Travel /
Calabria

Pietrapaola, Calabria’s best kept secret

We arrive in a golden glow. As the sun begins its journey, dipping into the Ionian and all looks as though it’s been touched by Midas. Admittedly, everything is more beautiful in the hour before sun sets but Pietrapaola tucked neatly into the hills away from the concrete lined coastline of the east of Calabria is something else. Abandoned by all but 100 of its former residents, this town is a secret I can hardly believe has been so well kept. 

First impressions of the eastern coast of Calabria aren’t great. Ugly concrete blocks built in the 80s and 90s guard the beach. Catching a bit of blue on the coastal road is virtually impossible. From here though, Pietrapaola is a twenty minute drive. Dropped between verdant olive groves atop a hill. 

We were tipped off by a friend, who was tipped off by another friend. “You have to see this place, you’ll love it,” came the text, when I asked for tips on Calabria. And so the original plan to head to the coastal resorts of Tropea and Scilla has been binned. Puglia’s coastline off-season was not very much fun, so we learn from our mistakes and decide to explore inland, once we get to Calabria. 

We’re staying at one of three apartments available to rent in the entire village. It belonged to the grandmother of Rosa, our host, and much like Airbnbs were in the formative years of the Airbnb empire, it feels lived in. Nonnas clothes and bags still hang from hooks dotted jauntily around the house. Her touches are everywhere and we instantly feel at home, in spite of her portraits eyeing us from various corners of each room. 

From our balcony, idiosyncratic terracotta tiled roofs give way to rolling green hills and the inky blue sea beyond. The church bells chime (completely off the hour), birds fill the skies and dance across our view and a couple of huge white dogs playfully spar in the street below. We don’t hear a single human. Neither do we see one. Our only interaction over the course of the afternoon is with the owner of the empty bar across the road, who kindly offers to drive down to the coast to stock up on fresh vegetables and fruit for us and insists on giving us each a red crodino. 

One of over 2,000  Italian villages that are virtually abandoned, Pietrapaola’s residents have mainly all moved on. Its charming stone houses and terracotta tiles are no match for the lure of the big cities or the infrastructure offered along the coast. In spite of this, 38-year-old filmmaker Daniel Kemeny – the friend of our friend – has based himself here. 

We’re cooking up a speedy carbonara as Daniel’s voice booms out of the darkness in the street below. He calls my name in the black of the night and I get a fright. Of course, he knows we’re staying here. The entire village knows there are new arrivals tonight. 

“To leave here is to lose your identity and in so doing, the place loses its identity and the people their traditions,” he says, as we sit on our balcony, breathing in the crisp winter night. He was raised in Pietrapaola to two German parents and although he left as a child, the village has drawn him back. It’s Daniel that managed to persuade a couple of locals into putting their houses on airbnb. He has also shot a documentary film (Sòne) here over the course of seven years, which premiered in 2020 at Visions du Réel documentary festival. The subject of the film is returning to a home you can no longer recognise.

“There was life in these streets when I was a kid. Kids playing outside. Old women gossiping. It wasn’t always so quiet,” says Daniel, who promises to take us around the village the following day. 

Other than the erratic church bells and the sounds of washing coming from a nonna that lives across from our apartment, we wake to only birdsong for company. Daniel has promised us a day with Mimma, a matriarch that lives on a farm at Pietrapaola’s peak. So we head over for breakfast, following a battered Fiat Panda, and are welcomed with wide open arms and freshly baked bread straight out of the oven. 

Mimma’s eyes sparkle. Her entire face beams. “It’s so nice to have guests,” she says and we get the impression she hasn’t seen anyone ‘new’ around here in a while. This could change for Pietrapaola. Since the start of the pandemic, real estate agents in Italy have reported searches for property in the countryside rising by 20%. A workforce that was previously office-bound within concrete jungles is now discovering the true meaning of ‘remote’ working. Given the choice of grey, tower blocks and sprawling olive groves, surely most now would choose the latter?

