Italy takes ramparts to save its dying hamlets
The streets are quiet and cats hunt in abandoned houses, but the view from the ramparts of Calascio Castle is spectacular; good enough perhaps to save this dying Italian hamlet.
Local officials have put restoring the ruins and attracting tourists at the heart of their bid to revive the village, which has won 20 million euros ($22 million) in EU post-pandemic funds.
Surrounded by the snow-capped peaks of Abruzzo, Calascio is one of 21 dying or abandoned villages to which the Italian government has granted an equal share of a €420 million pot.
Critics question how well-equipped small councils are to spend such large sums, which amounts to almost 154,000 euros per person in Calascio.
The national project has soured relations in several regions between winning and losing villages, and has prompted warnings about potential fraud and waste.
But the mayor of Calascio, Paolo Baldi, a former mountain guide from Rome, is undeterred.
“We want to bring the hamlet back to life,” said Baldi, who renovated one of his ruined homes in 1993 and moved in with his young family.
Once a bustling and wealthy wool center, Calascio has grown from over 2,000 residents in the early 1900s to just 130 today, almost all of them elderly. During the winter months, there are only about 70 people left.
Only three children have been born here in 12 years. There is no grocery store, school or doctor’s office.
What the hamlet has is Rocca Calascio, an ancient castle which attracts 100,000 tourists a year.
Baldi plans to spend a large part of the funds – just over 4.6 million euros – to restore part of the ruins, which were damaged in a deadly earthquake in 2009.
It is hoped that the archaeological excavations will determine the date of construction of the castle, originally a watchtower, and reveal more about a nearby church and cemetery, where bones come to the surface after storms.
Part of the funds will also go towards job creation and tourist attraction, with just under 7.5 million euros for a hotel “scattered” in the empty houses of the village and almost a million euros for a museum.
Locals say they hope young families will settle in the area and perhaps open their own businesses.
“Do you know what was the biggest event in Calascio this year? It was the birth of a baby,” tobacconist Walter Zara told AFP.
Italy is the biggest beneficiary of the EU’s €800 billion plan to revive the bloc after the pandemic, which has allocated nearly €200 billion in grants and loans.
The funds for Calascio are part of a program to increase tourism in undervalued areas, especially in the poorer south, and ease pressure on hotspots like Venice.
Villages across Italy competed, with winners including Pietrabbondante in Molise, which has a sixth-century amphitheater.
“Italy’s real wealth today lies precisely in these small centres,” says Mayor Baldi, adding that countless hilltop hamlets across the country are in a state of serious decline but could be “a driving force for ‘economy”.
Here, that driving force includes a sheep-breeding school. The plan is to teach young people the ancient art of pastoralism, where shepherds and their flocks spend the warmer months on the move.
The funds will also go towards increasing cheese production. The pride of the region is Marcetto, a traditional sheep’s cheese made from live maggots, which sweeten it with their digestive acids.
It was a must-see for the shepherds who used to gather with their flocks outside the 16th-century Church of Santa Maria della Pieta, perched just along the ridge of the castle.
If the cattle bleated, the mass at the so-called “shepherds’ church” was followed by a small side window.
Fermented cheese and religion may not be enough. Domenico Ciccone, 78, who started herding aged just 10, said he was not convinced it was a job that would attract many young people.
Ciccone’s son and wife help in the milking, but without a new generation of herders to help him over the coming summer, he was forced to sell off much of his herd.
“It’s hard work, you have to like it. There’s no time off for a party, or a Sunday, [or] if it’s stormy.
He also wonders if training new herders will help reverse population decline, quipping that “a 20-year-old who tends sheep all day won’t have much luck with women! “