c i t t a n o v a

[ 15:43 wednesday 30 august – cittanova, calabria ]

plane trees cast dappled shade over me and palms rustle in the warm breeze. i’m sitting in a park in the quiet town of cittanova. from here an olive-covered plain stretches west to the calabrian coast whilst the mighty aspromonte mountains rise sharply to the east. i’m waiting for something to happen.

for the last couple of days i’ve been in tropea, a mediaeval town perched on a rock above the sea. it’s a beautiful place but there were too many people. so this morning i got on a rattly little train to the inaccurately named town of gioia (joy). my trusty map indicated a branch line winding up to the mountains from there, but the timetables at gioia station showed no sign of it. i feared it had been closed down but when i asked an official he pointed to a separate station down the road.  here to my delight i found a 1950s single-carriage train waiting, painted in bright red and yellow.

twenty minutes later i was bouncing and squeeking through olive groves and forest across the plain. my fellow passengers were a nun, a mother and a baby.

getting off at cittanova i found the station completely deserted. exiting to the street there were a couple of children playing who stopped and stared as soon as they saw me. i smiled and asked directions to the town centre. they continued to stare and said nothing. i don’t think many tourists come to cittanova.

i picked my way through narrow crumbling streets and soon found my way to the main piazza dominated by a stark white church. a big stage was being constructed and a bunch of musicians was huddled to one side. i asked whether there was an information office but they were all freshly arrived for a performance this evening and no wiser than me. the only other sign of life was a fellow hovering at the corner of the piazza. i asked him and he told me to wait, crossed to a doorway and shouted something inside.

a moment later a sparky young lady called patrizia came out, bid me help her close the door and took me in hand. first she drove me to the one and only bed and breakfast in town, but its two rooms were already occupied. then she drove me to the mother of someone who runs a hostel up in the mountains. there was no definitive answer but i’m due to phone in an hour by which time it’ll be clear if there’s room for me. patrizia dropped me off here to wait. if there’s space in the hostel i’ll have to polish my hitch-hiking skills since there’s no bus, taxi or car hire in cittanova.

19:05 / now seated at the roadside in the centre of ton with a beer at my side. when i called the hostel they told me they didn’t have any space. i considered catching the last train of the day to polistena right at the end of the line. but there’s no guarantee i’d find somewhere to stay there. patrizia had mentioned a hotel on the outskirts of cittanova so i sought it out and took a room.

21:10 / the last few hours have been a fabulous cavalcade. as i was writing my previous entry by the road several men came over and asked if i needed any help. when i explained that i wanted to take a hike up in the mountains they started suggesting all manner of routes, though i got the impression it had been a while since any of them had actually been up themselves. each one of them warned me that i would get lost and meet my doom if i followed any route other than the one they were advocating.

eventually a younger chap called michele rolled up on a bicycle and by the way the others deferred it was clear he knew the mountains rather better than they did. he proceeded to take me to his family house to dig out some maps then to various friends’ houses who might be interested in coming up with me, but all of them were out. after this he took me to the town hall where i met cittanova’s environmental director and mayor. the latter was calmly discussing how his car was blown up by ill-wishers earlier this evening. finally michele took me to a keen rambler called gaetano who pulled out glasses of amaro and photos he’d taken on treks throughout the aspromonte. if the weather’s clear he’ll come up with me tomorrow.

i doubt this is what most people are after when they go traveling but it’s exactly the kind of thing that delights me most. i feel completely alive, swept along by currents of happenstance and unexpected friendship, richly connected to a place where i was a complete stranger just eight hours ago. i’m so happy i could cry.

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