Have you ever heard of Calabria? I never had before this past week and when I had heard about southern Italy and its beautiful coast and beaches, I had not heard of this region called Calabria and its small village of Riace. This past week I enjoyed Riace for the first time and it gave me a beautiful and memorable experience of the beauties of Calabria and its local people. As in most cases with me, there’s a story behind how I got to visit this part of southern Italy.
Just over two months ago, I had landed in the Milan airport and was beginning my first visit to Italy. When I asked a kind-looking older woman if I was heading in the right direction for the train, I met who is now my friend, Rachele. She told me to follow her since she was taking the same train and with her basic English and my non-existent Italian, we talked the whole way and ended up swapping contact information. In these past months traveling through Italy, Rachele and I have stayed in touch and she even introduced me via email to her niece Laura who was my fantastic hostess in Venice (read about that great experience in my blog post, “Things I Learned From My Venetian Hostess” ). Then an invitation came from Rachele to travel with her to Calabria for a week while she was there coordinating a work conference. I was also invited to join her the week after that to stay in her villa in Puglia, which is the southern region of Italy known as the “heel of the boot”. Needless to say, I am so grateful for this amazing opportunity and it is one of the highlights of this European trip this year. Not only was I making my way to southern Italy after two months heading south through the country, but I was going to get to enjoy it via a road trip with a native Italian.
So a week ago, Rachele departed from Milan early in the morning with her vehicle loaded with items for her conference and the companionship of her puppy named “Ninni” (which in Italian, is a reference for “little”). Since I was already in Rome, she picked me up on her way heading south and we continued on from there to reach Riace in Calabria by late evening. From North to South, the drive took her just over fourteen hours – In my mind, this definitely qualifies as a road trip.
Leading up to this visit, I had been answering people’s questions about where I was headed to next and when they would hear that I was going to be visiting Calabria, they would gush over what a beautiful part of Italy it is and that it was “fantastico” that I was going to spend time there. The region is located in the “toe of the boot” and is in between Italy and Sicily. As a peninsula, it’s narrow and through the middle has mountainous and hilly terrain that is lush and green. I came to see that it’s very rural and has a sense of coastline and countryside that is still wild and hardly touched by commercialization and tourism.
Our “home-away-from-home” was exactly that – a wonderful home. We stayed with Rachele’s friend and colleague Francesca. Native to Calabria, she’s been living in Riace now for many years and has a large ancient home that dates back to the year 1850, which is evident in the beautiful arches throughout the exterior and interior of the three-story home. There is a banquet hall below that she uses for events such as weddings and especially the conference this week, and then a handful of rooms on the upper two floors as well as her own private apartment. Best of all, this gorgeous flower and ivy adorned structure is tucked away in a myriad of large green trees, directly across the small street parallel to the beach!
Il Mare…the sea! The main living area and kitchen located on the second floor was where we all spent most of our time together this past week. It has tall doors that open to a balcony the length of one entire side of the home that looks out at the sea. The view from here enticed us each day to spend time on the sand and, as they would say, “taking a bath” in the sea. At this point, I believe the Dominican part of me from my mother’s side is more apparent since I’ve tanned to a dark brown thanks to some hours each day on the beach and in the water. Most days, there was wind that was a bit cool coming off the water. And the water…brrr…that was a bit chillier than I expected, but I tended to wade in somewhat slowly to get used to it before plunging in and then vigorously swimming around in the clear turquoise water to keep my body warm. It was always so invigorating once I was fully in the water.
Throughout the week, Rachele and Francesca worked hard preparing for their conference that took place this past Saturday. The conference was for what I learned is called AssoCanapa, which is the Association for Canapa as it relates to business and industrialization of hemp in Italy. If you think you haven’t heard of canapa, chances are that you already know what it is: its hemp. The plant has been used for ages and is now making a huge come-back thanks to its sustainable and environmentally friendly characteristics. Throughout the world it is being used in foods, clothing, construction materials, even as a fossil fuel alternative, and to remove contaminants from soil. Rachele and Francesca are producers of canapa on land in Riace and they are strongly involved in AssoCanapa in efforts to collaborate with other business owners in the canapa industry and to bring more awareness to the uses of it and how it benefits our planet’s environment and can make positive impact and changes in our economies and personal health. The conference was a great success and although I speak “poco Italiano” (little Italian) and most people spoke no English, I was able to help where able and meet so many wonderful people who attended from a variety of regions throughout Italy and came to learn more about canapa. I have been aware of hemp and some of its uses in clothing and food before, but had no idea about all its other benefits and how it is already making a difference as many parts of the world are re-introducing it into their lives and economies. How ironic that rather than learn more about it in my home-base of Denver, Colorado and where hemp is very prevalent, I was learning about it in Italy instead.
Along with learning more about canapa, I was spoiled with the wonderfully fresh fruits and vegetables that we feasted on throughout the week. Even some of the pasta dishes we made and enjoyed together were made from canapa! I found pasta and other foods made with hemp to be delicious. Each day was not only full of tasty dishes but also full of vibrant colors in the foods. I especially liked the sautéed zucchini flowers and the baskets of apricots freshly picked from a nearby tree. On one particular afternoon, I was sent on the task of filling up a large jug with sea water down at the beach. It was pretty fun to stroll across the street, get splashed and refreshed by the cool sea water filling the jug, and then to carry it back and learn that it was for soaking the small oysters that we were going to enjoy for lunch. They were sautéed in olive oil with grape tomatoes and mixed in with hemp spaghetti to result in an amazingly delicious and true southern Italian dish. Before we launched into the pasta, I even tried the raw shrimps they had with fresh lemon juice squeezed on them…a couple were enough for me since I couldn’t quite get into the texture. I’m always about trying everything, but that one may be a taste I need to develop more.
Now that an entire week is coming to…well, I could write “an end”, but it doesn’t feel like that – I think it feels like it’s simply “coming to pass”…I look back and have no doubt that this is where I was meant to be at this very time, traveling through Italy and experiencing the local people and seeing what daily life looks like for them, at home and with their businesses. What strikes me most from what I’m learning and experiencing is that the differences in our cultures our delightful and fun, and there abounds so many similarities and ways that both can continue to help our different cultures and countries be of help and inspiration to each other.