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La Grecia Salentina: Where Greek Language and Culture Still Survive

Grecia Salentina Italy
School kids at a village of Grecia Salentina holding Greek and Italian flags during the recent visit of President Sakellaropoulou. Credit: Facebook/Greek Presidency

Nine villages in southern Italy collectively known as La Grecia Salentina (Salentine Greece) or, in the local dialect, Griko have maintained aspects of the Greek language and culture that have survived for centuries.

Recently, Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou visited the area where she was warmly welcomed by the local population.

Greek diasporas have been a constant in Greek history. From ancient times to more modern eras, Greeks have left their homeland for a long list of reasons.

Due to proximity and both geographic and political ties, Italy has hosted many diaspora communities. The Greek communities of Salento and Calabria in southern Italy are, however, fundamentally different. Greeks settled in southern Italy in ancient times, and their communities remained intact and loyal to the Byzantine Emperor until the Arabs evicted imperial rule from Sicily and the Normans from southern Italy.

The last enclave, Bari, fell to the Normans in 1071, and except for a brief occupation of Ancona one hundred years later, Byzantine rule never returned and southern Italy became, to use the Greek term, a hameni patrida, lost homeland. But not a diaspora.

Nearly twenty-two years ago in August 2000, I arrived in Naples, the Ancient Greek city of Neapolis (New City), directly from Chicago where I then lived and worked. I had just turned thirty and was still single, and I had become obsessed with the Byzantine remnants in southern Italy. I get that way sometimes when a topic or a place absorbs me.

My ultimate destination was the heel of Italy, the Salentine Peninsula, where nine villages are collectively known as La Grecia Salentina (Salentine Greece) or, in the local dialect of Griko, “ta ennia choria.”  Here, aspects of the Greek language and culture have survived over the centuries.

The other hellenophone area of Italy, La Grecia Bovesia, centered on the Calabrian hill town of Bova, also speaks a version of Griko.

Grecia Salentina
A local band welcomes the Greek delegation in southern Italy. Credit: Facebook/Greek Presidency

I spent an evening in Naples, where my palette declared itself satisfied with the local pizza and wine taken straight from the barrel, sulfite-free, as in Greece.  Then came the obligatory evening stroll to a café where the doppio espresso predictably did not disappoint.

The swarthy Neopolitans, tyrannized by cars and scooters and devotees of the café culture, readily resemble Greeks, yet their baroque city recalls little, if anything, of the Balkans.  Ancient Greeks may have founded Neapolis, and Byzantium may have held periodic sway, but Naples, in contrast to Venice or points further south, conjures no images of Byzantium or of modern Greece.

The next day, I boarded the train, crossing the boot of Italy and the central Apennine Range and bound for the Adriatic port of Bari, an obvious destination for two reasons.  First, Byzantium’s political presence in Italy expired here in 1071, the last outpost to fall to the Normans.

Then, there is Saint Nicholas, whose corpse was taken from Asia Minor by Bariot sailors and now lies in a crypt at San Nicola di Bari Basilica, a lovely Catholic Church in Bari’s old center.  As the patron saint of sailors, Saint Nicholas and the male and female versions of the name Nicholas are ubiquitous in Greece, and to a lesser extent, in other Orthodox countries. In a gratifying show of inter-Christian solidarity, the Crypt itself houses an Orthodox chapel, where, when I visited, two Russian monks were deep in prayer, their Slavonic cadences transporting Bari back to the Byzantine bosom, if only in supplication and incense.

Though the Crypt and the earthly remains of Saint Nicholas moved me greatly, Bari generally left me a bit non-pulsed. It seemed a typical Mediterranean port, somewhat seedy, with few monuments recalling the particular Byzantine past I sought to find. I needed to head south, into Salento, to find a living link to the Byzantine past and to Hellenism in general.

Grecia Salentina
School children offer a warm welcome to the Greek president during her recent visit in Grecia Salentina. Credit: Facebook/Greek Presidency

Italians love their cars, and their road builders obviously retain enough of the Roman engineering skill of their ancestors to produce some of the world’s finest highways, the autostrade.  This is a complete contrast to Greece, where until recently, most roads were oriental tracks.

