Sila

This is an excerpt from the book “Calabria“ by Enrico Massetti.

Sila Piccola in winter
Sila Piccola in winter

To find the purest air in Europe one need not wander to highest reaches of the Alps or extreme northern Scandinavia. Instead, one need only head down to the far south of Italy, to a vast forested plateau deep in the interior of Calabria known as the Sila, the most extensive high altitude plain in Europe, with an average elevation of over 1,000 meters.

The Sila is split into three different sections: the northernmost Sila Greca toward the Greek ruins of Sibari, the central Sila Grande in the province of Cosenza, and the Sila Piccola in the area of Catanzaro. The Sila Grande, Sila Piccola and the Aspromonte (much further south toward Reggio Calabria) constitute the non-contiguous Parco Nazionale della Calabria.

Efforts are currently underway to expand the park, to connect the three sections to provide a continuous ecosystem. There have been several success stories in recent years, including that of park symbol, the wolf, which is making a comeback. The wolf’s rise, however, has provoked significant controversy, as it is in Yellowstone National Park, USA: surrounding farms complain that the predator has already started killing their livestock.

Macchia Fraga
Macchia Fraga verso est. Sila Grande

The Sila was for centuries exploited for its immense natural wealth. Logging was a major industry here, though the forest had a myriad of other riches: merchants used to travel traveled all the way from England to collect maple syrup, for example. Beginning with the Normans, with their long tradition of keeping royal forests, rulers of the land reaped profits from the territory, which remained in the hands of feudal landholders until the unity of Italy.

A few of these landholders deserve profound thanks, those that bequeathed their forests intact to the state – the park may be said to have its origins in these donations. One particularly important legacy was that of Fallistro and its centuries-old giant pines, today a nature reserve. Most of the rest of the forest is much younger, less than one hundred years old. As the woods of New England, USA (which the Sila dramatically resembles), after extensive logging, there was not much left of the original forest by the late 19th century. Thanks to conscientious planning and action of in particular local enthusiasts, the wood was replanted, and in 1968 the National Park established: today the forest may not be primordial but it certainly feels like it.

But is this the Calabrian Yellowstone? A brave description; certainly size-wise it cannot compare. But visit the Sila when it is blanketed with snow or with the first flowers of spring. Hear the birds’ singing and animals’ scurrying, sounds naturally softened by the enveloping wood. Walk through solemn stands of pine, passing not a single sign of human habitation and scarcely viewing any on the horizon, and the Sila begins to approximate the sublime beauty, that otherworldliness of a time before man that the great American park so elegantly represents.