Friday, September 20, 2013

Torri Superiore: Realising a Dream in an Abandoned Medieval Village

We arrive at Ventimiglia by train and catch a local bus to Torri Inferiore, (lower towers) the last village on this bus route.  The bus was quite small and we could hardly fit our backpacks down the aisle!  As we drive through winding mountain roads I observe that the area of Liguria is dotted with little stone villages, set high on terraced hillsides.  

I later learn they were located inland to protect the farmers from marauding pirates along the coastline!  I love places that are completely off the beaten track and Torri Superiori (upper towers) certainly qualifies even though it is a stone’s throw (<50km) from the French Riviera.  We walk the last 400 metres, dragging our bags up the hillside before we spot the restored village.  It looks like something from a fairy tale, a stone castle set deep in the hillside, looking down on us invitingly.  I feel excited to be here…

We are welcomed warmly and walk through a maze of corridors and narrow stairways in a mysterious labyrinth I hope I won’t get lost in.  It is a place full of charm and character with a surprise around every corner and I can’t wait to explore.  We are shown to our bedroom, high up in this 8-story tower.  A narrow staircase leads us to a small door that opens to reveal a room full of appeal. The shutters have been thrown open and the midday sun streams in.  The views of the surrounding hillsides are breathtaking.  We gaze at the view, take deep breaths and feel our bodies relax.  This is going to be just what the doctor ordered…

We don’t do much on our first day except walk around, discovering the hidden gems of this gorgeous
place.  The ‘before and after’ pictures of a room in the village, hung up in the kitchen hint at how much blood, sweat and tears must have gone into creating this slice of Italian paradise.  By the time dinner is served at 7.30 I am starving and we feast on a wonderful spread of Italian cuisine.  Baked vegies cooked in a tasty cheese sauce, brown rice, fresh salads, lentils as well as a choice of cold meats and cheeses.  Carafes of red wine are on the table together with an assortment of fresh breads.  After dinner, we enjoy ripe figs from the garden and sweet pineapple.  The juice trickles down our hands and the looks of contentment on our faces testify to the fact that perhaps we saved the best for last…

We have been here only a few hours but I already love the vibe and the positive energy generated by the people in this place.  Perhaps the warm Mediterranean climate is a contributing factor but the 
Italians are a lively bunch and dinner is a gregarious affair with lots of loud laughter and discussion. It’s something that makes me feel at home instantly, even if I have no understanding of what is being said.  After dinner, the sound of music and singing fill the air, adding to the cheerfulness…and I wish we were staying more than the two nights we have booked. 

We sleep well and I wake up early to see pink streaks across the blue sky - it must be sunrise, but I am still half asleep so that image is only captured in my memory.  After breakfast, we meet with Massimo a long-term community member, originally from Genoa, who shares with us his story and that of this community.  It is the story of how a dilapidated medieval village owned by a 100 or so different people was restored to become became a viable space for a vibrant community.  I had read previously that the ‘tower’ structure of villages in this part of Italy stems from a need to conserve precious land, as well as to act as defence against the dangers from marauders that the medieval pioneers faced.  I learn that the structure is extremely complex, having been built over a number of generations by the villagers themselves.  The buildings techniques and extensions to the structure were refined over time to withstand the rigours of the climate, the demands of the inhabitants and natural phenomena. 

Massimo tells us that the idea to create an eco-village germinated with an Italian couple from Turin, who dreamt of restoring an abandoned village around 1989.  She was familiar with the area as her grandmother had lived in Torri Inferiore – the lower village nearby.  The abandoned and derelict upper village they settled on was split between a hundred different owners as was common in Italy.  Parents often divided the land and property between their many children, which worked fine as long as everyone continued to live and farm in the area.  Yet, as people start to move away, tempted by bright lights and big cities, many of these traditional villages and their simple lifestyles were discarded. 

