Winning Over Italy

Tales of the Unexpected



The tourist Meccas of North and Central Italy have produced thousands of guide books in dozens of different languages and supplied TV producers with hours of material to fill the early evening and Sunday afternoon schedules.  While the beauty of these places has not been diminished, the first-time traveller kind of knows  what to expect. In Calabria, almost every day and every journey brings a new surprise.  There are only trickles of foreign visitors to the south even in the high summer and, subsequently, tourist information and travel guides are very thin on the ground.  You are left, thankfully, to find out for yourself.

A few weeks ago we were at a bit of a loose end as our well-laid plans for getting together with friends had fallen through at the last moment and, as we had already wasted the best part of the day waiting for their arrival, I was not in the best of moods. 

“OK let’s go for a drive.  Don’t know where we can go at 4pm, but anything’s better than hanging about doing nothing”   So we got in the car, headed down the road to the autostrada and turned left, and south.  After about 20 minutes along the coast road, no more, we spotted a worn-looking sign for Pentedattilo, somewhere off to the left and into the hills.  After the turnoff it could have only been another ten minutes before we were winding almost vertically through a little town high in the mountains.  Just as I was thinking there wasn’t much here to look at we emerged at the other end, turned a corner and found ourselves in a smart little car park at the edge of a cliff.  As I was concentrating on coaxing the car into the last tiny space, it was a few moments before I lifted my head to see where we had landed. 

I’m not often lost for words but when I got out the car it took some time before I could even say “Wow”  Just standing there and taking in what was in front, beside, below and above me, took my voice clean away.  Immediately below me was a little church, doors open and judging by the sound of the choir, obviously in session.  In front was a view over a deep valley to more mountains beyond while on the right, on a steep slope was the most incredible and beautiful scattering of old village houses which looked as if they had been individually placed by a film director for greatest effect.   Looming high above the village were five enormous fingers of rock.  Pentedattilo (from the Greek for Five Fingers) is so named because it looks as if it’s built in the palm of a massive mountain hand, the fingers creating five protective peaks from which medieval attack would have been impossible when the town began to flourish.

What makes the scene most surreal however and somehow makes you talk in a hush is the fact that Pentedattilo is a ghost town….they say that not even the birds sing here.   The fingers, through age and frequent earth tremors ,  turned from protection to threat as the number of falling rocks were enough to persuade the authorities to evacuate the village in the early sixties.  We walked past the little bar at the end of the track leading up into village and made our way, slowly, up the steep slope.   It soon became apparent that some kind of work was going on.  The narrow lanes that wound themselves round the ancient cottages and houses nearer the top were new and inlaid at the sides with little spotlights.   Some of the houses had been recently renovated and there were strong indications that the work was on-going.  To some extent it is being resettled, a little at a time, by people who come at various times of the year to volunteer their services and keep the place alive.  Although only a few homes are lived in, mainly by a colony of artists who exhibit their work in their tiny, open front rooms, the amount of underground cabling and piping suggests that this is no half-hearted project.   Nobody else would ever even think of trying to rebuild something out of such crumbling ruins whilst constantly threatened from above by erosion and instability, unless of course you happened to be the new Scotland football manager.

When you almost reach the top there is another, bigger, church and a railed piazza from which to look back down on the tiled rooftops and the valley below.  We only saw a handful, excuse the pun, of people wandering about, exploring the place like ourselves, including a couple having their pre-wedding photos taken in the wooden doorways framed with climbing roses and Bougainville.    We sat down and spent some time just looking down as the sound of the choir below drifted up through the still air and created such an emotive atmosphere that you could only wonder about how the place must have been when it was full of life and daily routine.  The place is steeped in folklore, including a castle whose owners were wiped out one Easter over the love of a woman and the attempted assassination of Garibaldi, and it certainly feels it. 

We had chosen the perfect time of day to see and absorb such history as, when we arrived back at car park and stopped for a much-needed cold beer, the sun began  to set.  While we sat and watched, the hidden street lights began to cast a ghostly glow up the walls of the cottages, picking out features and lanes we had missed on our stroll.   We left with the remains of the choir, slowly heading  back towards the ocean and the main road again.

 It was only when we got back and I tried to do some research about the town that I found out that for the last 3 or 4 years there has been an annual short-film festival at Pentedattilo.   I have to find out where they view these films as all the buildings I saw into could have barely contained a 15” TV and a coffee table, never mind an international gathering of directors, actors and their audience.  But then again, I’ve learnt now….. always expect the unexpected.