When people ask, "What should I see that will make my trip to Italy special?" my answer is always the same: Calcata. While there are many charming, forgotten places in Italy, Calcata stands out. Perched high atop a 150 meter hill of volcanic tuff rock, this fortified castle surrounded by dense forest immediately gives you the impression of having accidentally launched a time machine. What makes Calcata special are its unique residents, an international community of painters, sculptors, writers, artisans, craftsmen, performers, and artists.
In 1930 the government made a decision to abandon the hilltop settlement after they were warned by experts that the volcanic cliff that the village was built on might collapse. Citizens were moved to Calcata Nuova and the medieval fortress lay deserted save for some random cats until the 1960s when hippies and artists began to repopulate the area, squatting in the medieval houses. By the 70s the population that remained successfully lobbied the government to reverse its condemnation order for the village and many bought their homes and transformed them into comfortable living quarters and places for artistic creation and successful businesses. Now Calcata boasts a large number of art galleries, restaurants, cafes, B&Bs and little guesthouses for the small steadily growing number of tourists who visit the town.
After 30 years of abandonment the town is now back to life, but when you arrive at the gates of the fortress it is also quite clear that in many ways Calcata is still stuck in the past, albeit in a totally charming way. The first thing you will notice is that the gate was not designed with cars in mind so only pedestrians may pass through. Once you've walked inside you will feel lost in space and time, following a narrow winding passageway to the piazza, in the center of the village, where local artist Costantino Morosin known for his sculptures made three Etruscan-style thrones from volcanic rock.
From the square you can stroll down one of the narrow cobblestone alleyways that lead to a ridiculous number of art galleries, cafes and restaurants. Steep passages turn suddenly into small terraces overhanging the cliff, from which you can admire the landscape of the Treja Valley below. There is nothing that could disturb you from engrossing yourself in the atmosphere of this medieval town as there is almost no mobile phone reception, no ATM, and no post office. So while you might not be able to pull out cash 24/7 in Calcata you can get a tarot reading, get a peek of a sculptor immersed in the act of creation, watch a tile-maker at work or sit down to a meal served at one of the terraces overlooking the valley.
Residents of Calcata
Calcata is a village buzzing with creative energy thanks to its residents and while some refer to Calcata as the paese di fricchettoni or "village of freaks" because of its collection of artists and eccentrics many others value the diversity here. The New York Times described Calcata as maybe being "the grooviest village in Italy, home to a wacky community of about 100 artists, bohemians, aging hippies and New Age types". Some also believe that part of the village's unique energy emanates from Calcata's 150-foot-high volcanic stump. The Faliscans, a pre-Roman people, used the mountain as a sacred ritual site and some inhabitants of Calcata say they can still feel the energy which allows them to be free, creative, and open-minded. Residents also have a strong conviction that they saved the village by moving there and that it is reciprocal that the place has had its part in saving some of its lodgers.
Fiorenza Cafa, a local singer and painter specializing in oil portraits, says that four years before she was "shipwrecked in Calcata, carried there by a magical current of people who fight not to die under the weight of disillusions." Cafa says she decided to move to the village "because when I saw it for the first time about 21 years ago I was struck by its air of surrealism...stepping into this world was for me like entering space and time different from what I normally lived...I wanted to start all over here, because here I would be on my own and surrounded by other people as 'strange' as me...artists."
Fiorenza Cafa has just opened a guesthouse called L'isola che non c'era (http://www.calcatamagica.com), which is a space that is in itself a piece of art where you can spend a weekend in a magical and inspiring fairytale atmosphere. You can choose to stay in the Cave of Nilde, the Shelter of Trilly, Peter Pan, or the Fairy Room. Cafa came up with the idea when "a film crew came to me asking to rent my grotta as a location to film an old legend of Calcata. I was given a part of Nilde the Witch. This is where the idea for the bedroom came from."
You should not miss La Grotta dei Germogli http://www.grottadeigermogli.org, a nouvelle Italian restaurant that occupies several mosaic-lined caves on the edge of a cliff which overhangs the canyon of the river Treja. It is not only a restaurant, but also an art gallery. On weekends you can enjoy live music and performances of local artists.
In the main square you will find a grain store built in 1632 that now serves as a visitor's center and the seat of Il Granarone (http://www.ilgranarone.com/), the Cultural Association founded by Marijcke van der Maden, a Dutch puppet-maker who moved here in the early '80s. Marijcke explains her decision to move to Calcata: "I always liked small things, small villages, that is why I have chosen to make marionettes and puppets and Calcata is the right place for them. Also, Calcata is part of protected area, it has beautiful nature and is free of traffic and congestion." Il Granarone organizes exhibitions, concerts, theatre performances as well as international workshops and courses. Every Christmas Marijcke displays Nativity scenes with puppets depicting Calcata's inhabitants.
The artistic initiative has spread even beyond the village. A local sculptor Costantino Morosin together with Anne Demijttenaere, a Belgian actress and painter, founded Opera Bosco (http://www.operabosco.eu/), an open-air museum located in the forests below Calcata. An enchanting walk in the woods takes you to the sculptures and art installations created from local materials like tuff, wooden branches, and dirt. The museum also organizes workshops and multimedia exhibitions.
There is a mutual affection between Calcata and its inhabitants that you can feel when you visit the city. No one can be anonymous in this little community of less than 900 people who come from all over the world. What most Calcata residents share is a common love for their town and creativity. Asked why one should visit Calcata, Fiorenza Cafa said, "The first time I saw it I asked myself, am I dreaming? When I listen to questions people ask me, I start to think it has a similar effect on all of us - an impression of being inside a fairytale. And that's how my fairy tales have found their right place; Calcata."