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.


  1. Huu, hurjaa! Kaikkea sitä maailmalta löytyy :)

    1. Niinpä. Olin aivan järkyttynyt. Vielä tuo moderni kirkkohirvityskin oli pitänyt noin prominentille paikalle rakentaa.

  2. What a beautiful place and what a shame nothing is being done to restore it. I'm sure with all the technology available today something could be done to save this village.

    A lot of remote villages in my home country (Portugal) have also been abandoned for one reason or another but a few have actually been bought and converted for tourism purposes while keeping the character of the place. Imagine if the same was done in this case and with those views!

    1. I certainly hope this place will see the kind of revival it deserves!

  3. Wow! Thank you for sharing this with me!!! I loved it all...I want to live in Balestrino!

    1. You are most welcome. I though you might like it.

  4. Heyyy, we are in italy now and I would love to go there. I guess you would recommend it? But I had a question; would we be able to see anything without sneaking in? Since I'm with my parents and they're not like that.. (I don't mind sneaking in haha). Thanks anyway!

    1. I've seen photos from inside the village so many people must have entered it despite the signs.It is a magical place and the region is lovely so I think you would not be disappointed in any case. Good luck!