Wednesday, 25 September 2013

On randomness

Castelvecchio di Rocca Barbena is another medieval village with an old castle on a hilltop we happened to visit in the Savona province of Liguria on our Italian holiday in late April. There was a parking lot for visitors up by the road so we left the car there and climbed down to the village.

It wasn’t exactly a ghost village (see my previous post here) but it very much felt like that. The only people we saw were someone sunbathing on a rooftop terrace, a mother returning from an errand of some sort and a couple in their fifties necking in the park-like square overlooking the valley. (They must have been travellers too to choose such an open location for their cooing.)

It seemed there weren’t any services in the historical centre of the village. We did see a sign here and there indicating there would be a shop or a restaurant behind a door or around a corner but they were all not only closed by completely lifeless.

This village made me think about the randomness of most everything. Some haphazard acts may determine so many things around us, including fame and popularity of places. In this hectic time and age when we can be online practically nonstop – and many of us are ­­– information on anything is constantly at our reach. But as we do not have the time or energy to concentrate on practically anything properly but rely on the judgement of others some random happenings may define even the survival of gorgeous little villages such as this one.

A popular travel writer might wander into the village and ‘find’ it. A celebrity might end up there and start singing its praises. One place will make it to the travel guides and another one, equally spectacular and equally unique, just happens to be left unmentioned. So it may remain unnoticed by the general public and may therefore be destined to wither away.

I had no idea coincidences had shaped also the fate of this village in recent decades. I have now learned that the accidental arrival of some Scandinavians greatly contributed to its subsequent revival after the damage caused by a heavy landslide in (again) 1953. A few Swedes arrived in the 1970s and then a few Danes. They fell in love with the Neva valley and started to restore buildings in the village from ruins. Later “a Genovese antiquarian” restored a country house for himself, bringing with him his sisters with their families and also some of his friends, a group of artists and restorers. I have understood also the feudal castle built in the 11th century by the Marquis of Clavesana has now been restored as a private residence.

This sounds like a legend but even if it were I don’t mind. What’s important is that the lovely old village I regarded as a faded one and felt sorry for is fairly alive and well even though its flourishing is only seasonal. We just happened to be trying to find something to eat out of season. It would probably have been different only a few weeks later. And yes, we did see a fifth person when we finally noticed a restaurant door that wasn’t locked. The owner handed us two cold beers and we had a look at the local newspaper while waiting for him to fetch a couple of baguette panini  from next door, his home presumably.

I spotted some B&B potential also in this village.
I’d love to see beautiful historical villages like this bloom all year round but you can’t have everything. With a population of much less than 200, you must be happy you have at least the holiday season to depend on. 

In fact, Castelvecchio di Rocca Barbena will surely continue to receive many visitors as it has been accepted to The most beautiful villages in Italy (I borghi più belli d’Italia), an association promoting small Italian villages of strong artistic and historical interest. Furthermore, the Touring Club Italiano has awarded it the Orange flag (Bandiera arancione), which is a recognition for sustainable tourism with excellent service and a welcoming atmosphere. On second thought, wasn’t that exactly what we experienced in the empty little taverna?

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Ligurian ghost village

Back to April and Italy. While staying a few days in the Savona province of Liguria we made a couple of excursions to the mountains not far from the coastline. In fact, the region of Liguria is such a narrow strip of land that everything is within a beeline distance of 35km (21mi) from the Mediterranean. We were only a few kilometres from the sea when the old castle of Balestrino appeared on a hilltop.

The Del Carretto castle built in the 16th century on the remains of an early medieval fortification was impressive enough but not in our wildest dreams could we have imagined anything like the scene we found on the other side of the hill. It was clearly an abandoned village, and what’s more, one that hadn’t been deserted that long ago.

It was completely empty with signs prohibiting access. The sight was both intriguing and ghostly. It looked like the village had simply been left there allowing all structures including the church to fall into ruin. If the site had been damaged by a natural phenomenon of some sort we couldn’t comprehend why it hadn’t been restored as there were newer buildings just a bit further away, some practically adjacent to the ruins.

Once again we acted so Finnish – so Nordic if you like – we didn’t even consider defying the ban and sneaking into the abandoned village. It would have taken only a step or two, only a minute or two. I don’t suppose such a small village would have had anyone to monitor any surveillance videos live. In any case we would have been out of there long before anyone could have reacted.

These buildings are practically connected to those of the ghost village.
Oratorio di San Carlo.
Even from where we stood by the wall surrounding the castle we could see what a waste it was to let such a place fall into pieces. Only when we drove to the new centre of the village and stopped by the unsightly new church did we understand the full scale of the tragedy: the castle excluded, the borgo vecchio occupies the very best spot in the area.

I made some research and learned that the village was abandoned after a severe landslide in 1953 because of alleged ‘hydrogeological instability’. Authorities decided it had been too badly damaged to be inhabited. A new village was built a short distance from the old one and everyone had to move.

Upholding traditions was not exactly popular in the 1950s and 1960s anywhere. We have plenty of evidence for that also in our country. Nevertheless, it was totally inconceivable to us that a village with such a panoramic location overlooking the valley, the coastal towns and villages, and the Mediterranean was not restored. I can’t think of any other ‘rational’ explanation than the twists and turns of local politics. Some people must have made a lot of money out of the process of relocating a complete village.

The new church of Sant'Andrea.
It makes me wonder how the residents took the orders to abandon their homes and spectacular views in exchange for a constant reminder of the destruction in front of their very eyes. A few centuries earlier when the villagers, their ancestors, were unhappy with the Marquis Del Carretto up in his castle they started a riot and ended up burning the castle and killing the marquis. I suppose any kind of rioting was out of the question so soon after the war.

This is not the only abandoned village in Italy. I learned there are some 15 more. Most of them were deserted because of seismic activity, some because of population decline. Fortunately, not all of the stories are this sad. Bussana Vecchia, another Ligurian village that was damaged by an earthquake in 1887, was reborn in 1947 when people arriving from the southern parts of Italy settled down there. In the 1960s, also a group of artists found their way there. Despite many attempts to clear the squatters off, the place still thrives as an international artists’ village attracting tourists with artistic activities and events. It is a neighbour to San Remo, in other words rather close to the French Riviera. We must pay a visit one day.

Doesn’t the old village of Balestrino possess a perfect set of potential for a fabulous holiday resort! The castle could be restored as a hotel for those staying for a few nights only and as a venue for events such as weddings, anniversaries, etc. Some of the houses could become rentals for those staying for a longer period while some could be homes for local craftsmen, not to forget a coffee shop, a couple of restaurants and other basic services a village like that would need.

The coastal town of Loano in the distance.

This kind of a reclaiming project would be way out of the reach of my wildest B&B dreams but wouldn’t it be wonderful to see life return on those streets if a proper kind of revival respecting traditions were carried out there. I visited the website of the municipality of Balestrino and was most happy to find out they have now started to talk about restoration.

Another of my B&B daydreams is presented here.

PS. Some scenes of the adventure fantasy film Inkheart released in 2008 – starring Brendan Fraser, Helen Mirren, Jim Broadbent and Paul Bettany among others – were shot on location in the ghost village of Balestrino.