A picture-postcard medieval village, Morano Calabro lies within the Pollino National Park in the very north of Calabria along the Basilicata border. Its tightly packed houses along a maze of lanes wrapped around a hill appear like a fairytale, often likened to a nativity scene, in Italian il Presepe del Pollino.
MORANO CALABRO ORIGINS
There are numerous theories as to the derivation of the name Morano Calabro, ranging from a Greek word meaning to come together or to pile up, as a description of the village’s shape, to a Hebrew word for castle, to the completely implausible notion that it was founded by Moors, as the community already existed in Roman times. Calabro was added after unification to distinguish it from Morano sul Po in the Piedmont region.
While the specific origins are not clear, Morano Calabro was on the map by the second century BC, as evidenced by an important historic street marker, known as the Lapis Pollae. This marble milestone, discovered in the Province of Salerno, testifies to Morano as a stopping place on the Roman road that went from Capua to Reggio Calabria, the Via Capua–Reghium, also known as the southern route of the Via Popilia, which ran 321 miles (517 km). You can see the Latin name, Muranum, on the fifth line of the Roman marker.
Morano Calabro sits at an altitude of 700 meters (2300 feet), on the crown of a hill with a panoramic view of the Coscile River valley and a stunning backdrop of the southern side of the Pollino Mountains with its multiple peaks reaching well over 2,000 meters or 7,000 feet. Many accredit the Romans with founding the community, others propose earlier beginnings, such as by the Greeks, the Oenotrians or by prehistoric peoples, as Morano Calabro lies at a natural crossroads. This strategic location has contributed to its ups and downs, and throughout time Morano has been the setting of numerous armed conflicts, such as the 10th-century Saracen attack successfully beaten back by the moranesi, citizens of Morano, who remember the victory today with both its historic coat of arms as well as with an annual reenactment, called the Festa della Bandiera (Festival of the Flag).
NORMAN-SWABIAN CASTLE IN MORANO CALABRO
Shortly after the celebrated triumph over the Saracen aggressors, the Normans entered the scene and built a castle over the remains of a Roman watchtower. This 11th-century construction would be amplified several times, and over many centuries, its defensive walls would be put to the test, as well. Today, the imposing ruins are a picturesque reminder of the Normans, the Swabians and the various feudal lords from medieval times up to the Napoleonic period.
No longer barred by a drawbridge or moat, access to the castle only requires a modest entrance ticket. The setting is dramatic and the grounds are lovely, flanked by old stone walls and two of the six cylindrical towers from the most recent renovation hundreds of years ago. Part of the structure’s remaining three interior floors gives an idea of the size of the fortification, said to have had the capacity to accommodate a thousand-man garrison that could withstand long periods of siege.
Views over the tiled-roof community, over the valley and out to the mountains, through empty windows and doors, a vestige of what it once was – although just a shell, the castle still dominates the area, in an inviting way.
HISTORIC CENTER OF MORANO CALABRO
The community of Morano Calabro developed throughout the Middle Ages and still retains its medieval layout. Houses cover the hillside, seemingly in a jumble. Many in the historic center have been abandoned as the town that boasted close to 10,000 inhabitants at the end of the nineteenth century was drastically reduced to 6,000 through emigration into the early twentieth, and down to just over 4,000 moranesi today.
At the heart of this labyrinth of old houses is a delightful initiative to restore the ancient dwellings and to find a way to bring life back to the community. The project Il Nibbio, named after a bird of prey, has established a Museo Naturalistico (nature museum), an Albergo Diffuso (guest lodgings in various buildings), old artisan workshops and even a music lab. Buying up dilapidated properties in the area around the castle, the organization has developed a broad plan of not only restoring the abandoned structures, but of creating a cultural aspect that attracts visitors to the area with lodging and programs geared for all ages.
As Morano Calabro is a jumping off point for activities in the Pollino National Park, Italy’s largest, why not offer a nature museum? Collections of mammals, birds, insects, flora, fauna and even fossils and minerals fill contemporary cases in several of the old structures. I particularly appreciate the exhibit space shared with an ancient fireplace and nooks.
Many medieval domiciles have been lovingly renovated and are available for rent, complete with stunning mountain views and antique furnishings. Stepping into these little abodes is like going back in time.
A garden bar will whet guests’ whistles and meals prepared with local ingredients can be arranged. And there is a larger house, called Il Convivio del Nibbio (the banquet of the bird of prey), a cozy area for small receptions and even house concerts. Its funky decorations include an old-fashioned brazier, which would have warmed the residents of the old dwellings.
CHURCHES OF MORANO CALABRO
As in any Italian community, Morano Calabro has its share of old churches and precious objects within them. The Chiesa dei Santi Apostoli Pietro e Paolo, in the castle district, is one of the oldest, dating from 1007, although its façade and interior reflect later renovations.
Amongst the artistic highlights are four marble statues of the church’s Apostles Peter and Paul together with the saints Catherine of Alexandria and Lucy by Tuscan sculptor Pietro Bernini, father of the more famous Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the carved wooden altar and pulpit of local artistry, and the silver processional cross.
Built just outside the original walls, the Collegiata di Santa Maria contains a beautiful polyptych altarpiece of Bartolomeo Vivarini that was commissioned by a Sanseverino feudal lord back in the 15th century for the nearby Monastero di San Bernardino da Siena, also worth a visit while in town, perhaps for the celebration of this patron saint Bernardino of Siena together with the above-mentioned Festa della Bandiera on May 20th.
VISIT MORANO CALABRO
While a visit to Morano Calabro may seem off the beaten path, don’t forget that Muranum was a stop for the Romans heading south, and today, there’s an exit off the A2 highway that goes from Salerno to Reggio Calabria (formerly the A3).
Over 100 years ago, Norman Douglas visited the town and in his Old Calabria complained of the great difficulty in finding a mule for hire. He wrote that he was told mules were “very busy animals in Morano…. Animali occupatissimi.” And I reflect, perhaps they were all assisting the thousands of moranesi headed for Naples on their way to the Americas with their worldly goods loaded on the backs of the classic beast of burden. Interesting that Douglas didn’t put two and two together regarding the scarcity of mules, as he went on to comment, “The men of Morano emigrate to America; two-thirds of the adult and adolescent male population are at this moment on the other side of the Atlantic.” Many landed in Latin America: Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica and Guatemala; and Morano Calabro’s sister city is Brazil’s Porto Alegre, estimated to count 15,000 moranesi amongst its population.
In 1930, M. C. Escher, the Dutch graphic artist, visited Morano Calabro and was inspired by what he saw. The conglomeration of houses growing out of the hillside take on an order and symmetry, blending with both their environment and his creative style.
Morano Calabro is on the list of I Borghi più belli d’Italia or Italy’s most beautiful villages, one of sixteen in Calabria. Not to be missed on any visit are the local products, in particular the cheeses made from the native sheep and the excellent cured pork products. When will that visit be? It’s apparently in the hands of those greater than ourselves.
While in the Pollino Mountains, don’t miss the nearby Grotta del Romito: Prehistoric Art and Grave Sites in Papasidero, and read more about the area in my books Calabria: The Other Italy and Basilicata: Authentic Italy – “Recommended to readers who appreciate all things Italian” by Library Journal.