January 9, 2014
Between Christmas and the New Year it hardly stopped raining over most of Europe, it seems. As I write, the UK news is still full of stories about flooding. Here the geography would require a flood of a truly Biblical nature to have any great impact, but the rains do accelerate the process of erosion, gradually wearing the mountains away bit by bit. For a while, driving at night was hazardous, not only because of the poor visibility but because of the added risk of encountering landslips. The mountain roads were littered with everything from small stones to huge boulders dislodged from the steep hillsides. It’s now beginning to dry out and most of the debris has been cleared, but outside the coastal towns the evidence is still around as the old terraces, built in the the time of the Romans, carefully maintained for centuries but now sadly neglected, gradually tumble under the combined ravages of rain, unchecked plant growth and depredation by wild boars.
So garden maintenance brings a few chores not expected of the average British gardener. The ability to lift heavy rocks and build a passable dry-stone wall is something to be prized. Most of us have a go but the results are puny compared with what was achieved centuries ago without the help of mechanisation.
Another chore is tree maintenance. The garden is just a slice of mountain covered in trees, and one of these was a substantial pine, close to the house, a good 20ft in both height and spread and taking a lot of light as well as preventing anything growing underneath. So it had to go. Here’s what it used to look like; it’s the big wide one on the right:
And here are some of the stages of its removal:
Finally, the removal of the tree gives us a useful car parking space next to the house. There’s still a small Christmas tree but it’ll take years before it’s anything like the size of the one I took out.
And now for the subject of this piece. After a hard day in the garden we went for a walk late this afternoon, up the track and into the hills above us. Far from being a wilderness, it turns out you can’t go more than a few steps without being reminded that this is an area with a tradition of land management going back for centuries if not millennia. It’s only in the last 100 years or so that the tradition withered. With the arrival of the modern industrial society, land that once was constantly managed is now left unkempt and overgrown, and both the houses and the formerly impressive terrace walls are gradually falling down.
From a distance the mountainside looks natural, untouched by man, so it comes as something of a surprise to find buildings at almost every turn. These range from piles of rocks to habitable dwellings, and although there are no metalled roads access is usually possible along a rough track. Here’s one of the more picturesque ruins we discovered along our walk:
The most interesting thing is that despite the need for a total rebuild and the difficulties of access, these places are gradually being sold and done up. After a century of turning their backs on their heritage, Italians are following the lead of the Germans and other northern Europeans and starting to view these ancient buildings as assets and not just liabilities. After all, each one comes with its own olive grove and each is on a sunny hillside with dramatic views right across to the Mediterranean. Who knows, the whole area may one day be a bustling community again.