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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

     Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

Review: By the Ionian Sea: Notes of a Ramble in Southern Italy

By the Ionian Sea: Notes of a Ramble in Southern Italy
By George Gissing. Project Gutenberg. First published, 1901.

In the late 1890s, the writer George Gissing set off on a trip to Southern Italy, an intensely personal journey into Magna Graecia with its ancient Greek ruins. “The names of Greece and Italy draw me as no others;” he writes; “they make me young again, and restore the keen impressions of that time when every new page of Greek or Latin was a new perception of things beautiful.”

Not everything on this rugged journey was beautiful, but Gissing retains his passion throughout, as he travels south from Naples to Calabria and on to Sicily. In Paola, he reflects on Hannibal and the Visigoths. In Taranto, he finds that the fishermen—“their lithe limbs, their attitudes at work or in repose, their wild, black hair”—remind him of “shapes pictured on a classic vase.”

He searches for the Galaesus, Horace’s “beloved river,” and in Metapontum, he thinks of Pythagoras, said to have died there in 497 BC, “broken-hearted at the failure of his efforts to make mankind gentle and reasonable.” Gissing observes that “In 1897 AD that hope had not come much nearer to its realization.” Nor in 2018, this reader would add.

Beyond the allusions to classical history, Gissing describes the daily experience of his trip, vividly recreating scenes—the albergo filthier even than the other filthy albergos with its inedible food and its swindling innkeeper; the surprise of a tasteful building that turns out to be an abattoir; the restaurant where two military men enter together but sit at different tables conversing by shouting across to one another.

Present and past converge dramatically when Gissing falls ill in Cotrone and, in the grip of fever, hallucinates ancient scenes in detail—“great vases,” “sepulchral marbles,” “halls of feasting,” even Hannibal’s soldiers. “The delight of these phantasms,” he says, “was well worth the ten days’ illness which paid for them.”

By the Ionian Sea is, as its title makes clear, the story of a ramble—“a walk for pleasure.” Leisurely, erudite, and quirky, it offers readers a journey not only into the classical and 19th century past, but also into the past of travel writing.

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