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The Sicilian ghost town that refuses to die

Poggioreale was abandoned in 1968 after an earthquake, but community leaders have plans to make the town into one of Europe's most scenic vacation destinations.

Posted: Jul 7, 2019 4:30 AM
Updated: Jul 7, 2019 4:30 AM

Half a century ago, the picturesque Sicilian town of Poggioreale was hit by an earthquake that caused most of its citizens to flee for good, even though many buildings remained standing.

What they left behind has become one of Italy's largest ghost towns -- a place frozen at the exact time of the earthquake. In the school, only part destroyed, pupils' scribblings are still on the chalkboard and a calendar on the wall marks the year: 1968.

Outside, cobblestone streets lined with lavishly frescoed palazzos featuring decorated stone porches, majolica-tiled floors and Arab-style courtyards -- once the homes of wealthy farmers and landowners -- stand empty, save for a few stray dogs.

Buildings' golden stone façades shine in the sunlight while colorful walls and ceilings stand out amid fallen trees, moss and rubble.

Sicilians call this place their modern Pompeii. It's an open-air museum where the architecture has resisted nature's ravages.

But Poggioreale's clock could be about to turn again and the ghosts from the past banished. Girolamo Cangelosi, the mayor of a new Poggioreale town that was built further down the valley after the quake, has a plan to bring it back to life -- and he wants Americans to help.

"Ever since the 1968 earthquake, this stunning village has been empty," he tells CNN Travel. "I want to bring it back from the grave and make it shine again as it did in the past."

Cangelosi's grand idea isn't just idle daydreaming. He's already begun drawing up plans and placed architects on standby. All he's lacking is the money to do it.

Which is why he recently embarked on a globetrotting crusade to raise funds, setting his sights first on former Poggioreale residents and their families, 5,000 of whom he says are now living in the United States, scattered between New York, Texas, Massachusetts and Louisiana.

Also scheduled was a stop in Australia, where about 4,000 more are believed to have emigrated after the quake.

Bargain price

Cangelosi is convinced he can not only persuade his town's nostalgic diaspora to sink some New World wealth into their old home, but also attract money from other tourists hoping to grab themselves a piece of pure Italian magic for a bargain price.

"I'm touring the world to reconnect with local families who have long left but still feel a strong attachment to their hometown and want to help," he says, adding that he's banking on the fact that "tourists who love our land, small-scale developers and emigrants from Poggioreale now living in other countries will lend a hand."

Poggioreale is the latest depopulated town in Sicily and elsewhere in Italy to try radical approaches to halt their slide into oblivion. A series of other locations have sold off old homes for as little as one euro -- or just over a dollar -- to people willing to move in.

That's a deal that could be on the table in Poggioreale too -- as long as investors are willing to stump up the 50,000 euros needed to refurbish an old property -- once basic rebuilding makes the roads and piazzas safe again and utilities are reconnected.

Anyone tempted to invest would be buying into Sicilian history. The town, whose name translates as "the royal mound," was founded in 1642 by a prince who was gifted the area by Ferdinand IV, the Bourbon king of Spain and Sicily.

Legend has it that an earlier settlement was built by Elimo, a Trojan hero who fled from his burning city and found refuge among gentle rolling hills and forests at the feet of Sicily's Mount Castellazzo.

Former glory

Whatever the origin story, Poggioreale grew over the centuries into a prosperous Sicilian town with a huge amphitheatre-shaped piazza with churches and temples overlooking a pristine valley.

An idyllic spot, until the earthquake struck.

Reminders of the tragedy are still visible. Underneath a fallen roof lies a crushed 1960s ambulance, emblazoned with a red cross. Its wheels are turned to the right -- it was exiting from the garage when the ground shook. It never made it out to rescue those in need.

Today part of Poggioreale's old town is used as a training ground for earthquake rescuers and their dogs.

In theory, it shouldn't take much to restore Poggioreale to something like its former glory. The town has good facilities, albeit in bad shape. There's a theater, library, hospital, marketplace, orphanage and even a small inn for wayfarers.

Some of the buildings still bear the name tags of their former occupants -- an attractions for locals who sometimes come in search of their family's former home in the old town's maze of alleyways.

Living witness

Cangelosi's goal is to turn Poggioreale into a niche vacation retreat with picturesque dwellings, boutiques, artisan shops, restaurants, bars and B&Bs. The surrounding countryside is still perfect, with peaceful olive groves and sheep-grazed meadows.

Nearby hills -- great for bike tours, trekking and mushroom hunts -- are dotted with ruined castles and other smaller ghost hamlets like Salaparuta where collapsed farmhouses, columns and fountains are buried by lush vegetation.

Extra virgin olive oil, sheep cheese specialties and premium local wines are also on offer.

The mayor isn't alone in his mission to revitalize the ghost town. A group of volunteers, headed by Giacinto Musso, has been toiling to preserve the site and recover lost objects.

Musso, whose grandfather died in the quake, comes to the town each day to greet visitors, stand sentinel over the ruins and share his memories as a living witness.

"I used to play with other kids my age along the sun-kissed main street," he recalls. "It was buzzing with life, olive oil merchants mingled with cattle-breeders, nobles, actors and artisans. This was once a prosperous town. Couples would stroll in the evenings as peasants returned from the fields.

"Poggioreale is not a dead town. It's alive and my life mission is to prevent it falling into oblivion."

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