Calcata: The land that time forgot

Calcata, in north Lazio, is a bohemian haven whose residents hark back to a more beautiful era

Less than an hour north of Rome lies Calcata, a mediaeval village clinging to a volcanic cliff surging out of the mists of the densely-wooded Treja valley. With its rugged tufa walls and steep pathways, entering this mystical, car-free hamlet is like stepping back in time or falling into a dream where Woodstock meets Hansel and Gretel.

Calcata’s story is indeed the stuff of fairy-tales. Its history dates back almost 3,000 years and the presence of humans in the area can be traced to prehistoric times. However in the 1930s Calcata’s story very nearly came to a shuddering halt. The Fascist-era government condemned the craggy village due to fears that its foundations were subsiding, and by the 1960s the inhabitants had either relocated to the newly-built Calcata Nuova nearby or moved south to Rome.

In the 1970s the old village received a new lease of life when Italian and international artists and hippies began squatting in Calcata’s abandoned houses and caves. They later bought and restored their homes, opened art galleries and cafés, and rescued an ancient village from being consigned to the cobwebs of history. The romantic tale was complete when the new residents succeeded in convincing the Italian authorities to reverse their decision condemning the village.

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Although only about 40 km from the hustle and bustle of the capital, Calcata feels light-years away. Those arriving by car will have to leave their vehicles outside the fortified gates of the 13thcentury Palazzo Baronale – the village’s only access to the outside world and once inside it is impossible to withdraw cash from a bank machine or even send a postcard, and forget about relying on mobile phones.

The centre of the action is the main square which is at times a market, a playground, a concert arena, a meeting place, an open-air wine bar. The rambling alleys of the village centre are festooned with artisanal shops selling art work, jewellery, antiquities and the kind of essential retro-vintage items associated with the beautiful people.

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One of the village’s many artists is Caterina Satta, who has lived and worked in Calcata for three decades. She says the number of residents has gone up and down over the years but now “there are about 60 – one of whom is Belgian, one Spanish, one Dutch, and two English. Many people come here from Rome on day trips or stay for the weekend, but on weekdays and during the summer the village is often empty.” Some of Calcata’s best known longterm residents include Paolo Portoghesi – the distinguished architect who designed the mosque in the Parioli district of Rome and more recently oversaw the restyling of the capital’s Piazza S. Silvestro – and the painter and ceramicist Simona Weller, whose work has featured on a Wanted in Rome cover. Last year Portoghesi and Weller held a joint exhibition dedicated to Calcata in Palazzo Baronale, which acts as a visitor centre and whose recent restoration was supervised by Portoghesi. A gallery of Weller’s latest works is located in the middle of the village and is open to visitors.

Throughout the year, cultural association Il Granarone coordinates much of Calcata’s artistic activity, holding concerts, jam sessions, theatre and art exhibitions at its base on the evocative sounding Via di Porta Segreta. The organisation’s founder is Marijcke van der Maden from Holland, who is celebrated for her marionette puppets. For 30 years van der Maden has presented the village with its own personalised nativity scene, displayed at Il Granarone each Christmas. “All the statues are handmade and represent the real people of Calcata. Every year I make a new person and I never tell who it will be,” she says.

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Most visitors get their photographs taken in the main square, sitting in the three over-sized Etruscan-style thrones, the work of local sculptor Costantino Morosin. In 1996 Morosin and Anne Demijttenaere, a Belgian actress and painter, founded Opera Bosco, the Museum of Art in Nature. Spread out over two acres in the forests below Calcata, this open-air museum is filled with organic sculptures and art installations and has a soundtrack of streams, birdsong and croaking frogs.

A tea drinker’s paradise can be found at La Sala dei 201 Thè – which boasts over 200 types of tea – while Caffè Kafir, whose Italian owner starred in 1970’s B-movies of the erotic variety, is the most eccentric coffee shop most people are likely to visit anywhere. Meanwhile the rock ‘n’roll-themed bar Rockcaffè, just off the central piazza, has a glorious secret. Enquire about sitting outside and you’ll be directed to a tiny private balcony, with a table for four and a breath-taking view of the woods 150m below.

Andy Devane

Side notes:

Accommodation:

I Sensi della Terra, Via S. Giovanni 1, tel. 0761587733, www.isensidellaterra.it, rooms and apartments forrent throughout village.

Gisa, apartments in historic centre, tel. 0761587989, gisa.federici@libero.it.

Food:

La Piazzetta, Via S. Giovanni 47, tel. 0761588078, honest-to-goodness fare including hand-made pasta, polenta and sausages. Booking advised.

Il Tugurio, Via Sinibaldi 7, tel. 0761587388, cosy restaurant serving local specialities, open Sat, Sun only.

Getting there:

The easiest way to reach Calcata is by car. From Rome, take the Cassia bis(SS2); exit at Settevene and follow the signs for Calcata. Alternatively take a 20-minute journey on the light-rail train service from Via Flaminia in Rome to Saxa Rubra, then hop aboard one of the blue Cotral buses (www.cotralspa.it) to Calcata Vecchia. Buses leave regularly, and the trip takes a little over an hour.

Things to do:

Simona Weller gallery, Via Garibaldi 4, generally open 11.00-13.00, 16.30-19.00. To visit after hours or to confirm the artist’s presence, tel. 0761587239.

Palazzo Baronale visitor centre Mon-Fri 09.00-17.00, Sat 15.00-19.00, Sun 11.00-19.00.

Bring suitable walking gear when visiting the stunning Monte Gelato waterfalls in Parco de Treja, a few km outside Calcata, near Mazzano Romano. Open all year round and particularly beautiful in autumn and spring.