Fishing: Q: When is a river not a river? A: When the Italians have conserved it in concrete

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I am just returned from southern Italy where, regularly, the temperatures were minus seven. This was just the temperature on my aunt's balcony, inside it wasn't much warmer. My aunt lives like a throwback to the Spartan regime. There was no heating at all between the hours of 9am and 4pm and, for two days, no heating whatsoever due to some boiler upset. Because Italian houses aren't built for the winter, with their freezing cold tiled floors, I regularly went outside to get warm.

I am just returned from southern Italy where, regularly, the temperatures were minus seven. This was just the temperature on my aunt's balcony, inside it wasn't much warmer. My aunt lives like a throwback to the Spartan regime. There was no heating at all between the hours of 9am and 4pm and, for two days, no heating whatsoever due to some boiler upset. Because Italian houses aren't built for the winter, with their freezing cold tiled floors, I regularly went outside to get warm.

Just a macaroni's throw from my aunt's front door is the river Sabato. This will give you a false impression of how picturesque her situation is.

The river Sabato may once have run through a village, and had grassy banks and encouraged wildlife to its edges, but no more. Through the main part of the town the road looks down, some 20 feet or so, to the water and a metal fence stops anyone from falling in. Because there had been heavy snow fall, the river was fast and full – but not too deep. However, what the great and the good of the town had decided to do some years back was to concrete over part of the river bed.

How they did this still remains something of a mystery. Talk was that they diverted half the water flow at one time, whilst the concrete was laid. But no one knew for sure because no one was really that bothered. In fact, they'd hardly noticed at all until I mentioned it. The reasons given for the concrete – that it stopped bank erosion – really made me sad. In taking away the natural river bed, a great part of the river was killed. No bugs can nestle and hatch in concrete. No plants can put down roots. And without these a river cannot support any fish.

On the first day, I didn't notice the river bed because the water was very coloured. But strangely I found the river most uncaptivating, which is unusual. In fact, it looked quite clinical. It didn't enchant me, and I didn't look for long. It was only the next day when I went back to look over the edge, wondering whether to jump in to end the misery that was my constant hypothermia, that I realised the river looked so homogenised. I walked further downstream and, eventually, found the natural river bed begin again. The change was startling. Suddenly the river was magical once more, the water changed colour as it flowed over the variously coloured gravel and rocks and it didn't flow straight and neat, instead tripping and dancing. Imagine looking between the faces of two women, one who has had extensive cosmetic surgery and one who hasn't. It was just like that. One has the imprint of nature, the other of something rather less individualistic.

"What about the fish?" I asked everybody. "Oh there are big fish in there," they laughed. "Big as this," they signalled sawing palms over elbow creases. "Really?" said I. "Yes, they're called rats!" they replied. The point was, no one cared that there were no fish nor any wildlife because the river bed had been totally violated. I'm not sure why this surprised me so, Italians (and I can say this but you can't) are rubbish about conservation. Their unsentimentality over animals is understandable, up to a point. But when they make bang-bang noises at song birds on telly, I have to get the slipper out. Not that song-birds are shown on telly, much. The concept of nature programmes doesn't really exist. Italian TV schedules are too full of soft porn quiz shows (their equivalent of The Weakest Link has a girl lap-dancing in the middle of the show).

In the UK we have organisations such as the Wild Trout Trust who could have advised the townsfolk how to keep the river in check without killing its wildlife off. If Italy has such conservation bodies, no one bothered to consult them before desecrating this river. Lots of chat, however, in church. Lots of money is needed to conserve the church, and we all know that nothing conserves a church, nothing aids worship, better than lots of expensive gold leaf.

Apparently, according to my various male cousins, you could still get fish somewhere further upstream where the river was still part of the countryside.

"Did anyone fish the Sabato?" I asked. "No, not really," was the reply.

This is the sad irony. If more people fished the river, the likelihood is that there would be still be fish in it. Rumours have always abounded that the Mafia has strong links to the concrete business. But it should have thought this one through, how can it threaten that someone will "sleep with the fishes" when there aren't any?

a.barbieri@independent.co.uk

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