As we drove up the hill to Badolato, a fleet of bicycles was coming down. The riders looked serious and there seemed to be a lot of them for a weekday morning in spring. “They’re Danish. We have a large Scandinavian community here in Badolato.” Having heard of the town’s welcoming of migrants some twenty years previously, I had expected a different sort of foreigner in Badolato. I quickly learned that this medieval village was a melting pot, a harmonious mix of native Badolatesi, migrants, emigrants and vacationers.
WHERE IS BADOLATO?
The medieval town of Badolato lies in the sole of Italy’s boot about 30 kilometers (19 miles) south of Catanzaro, Calabria’s capital. The village sits on a hill at 240 meters (787 feet) above sea level and about five kilometers (3 miles) from the Ionian Sea. What this means is that the Badolatesi (people from Badolato) have wonderful views of a rugged, natural countryside meeting a clear blue sea.
The aforementioned Danes chose a location nearer the sea for their complex of 100 villette (small houses), easily cycling up to the old town past the large stone fortification walls to soak in a bit of village life when it strikes their fancy. Before the last century, the entire population was concentrated in the old town, which has weathered numerous earthquakes throughout its 1,000-year history.
The earthquake of 1947 followed up by a catastrophic deluge in 1951 dealt the definitive blows and the Italian state began to build homes near the train station along the coast. Thus, Badolato Marina was born, and Badolato proper began to empty out.
VILLAGE FOR SALE
In 1986, with much of the village abandoned, Badolato launched an initiative to sell vacated property in order to bring life back to the community. A novelty at the time, this paese in vendita or “village for sale” was first announced in Rome’s daily paper Il Tempo and quickly became popular with press all over the world. Other villages in distress followed suit.
The word was out and over thirty years later Badolato exhibits very positive results. Much of the village is inhabited, and there’s a distinctive bustle of activity, Italian style – in other words, a relaxed, convivial atmosphere.
MIGRANTS IN ITALY
The initiative to repopulate the abandoned town through the sale of real estate would have been enough for such a small community to brag about; however, a decade later Badolato was also on the forefront of the migrant issue years before it became a common talking point. In 1997, the Badolatesi distinguished themselves by opening up their village to refugees crammed into a Turkish boat that happened to float up to their particular stretch of the Ionian coastline.
The political refugees were mostly Kurds of whom Badolato hosted 339, many in houses opened up by the municipality and others in private dwellings. Thus, the medieval village was once again thrust into the national, and then the international, limelight. The neighboring town of Riace (of the famous Riace Bronzes, life-sized ancient statues found in local waters) took up the cause shortly thereafter.
These early gestures of welcoming migrants in Calabria became the subject of Il Volo (2009), a short film shot in Badolato, Riace and Scilla by the German director Wim Wenders, best known for the award-winning documentary Buena Vista Social Club. Interestingly, at a 20-year celebration of the fall of the Berlin wall held in Germany’s capital city, Wenders reflected on his experience in Calabria: “The real miracle isn’t here, but in Calabria, where for the first time I saw a better world. I saw a community that, through its generous reception of outsiders was capable of resolving, not so much the migrant problem, but its own challenges regarding its future existence, so as not to die by way of depopulation and immigration.” (altralocride.it)
Another intriguing dimension to the town is the presence of a community called Mondo X, a national organization that helps people in difficulty, many of whom have struggled with drug addiction. They commit themselves to work and prayer, supporting one another in their isolated world without modern electronics or connection with the outside.
In Badolato, the group is all male, and their home is a former Franciscan monastery that they themselves have fixed up. This 17th-century complex sits on a hill facing the town with a beautiful view down its cypress-lined drive and up to the old town. The members work many hours in their large garden, and when needed, help out with projects in the village.
THE MULTICULTURAL COMMUNITY
At this point, the reader is no doubt asking himself just how this all comes out in the wash. And I’m going to be honest, when I first saw the cyclists and started running into people from different parts of the world in the old town with a population of just several hundred during most of the year, I was skeptical.
