As I look out of my window at the ominous grey sky, it makes me long for the hazy days of summer (or more precisely early autumn—summer is some kind of burning inferno I try to escape from) when a spur of the moment decision led me off into the middle of nowhere in search of a ghost town.
Returning from a trip to Selinunte, we decided to take a detour off in search of the ruins of old Poggioreale.
As we headed off on a road seemingly leading to nowhere, through endless fields of ripe yellow melons, I began to question whether this was really a wise idea at the end of a tough day’s archaeological-site visiting. As the road turned into some sort of winding, precarious track, which at one point had seen a landslide and had a new way through bodged together, I began to reflect seriously on whether I had lost control of my mental faculties.
It turns out, however, that this wasn’t the worst idea I’ve ever had, because waiting at the other side of that hill’s summit were the ruins of Poggioreale.
A Bit of History
The town of Poggioreale lies as it was left, after an earthquake in 1968. The quake first struck the Belice valley on the night of the 14th of January with subsequent quakes occurring over the following days. In total there were six 5+ magnitude earthquakes. These resulted in significant damage to many towns in the Belice valley. These include: Santa Ninfa, Partana, Montevago, Santa Margherita del Belice, Salaparuta, Gibellina and Poggioreale. As such, this earthquake is known in Italy as the Terremoto del Belice (the Belice earthquake).
The quake left hundreds dead, many hundreds more injured, and thousands homeless. In fact it left as many as 100,000 people with no home. Rather shamefully 60,000 of these people were still without a home nine years, yep NINE years later!
For financial reasons more than anything else, the town was rebuilt further down the hillside and so Poggioreale Antica was left to the nature that engineered its demise.
Visiting the Ruins
Knowing the history of the place makes visiting these ruins a unique experience.
The entrance to the town is via a gate which is closed for safety reasons, a weathered sign hanging off it proclaims danger. Outside the gate are two wiry shepherds herding their flock over a tumble-down wall to graze on the plants that have sprung up from the rubble. And there lies the juxtaposition of this place. For all intents and purposes it is stagnant, and yet life moves on.
Beyond the gate the road is remarkably intact. The tarmac, for lack of use, is of the standard to be expected on any Sicilian road. The sound of running water draws me down the more uneven cobbled, stepped pathway to my left. There in the middle of a cobblestone square lies a water fountain and trough, its water still abundant and flowing. I don’t doubt that in the the hotter months those sheep are herded here to drink.
The most striking thing here is how intact it all still is. Here the interweaving fibres of the town’s fabric have only been lightly frayed.
Heading on up a steep, uneven cobble-way, however, you reach the central square, Piazza Elimo. Here the damage is more apparent. On the right is what is left standing of a building that was perhaps a chapel of some sort. A grand statue stands outside but the fourth wall is no longer there. From the centre of the square you can see the intricate frescoes decorating the walls. It’s a glimpse into a world which should have remained enclosed.
The grand staircase at the end of the piazza, which once led to the main church, seems out of place without a grand facade at its end. And as you walk the fractured streets you begin to feel like an intruder. Holes in walls reveal homes that were once closed up to prying eyes. Here the weave is no longer tight. The threads have come loose and the cloth has become worn and ugly.
The road parallel to the main road, which eventually leads up to the rubble foundations of the church, is in a far less secure state of repair. While the road is identifiable, the walls are spilling out onto it. The construction materials of past eras are exposed, asbestos was still used then. Yes, I suppose safety is one of the main reasons that Poggioreale is still in quarantine.
The people of Poggioreale, it seems, are not about to let the history fade, though. Tired of the squabbles concerned with assigning blame of the past, an association was born. Formed of volunteers, the Associazione di Poggioreale Antica seeks to promote the historic centre of old Poggioreale giving life to its memory. In fact, they have planned events for ten months out of the twelve in 2017.
They too see the veil of beauty which covers great sadness. And it is this intrigue that draws curious tourists up this hilltop. For Poggioreale is a monument to the human experience— its frailty, its day-to-day, its uniqueness.
Stopping to talk with the shepherds in their colourful Sicilian you can picture the place through their eyes. The squares aren’t relics, they are places they used to play. Those are not merely walls but houses of people they knew.
They tell us that the water fountain has recently been restored. That the town has been used as a location for filming and photoshoots. I can tell that they feel pride for their town. This place is definitely not dead to them. It is a living breathing testament to the fabric of life. And though that fabric might be cotton wool, there is a hope here that by adding some water and squishing it up they might just make a tighter weave to ensure its future.
How to Visit
If you want to visit Poggioreale and experience the ghost town for yourself, then from Trapani you need to take the A29 motorway and take the exit for Gallitello onto the Palermo-Sciacca expressway. Take the exit for Poggioreale and follow signs for ‘Ruderi di Poggioreale’ (literally the ruins of Poggioreale).
If you are coming from Palermo then take the Palermo-Sciacca expressway exiting at Poggioreale and then follow the signs for ‘Ruderi di Poggioreale’.
If you are planning on visiting please be aware that entrance is forbidden according to a 1982 mayoral directive. Anyone entering Poggioreale does so at their own risk as there is an obvious risk of collapse. However, while I was preparing this post Trapani Tourism Service posted recent pictures from Poggioreale which they uploaded just 2 days ago. In these pictures work to maintain the buildings can be seen, with one facade supported with scaffolding. In my experience Poggioreale isn’t so much a ghost town as a town in waiting. Maybe one day it will become a rich tapestry once more.