Empty Italy: Monteruga Di Salento Affirms The Reason We Leave

A sound choice to depart our so-called home has already been dictated in our minds. If we do not believe it, Monteruga di Salento affirms the reason we leave.

Monterugo di Salento
Owl’s Eyes / Photo by Michelangelo Carrieri / CC BY-ND 2.0

A sound choice to depart our so-called home has already been dictated in our minds. If we do not believe it, Monteruga di Salento affirms the reason we leave.

The impression of gratification leaves its imprint in an abandoned place. There’s a lingering vibe of serenity that finally embeds itself in a once noise-filled space. Desertion punctuates not only the harshness of a vibrant past, but also how we move forward when the right time has come. It proves a point that opportunities outside what we know and where we are weigh more in a question of decision. Alone with ourselves to reflect, a sound choice to depart our so-called home has already been dictated in our minds. If we do not believe it, Monteruga di Salento affirms the reason we leave.

The Monteruga village lies in the heart of Salento, a sub-region of Puglia in Southern Italy. The sun-doused territory houses breathtaking landscapes coming from the Adriatic Coast and Ionian Sea. To elevate the idyllic escapism, Salento boasts its historical ruins to match the seas’ unwinding sight, delectable local cuisines and choices of wine, and folklores that clamber on tourist spots such as the Grotta della Zinzulusa. Far from the solemn crash of seas’ waves or wine glasses clinking, the Monteruga village hides itself in isolation.

The formation of the quaint village pivots back to the Facscist era of the early 1930s. The construction meant to provide residence to those who had been working at the farm that sat across the village. The architecture that flourished was patterned to the traditional look of rural villages at that time. A rectangular communal space sprawled at the center, surrounded by structures of what appeared to had been used for open markets.

Past 1950, the Monteruga village cradled its looming popularity when the land reform was announced. The legality of the notion spelled that farmers and their families who wanted to settle in the village would receive and develop agricultural land of their own. The prospect of growing their own source of food and income attracted the outsiders into the hamlet. When the news diffused across the southern part of Italy, residents flocked into the village and declared to settle there.

Monteruga tumbled into a monumental space that fit best for agricultural living. There were about 800 residents who imbued the spirit of a keen community ready to support each other in times of hardship and triumphs. Such a vibrant energy led to the structure of establishments that met their daily essential needs. The village thrived with blocks of houses complemented with a school, church, post office, wine factory, oil mill, and tobacco store. The once dust-covered, barren area erupted into a burgeoning hallmark in Salento.

Elio and Adriano Diso, born in Monteruga during its climax, recalled the rush that pumped their blood when they gathered and celebrated their festivities. “The most-awaited celebration was that of the Feast of Saint Anthony on January 17. Our father would buy gifts to give to the children in the village,” they said in an interview with La Repubblica. They longed for their carefree childhood brimming with catch-the-ball games in the open air, cheery screams of the other children, and words of caution from the yells of their parents, all while the pillars of fresh pine trees guarded the village. Each sliver of memory is kept alive and remembered, sending a warm gratitude to the birthplace that had spearheaded their effusive upbringing.

Yet the off-the-map stewardship of new living in Monteruga winded down too soon. In the 1980s, the act of land privatization infested the village. Industrialists took interest over the abundant farming land that the hamlet offered, and snagged the opportunity to transform the once farmer-owned agricultural land to personal estate under some wealth-herded elites who disrupted the harmonious balance of the emerging community. 

While Monteruga’s previous way of life spiraled down, cities outside the village blossomed to prosperity and reached their peak of offering labor opportunities and benefits to interested workers. The promising news drew the 800 residents of Monteruga out of their tight-knit community until the echoes of chatter that would drift on air lost their oscillation. Bit by bit, the crush of emigration that had jabbed the quaint hamlet muted the community’s magic.

Since then, Monteruga has burrowed into a vast void. The willowy nature that it used to wrestle with has died down into moss-covered architectures, peeled walls, and a desert-looking land. It has weathered the changing seasons and braced itself for the wavering turbulences that affected its ancient feel. The brightly lit orange color it wore has long turned into a much saturated hue with smudges of dirt, mud, and swamp. Outsiders who are courageous enough to dwell on the land violate the sanctuary with spray paints and chalks to write vulgar messages and, sometimes, kind warnings.

What has become a testament to its grit can be found through the Church of Sant’Antonio Abate that stands tall in the middle of the ghostly central square. Even if years have gone by, the metal-clad cross of the holy place is intact and positioned on top of its structure. Inside, chunks of debris scatter across the floor, but the white-washed look of the walls still hasn’t lost its grandeur. Medium-sized windows above the ground allow the outside sun rays to spill inside, giving a natural and ambient light to the forgotten beauty inside.

The solemnity it brings must have been a reason why, several years ago, the church was peppered with cult ceremonials that disrespected the sacred ground. From the hearsays of the locals, dark rituals were performed in the middle of the night, calling out for any evil spirits who had been roaming around. Although the violation ran deep into Monteruga’s core, the attempt to exorcise the village can be considered as a way to revive the attraction that it used to garner.

Monteruga was poised to make its comeback after an Italian entrepreneur won the lot’s custody. The entire property, inclusive of the ruins and remnants, fell under their supervision. The forecast that they will look into the possibility of rebuilding the village into a tourism-inspired space is still up in the air, but for the time being, a 24/7 security guard watches over the place to refrain outsiders from further thrashing the already beaten-up hamlet.

Travellers who are open to explore the abandoned village might be able to do so when the security guard gives them the green light to have a look at the history-induced place. There, traces of its antiquity can be rejoiced unabashedly. There are indications that the remaining structure might crumble any minute, but such notices cannot hold back the desire to at least appreciate its unorthodox magnificence from afar.

A liberating sensation creeps in our veins once we leave our safe space. It might be from one province to a city, or vice versa, but the thrill of moving into a new sphere pumps an excitement to be relished. Maybe such an exhilarating feeling pounded the heart of the 800 residents when they departed from the now-deserted village. What their life choice brought forward is a continuing narrative picked up by tourists. Monteruga di Salento never falters to exhibit its last shed of grace, unforgiving to those who seek stillness and self-discovery.

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