The complex process of negotiating and buying the property from owners who no longer even lived in the area started in the 1980s and took years to accomplish.  It was not a task they could accomplish
alone so they tried to generate interest locally without much success.  It was not till he started to travel and talk about this idea at conferences that they finally met up with a man who gave the project momentum.  A Cultural Association was formed and interest in the project took off in places like Turin.  Finally, they were starting to gain some momentum and the dream was beginning to be a reality. 

Massimo’s personal involvement with the project eventuated quite by chance.  He has always had a deep love of the mountains and it was this initial passion for mountaineering that led him to dream of ultimately exchanging a life in the city for that of living in the mountains.   In 1990 he received a brochure in the mail, which led him here, to have a look at this village.  By 1993 he had formed friendships with the group and become a resident.  The group would meet on weekends and have long discussions about what could be done.  A lot of energy was expended in the first three years during these initial discussions and planning sessions.  It took them 20 years to realise their dream and he admits it wasn’t easy living in what was essentially a building site for such a long time! 

The reason the project took so long was financial.  Finding money to build the project had been a struggle.  Much to my surprise I learn there has been no help from the regional or national governments
for restoring abandoned villages.  Unfortunately, this village was considered part of the coastal area because it is part of the coastal town of Ventimiglia, so most of the money provided by the EU for the district flowed into the tourist hotspots along the coast.  Some small grants were made available for installing solar panels and introducing cultural activities but these were not substantial. The restoration was done through the sheer hard work of the future residents, some of whom had made personal investments, as well as some dedicated volunteers.

Although it was not ideal in terms of generating funding, the fact that the village was largely ignored by the authorities was a good thing when it came to supervision by the local building control authorities. They could carry on their restoration work with little inspection and regulation, so perhaps overall it was a blessing in disguise.

Today, there are 162 restored rooms, approximately half of which are communal spaces and the rest divided into 20 apartments, which are privately owned.  The eco-village is now home to about 15 residents who are mostly Italian and a few Germans.  In the summer the population soars with visiting guests and volunteers from around the world.  The common areas include a communal kitchen & dining area, laundry, outdoor patios to hang out in, a library, an office, meeting spaces, and of course the guest accommodation.  While the GEN course in eco-village design was once offered here, it is no longer viable to do so.  However courses from yoga, to Italian cooking to permaculture are still offered and attract many international visitors. 

As we look around the restored village, reconstructed with sustainable materials in a very authentic way, it is obvious that their investment of time, money and emotional energy was completely worth the effort.  Massimo tells us how one of the builders had put his hand in a crack and said, “as long as it does not reach my shoulder, it can be fixed”.  He says they learnt that almost anything can be renovated if you take time and care. They made a conscious decision not to use plastics, aluminium or other modern materials and they used stone quarried nearby, local timbers and natural lime as plaster.  I read that lime plaster can breathe well, allowing the walls to remain dry with all of the cooking and washing that takes place in a communal area that supports so many.  Today, Torri Superiore stands as testament to what can be achieved, despite the massive odds against them. 

We learn that this intentional community came together for cultural/social purposes and for the love of restoring an old village.  While sustainability was not a main theme we realise as we wander around they are doing OK in this arena as well.  They have solar panels for generating hot water; they grow a large proportion of their own fruit and vegetables, they harvest and manage spring water for irrigation and other purposes.  While they are by no means completely self-sustainable I am impressed by the terraced gardens and the scale of the agriculture practiced in the hard terrain.  Massimo explains that due to the local terrain this village was never self sustaining even historically and while they aim to constantly lower their ecological footprint, being completely off the grid is not a realistic goal for this community. He made the valid point, though, that the embodied energy of the restored buildings means that homes for 20 people do not need to be constructed.

We also discuss the economy and learn that each member is individually responsible for his/her needs.  People work in the guesthouse, out in the fields growing fruits and vegetables and in the olive groves as well as in the office.  They ensure that money is kept circulating locally before it leaves the village as people are paid for these jobs.  The money generated from the guesthouse pays for the other activities.  A few of the residents work in the nearby village of Torri Inferiore.  They have an internal team of builders, plumbers as well as a yoga teacher, all generating their own income. 

