At Rome's Fiumicino Airport a fortnight ago I noticed that the gates for Turin, Milan and Venice were dressed up like Bond Street boutiques. The gate for my flight to Calabria meanwhile was stuck in a basement, a sad Cinderella, hidden from view by the wicked sisters of the north.
If so, this was nothing new. It is all part of a 2,000-year-old conspiracy, stemming back to the days when the Calabria area, populated largely by disaffected Greeks, made the mistake of aligning itself with Hannibal against Rome. The result: a scorched-earth policy which has alienated the locals for more than 20 centuries.
Fortunately, I had one of those alienated locals to show me round; my friend Francesco, a typical Calabrian who has fled to the north but returns at every opportunity to eat his mother's pickled mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes with anchovies and garlic, not to mention local delicacies like sanguinaccio, a sweet sauce made of fresh pig's blood, containing nuts, raisins, sugar, orange peel and cooked wine. You eat it with bread.
Francesco's view of Calabria is a typical mix of pride and despair. The mafia, he scoffs, are unintelligent, mediocre people who have plundered Calabria and are still preventing new funds from reaching the area. But simultaneously he inhabits the same emotional world as any Calabrian who could grow a black beard in less time than it takes to kill a pig. "If your brother is murdered," he once told me, "your life changes immediately. People see you with different eyes. You have a big baggage to carry. You must stay with your family. You must be serious. Until la vendetta." With this warning in mind we set off round the peninsula.
Calabria is a narrow, mountainous land. Tours tend to involve switching from one coast to the other, back and forth across the central spine, where once grew the timber that built Rome's navies. A linguistic remnant of these treasured forests (Latin: silva) can be found in La Sila, in central Calabria - mention this area, and locals still brighten up with talk of giant pine trees, lush pasture, deer and foxes scampering through sparkling snow.
But mention Aspromonte ("harsh mountains"), in the far south, and a sinister silence falls. This stony land of cliffs and narrow, barren valleys is where 12-year-old shepherds carry sawn-off shotguns to keep wolves at bay. Tracts of the Aspromonte are entirely in the hands of the mafia. Kidnap victims languish here, locked in mountain caves beyond the reach of the carabinieri.
In fact, much of Calabria has an untamed aspect. Strange little medieval villages hang on to rocky crags in the sky everywhere you look. Even the main centres can feel medieval: one of my first stops was in the city of Cosenza, known as Citta dei lupi, or wolf city. I found wet cobbles, half-lit balconies, fig trees growing out of walls, crumbling archways, smelly alleys and stairways. The people? All in the duomo, of course, bundled up in hats and scarves, freezing under bare columns and being harangued by the priest on international politics and the necessity of employing more priests.
Let no one say Calabria is entirely behind the times. In summertime, after all, tourists from all over Italy flood down to Tropea on the Tyrrhenian Sea, while over on the Ionian side, Soverato is compared to Rimini (except that Calabria's waters are much cleaner). But I was not looking for resorts; I was looking for clues to Calabria's non-Italian identity. And a few miles south of Soverato I emerged from olive groves on to the coast at a promontory known as Punta Stilo.
The sea was pale but smelt of fresh salt. On a temple platform by the beach, I saw remnants of plain Doric columns, where Greek settlers once prostrated themselves before the sea. Francesco paced the platform barking into his mobile phone, but it still felt like a holy place. In 1972 a pair of bearded, naked gods in bronze - the bronzi di Riace - were pulled from the water just to the south of here. These giant Calabrian gods, 2,500 years old but detailed down to the finest veins and abdominal muscles, have been seized on as evidence of early local talent: when these were crafted, Rome had hardly been more than a twinkle in the eye of Zeus.
But where does pride in the past cease and backwardness begin? We drove up a narrow mountain road from Punta Stilo to the village of Bivongi, in a smoky green valley overlooked by ruined Norman castles, where peasant women walked in single file with baskets on their heads. Popular Bivongi dishes, I was told, included dormice with tomatoes and pasta. In the hills behind the village thunders an extraordinary 300ft-high waterfall; long known to the Bivongis, it was only "discovered" by the rest of the world 10 years ago. Meanwhile, in the village centre, on a wall overlooking the piazza, is a faded but clearly visible stencilled
face of Mussolini, over the word Duce. Nobody has got round to cleaning it off in 50 years.
So slowly do things move here. Until inquisitions from Rome finally killed off the Orthodox Church in the 15th century, this had remained a strongly Greek area, a ghostly vestige of the Byzantine Empire. But now, astonishingly, the Greeks are on the way back. In the 11th century Byzantine monastery of San Giovanni, which stands semi-ruined on a mountain-top overlooking Bivongi, a Greek monk with a long beard and a revolutionary black hat has taken up residence again. His name is Kosmas Papapetrou and he comes from Mount Athos, Greece's holy mountain.
