The Belice earthquake
As well as the rest of Italy, Sicily is a highly seismic territory: it was in 1968, in the night between January 14th and January 15th, that a strong earthquake destroyed a lot of small villages and towns in the Belice valley, 60 km south from Palermo, 45-55 minutes by car along the road denominated Palermo-Sciacca. That night some villages were completely razed to the ground, while some other partially resisted the seismic waves. Still today the whole area is dotted with ruins that witness what people went through during that winter: it was a tragic event, and those who survived lost in fact everything they had in a few moments. In many cases the villages were rebuilt a few km away from their original location (but this happened only years later): today what you can find on the map are the new villages, and somewhere nearby, the ruins of the old ones sharing the same name. Poggioreale, or as I would better say the “Ruins of Poggioreale”, are by far the most interesting spot in the area.
Ancient poggioreale was a beautiful rural village from the 17th century in the Sicilian countryside, that in spite it was only partially destroyed was declared entirely unsafe, the inhabitants, were compelled to leave and settle elsewhere. What is left today is a ghost town, a place who is travelling in Sicily should never miss to visit, as well as Monreale or Taormina. Obviously the experience is absolutely different: it is not a touristic attraction, there is no bar or souvenir shop, only ruins, wind, silence and magic.
The ruins of Poggioreale are maintained by an association of volunteers denominated Associazione culturale “Poggioreale antica” firstname.lastname@example.org to be contacted in advance to plan the visit. The association of volunteers which is led by Gino, takes care of the ruins, struggling against vandal actions, robberies and the action of time, trying to keep the memory of what life was like in this wonderful town during the sixties. Gino, a kind man in his late forties (he was three months old at the time of the earthquake) came to open the gate and let us in. Before starting the visit, facing the main entrance to the site, staring at what once was Corso Umberto I, the main street of the town, it is like looking at something similar to a cinematographic set: deserted street and half-ruined buildings seem to be the perfect location for a nuclear war movie. Three lazy yawning white dogs at the entrance are the only sign of life…
Only a few steps beyond the gate, and we felt it was a time warp: time actually stopped forty-nine years ago here. While walking along the main street towards the central square, Gino explains what every single building was before the earthquake: The Prince’s Palace with its private church, the theatre, the post office, the fish market and many others. We cannot enter the buildings for obvious safety reasons, but we can sneak through doors and windows to see what is left inside: ruined ceilings and destruction everywhere, in some cases precious painted ceilings are still visible.
Reaching the square (Piazza Elimo) is stunning, it is a large empty area surrounded by ruins among which the main church with its tower bell (or what is left of it) that still dominates. We can only imagine the tables outside crowded bars in the heat of a summer afternoon or people going to their rendezvous or elder women entering the church in their total black look in respect of a tradition, nowadays almost forgotten. We can only imagine, because today only silence and the wind blowing through the ruins, keep company to visitors. Gino goes on telling us the story of Poggioreale as the inhabitants remember it. After the earthquake the village was not as destroyed as we see it today: more than forty years of carelessness made what the earthquake did not!
Before letting us go, Gino wants to show us the little naif museum of Poggioreale which is located in a partially rebuilt building close to the entrance. It was a further time warp, a great collection of toys all italian children played with in the sixties, household detergents that are no longer produced (yet we still remember the scents of), a Red Guzzi Motorcycle, and hundreds of other objects abandoned and found among the ruins many years later.
The new Poggioreale
When the visit came to an end a couple of hours later, we went to have a drink in the new Poggioreale, which is only 1 km and a half away, and after the magic and the beauty of the ruins we had a look at that sad modern village that has the taste of a building speculation… We quickly sip our drinks and started driving through the wonderful hills of Belice and the province of Trapani towards Palermo…