An abandoned village in Calabria
Rising to heights of 6,000 ft, the wild and forested mountains known as the “Aspromonte” are some of the last vestiges of wilderness remaining in Europe. Around their skirts, dipping towards the sea however, their slopes are less precipitous and the landscape is characterised by deep valleys; huge gashes in the mountains, with wide valley floors filled with dry river beds strewn with boulders. When it rains, these rivers awaken to become raging torrents, as if all the waters of Hell have been flushed through them. But for the rest of the year they lie dormant like sleeping dragons. Isolated by these unbridgeable valleys, accessible by only a few roads, this rugged territory continues its existence as if in all defiance of the rest of the world.
In this hostile landscape, a few kilometres from the very southernmost tip of Italy’s toe, a bizarre rock formation breaks the horizon. Like the five fingers of a hand, pinched together at their tips and then thrust up through the mantle of the earth in some defiant gesture, it is a curious geological phenomenon.
In all probability, this jagged silhouette is formed of pyroclastic debris that was hurled from volcanoes in the area and settled here millions of years ago, then subsequently sculpted into this strange formation by the erosive forces of wind and rain.
But it is to the base of this geological oddity which the mysterious and miraculous village of Pentedattilo clings, its Greek name Πενταδάττυλο – meaning “five fingers” – almost prosaically describing its distinctive topography.
A Greek name is not unexpected in this region. The Greek colonisation of Southern Italy began in the 8th century BC and quickly gathered pace throughout the ensuing years. By 730BC settlers from Chalcis were arriving in the area of the modern-day city of Reggio Calabria and it was only a matter of time before these settlers also started to move inland to inhabit the mountainous toe of Italy’s boot.
The village of Pentedattilo traces its ancestry to these times and in due course apparently became a flourishing economic centre. It remained of some importance through the Roman period, but in the Byzantine epoch, it suffered from the incursions of the Saracens and declined in importance. Then, during the Norman rule of Southern Italy, it was transformed into an estate and was in the possession of a succession of noble families. By the seventeenth century, by all accounts, it had recovered economically to boast a castle that was home to the baronial family, the Alberti.
The story told to this day is that a neighbouring baron – one Bernardino Abenavoli – had designs on Alberti’s daughter, Antonietta. But when Abenavoli heard that the marquis’s daughter had been betrothed to a certain Don Petrillo Cortez, he flew into a jealous rage and with a band of assassins, assailed the castle of Pentedatillo in the dead of night. A detail relates that in the midst of the massacre, a handprint in the blood of the Marquis Alberti was impressed on the bedroom wall.
Having butchered her family, Baron Abenavoli absconded with daughter Antonietta. He honourably married her, but hunted down by the King’s army for his crime, he left her in a convent in Reggio Calabria and escaped to Malta and thence to Vienna. Arriving in Austria, he enlisted in the army and enjoyed an illustrious career as a captain until one day in August 1692, during the course of a naval battle, his head was inconveniently toppled from his shoulders by a cannon ball. And poor Antonietta never got outside the convent doors again…
Maybe Baron Abenavoli’s head was not the only thing that toppled, since I found no evidence of a castle either on my visit.
That’s a mere detail, however. It’s all the stuff of a third-rate melodrama, but it conjures up nicely the spirit of brigandry that must have been rife in these lawless lands in ages past.
But slowly, it seems, the blood must have seeped away from this once-noble village. Earthquakes, hardship, feuds, emigration – all would all have played their part to erode the life on this remote hilltop. To the extent that, by the second half of the 1970s the village became completely abandoned.
There are still vestiges of its past opulence: a baronial doorway opens onto a courtyard. The bell in the bell tower has not been melted down, though it no doubt contains a small fortune in copper and tin. The graceful octagonal spire of the church, maiolica-tiled, points skyward through a tangle of almond bushes. The date at its base is 1897. Above it are the letters FMD (though I have no idea what they could stand for).
But, in recent years, despite its semi-derelict state and tumble-down houses scattered across the hillside, the village has caught the imagination of some hardy souls who have come to live within its ruins. Bit by bit they have begun to rekindle the soul of its past.
There are two shops – one sells fridge magnets and the other local products. I stop to talk to one of the shopkeepers. She politely discourages me from exploring further on this hot day. To walk round the rock requires the right footwear and I only have sandals, she points out.
But I ignore her advice and venture into the farmland beyond the rock. A short distance from the village, perhaps three hundred metres at most, on a barren spur of land is pen of goats. An African boy is sprinting away from them and running towards me. We smile to each other as he rushes past me. I later learn that he was the goatherd for the village’s only inhabitant.
The place captures my imagination and I would like to explore more, though on the day of my visit, the temperature is 36C and even the lizards are hiding beneath the rocks. But I am impressed by the village and vow to return another day.
I am not the only visitor on whom the village has made an impression.
Perhaps its most famous English-speaking visitor and chronicler was Edmund Lear. Although probably better known today for his nonsense poetry, Lear was a fine illustrator and in the 1840s he travelled through the Italian peninsula, documenting his journey in great detail and accompanying his notes with coloured drawings and plates. Of Pentedattilo he writes:
“The appearance of Pentedatilo [sic] is perfectly magical … Wild spires of stone shoot up into the air, barren and clearly defined, in the form (as its name implies) of a gigantic hand against the sky, and in the crevices and holes of this fearfully savage pyramid the houses of Pentedatilo [sic] are wedged, while darkness and terror brood over all the abyss around this, the strangest of human abodes.”
Norman Douglas (just about the only other English-speaking chronicler of Calabria) also passed this way, though one infers from the entry in his “Old Calabria” that he didn’t quite make it up the path to Pentedattilo:
At Campo di Bova a path branches off to Staiti; the sea is visible once more, and there are fine glimpses, on the left, towards Staiti (or is it Ferruzzano?) and, down the right, into the destructive and dangerous torrent of Amendolea. Far beyond it, rises the mountain peak of Pentedattilo, a most singular landmark which looks exactly like a molar tooth turned upside down, with fangs in the air.
The Dutch graphic artist, M.C. Escher also came this way. He had settled in Rome with his Swiss wife and in 1930 made a visit to Calabria. His sketch of Pentedattilo is one of the most well known from this journey.
For all the turbulent past of this village, it seems it leaves a lasting impression on all who visit. It certainly left a lasting impression on me and I will be looking forward to returning and exploring it further.
Esplora Travel visit Pentedattilo as part of their Aspromonte Mountains walking holiday.