Pentedattilo, on the southern tip of Calabria, is the first true “ghost town” I have ever visited. Inhabited as far back as the Greek era in the 7th century BC, most of it is now just an empty shell, though local artisans are starting to open up workshops and trinket stores in some of the old buildings.
I reached Pentedattilo by car when I was on a road trip of Calabria with a friend of mine, another English girl working as a journalist in Italy at the time. We arrived at noon, and the bells of the church were ringing for midday prayers. I remember the sound of the bells ringing out into complete emptiness — it was a very beautiful sound, but also sad, to think that very few people would hear them.
I heard them though, and they were my first welcome to this fascinating town.
We parked the car, and then we took a look at the view of Pentedattilo, with the dramatic rock formations behind it. They are the reasons for its name: from the Greek penta, related to five, and daktylos, referring to fingers. They are in the shape of a hand, and I had never seen anything like it. I felt like I was on a film set. I wanted to go over to explore the town, but I was also a little frightened. Even though we were here in broad daylight, there was something a bit scary about the place.
Before I came to Calabria, I read English poet and landscape painter Edward Lear’s accounts of his trip around the region in 1847. He also visited Pentedattilo, and when I had this initial view of the town, I recalled his descriptions of his first impressions:
“The appearance of Pentedatilo 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 are wedged, while darkness and terror brood over all the abyss around this — the strangest of human abodes”.
We walked up through the town, and firstly had a look at some of the ruins and the views from them. My friend wandered down the hill into the dilapidated houses because she wanted to take some more photos. I was keen to see the church so I said I would meet her there. I had a short explore through the town on my own. I was happy to see some artisan boutiques selling wooden ornaments, ceramics, decorated glass and handmade soap and a museum (www.museocontadinopentedattilo.it) , but they were all closed until later in the afternoon (opening especially during the summer period).
I headed back to the square in front of Santi Pietro & Paolo church, where I had told my friend I would meet her. She was still not there though. I peered over the cliff but there was no sign of her. I also walked back down to the lower level, but she was nowhere in sight. I returned to the square and waited. I sat on a ledge near the church, and noticed the unusual silence of the place. All I could hear were insects and some birds chirping every now and then.
I looked at my phone but I did not have service. When I noticed it intermittently, I tried to call her, but she was not connected. I looked out at the sea, I could see Sicily, and a mountain that I suspected was Etna, the volcano.
I peered over at our car. I cannot drive, my friend had been driving me around. There was no one in the town, I was completely alone. I tried not to think about how I was going to resolve the situation if my friend did not show up soon.
While I was looking out to sea, I noticed a plaque on a rock in front of me. It was in memory of “Father Catanoso”, and cited a quote from him which I can best translate like so:
“Many works are not needed to be a saint: not intelligence, not fruitfulness, not conversational ability, just one thing: love”.
I felt humbled by these words. They seemed to contain something we are forgetting in modern times. We are all being pressured to show what accomplished people we are: we are supposed to highlight our achievements, and our knowledge, and in the internet age we need to be good communicators. But in the end, we should be concentrating on something that is in the gaps of our new digital existence– the need to truly care for others.
I later looked up who Father Catanoso was: a local parish priest who was made a saint by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Pentedatillo was his first parish, where he served from 1904 until 1921. He was dedicated to trying to emulate Jesus’ efforts to serve the poor, and would travel on a donkey to surrounding villages to preach in remote places.
He formed a community of nuns to help him in his efforts to aid the poor. They set up schools and care homes for the elderly in very small local villages, aiming partly to fight the spread of mafia organisations through education.
His story intrigued me. Even more now I know that the surrounding area is facing a lot of problems linked to the growing power of Calabria’s ‘Ndrangheta mafia, feeding off the poverty and desperation that some people face.
Later, I read an Italian book entitled “The Sense of Places” about abandoned towns and the meaning that is held in them. This is what the Calabrian author Vito Teti says:
“The stories of abandonment today are the last great myths of a world that is changing quickly and that, maybe, we are really losing forever”.
I hope the story of Father Catanoso and his efforts to help the poor is not a story that the world is going to lose. In fact, it is one that we need to keep hearing.
I definitely felt I had learned something in Pentedattilo, but I think there was a lot more stories (or myths) to discover, and for the local region to tell.
Luckily my adventurous friend showed up a little while later, coming down the hill from the opposite direction. As she reached me in the church square a nearby shop opened selling souvenirs, trinkets and products made using locally grown bergamot. We bought some magnets and saw a room that had been set up in the same way that traditional houses would have been designed when the town was inhabited.
It was really interesting to see this, and I was sorry that the other artisan and terracotta shops were not open during my visit in May. The Pendedattilo museum’s website says it is developing a project to serve as a window on local rural culture, including an exhibition of traditional objects and materials, and installations in different houses, including a “house of (Edward) Lear” and a “house of bergamot”.
This made me think of a town in northern England called Beamish, which transformed itself into an open-air museum when a local realised during the 1950s that the northern industries and communities were disappearing. www.beamish.org.uk.
Frank Atkinson, the director of the Bowes Museum at the time, got the idea from Scandinavian folk museums, and with the aim of preserving local heritage, he also encouraged the local population to donate items that reflected the everyday life of the people.
Maybe Pentedattilo could take some inspiration from the various workshops, events and things to see and do in Beamish nowadays. A development of the kind could be a great way to attract more tourists to the town and revive its culture. I know that some people do not like the idea of their towns being turned into museums, but if Pentedattilo is already deserted, then a museum approach could be the start of its recovery.
There may be some other problems to tackle before this is possible though, as this passage in Teti’s book describing a painter who moved to Pentedattilo suggests:
“Some years ago a foreign painter restored an old house in the village to come and paint and live in. Within a few months his house started to be full of people, and to become a destination for Reggio youth who came to sort out the streets, to plant geraniums and to paint the walls. This annoyed someone and one night the house of the painter from abroad was set on fire: the fire blackened the walls and covered up many dreams. The young man decided to go away. Nevertheless other young people continue to arrive from all over Italy, to clean the streets and promote initiatives. The local and national newspapers talk about Pentedattilo: it is visited by groups of boy scouts, by married couples, it is a stop for environmentalists and excursionists, it is the focus of tourist projects and of restoration works and partial recovery. The cultural association of Pentedattilo dreams of transforming the old village into a place of meetings, exchange, friendship, of peace for the youth of all the Mediterranean”.
When we were leaving Pentedattilo, we did actually come across two people who lived locally. They were interested to hear where we were from, and when we said Britain, they asked us about what life was like there, and if it was easy to get a job. We said it was generally not that difficult to at least find some work to do. This is how they described their situation in response:
“It’s not like that here. There is nothing for us here. Nothing.”
I believe there is in fact something, and it is held in the absolute wonder of the natural surroundings, some unusual local legends and historical events (including the Alberti family massacre in 1686) and the interesting traditions of this ancient area that many tourists will be increasingly interested to discover. The fascination the town holds remains true today as it was when Lear, a skilled landscape painter who had an eye for beauty, visited in 1847 and remembered it like this:
“On advancing, the views of the wondrous crags of Pentedatilo become astonishingly fine and wild, and as the sun set in crimson glory, displayed a truly magnificent and magical scene of romance — the vast mass of pinnacled rock rearing itself alone above its neighbour hills, and forming a landscape which is the beau-ideal of the terrible in Calabrian scenery.”
Here’s a video of Pentedattilo in modern times, accompanied by me reading some of Lear’s words: