This Italian town was famous for its old folks. And then they vanished

Campodimele, Italy (CNN) – Campodimele, a hamlet on the wild Aurunci Hills in central Italy, has been celebrated for the longevity of its residents since the 1990s.

Over the years scientists and tourists flocked to the tiny community to learn what made residents live well into their 10th or 11th decade.

Campodimele is still known today for its old people. But mysteriously, the old people themselves seem to have disappeared.

Instead, the village seems to have fallen victim to its own success. An influx of money resulted in an impressive renovation of the historic center, but the newer surroundings appear to have displaced the older residents.

“I used to go to the village square every morning to hang out with my friends, relatives and people I knew, chat at the bar or sit on the benches and admire the valley,” an 81-year-old local told Benito Spirito, tells CNN.

“It was full of life, there were so many people and tourists. Now I hardly walk, it’s almost empty. It’s sad.”

Campodimele’s name rises halfway between Rome and Naples on the ruins of an italic tribal settlement and means “prairie of honey”, a nod to his earlier life as a center for honey production.

At the end of the last century, as the news spread of its lively citizens, the village became a honeypot for scientists, doctors, university professors and curious tourists looking for the secret formula for a long and healthy life.

After years of study, it was concluded that the village elders benefited from a combination of fresh oxygen-rich air blowing from the sea into the mountains, uncontaminated nature, a legume, and a simple lifestyle.

The result was a local genetic trait that kept cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure low.

Thorough revision

The once rough and ready streets of Campodimele have been polished to perfection.

Courtesy of Lazio / A. Di Nitto

As his fame spread, foreigners came to explore the quaint mountain village’s idyllic landscape and maze of narrow cobblestone streets surrounded by thick circular medieval walls and ancient towers.

Everyone wanted to get to know the centenary heroes, sit on benches overlooking the lush Liri Valley, walk on sticks or chat in the main plaza of the fortified hamlet.

Grandmothers rested at the front door, telling stories and clapping or smiling at visitors from their windows, which were decorated with colorful flower pots. Chickens chuckled in the streets and other family members tended vegetable patches.

Twenty years later everything seems to have changed.

Today the population is barely 450, half the population of 30 years ago, and most of the old people have disappeared – either dead or moved to cities and newer homes.

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An old photo shows Campodimeles streets before renovation.

Campodimele municipality

In 2000, those over 80 made up 80% of the total population of the village, down from 67 according to local data – but only about 50 live here year-round. Only two centenarians are left and they now live with their children in nearby larger cities.

In the meantime, the historic hamlet, which was once full of life, is only inhabited by a few families with six elders.

It has also been thoroughly redesigned.

The streets of the village are perfect now. The redesigned apartments are neat and tidy, painted in pastel shades of pink, yellow, and cream, while the sidewalks and windows are glowing.

Roofs that crumbled once were repaired. The old uneven roads and rough steps have been smoothed.

A centuries-old elm tree still stands and symbolizes the pursuit of longevity, but most of Campodimele’s windows are closed and the piazza, once the hotspot of oldies, is empty.

Frozen to perfection

The hamlet still comes alive in the summer when former residents return to unplug and enjoy the views, but for the most part it looks frozen to perfection. Silent rules. The only vestiges of the past are the creeping vegetation and the forgotten fenced gardens.

Spirito is one of the few elders who stayed. He lives with his daughter in the countryside in Campodimele, where he takes the time to look after his property and a few small goats.

Rural life has almost disappeared and the elders “tirano a campà” – live day after day – are trying to survive on small pensions or the support of their families. The village’s social appeal and traditional rhythms have died out.

“People no longer care about plots that give us fresh vegetables such as tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and make us healthy,” says Spirito. “They prefer to buy terrible groceries from the grocery store. Much of the property has also been abandoned because of the wild boars that destroy our hard work. It is more difficult for the elders alone.”

A new amphitheater was built on the ashes of an old orchard.

Local councilor Tommaso Grossi is concerned about the depopulation trend, where funerals far outnumber births. He says public money has been invested in making the hamlet more attractive and accessible to old people.

“We wanted to preserve the original identity and architectural integrity of the historic center by redesigning the apartments in a uniform way and using a precise color scheme so that all houses are painted in the same light tones,” says Grossi.

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A huge elm connects the city with its past.

