a place where time stands still. Then think about an eyrie feeling, a sensation. Stop and admire the tranquillity, listen to the peace. Think about a true living connection with an ancient and Byzantine past.
This is probably the best way that I can describe to you a magical place that exits in Southern Italy. A place were time stands still, where the remnants of an ancient Greek minority continue to speak and live like a Greek in a foreign, at times hostile environment.
By chance I came across an article on the “Children of Magna Graecia,” and decided to visit these living, breathing statues of a glorious past.
You see, Magna Graecia, better know as “Greater Greece” in ancient and Byzantine times, is a vast area of Southern Italy that was once dominated by ancient Greek colonies.
Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that around the world there are pockets of Greek civilisations with a connection to the past. India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Black Sea are just some of the places where Greek speakers can still be located. They are descendants from ancient colonies, Alexander the Great’s conquests, the Hellenistic period or Byzantine expansion.
What intrigues me the most about the descendants of Magna Graecia, is that they have a connection to the region dating back over 2,700 years. The Greeks of the area once dominated the economy, social and political life through their overwhelming numbers, commercial dominance and achievements in mathematics, science and philosophy.
I arrived in Magna Graecia, in a town called Bova Marina and I was overwhelmed by this town with a population of 5000. There are very few Greek speakers remaining in Bova Marina, however, I could not but help being charmed by street names that appear in both Italian and Greek, a Modern Greek School, a Greek Restaurant and two strong Greek Cultural organisations.
I met with Carmello Nucera, or rather word filtered around town that somehow foreigners got lost, missed Rome (which is actually the opposite side of the country) and somehow ended up in Bova Marina, not exactly known for its tourists. Oh, and word got around that I was looking for Greeks. Within an hour Carmello came and found us. He was the former Mayor of Bova, a smaller town with 800 people, but significantly, 400 Greek descendants. Another person who met with me was local Greek teacher Phillipo Violi.
The attention I received was similar to the mass hysteria reserved for the Beetles. Many people were intrigued about how an Australian had decided to make a trip the other side of the world in the hope of meeting Greeks.
One town that will always stand out above all the towns that I visited, perhaps all the places I have ever been to, is Galliciano.
Driving up the mountain, along the paved new road you could see a magnificent dried river bank, which runs through the mountains and was once a vital natural resource linking the Greek towns. You could feel the moment.
Stopping by the signpost that welcomes visitors, you could read the welcome message in Italian and “Grecanica”-this is their version of Greek.
In fact Grecanica and the other dialects of Greek in Magna Graecia are more likely to sound like ancient Greek. It is, at times, difficult to comprehend and many times, I had to ask for the villagers to repeat what they were saying. They in turn would ask me to slow down when speaking modern Greek.
This beautiful village greeted us with its charm, friendliness and authenticity, as if it had been expecting us. When we arrived and walked into the Town Square, I had to do a double take I could hear the men talking Grecanica. Without trying to be impolite to our guide or hosts, I quickly made my way to the gathering of men and introduced myself and began to ask them just about every question you could imagine. How often do you get to speak to living ancient Greek statues?
Galliciano has a population of less than 200, it is located in the heart of the mountains and like the overwhelming majority of Greek towns in Italy, few of the young people speak ancient Greek fluently. However, as we toured around the village, I met some young people and some grand parents. I was asked a few basic questions, like, am I single and could I marry one of the girls.
I think if ever there was a town which represents the ancient Greek spirit, then surely Galliciano embodies that spirit. It is a town that has survived everything that fate has thrown at it and is still there, proud, resilient and independent. I take great heart to learn that the town has a Greek Church and is teaching the Greek Orthodox religion.
The Greek language, as the main language of the region, began to die out only as recent as the 16th Century. It is hoped that those who have remained remarkably committed to the preservation of the language, can obtain all the resources and support from the Greek Government and elsewhere to preserve the Greek culture in Magna Graecia.
What made me very proud was driving through the countryside of areas that are defined as being “Greek,” even though the majority of the population is Italian, and seeing signs that say welcome to the Greek area, in Italian, modern Greek and Grecanica. It warms the heart to see images of the Greek and Italian flags linked together and seeing the pride of place that the Italians reserve for the Greek heritage of the Grecanica area.