The route from Bari to Lecce, Salento’s baroque “capital,” was a brisk one and merited a stop in the shade of architecture to rival Florence for one of my beloved espressos.  Notwithstanding the moniker “Florence of the South,” all of the locals and tourists seemed to be Italians, and they enjoyed their architecture with a relaxed intimacy that, as an American bereft of such monuments at home, I could only envy.

Grecia Salentina
A huge crowd welcomes the Greek President to Grecia Salentina. Credit: Facebook/Greek Presidency

Grecia Salentina, a small oasis of Greek language and culture

The autostrade runs through the middle of the Italian “Heel,” and only a few signs alert the driver that he is passing through Grecia Salentina, a small oasis of Greek language and culture in the middle of the Salentine Peninsula.  Pulling off to one of them, the village of Calimera, I am greeted by the town name and “Kalos Irtet” the local welcome in the Griko dialect.

The nine towns of Grecia Salentina, all of which I visited, were part of a larger Greek language area that receded with time, and for the most part, the towns, lovely, whitewashed affairs amid olive groves clustered around a baroque church bell tower, all looked the same.  The colors were the same as in Greek islands, and even the church towers recalled places in Greece which had experienced Venetian rule, such as Naxos or Corfu.

Though there were a few carefully preserved Orthodox chapels dotting the countryside, the functioning churches were all Catholic, in a delightful baroque style common to Italy, Spain, Croatia, and a few parts of Greece.  Orthodoxy faded, by necessity, into the Uniate Doctrine, or Rito Greco, as it is known locally.  This rite used Greek in the liturgy while elements of Orthodox liturgy ended by 1600; it was replaced by standard Roman Catholic liturgy and doctrine.

Some people have converted to Orthodoxy out of a sense of cultural loyalty, and in Grecia Bovesia, a small proportion of Greek-speakers remain Uniates. Southern Italy also has a large Albanian-speaking population whose people often remain staunchly Uniate or Orthodox and culturally Byzantine. They resemble Greece’s Arvanites in culture. Many, in fact, came to Italy in the Ottoman era from parts of Greece, and the foustanella is often worn at their celebrations.

Grecia Salentina
A plaque commemorating the visit of President Skallaropoulou. Credit: Facebook/Greek Presidency

In the town of Corigliano d’Otranto, I fell in with a local cultural circle, the Argalio (Greek for “loom”), and they spun tales, as we conversed in a combination of the Griko dialect, my Spanish-leaning Italian, and broken English, over fantastic seaside meals and midnight music, where all voices joined in their songs of love and heartbreak in a dialect readily understandable to a modern Greek.

They also introduced me to their Pizzicata dance, a spinning dance where man circles woman circles man, and they laughed at how I danced it “like a Balkan, but I guess that’s what you are, after all.”

Their music lacked the spice of the East, of Turkey, that so peppers music from the Slovenian border to Syria. They too lacked that bitter taste, that peppery anger, which the people on the Eastern side of the Adriatic seem to possess.  The heavy weight of the Turkish presence was palpably absent, something all too visibly present in Greece, Serbia, or Bulgaria.

For a bit more of the Balkans in Italy, I went to the town of Otranto, where the Adriatic reaches its narrowest point. Here fortress walls and a properly frescoed Byzantine Church greet the visitor, the only place on the Italian mainland to fall to the Turks in 1481.  Albanians were all over the town, ferry services advertised routes to Corfu, Valona, and Durres.

My car radio picked up music from across the Adriatic, Albanian folk pop—sounding every bit like Greek, Serbian, or Turkish music; just change the language. I could not help thinking that the Balkans without the Turkish legacy is not the Balkans. After all, the word “Balkan” itself is Turkish for “mountain range.”  It says it all.

Back in Corigliano d’Otranto, we had another evening of cafés and mini-festivals. More parties were due later in the week, in neighboring towns, but I had to move on. The place captivated me too much; it was like Greece with all the delights but without the weight.  I sensed that if I did not leave, I might just stay. The next day, I boarded a ferry from Brindisi to Patras, the Peloponnesian port where my grandfather first set out for America.  My friends waved from the pier.

The Salentine “Greeks” are a lively bunch with a lust for life. They are Catholic Italians who share blood with Greeks and aspects of their culture and language, but neither their religion nor their identity.

They are a “lost” Greek homeland, but they do not feel lost, and they are at home. So was I when I was there.

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