Let’s face it, most people go to Italy to experience the Italian culture, eat Italian food, meet Italian people, and so forth. Of course, I remind myself that the length of the Italian boot has been dominated and influenced by a myriad of cultures throughout its existence.
What first convinced me that it all worked was my observation of the older people, the sparkle in their eyes, the life in their faces, their enthusiastic “buongiorno,” and the active participation and interaction between the local seniors and the non-Italian residents and tourists. Moreover, these foreigners were happy to be there and that pleasant feeling seemed to spread.
So what about the migrants? At one point as our little group was walking through the narrow lanes with our host Guerino Nistico’, a little girl came running down the street, called out with a long “Ciao,” and jumped into his arms. He swept her up with a, “Ciao, bella!” And she started chatting away in perfect Italian. Her grandfather, one of the original Kurds, stepped out of his doorway and waved to Guerino. He had chosen to stay and put down roots in the community. The headwaiter at the pizza place on the main square was from Pakistan, and he wasn’t going anywhere else anytime soon, either. Of course, for many other migrants, Badolato was and is just a stepping stone.
As a visitor, I literally got a taste of the local hospitality when going around the old town and meeting a few of the village’s newer residents living in beautifully renovated homes. They were eager to show what they had done with the interiors, but as beautifully designed and executed as they were, the incredible views from the rooms and expansive terraces were difficult to top.
Characteristic elements such as huge, exposed ceiling beams, wood-framed windows, stone walls and old floor tiles blended with both rustic and modern furnishings. Original, uneven stone staircases and sleek, metal steps served to connect the rooms of the multi-storied dwellings.
Many interior spaces embraced new functions, such as a former donkey stall that was transformed into a comfortable, eat-in kitchen. Terrace tables were filled with pitchers of fresh-squeezed lemonade, cocktails, wine and an assortment of savory treats.
The newer Badolatesi weren’t only from northern Europe and politically challenged countries, there were also Italians from other regions as well as several Americans. Many were vacationers or retirees, while others plied a trade in the old town. I had the opportunity to meet a few writers, a chef and even a yoga instructor.
MY STAY IN BADOLATO
My narrow, multi-storied lodging placed me in the heart of the medieval village. The steep, narrow streets fostered a construction in which each floor was a room, and there was an entrance on each level. The main door led into the kitchen on the top floor, the middle story had a door onto the side street, and the bottom level’s doorway faced the lower street to the back. Inside, a modern, metal staircase led from the kitchen down to the two bedrooms and baths below. Cozy, and it gave me the feeling of what a small home in the village was like.
Visitors have a choice of various apartments and rooms in what is referred to as an albergo diffuso, which means a hotel or accommodations spread out in various locations or buildings throughout the old town. And for a relaxing vacation, a peaceful view of rolling hills and a chorus of birds cannot be underestimated.
However, for me, it was the enthusiasm of the people that won out – the welcoming atmosphere; the Badolatesi, emigrants and migrants gave off an air of contentedness. And this ambience is the sort that vacationers pick up on, and some even cycle around the countryside with it.
Thanks to Riviera e Borghi degli Angeli of Badolato for inviting me to Badolato and sharing the village’s story and hospitality with me. The association is a network of local individuals and businesses with the mission to promote the area for the betterment of Badolato, its residents, guests and the territory.
Read more about the region’s many other villages, towns and cities in Calabria: The Other Italy, my non-fiction book about daily life, history, culture, art, food and society in this fascinating southern Italian region. Check out a few other blog posts about Calabrian localities: Pentedattilo: A Ghost Town in Calabria, Amantea: A Seaside Attraction, Palizzi: Yesterday and Today, San Giovanni in Fiore: Gioacchino’s Outpost in the Sila Mountains and Cosenza: Old and New.
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