I should mention a grand or rather royal welcome that was received in the picturesque town of Bova otherwise known as Vua. After arriving in the Town Square, we were greeted by the Mayor, Andrea Casile, mobbed by interested villagers of both Italian and Greek descent and were met by Agostino Siviglia, a proud middle aged man who spoke to us in Grecanica and read to us his beautiful Greek poems.
It was with Agostino’s son that I had the funniest conversation in my life- a “little bit” conversation. This consisted of speaking to him in a “little” bit of Grecanica, a “little” bit of modern Greek, a “little” bit of Italian, a “little” bit of English and a “little” bit of sign language and this went on for a whole night!!
On our way to Bova Marina, I had stopped by a tourist office in the city of Reggio Di Calabria. When I told the cute little Italian man that I was in Calabria to look for Greek speakers, the cute little Italian man became so excited and animated that I thought I would have to practise First Aid on him. By the way, Reggio Di Calabria is home to the Museum of Magna Graecia, including the famous Riacce Warriors found in the 1970’s. The Museum houses an enormous collection of Greek artefacts from Southern Italy and it is an excellent way of acquainting yourself with the rich Greek history of Magna Graecia.
I should note that the coastline of Calabria, especially around the Bova Marina area is wonderful, there are no tourists, it has the best gelato in all of Italy and of course it is a place to have a relaxing and quiet holiday. But you may struggle to locate any of these places on the map, although if you look up Aspromonte-which means white mushrooms in Greek-you will come across the Greek towns of Amendolea, Bova or Vua, Chorio, Condofuri, Galliciano, Roccaforte, Roghudi, all places worth visiting.
From Calabria, I briefly visited the region of Apulia, an area that has more towns of Greek origin that maintain a significant level of Greek-speakers. This area features 8 large Greek towns and is known as Salentine.
In Sternatia, a town of 2,800, over 50% of the people speak the Greek dialect, however, these are mainly the older residents. On the day I choose to trek out to the town the heavens opened up and the rain or rather flooding reminiscent of Noah’s day took hold. Looking for an Arc or a sanctuary, I chose to shelter in what appeared to be a school or church. Once inside, I could hear a group of people talking Greek and a level of Greek that could be understood far greater than the Calabrian dialect. Nonetheless, we soon became friends with those also seeking refuge and found out that this town, like many of the surrounding towns, was passionate about preserving their Greek identity.
Once the rain stopped, we walked around the town and found that many of the shops had Greek sign writing and there was a map of the area that was translated into Italian and Greek. And just like our visit to Bova Marina, word got around that we were looking for Greeks, so a car load of teenagers drove past and offered a lift to the Greek town of Calimera!!
When the ancient Greeks colonised the Mediterranean, from places such as Egypt to Spain, I doubt they could have imagined how the colonies would turn out. For hundreds of years the Mediterranean was a Greek lake. Today though, there still have pockets of Greek towns located in different places and lots of Greek ruins to be viewed.
The landscape of Magna Graecia offers brilliant trekking opportunities, sight seeing, beautiful beaches and wonderful hospitality. It is heartening to see that tours have started coming from other countries and I was lucky to attend a press conference for one of these tours.
The press conference showcased dancing and singing, discussions with the locals and in a true case of Athenian nature an argument broke out amongst the visitors on some trivial matter that only a Greek could comprehend.
I was told by my guide, Carmello, in Magna Graecia, that famous author Tom Mueller, had written about the “Children of Magna Graecia” several years ago in an Italian/English tourist guide. Carmello told me that his address featured in the article and he received thousands of letters from around the world from people keen to learn more about this area.
I could go on and on about the cultural fetes that are held annually, the endeavours of many to preserve the Greek language and culture in Southern Italy, the lone Greek farmer who refuses to move from the heart of the mountains so he can remain in a ghost town, the brilliant work of a monk from Mount Athos, the entire village that followed me around and any number of stories.
In concluding, I offer you the reader this thought: If the ancient statues on display in Greek museums could talk, I am sure they would sound and display their pride in the same way as the Greek s that I met in Southern Italy.
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