Mimma feeds us spicy Sardelle – a bright red Calabrian paste made of tiny sardines preserved in ground down peperoncino. We slather it over the fresh bread out of the wood fired oven and kick start the day with a fire in our bellies.  

Daniel heads off for the olive harvest and we hike around the golden-toned village for the afternoon. We hear the tinkle of goat bells. The scents of drying mountain herbs float to us. We pick ripe, orange Kaki (persimmons) off the trees. But we see no one. 

Walking back into the village, we chance upon Franco, a labourer, who’s finishing up for the day. “There’s nothing left for them up here,” shrugs Franco. “The kids can’t walk to school if they stay here. It’s easier to just move to where everything is  the coast,” he says, explaining the domino effect tourism had on the village in the 1990s.

Before we know it, we’re being invited into the home of Giovanni, Franco’s 84-year-old neighbour. They’re speaking in such a strong dialect that we’re really struggling to understand them. Down into Giovanni’s basement we go, where the unlikely duo – Franco as tough and stocky as a bull and a shuffling, arthritic Giovanni with bright blue eyes – tour us past preserved olives, bottles-on-bottles of home made wine, hanging herbs, peperoncini and cheese. A little wooden table and stools are procured and we all sit around them. 

We’ve barely known the two for an hour but here we are all together, sipping the local wine and tearing off huge hunks of soft caciocavallo to eat with the sweet, red apples from Giovanni’s orchard. “We have never seen the village as quiet as it has been this year,” says Giovanni, insisting we come and visit him again. He takes out an old black and white  photograph of five handsome young men on mules and I spot him in an instant. His eyes have not lost their playful gleam. 

I ask if they have considered also leaving and following their relatives to the coast. “To leave isn’t and has never been an option,” says Giovanni, who has lived here his entire life and depends on the land around Pietrapaola for his livelihood even now, in his eighties. Emerging from his home hours later just in time for a pink-purple sunset,  high above the deep orange roofs of the village and the citrus groves below, I’m inclined to agree with Giovanni. If I stay here long enough, I too might never leave. 

Mimma feeds us spicy Sardelle – a bright red Calabrian paste made of tiny sardines preserved in ground down peperoncino. We slather it over the fresh bread out of the wood fired oven and kick start the day with a fire in our bellies.  

Daniel heads off for the olive harvest and we hike around the golden-toned village for the afternoon. We hear the tinkle of goat bells. The scents of drying mountain herbs float to us. We pick ripe, orange Kaki (persimmons) off the trees. But we see no one. 

Walking back into the village, we chance upon Franco, a labourer, who’s finishing up for the day. “There’s nothing left for them up here,” shrugs Franco. “The kids can’t walk to school if they stay here. It’s easier to just move to where everything is  the coast,” he says, explaining the domino effect tourism had on the village in the 1990s.

Before we know it, we’re being invited into the home of Giovanni, Franco’s 84-year-old neighbour. They’re speaking in such a strong dialect that we’re really struggling to understand them. Down into Giovanni’s basement we go, where the unlikely duo – Franco as tough and stocky as a bull and a shuffling, arthritic Giovanni with bright blue eyes – tour us past preserved olives, bottles-on-bottles of home made wine, hanging herbs, peperoncini and cheese. A little wooden table and stools are procured and we all sit around them. 

We’ve barely known the two for an hour but here we are all together, sipping the local wine and tearing off huge hunks of soft caciocavallo to eat with the sweet, red apples from Giovanni’s orchard. “We have never seen the village as quiet as it has been this year,” says Giovanni, insisting we come and visit him again. He takes out an old black and white  photograph of five handsome young men on mules and I spot him in an instant. His eyes have not lost their playful gleam. 

I ask if they have considered also leaving and following their relatives to the coast. “To leave isn’t and has never been an option,” says Giovanni, who has lived here his entire life and depends on the land around Pietrapaola for his livelihood even now, in his eighties. Emerging from his home hours later just in time for a pink-purple sunset,  high above the deep orange roofs of the village and the citrus groves below, I’m inclined to agree with Giovanni. If I stay here long enough, I too might never leave.