Roghudi: Flickers of Humanity
[Day 1]

by Rudston Steward

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hat endures when a place that’s been lived in for centuries is abandoned, what traces get left behind? Do flickers of humanity linger on, echoing through time, murmuring to passers-by from cracks in the walls? Where do the memories gather or go?

Roghudi was a thriving village until 1972, when a series of floods prompted the Calabrian authorities to declare it uninhabitable and move the population to a prefabricated new town on the coast. The old town’s position is dramatic, strung out on a spur that juts into the Amendolea river-bed like the hull of a precipitous ship poised to crash onto the boulders below. The arid flanks of the Aspromonte mountains abut it on all sides, the houses floating like flecks of flotsam adrift in a maelstrom of rock and water, clinging to the slope.

We walk down the main street—a thoroughfare of ruins—past crumpled buildings with blasted windows. Piles of rubble tilt and slump into the corners of rooms dotted with the remnants of forgotten lives: a faded photo, scorched white; empty wine bottles smothered in dust; a tattered scarf sprouting weeds. Small alleyways branch off the main drag, arteries clogged with debris and dreams and ghosts. I venture down a couple but have to turn back. No entry, no exit. At the bottom we emerge on the edge of the steep ridge, the view opens up, magnificent and heartbreaking. The fiumara river-bed is knuckle-white below, streaking away between dark hillsides like a bleached vein of boulders. Its calcified capillaries seem to sap the abandoned town of its collective memory: life draining away downstream, seeping irreversibly into the future.


LIFE DRAINING AWAY DOWNSTREAM, SEEPING IRREVERSIBLY INTO THE FUTURE


A path zigzags down to the river-bed. From below Roghudi looks like an embattled outgrowth of mortar and concrete, slowly being reabsorbed into the crest of the ridge it still straddles. I carry a small part of the town’s sadness with me as we walk on, a sliver of melancholia slipped into my backpack. The stark beauty of the terrain we’re traversing is tempered by a sense of loss, the surrounding landscape feels somehow altered by the ghost town anchored to its river-bed. It’s as if the elements have had to absorb the sadness, all the sadness that had nowhere left to go when the people were evacuated. The hillsides bear silent witness to stories that will no longer be told.

It’s a six-hour hike to Bova, climbing in stages from the river-bed up onto a high ridge. The fiumara’s whiteness gradually fades to a distant grey far below, now striated with sparkling seams of water. We follow a narrow footpath looping up to a saddle, it dips in and out of scrub and broom, the grass is pale and flaxen. Roghudi has disappeared behind us, into the past. The path becomes rocky and bare; where devoid of vegetation the ground emits a carbonaceous smell, as if the topsoil has been singed to crusty charcoal by the sun. From the saddle we drop into the next valley, across a spur. Bova emerges into view below. Beyond it stretches the lucid ribbon of the Ionian Sea, like a sustained blue note.

When we finally get there, the town of Bova is very much alive: one of its patron saints is being celebrated tonight. Over the course of the evening the melancholy in my backpack, carried all the way from Roghudi, starts lifting. As if reanimating: flickers of humanity sparking back to life. The sparks are everywhere—I indulge the fantasy that fragments of Roghudi, washed away in the floods and lost at sea since 1972, are finally making landfall on Bova’s shores.

Flickers in the lusty blast of the band’s trumpets. Flickers in the hushed flurry of the pitter-pattering procession. In the arch of the men’s backs as they heave and angle their Madonna through a church doorway. In the tannic bite of crimson wine.

Flickers in the dreams kept alive and the stories still afloat—stranded here in Bova on the island of the present, in a thrumming Calabrian piazza.

 

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