Nine villages in southern Italy collectively known as La Grecia Salentina (Salentine Greece) or in the local dialect Griko have preserved aspects of the Greek language and culture that have survived for centuries.
Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou recently visited the area, where she received a warm welcome from the local population.
Greek diasporas have been a constant in Greek history. From ancient times to more recent eras, Greeks have left their homeland for a long list of reasons.
Due to the proximity and the geographic and political ties, Italy has hosted many diaspora communities. However, the Greek communities of Salento and Calabria in southern Italy are fundamentally different. Greeks settled in southern Italy in ancient times, and their communities remained intact and loyal to the Byzantine emperor until the Arabs expelled imperial rule from Sicily and the Normans from southern Italy.
The last enclave, Bari, fell to the Normans in 1071 and apart from a brief occupation of Ancona a hundred years later, Byzantine rule never returned and southern Italy became, to use the Greek term, a Hameni Patrida, lost homeland. But no diaspora.
Almost twenty-two years ago, in August 2000, I arrived in Naples, the ancient Greek city of Naples Naples (New City), straight from Chicago, where I lived and worked at the time. I had just turned thirty and was still single, and I was obsessed with the Byzantine remains of southern Italy. That’s how I feel sometimes when I’m fascinated by a topic or a place.
My final destination was Italy’s heel, the Salentine peninsula, where nine villages are collectively known La Grecia Salentina (Salentine Greece) or in the local dialect of Griko“ta ennia choria.” Aspects of the Greek language and culture have been preserved here over the centuries.
The other Hellenophone area of Italy, La Grecia Bovesiacentered on the Calabrian mountain town of Bova, also speaks a version of Griko.
I spent an evening in Naples, where my taste buds were satisfied with the local pizza and wine straight from the tap, sulfite-free like in Greece. Then came the obligatory evening walk to a café, where the double espresso predictably not disappointed.
Bullied by cars and scooters, dark-skinned neopolitans and café-lovers have a faint resemblance to Greeks, but their baroque city has little, if any, resemblance to the Balkans. The ancient Greeks may have founded Neapolis, and Byzantium may have had periodic influence, but unlike Venice or points further south, Naples does not conjure up images of Byzantium or modern Greece.
The next day I boarded the train, crossed the Boot of Italy and the central Apennines and made my way to the Adriatic port of Bari, an obvious destination for two reasons. Firstly, the political presence of Byzantium in Italy ended here in 1071, the last outpost to fall to the Normans.
Then there is Saint Nicholas, whose body was brought from Asia Minor by barriot sailors and now lies in a crypt San Nicola di Bari Basilica, a beautiful catholic church in the old center of Bari. As the patron saint of seafarers, 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 sign of inter-Christian solidarity, the crypt itself houses an Orthodox chapel where, when I visited, two Russian monks were deep in prayer, transporting their Slavic cadences back to the Byzantine bosom, if only in prayer and incense.
Although I was deeply moved by the crypt and the earthly remains of St. Nicholas, Bari generally left me a little unmotivated. It appeared to be a typical Mediterranean port, somewhat run down with few monuments evoking the particular Byzantine past I was trying to find. I had to go south, to Salento, to find a living connection to the Byzantine past and Hellenism in general.
Italians love their cars, and their road builders evidently retained enough of their ancestors’ Roman engineering skills to build some of the finest highways in the world auto trade. This is in complete contrast to Greece, where until recently most of the roads were oriental slopes.
The route from Bari to Lecce, the baroque “capital” of Salento, was swift and deserved a stop in the shadow of the architecture to compete with Florence for one of my beloved espressos. Despite its nickname “Florence of the South,” all locals and tourists seemed Italian, and they enjoyed its architecture with a relaxed intimacy that, as an American without such monuments at home, I could only envy.
Grecia Salentina, a small oasis of Greek language and culture
That auto trade runs through the middle of the Italian “heel” and only a few signs let the driver know that he is going through Greece Salentina, a small oasis of Greek language and culture in the heart of the Salentine peninsula. As I depart to one of them, the village of Calimera, I am greeted by the name of the town and “Kalos Irtet” the local greeting in the Griko dialect.
The nine towns of Grecia Salentina I visited were all part of a larger Greek-speaking area that declined over time, and for the most part the towns were pretty whitewashed affairs set in olive groves clustered around a baroque church bell tower all the same. The colors were the same as on Greek islands, and even the church towers were reminiscent of places in Greece that had seen Venetian rule, like Naxos or Corfu.
Although there were a few carefully preserved Orthodox chapels in the countryside, the functioning churches were all Catholic, in a delightful Baroque style common to Italy, Spain, Croatia and some parts of Greece. Orthodoxy inevitably disappeared in Uniate doctrine, or Rito Greco, as it is known locally. This rite used Greek in the liturgy, while elements of the Orthodox liturgy ended around 1600; it was replaced by the standard Roman Catholic liturgy and doctrine.
Some people have converted to Orthodoxy out of a sense of cultural loyalty Greece Bovesia, remains a small part of the Greek-speaking Uniates. Southern Italy also has a large Albanian-speaking population, whose populace often remains steadfastly Uniate or Orthodox and culturally Byzantine. They are similar to those of Greece Arvanites in culture. In fact, many came to Italy from parts of Greece in the Ottoman era foustanella is often worn at their celebrations.
In the town of Corigliano d’Otranto I met a local culture group, the Argalio (Greek for “loom”) and weaved stories as we spoke in a combination of Griko dialect, my Spanish-tinged Italian, and broken English, to fantastic meals by the sea and midnight music that got all the voices in her songs resonated with love and heartbreak in a dialect easily understood by a modern Greek.
They also introduced me to theirs pizzicato dance, a spinning dance where the man circles the woman around the man, and they laughed at how I danced it “like a Balkan, but I guess that’s you after all”.
Their music lacked the spice of the East, Turkey, which peppers music from the Slovenian border to Syria. They, too, lacked that bitter taste, that peppery anger that the people of the east side of the Adriatic seem to possess. The heavy weight of the Turkish presence was noticeably absent, something that was all too visibly present in Greece, Serbia or Bulgaria.
For a little more of the Balkans in Italy, I headed to the town of Otranto, where the Adriatic Sea reaches its narrowest point. Here, ramparts and a frescoed Byzantine church greet the visitor, the only place in mainland Italy that fell to the Turks in 1481. Albanians were all over the city, ferry services offered routes to Corfu, Valona and Durres.
My car radio picked up music from across the Adriatic, Albanian folk-pop that sounded like Greek, Serbian, or Turkish music through and through; just change the language. I couldn’t help but think that the Balkans are not the Balkans without the Turkish heritage. After all, the word “Balkan” is itself Turkish and means “mountains”. It says it all.
Back in Corigliano d’Otranto we had another evening of cafes and mini festivals. More parties were due in neighboring towns later in the week, but I had to move on. The place captivated me too much; it was like Greece with all the joys but without the weight. I felt that if I didn’t go, I would just stay. The next day I boarded a ferry from Brindisi to Patras, the Peloponnesian port from which my grandfather first left for America. My friends waved from the pier.
The Salentine “Greeks” are a lively bunch with a love of 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 don’t feel lost and they are at home. That’s how I was when I was there.