The Calabria of ghost towns

Journey through abandoned villages, now film sets

© Creditis: Vincenzo Stranieri

Living slow

Some call them "ghost-cities" or "ghost towns", in the case of small villages, a fascinating definition of places that were once inhabited and are no longer inhabited due to natural or man-made causes, such as disasters and more or less spontaneous emigration.

Calabria is rich in such places of memory, having suffered for many years both phenomena that led to the depopulation of entire territories. Among Calabria's "ghost towns" there are some truly suggestive ones, where mournful legends and a still tangible genius loci linger, wandering around abandoned ruins; others, repurposed and skilfully used as open-air film sets.

Let us discover them together, from north to south, in an itinerary to discover Calabria's "ghost cities".

Calabria: a story of abandonments and returns

Earthquakes and landslides, floods and emigration are among the most frequent reasons for the depopulation of Calabria, particularly of the small inland villages nestled on the mountain and hillside heights. Places that now look out to the sea from the heights of a solitude that has something dramatic, yet profoundly romantic about it.

Abandoned houses are poetry, with their doors and windows wide open to rooms that still bear the original furnishings of yesteryear, the half-painted tables, the everyday objects almost waiting for their rightful owners to return to use them.

A suspended universe is that of the "ghost towns" in Calabria, whose chapels shrouded in brambles, narrow streets cluttered with weeds and panoramic views between the sea and the mountains tell a fascinating story of traditions, myths and legends.

The ghost towns in Calabria

We set off on an itinerary among the ancient abandoned villages in Calabria to discover their past, present and, why not, future prospects. From north to south, the "ghost towns" that you can visit are:

  • Avena
  • Cirella Vecchia
  • Acerenthia (or Cerenzia Vecchia)
  • Papaglionti
  • Roghudi
  • Pentedattilo
  • Africo Vecchia

The itinerary to discover the "ghost towns" starts from the province of Cosenza and the site of Avena, a hamlet of Papasidero, a town already known for its Romito Cave (a prehistoric site of worldwide significance).

Avena is the "ghost town" of the Lao Valley displaced by the 1982 earthquake. Clinging to its panoramic cliff, Avena preserves among its alleys the remains of buildings that are still full of charm, such as the Church of the Holy Trinity (16th century) and the Castle. Private dwellings seem frozen in time, with household objects left waiting to return, in an atmosphere of precariousness shrouded in silence.

Luca Fregola

The itinerary to discover the "ghost towns" starts from the province of Cosenza and the site of the ancient Cirillae, today "Ruins of Cirella", a hamlet of Diamante, along the splendid Riviera dei Cedri. The medieval settlement dates back to the early 10th century, damaged several times by pirate attacks and then rebuilt until 1800, when it was finally destroyed by bombardment by the Napoleonic fleet. Reconstruction followed in the marine part, today's Cirella.

Strolling through the ancient site's boundary walls, one comes across the remains of the Church of San Nicola Magno and the Mother Church, the Monastery of the Minims and the Convent of San Francesco di Paola, dating from 1545, with the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie attached. The oldest remains, dating back to Roman times, indicate the presence of a villa and a mausoleum. Today, the site is home to the modern Amphitheatre of the Ruderi, which every summer sees artists and shows staged against the naturalistic backdrop of the Cirella Island, Calabria's second small island together with the nearby Dino Island.

Ruderi di Cirella
Regione Calabria

We proceed towards the province of Crotone to discover the second stage of the itinerary on "ghost towns" in Calabria. Here we are welcomed by the ancient Acerenthia (or Akerentia), in the municipality of present-day Cerenzia, near the river Acheronte, today known as Lese. The town, surrounded by high walls, was abandoned in 1844 due to the difficult sanitary conditions of the time, caused by epidemics and the 1738 earthquake.

Today, among the streets of the abandoned village you can still find buildings that resist the passage of time, such as the Bishop's Palace, the symbol and monument of Acherenthia, and the Church of San Leone and San Teodoro di Amasea. Near the village, the Basilian Caves, one of the most important centres of the Greek-Byzantine rite at the time, are worth a visit.

Regione Calabria

The province of Vibo Valentia also has its "ghost town". It is Papaglionti, located 460 m above sea level, near Zungri, where there is also an ancient rocky site worth visiting: the Zungri Caves. The toponym, probably of Greek-Byzantine origin, is said to derive from Paleontos (or Papas Leonitius), possibly referring to the ecclesiastic owner of the hamlet.

Like so many other villages, Papaglionti was also abandoned due to a flood in 1952 and today, although it is shrouded in brambles and nature has reclaimed its space, it still preserves the remains of the Church of San Pantaleone and the 18th-century Francia Palace, as well as the remains of dwellings crystallised in time, with their furnishings waiting to return. Along the way, there is also an interesting 17th-century calvary with a painting of the crucifixion.

Finally, we reach the province of Reggio Calabria and three unmissable gems for lovers of ghostly places.

The first village to visit is Roghudi, 500 metres above sea level on a rock in the heart of the Amendolea torrent, in the Grecanica ethnic minority area. It is not easy to get there, the road is impassable and, as the site's Greek name suggests, full of "rogòdes" (or "rhekhodes", rugged crevasses), to which ancient and lugubrious legends are linked. One of these tells of children tied to the outer walls of houses, on which hooks still survive, to prevent them from falling into the precipices while playing unattended. Often, the mysterious nocturnal disappearances of men and children were blamed on the naràde, mythological creatures that were half-woman and half-mule.

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A short distance away, among the most beautiful and redeveloped abandoned villages in Calabria, is Pentedattilo, whose name in Greek literally means "five fingers" and recalls the particular shape of the rock outcrop in which the village is carved. Getting there is easy and the sight of the small houses and the ancient church with its unmistakable bell tower is like a small nativity scene set in a cliff.

The cliff is the same one that in the 16th century witnessed the tragedy known as the "Massacre of the Alberti", named after the noble family that held the territory. A passionate and heinous crime, on which the dark legend still hovers today that, one day, the "five fingers" of the mountain will close like a fist on the town. The more daring (or romantic) can tempt fate and spend a night in the silent magic of this abandoned place, which now offers tourists the hospitality of its small houses restored in the form of a diffuse hotel and the folklore of its small craft workshops.

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Finally, the ruins of Africo Vecchio, the original settlement that preceded the foundation of Africo Nuovo (in marina), abandoned after a terrible flood (1951).

Reaching the ruins of Africo Vecchio, clinging to the remotest bush in the heart of Aspromonte, is by no means easy. It is an excursion for the few, but the fascinating discovery of the arrival is worth the walk. Everything is still standing at the precise moment of abandonment; the houses, the primary school and the striking Church of San Salvatore.

Regione Calabria

Last update: Feb 15, 2024 10:37 AM