A day in the Chòra
Falcon’s nest, lofty height which only the good walker can reach, dream of a legendary builder who erected this work of strength and beauty …
(from the Poem, “Bova” by Domenico Napoleone Vitale, a classical Calabrian-Greek poet)
In Bova – one of Italy’s most beautiful hamlets [Borghi più Belli d’Italia], an Italian jewel [Gioiello d’Italia] and, since 2015, an Orange Flag [Bandiera Arancione], the “star” the Italian Touring Club attributes to localities for the outstanding quality of their accommodation – you not only see, but also feel, hear and taste beauty …
This mediaeval hamlet set in the very heart of Greek Calabria, in the Parco Nazionale dell’Aspromonte [The National Park of Aspromonte], was built in a difficult to access place so as not to be attacked easily by pirates. For this very reason it has managed to maintain over time those things of beauty, still tangible today: churches, palaces, laneways, houses, fountains, stone façades, crests, arches, iron knockers, dry stone walls, old paving stones and drinking troughs for animals. Here archaeology is the history of a rural landscape, of its development produced by the more-or-less aware choices of the inhabitants.
Rambling through the streets of the village, you feel something like a nineteenth-century traveller discovering unexplored places. As you walk along the stone streets, meeting Churches and noble Palaces, climbing up the narrow lanes leading to what remains of the Norman Castle and the Norman Tower, reading the local place names in three languages (Italian, Calabrian Greek and modern Greek), you get the impression you are journeying into the past.
But as the present imposes its own pace, which is why, to mediate between our heart’s desire and the demands of reality, we shall become acquainted with the Chòra, Greek Calabria’s cultural capital, in a one-day journey only.
A visit to the village
We meet our guide in Piazza Roma, Bova’s main square, on which stand Palazzo Marzano (nineteenth century), the present the seat of the Town Hall, and Palazzo Nesci (early eighteenth century), a private dwelling. We walk through Via Borgo and turn right into Via Santo Spirito which leads us to the seventeenth-century Chiesetta dello Spirito Santo [Little Church of the Holy Ghost]. By facing east, this place of worship bears witness to the town’s Byzantine culture and religiosity, as do the reconstruction of its iconostasis and the celebration, on some occasions, of the Vespers. The Byzantine rite was introduced to Bova by the Basilian monks and continued until 1500 when Bishop Stauriano imposed the Latin rite and erased every trace of the Greek rite.
Upon leaving the church, immediately to your left, in Piazzetta della Punta, you will find an olive press and Scudedda [the structure containing the wheel] with a millstone from an oil mill once powered by animals, inviting visitors to follow the Peasant Civilisation Trail, Itinerario della Civiltà Contadina (2015). This is a truly lovely open-air museum which presents pieces belonging to ancient flour and oil mills from the Bova area, in perfect harmony with the environment, to show how important they were as they worked ceaselessly along the rivers when agriculture was the principal activity here.
Continuing uphill we return to the Square where an old stone, on a natural belvedere, invites visitors to sit down and admire the view. Leaving the square and, passing through a side street at the town hall, we arrive at the Casetta Grecanica [Little Graecanic House], an example of a typical old dwelling place. This was the first conservative step made towards recovering the hamlet, made in 2001, thanks to a project implemented by the PAU [Architectural and Urban Heritage] Department of the Faculty of Architecture, University of Reggio Calabria -. The recovery of Little Graecanic House was a turning point for Bova in that it helped to train local crafts people in restoration techniques and quantity surveying, basic steps that enabled them over the following years to redevelop the hamlet almost completely. On the walls you can see the application of the ancient anti-earthquake rincoccio technique dating from Byzantine times.
We then walk uphill from the Casetta Grecanica, through Via Maddalena, and arrive at the seventeenth-century Santuario di San Leo, a rectangular building with a single nave and a series of side chapels. The walls are decorated with precious nineteenth-century stuccoes and the church contains a sumptuous main altar in the baroque style with a polychrome niche housing a statue of St. Leo in white marble (1582). In another chapel, protected by a padlocked glass case, is a half-length portrait of St. Leo in chased silver, at the base of which there is a reliquary containing the remains of the saint, who resided in the Aspromonte area as a Basilian hermit. The people of Bovesìa [the Bova district] are extremely devoted to St. Leo, who was humble and showed mercy towards the poor whom he helped, it is told, by harvesting resin and bartering it for bread in Messina.
A street behind the Sanctuary leads to the Cuveddu district with its nineteenth- century Palazzo Tuscano today the offices of the Centro Visita del Parco dell’Aspromonte [Aspromonte Park Visitors’ Centre], dedicated to the Linguistic Minority of Greek Calabria.