Campodimele municipality

“The wooden window frames and balcony railings are identical, and power and telephone cables are buried. When newcomers arrive, we want this to be our calling card as the ‘City of Longevity’. We want to live up to our fame.”

Only the medieval fortification walls of the village have so far escaped restoration. They offer a quaint, pleasant stroll called the “Street of Love” overlooking olive groves and a beech forest.

Today most of the locals live in a part of Campodimele called Taverna, which is three kilometers from the old center.

The tavern, located on a main road, has larger houses and easier access than the old hamlet, which lies like an eagle’s nest on a winding, winding road.

New houses were built in the basement outside the hamlet to improve living conditions and to make space for families.

“Tiresome for old people”

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Winters can be harsh in Campodimele.

Campodimele municipality

“Living in the old town 365 years a year is difficult,” says Grossi. “No cars are allowed and the residents have to take everything with them, from food to tree trunks for winter fires – quite exhausting for old people.

“The old apartments are very small, while the bigger new grandparents allow them to move in with their families who take care of them. They are not alone and feel more comfortable.”

In Campodimele, winter can be harsh and it snows often.

While other elders have moved to nearby towns where their families live and occasionally visit on weekends, many of the redesigned homes in the old hamlet have been bought by descendants of Campodimele’s post-war emigrants who visit them in the summer.

“We are proud to have a large Campodimele community in Canada, Brazil and England who feel the attraction of their origins and who enjoy spending quiet months in the village of their ancestors,” adds Grossi.

“Our city lies in the heart of a huge nature reserve with many hiking trails that meander through the wilderness. Many appreciate its beauty and architectural uniqueness.”

In the old mill garden, picnic areas with wooden tables and stone kettles have been set up, and the park, where bandits and religious pilgrims once lived, is a center for deer breeding.

Spirito’s daughter-in-law, Alessandra De Filippi, has vivid nostalgic memories of her childhood in the lively hamlet. She remembers going to mass on Sundays and talking to old women sitting on the stairs or in front of the church.

“I can still imagine it. It was full of people, foreigners, visiting groups of school children,” she says.

“It was a festival. If there is a mass now, you will only meet the few who attend. It is a real shame that the hamlet was at the height of its splendor in the 1900s.

“Aesthetically today it may be beautiful from the outside, but the social hustle and bustle is gone, the familiar chatting of our elders, in which it is not lived.”

Life was better before, she adds.

“In the last 20 years there has been a radical change, a social degradation. The hamlet has emptied, the traditional mood has disappeared.

“When the youth went to the cities looking for a job, the elders were left behind. When they got old or sick and no one could take care of them, they couldn’t do it on their own and had to join their families. Many others have died or were taken to old people’s homes. “

‘Chain reaction’

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Steps that grandmothers once sat and clapped on.

Courtesy of Silvia Marchetti

In 10 years time, De Filippi fears that whatever remains of Campodimele’s old heart will be the entrance to a “new” ghost town.

The hamlet’s families used to be small, self-sufficient economies, she explains. When the young people left it was the beginning of the end for the elders and set off “a social chain reaction”.

De Filippi swears she will never leave her hometown and promises to keep eating foods that she says will allow her to live a healthy and long life. “I don’t believe in this longevity gene, it’s a matter of diet: daily doses of garlic, onions and shallots – stuff that young people don’t appreciate very much.”

For Campodimele, however, it’s not over yet. During the normal times without Covid, events and food fairs are held in the summer to attract tourists and offer them recipes that are intended to contribute to longevity.

Some of the “wonderful” local foods include soups or noodles made with cicerchie, a primitive iron-rich version of chickpeas with a richer flavor that allowed generations of farmers to survive.

Ciammotte are mint-flavored snails, while laina are egg-free long hand-made noodles served with beans and dried goat ricotta cheese. There are also premium olives and juicy baby goat and wild boar dishes.

Grossi insists that Campodimele still has all the ingredients its citizens need to live well into old age.

“The research is still ongoing,” he says. “Doctors analyze a group of young people and it appears that they too carry the same gene and are characterized by low blood lipids and low blood pressure.

“Many elders are still keeping fit, walking through the hamlet, going to the bar for an espresso and looking after the chickens and the parcels.”

Is it enough to keep Campodimele going? Only time can tell.

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