Hidden From Sight: Italian Towns Underwater — Part 1

Curon is not the only town underwater. Italy hides multiple such towns and legends.

A bell tower underwater rising out of a lake.

Curon is not the only town underwater. Italy hides multiple such towns and legends.

The Italian Netflix series Curon has brought to light a beauty set between the Retiche Alps and Lake Reschen, located in the province of Bolzano in South Tyrol. This location is right next to the border with Austria and Switzerland. But the town of Curon Venosta is just one of the many Italian secrets: a town underwater, paved with history and legends.

Morasco

We are in the northernmost point of Piedmont, on the border with Switzerland. The province of Verbano-Cusio-Ossola, known as the ‘Blue province’ and described by the English writer John Ruskin as ‘The Eden of Italy’, lies between lakes and mountains, in a stunning natural amphitheater. The village of Morasco is part of the municipality of Formazza and has maintained important historical roots. The village was founded by Walser, a population of Germanic origin, and it represented their first settlement south of the Alps. Even today, 17% of Formazza citizens are culturally Walser.

Although this area is very popular with hikers, its unique feature is the old village of Morasco, completely submerged by the waters of the eponymous lake, created by the dam built during the 1930s. During that time, there was a lot of industrialization in Italy and the waters of the Toce River were used by the Edison company to build a dam 55 meters tall, at an elevation of 1815 meters above sea-level. Morasco was thus sacrificed to give electricity to the whole valley. Many workers died during its construction, and legend says that the old wooden bridge across the river was so dangerous that even the vipers refused to cross it. Perhaps nature wouldn’t agree to changing.

A view of Morasco Lake, where there is a town underwater.
Morasco Lake – Photo by Fabio Valeggia from Pixabay

Agaro

30 kilometers south of Morasco, also in the province of Verbano-Cusio-Ossola in the Piedmont region, the same fate befell the village of Agaro. In 1928 its municipality was essentially deleted and annexed to Premia, a picturesque thermal spa town. Agaro was also settled and developed by the Walser population, likely about the 13th century, and its isolated location along the valley helped preserve the Walser culture and their agricultural industry. They had to fight to maintain their town too.

85 inhabitants who had survived five avalanches throughout the years, reconstructing their village from nothing, and who tried to oppose the dam project in the ’30s with a stern letter, but without success. And so, as had happened in Morasco, the old Walser town was submerged by an artificial lake. It was the year 1938 and Agaro’s inhabitants left their homes just a few hours before the sinking. In the hottest summers when the lake recedes the most, some stone and larch houses emerge from underwater, bringing to light the lives of ghosts of the past.

Sauris

Now we are in northeastern Italy, to the next town underwater. We are precisely on the Carnic Alps, in the region Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Here, 60 km from Udine, the town of Sauris lies along the Lumiei Valley. Sauris is one of the most important German language ‘islands’ in Italy. Even the legend says that it was founded by two German soldiers who — tired of war — took refuge in this secluded valley in the 13th century.

Although the Fascist regime was involved in the Second World War, in 1941 the construction of a hydroelectric plant and its dam began, which at that time was the tallest in all of Europe at 136 meters. Even 300 New Zealander prisoners of war became involved in its construction. The lake that was created from the dam, renamed Sauris Lake, submerged a part of the town called ‘La Maina’. During the occasional emptying operations of the lake, some roofs and chimneys return to be visible above water, giving life to an incomparable spectacle. Sauris also means gastronomy: don’t miss its typical delicious ham, ‘prosciutto of Sauris’, and its craft beer Zahre. Ask the bikers!

A view of Sauris Lake, hiding a town underwater.
View of Sauris Lake – Photo by Simone_ph from Pixabay

Curon Venosta

This must be a real mystical experience to see a bell tower elevating from underwater. But it belies that there is a whole town underwater. The bells of this 14th-century Romanesque church were removed one week before the old village of Curon Venosta (Graun im Vinschgau in German) immersed beneath the lake in 1950. But during cold winters, one can still hear the bells ringing, thus adding to its beauty, mystery, and creating a disquieting air.

Lake Reschen, created through the union of two natural Alpine lakes, is the largest lake of South Tyrol and among one of the ‘Alpine Pearls’, so as to have inspired Ezio Abbate, Ivano Fachin, Giovanni Galassi and Tommaso Matano for their supernatural drama television series Curon, released by Netflix in June. The filming was done right here, near the town underwater, where people are native German speakers, the woods are dense like a natural high wall and the border with Austria and Switzerland is within walking distance.

Curon Venosta has always been a crossroads since ancient Roman times, and it also bears a scar from the two world wars. People in this town were against the plan for the artificial lake, but money from the Swiss company Elektrowatt were stronger than their protests. While the bell tower withstood the explosive, 163 houses went underwater. When Lake Reschen freezes, the bell tower can be reached by foot, perhaps accompanied by the legendary sound of the bells.

The first part of our journey ends here, but Italy hides other treasures underwater that we will soon see.

Read part 2 here.

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