Italian land and nature: Calabria, From the Byzantines to the House of Bourbon
- WTI Magazine #91 May 14, 2017
An itinerary rich in history, art and faith, it winds through the Calabrian towns of Stilo, Bivongi and Pazzano in the heart of the Calabrian Serre, amidst centuries-old beech and fir woods. The first leg of this particular tour of the Region of Calabria is Stilo, home to famous philosopher Tommaso Campanella and one of the most beautiful history and art destinations. Its position in itself is quite a sight.
In fact, this ancient village is terraced upon tuff rock, running over a slope bearing olive groves and vineyards. It is certainly a stretch from its original austere, Oriental appearance of the 10th Century, when the city was the predominant Byzantine town in southern Calabria.
From the 7th Century, this area became one of the leading destinations for Eastern Orthodox worshippers. Many monasteries were erected in Aspromonte, especially in the Amendolea and Stilaro Valleys. Stilo itself was the destination of hermits and Basilian monks; they lived in the grottoes and constructed the masterpiece of a Church known as the Cattolica, a unique gem of Byzantine architecture.
Continuing our journey, we arrive in Bivongi - dating back to the 9th Century - when the raids by the Saracens forced the inhabitants along the coast to populate the hills in the hinterland, thus giving life to quaint little towns such as this one. The Basilian monks also reached the grottoes in this area, including Giovanni Théristis. After his death, he became so famous among the local people that he was proclaimed a saint, and the Monastery of San Giovanni Théristis was built on what was believed to be the place of his holy water font. It is a little over one mile from town and today is its main monument, a very particular testimony of the transition from Byzantine to Latin-Norman architectonic style.
Another important spiritual place worth visiting is the Monte Stella Hermitage. Those that travel the road from Pazzano or Stilo to get here are most often awe-struck by this place. It is an abyss in the bowels of the earth where hermits contemplated and prayed for 200 years. The sanctuary is nothing more than a natural grotto on the mountain slopes, accessible by descending 62 steps dug out of the stone. In addition to a statue of Our Lady, the sanctuary also houses paintings of the Immaculate Conception, Holy Trinity and the Adoration of the Shepherds.
From the Byzantines to the House of Bourbon
The entire area of the Calabrian Serre - 3,600 hectares that comprises the towns of Stilo, Bivongi, Brognaturo, Mongiana and Serra San Bruno in the provinces of Reggio Calabria and Vibo Valentia - is called Ferdinandea and is part of the Parco Naturale Regionale delle Serre. The name comes from Ferdinand II of Bourbon, who, from 1832, used the area as hunting grounds and built a small villa here.
However, in later years Ferdinandea was transformed into an iron and steel center; thus ironworks, barracks, residential and administrative buildings and stables were built here. Evidence of this period is in Villa Ferdinandea and the foundry, where the iron extracted from the Pazzano mines (on Mount Stella) was processed. Rather intriguing from an industrial archaeology standpoint, it is part of the Calabria Ironworks and Foundry Eco-Museum. However, this tourist destination is also a nice place for hiking along the paths marked by the CAI (Italian Alpine Club). Ferdinandea is also traversed by the Sentiero del Brigante path that connects Gambarie di Santo Stefano in Aspromonte with Serra San Bruno and Stilo. This rather long hiking trail was created by G.E.A. (the Aspromonte Hiking Group) in 1989.