"People here are interested in getting back to their roots," he explained, pouring me a grappa in a brick room cluttered with icons. "I was invited to come by the local people. So I came. I love it here. South Italy has a very special spirituality. The mountains remind me of Athos. The only noise to disturb me is the sound of running water. In a sense, yes, you could say I am trying to recreate the past, but a glorious past is not reason enough to keep me here. I have not come to impose anything. I am here to offer my work, and to promote peace between the Catholic and Greek churches, between Italy and Greece." A couple of curious Italian tourists were dropping by for a chat with the monk even as we spoke.
But the Greek presence in Italy is older, perhaps, than even Kosmas Papapetrou can imagine. Calabria and Sicily were where the Greeks and the Italians met for the first time in history 3,000 years ago, when Greek pioneers set out from their homelands in search of living space. And, incredibly, I had been told, the Aspromonte still contained remote villages where the locals spoke a form of ancient Greek. I intended to visit one.
Driving past signposts riddled with bullet holes ("This is Calabria," explained Francesco, wearily) we arrived in the mountain-top village of Bova on a desolate, rainy evening to find the place in uproar. Italy's Yellow Pages, published by a company belonging to the media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, had just appeared showing the map of Italy with a gun where the village of Bova should have been. The local Communist mayor told me they were planning to sue. It wasn't fair, he said. There weren't any kidnappings here any more. It was all northern propaganda.
"Forget about the mafia," he said. "The interesting thing here is that we are Greek. Until 30 years ago everybody spoke Greek here. Now we are beginning to lose it, but there is enough awareness to keep it alive. We are stubborn people. The Greek Orthodox religion was not shifted out of here until 1593 - we were among the very last to capitulate to Rome. Even after that we continued to hold Orthodox services in secret. Are we descended from the ancient Greeks? Of course. When we have a problem in our village we go into the square and discuss it, just like the Athenians did."
Some scholars, in fact, have claimed that the Greek presence in Calabria dates back only to the 15th century, when the Ottoman invasion of Greece drove them here as exiles. The mayor of Bova does not believe this. As evidence, he pulled out a tray of old ornamental goat collars and stamps for fresh cheese. "These geometrical designs are described in Homer," he said. "People dig these up in archeological sites in Greece. But these were made here by our shepherds in the last 30 years."
Bova is not a cheerful place. Its fantastic eagle's nest location is a false promise. The village currently comprises a muddle of alleys, a cold, crumbling church and a ruined Norman castle with one wing occupied by a Bohemian from Switzerland. Its population has declined from 5,000 to nearer 500; most of its houses are falling down; money promised by the government has been frozen in the bank for 25 years because of political and bureaucratic wrangles.
Of course, the north of Italy has had it better. But only in beautiful Calabria - until so recently - have shepherd boys entertained themselves by carving wood into patterns which were sung of by Homer.
Jeremy Atiyah flew to Lamezia Terme in Calabria, via Rome, as a guest of Alitalia (tel: 0171-602 7111). Return flights cost pounds 190, including tax, until the end of March. Cars can be rented in the airport on arrival.
There are no direct flights to Calabria from the UK, although daily direct flights to Naples on British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) from London are currently available for about pounds 185, including tax. The onward journey by train or car from Naples to Calabria takes about four hours. Direct charter flights to Catania and Naples on Monarch are also available, at a variety of prices and can be booked through a travel agent such as Baileys (tel: 01933 410570).
WHERE TO STAY
For independent travellers, local hotels and pensions are inexpensive. Call the Italian tourist board for a list of options. Long Travel (tel: 01694 722193), which specialises in southern Italy, can offer tailor-made packages including return flights and hotel accommodation in Calabria, from the beginning of May. One option is a rural "agritourist" hotel (a converted farm), where guests walk, pick oranges, ride horses and enjoy fabulous home- cooked food. Half-board accommodation, scheduled return flights to Lamezia and use of a car costs about pounds 700 per person per week. You can book just the half-board accommodation for pounds 273 for the week. A hotel on the coast at Capo Vaticano is also available at similar prices.
To view the waterfall at Bivongi, visit the local town hall, Municipio di Bivongi, (tel: 00 39 0964 731523), where they can arrange hire of a jeep for a small charge. The Italian State Tourist Board (tel: 0171 408 1254) is at 1 Princes Street, London W1R 8AY. The Blue Guide series publishes a book on Southern Italy in its range.