While some members choose to work longer hours because they want the security of a better income, others have the option to choose a simpler lifestyle and enjoy the benefits of having time to engage in more creative pursuits.  The collective goal is to keep their budget low.  Massimo explains that he can live on what it would cost to send a child to a kindergarten in Milan. With the same income, he would be poor in town and would need government assistance.  We learn that each person pays approximately 230 Euros a month for their food, services such as water, sewerage, telecommunications, electricity and
other necessities such as wood.  As in many of the other eco-villages, the community supports the children.  Each resident volunteers his or her labour to the equivalent of 2 turns a week either preparing food or cleaning.

While their initial intention in coming together was a cultural purpose rather than for the purpose of creating community, they eventually realised they did need a common identity and purpose to live together.  Many of the people who came together to build up this place had individual dreams of what they wanted to achieve and this dream was not always the same.  Conflict was inevitable but they sat around the table to discuss and negotiate and out of this was born their common practice – that of eating together. 

During our time here we become aware that, rather than formal meetings, a lot of informal discussions are taking place across the dinner tables, much as it does in the kitchens of some of our workplaces.  The community at Torri tried to find a common spiritual/ritual practice such as meditation, dance, reading a prayer before meals or singing but nothing quite clicked for them.  Eventually they realised that eating together was their common practice and the ritual they needed to help create bonds in this small community. 

Massimo says that every community needs shared spaces and explains that the market place, the square or the church provided these spaces and forums historically in other towns. This community is a smaller
scale and the kitchen and dining areas are their shared spaces. They also had their ‘Cultural Association’, which was the original organisation that they formed and included all the people who shared the interest of restoring the village. Together, the physical spaces and the legal structure have provided the platform on which they have built their community and formed the identity of Torri Superiore. They meet in these communal spaces to eat, to discuss, to negotiate, to fight to laugh and to dance…and for us it appears to be working really well.  They do also have more formal meetings to nut out any issues that arise with running their community. 

We ask Massimo if he had his time again would he still follow the same path today.  What if they had a benevolent developer or benefactor who could have helped them realise the vision sooner.  He is quick to answer that they would still follow the same path.  Restoring Torri in this manner could only have been done if they had the freedom to do as they wished. Anyone who may have given money would have applied restrictions or wanted a return for their investment.  Now they are not obligated to anyone
– there are no strings attached.  They have created a place that is exactly what they want.  They’ve learnt lots along their journey, more from intuition than from professional training and are happy with what they have created.  They have created a structure that they are also comfortable with.  They have the freedom to leave if they wish, as the private spaces can be sold on.  They do however have an agreement that they will sell to the association first, to ensure that any new owner will fit into the community.

We both really enjoyed our stay at Torri.  The Mediterranean climate in September is perfect and we love the village feel of this place, surrounded by spectacular countryside.  During our two days here we also had the chance to meet some interesting travellers.  We spend time with Christiano, an Italian man who recently quit his job in the corporate world to go on a journey similar to ours.  He too is in hoping to learn from already established communities and believes that at the end of his journey, he may have some answers as to where his skills could be used best.  We learn lots from Christiano about the resources and groups already out there and realised that despite being on the road for nearly 4 months, we have only just scratched the surface.   

During our journey, we have been exposed to far more radical communities with ideas at the far end of 
the spectrum when it comes to spirituality, living communally or the measures adopted for an ecological life.  Torri Superiore is perhaps I think a perfect compromise for a more mainstream person, who wishes to live in a manner that has a positive impact on the planet but having the freedom to carve out his own spirituality while maintaining a good balance between his private time and his shared activities.  Perhaps even the word ‘compromise’ is not appropriate because this village is sustainable and aims to increase the level of self sufficiency where possible but also provides financial freedom for individuals and does not impose religious rules.

While Massimo admits their biggest achievement is in the social arena, he says their ecological achievement is that they recycled a dilapidated village that would have otherwise fallen into rack and ruin.  It is a great ‘big recycle’, that perhaps could be a wonderful example to many similar villages dotted around the countryside of Europe, abandoned for less sustainable lifestyles.

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