On leaving the centre, turn left, into Via Dante, which takes you uphill to the ruins of the Norman Castle on top of a high rocky outcrop. From the castle you obtain a complete view of the area. From up there it is clear why this strategic position was chosen by those who built Bova and why the town was called the Chòra of Greek Calabria. The surprise is great indeed, when, on the roof of the old aqueduct you find a small open air theatre. You have the impression of having landed on Olympus… The Castle borders on the town walls and on the still intact, round, eleventh-century Norman Tower.
At the foot of the Castle stands the ninth-century Cathedral of Bova of Norman origin and dedicated to Santa Maria dell’Isodia, restored in 2012 and inside which, through the sheet-glass floor, you see a number of evocative ancient tombs. The main altar is at the back of the central apse, above which stands a metre-tall, white marble statue of the Presentation of Mary, or the Madonna dell’Isodia holding a baby. The Bell Tower, detached from the main church building, has four bells, including the bid bell, called campana di marzo [March bell], because it was rung every Friday during Lent to remind people of this period of atonement. Behind the belltower, from a shaded belvedere it is possible to view the town and the sea in all their beauty.
The visit continues down through Via Vescovado which, when taken in the opposite direction recalls the Via Sacra , which in ancient Greek cities, led up to the Acropolis. Here we see the seventeenth-century Chiesa del Carmine [Our Lady of Mount Carmel] a charming chapel belonging to a noble family where, every year, a novena is held during the nine days before the 16th of July, the feast day of the Madonna del Carmine, when her image, adorned with branches of oak on which lighted candles are hung, is carried in procession.
Then we arrive at the borgo dei Mestieri (2015) [Borough of Crafts], a multimedia museum with a communal oven on the ground floor, and reproductions of scenes from domestic life in old Bova. Walking down Via San Costantino we reach Palazzo Mesiani (late eighteenth century) belonging to the Municipality and open for exhibitions and other events. You can drink at the Fontana di Petrofillipo and, by taking any of the many downhill streets, you will arrive back in the main square.
Lunch in Bova is always a positive experience as the small, family-run restaurants offer a cuisine based on tradition and seasonal produce.
After lunch, we have a visit to Museum of the Language dedicated to Gerhard Rohlfs (2015), the famous German philologist, linguist and glottologist whose studies contributed greatly towards the valorisation of the language and culture of the Greeks of Calabria. The museum permits the visitor to take a journey through the agricultural world of Greek Calabria as it was between the end of the 1800’s and the beginning of the 1900’s, by observing the ordinary environments, the implements and tools of the everyday life and work of the people, and consult texts fundamental to historical reconstruction like Dizionario dialettale della Calabria [Dictionary of the Calabrian Dialects] by Rohlfs himself.
The museum is in the lower part of the village and you can reach it either by passing under the Palazzo Nesci Archway or taking the steps leading down to La Chiesa di Santa Caterina [The Church of Saint Catherine]. On the ground floor we find the Information and Hospitality Information Centre of the Greek Calabrian Culture Park where visitors will find all the information they need to become acquainted with the Area’s natural and cultural heritage as well as access to the Hospitality services provided by the Interactive Multimedia Totem. The building also houses the editorial offices of the Grekopedìa (Greek Calabria’s Civic Digital Library (CDL) Greek Calabria, created thanks the GAL (Area Grecanica project) an innovative tool for documenting not only the Greek Calabrian past but also its present identity and future prospects. A dedicated platform, availing of national (CulturaItalia.it) and European (Europeana.org) standards, has gathered and made texts, images, sounds related to the cultural, natural and social heritage of Greek Calabria available on the web.
Another museum worth visiting is the Museo Civico di Paleontologia e Scienze Naturali dell’Aspromonte [The Civic Museum of Palaeontology and Natural Sciences of the Aspromonte]. housed by the former District Court, which in about 300 square metres contains exhibits from the Beginnings, the Precambrian, Palaeozoic, Mesozoic, Cainozoic, Neozoic and Phanerozoic periods, organised as an imaginary journey back through time. The museum’s highlight is the Didactic Workshop called A day as a palaeontologist, addressed to school-goers, for whom the visit to the museum is organised in such a way as to help them understand, in a user-friendly and intuitive way, the rudiments of palaeontology.
This one-day visit of the Chòra, so full of evocative places to visit, does not cover or mention many more, which are also well worth discovering, might well be extended to a week, especially since, in Bova, there are many comfortable Rural accommodation and Bed & Breakfast facilities that permit you to enjoy the ancient hospitality of the Greeks of Calabria. In the whole of Greek Calabria, in fact, despite the changes time brings, there remains a great sense of respect and love for the Foreigner, philoxenia, which makes every Visitor Unique.