The Arbereshe town of Civita (Cifti), Calabria
The Sunday Skip: Drive into the mountains of Calabria near the Ionian sea and signs start to be written in both Italian and Arbereshe. A pre-Ottoman language still preserved by these small village communities, linguistic enthusiasts come here to study how a Christian folk escaped the pagan Turks and retained a tongue replete with 500-year-old archaisms no longer understood by their cousins across the sea.
The Arbereshe today comprise the largest ethnic minority in Italy, their towns mostly located in southern provinces, such as Calabria and Basilicata. They sailed from Albania to these shores in the 15th century, on one notable occasion, at the request of King Ferdinand I of Naples. Albania's national hero, Skanderbeg, created an army and fought with a combined Neapolitan-Albanian force to crush the French insurrection, effectively saving Naples. The King rewarded Skanderbeg's troops with land in Apulia where they settled in 15 villages.
After the death of Skanderbeg, the Ottomans overran Albania, forcing the Christian inhabitants to convert to Islam. Many refused and fled to the Italian lands. Legend has it that Skanderbeg's son spearheaded the immigration. For centuries thereafter, waves of immigration and intercultural interactions continued between Italy and Albania. By the 1990's when a pyramid scheme sent the Albanian economy toppling, more than 300,000 Albanians fled to Italy, sometimes settling in Arbereshe villages where they clashed with their medieval countrymen in both language and customs.
To visit the Arbereshe, two towns in particular stand out. Civita (or Cifti) has an Arbereshe Ethnic Museum and a Devil's Bridge that is part of the Pollino National Park. The town itself is cut into the mountain with beautiful views and tortuous cobblestone streets with a piazza, Bed and Breakfasts, wine makers, and restaurants. (The Arbereshe also have their own cuisine, such as Strangujet, a kind of Gnocchi with tomato sauce (lenk) and basil.)
At the edge of the town, a monument to Pal Engjelli (1417-1470) perches above a valley. A priest and close counsellor to Skanderbeg, he wrote the first known sentence in Albanian.
The Arbereshe language derives from the southern Albanian Tosk dialect, but still retains all the archaisms of the 15th century. Interestingly, Arbereshe was only a spoken language until the 1980's. (Albanian itself only became a written language in the 20th century.) So Pal Engjelli's written words in 1462 are particularly significant. His written sentence is about baptism, probably the phrase used for Albanian people in the countryside who were unable to take their children to church to be baptized.
Another town nearby, Frascineto, has a Church and an Arbereshe Library founded by a Byzantine-Catholic priest, Antonio Bellusci (1934- ). Today, the majority of Arbereshe have a unique religion -- they are Christians of the Eastern Rite, but adhere to the authority of the Catholic Pope.
Frascineto also has a Museum of Albanian Costume and a Museum of Byzantine Iconography.
Arbereshe Church in Frascineto
Arbereshe Library in Frascineto
Once remote, these villages are still sleepy. There's much to explore, but you'll find that strolling through the streets and waving at the locals is the way to experience this slice of a dual-cultured world.