Day 107-XXXIII, from Contursi Terme to Bivio Palomonte, 8 km.
Palomonte, February 22
The road is winding, the sky is dark. It has been storming all night. Ever since Naples the locals told us that this weather is abnormal. They say it’s the coldest winter in thirty years over here. In these circumstances, people are intimidated by the mountains. They fear the snow.
Today, once again the agreed schedule was changed. The slowest among us command the rhythm. Instead fifteen kilometres – and four hundred meters of ascent – we only did eight kilometres to the nearest inhabited village.
It’s a good walk. After all the days we spent crossing the metropolitan area of Naples and Salerno, we are finally out in the open. On all sides there’s the sloping river valley appearing out of the haze. We are slowly leaving the bright lowlands of the coast behind us.
This is where the hinterland of Naples begins. But it’s not a complete wilderness, I have to admit. People have past here over the years.
Hannibal roamed the south of the peninsula for ten years after he had defeated every Roman army that was sent against him. For whatever reason he never dealt the final blow to the eternal city. He waited. And while he was here, the luxury and the laziness degenerated his army. The jealous lords of Carthage never sent him reinforcements. But in the meantime, Rome itself was reorganising, and when the time came, she pointed straight at the heart of her rival.
Hannibal was recalled to Africa. And for the very first time, he was defeated.
But the story that I want to tell you is that of a peasant’s son who one day became the king of Naples.
Joachim Murat joined the French army under the ancien régime. He knew he would always be a soldier, because you had to be a noble to enter the officers’ corps. But then came the revolution, and suddenly you could make a career also as a common soldier.
From the very start, Murat has been by Napoleon’s side. He was the one who brought the cannons with which Napoleon fired on the citizens of Paris to quell a royalist uprising and save the French Republic.
In battle, Murat was brave beyond the point of wrecklessness. In almost every major campaign he commanded Napoleon’s cavalry. His charges have been decisive more than once. And in great part, they were theater.
Murat was extremely vain. He liked to dress up in the most extravagant outfits, to intimidate his opponents and to encourage his troops when he led them into battle, shouting.
In 1808 Napoleon was emperor of France, and lord and master of Europe. He had made all his brothers kings, except for the reluctant one. It was the year that he promoted his older brother Joseph from king of Naples to king of Spain. And he granted the Neapolitan throne to his faithful cavalry commander Murat.
As king, Murat came along with Napoleon almost until the very end. He was with the emperor in the advance to Moscow, and he was there when the remainders of the Grand Armée retreated over the Berezina.
Aside from the extreme cold, the cossacks represented a lethal danger for the French. They were the jackals of the Russian plains and they preyed on isolated soldiers. But they had a sacred respect for Murat. They loved him because of his bravery.
Whenever the cossacks sighted the colourful outfit of Murat, they would ride up to him as close as possible, they would stand up, salute, and shout at the top of their voices: “Hail to the king of Naples!”
Then they would gallop away, and the next of them would come up to do the same. Whoever dared to come closest to Murat, would have proved himself to be the bravest of cossacks.
Like most of the other marshalls, Murat betrayed Napoleon after the Russian disaster. He made a deal with the Austrians. But he knew well that they wouldn’t leave the son of a peasant on the throne of Naples.
To defend his reign and expand it, Murat tried to head a first attempt to unify the Italian peninsula. He issued a nationalist proclamation and rallied his troops to battle against the Habsburgs. But however brave he was, he was no great general. He was defeated and sent into exile.
During the Hundred Days, when Napoleon fled from Elba and reconquered France without firing a shot, Murat thought he could do something similar in Naples. But evidently, he never really got to know his subjects. When he landed in Calabria, he was immediately captured. For the locals, one king or another didn’t make any difference.
King Murat of Naples was executed on the beach at Pizzo Calabro. He was vain until the very last. He refused to be blind folded, and he commanded the firing squat himself. “Aim straight at the heart! Spare the face! Fire!”