On the whole, I think the people in Montalto are honest and rather attractive, but most of them slow and silent. It must be the malaria every time.
The café man asked if we would stay the night. We said, was there an inn? He said: ‘Oh yes, several!’ I asked where, and he pointed up the street. ‘But,’ said I, ‘what do you want with several hotels here?’ ‘For the agents who come to buy agricultural produce,’ he said. ‘Montalto is the centre of a great agricultural industry, and many agents come, many!’ However, I decided that, if we could, we would leave in the evening. There was nothing in Montalto to keep us.
At last the carretto was ready; a roomy, two-wheeled gig hung rather low. We got in, behind the dark, mulberry mare, and the baker’s youth, who certainly hadn’t washed his face for some days, started us on the trip. He was in an agony of shyness, stupefied.
The town is left behind at once. The green land, squares of leaden-dark olives planted in rows slopes down to the railway line, which runs along the coast parallel with the ancient Via Aurelia. Beyond the railway is the flatness of the coastal strip, and the whitish emptiness of the sea’s edge. It gives a great sense of nothingness, the sea down there.
The mulberry mare, lean and spare, reaches out and makes a good pace. But very soon we leave the road and are on a wide, wide trail of pinkish clayey earth, made up entirely of ruts. In parts the mud is still deep, water stands in the fathomless mud-holes. But fortunately, for a week it hasn’t rained, so the road is passable; most of the ruts are dry, and the wide trail, wide as a desert road which has no confines, is not difficult, only jolty. We run the risk of having our necks jerked out of their sockets by the impatient, long-striding mare.
The boy is getting over his shyness, now he is warmed up to driving, and proves outspoken and straightforward. I said to him: ‘What a good thing the road is dry I’ ‘If it had been fifteen days ago,’ he said, ‘you couldn’t have passed.’ But in the late afternoon, when we were returning on the same road and I said: ‘In bad wet weather we should have to come through here on horseback,’ he replied: ‘Even with the carretto you can get through.’ ‘Always ?’ said I. ‘Always’ said he.
And that was how he was. Possibility or impossibility was just a frame of mind with him.
We were on the Maremma, that fiat, wide plain of the coast that has been water-logged for centuries, and one of the most abandoned, wildest parts of Italy. Under the Etruscans; apparently, it was an intensely fertile plain. But the Etruscans seem to have been very clever drainage-engineers; they drained the land so that it was a waving bed of wheat, with their methods of intensive peasant culture. Under the Romans, however, the elaborate system of canals and levels of water fell into decay, and gradually the streams threw their mud along the coast and choked themselves, then soaked into the land and made marshes and vast stagnant shallow pools where the mosquitoes bred like fiends, millions hatching on a warm May day; and with the mosquitoes came the malaria, called the marsh fever in the old days. Already in late Roman times this evil had fallen on the Etruscan plains and on the Campagna of Rome. Then, apparently, the land rose in level, the sea-strip was wider but even more hollow than before, the marshes became deadly, and human life departed or was destroyed, or lingered on here and there.Share It