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Alley fight: Towns bicker over title of Italy's narrowest passage

By Silvia Marchetti for CNN
May 27, 2014 -- Updated 0824 GMT (1624 HKT)
Villagers in the Italian hamlet of Termoli are determined to prove they have the narrowest alleyway in the country. Villagers in the Italian hamlet of Termoli are determined to prove they have the narrowest alleyway in the country.
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Rejiecelle alleyway, Termoli
Ripatransone's tiny alleyway
Kisswomen alley, Citta della Pieve
Alley man Oscar De Lena
Alley aroma
Certified skinny
Ancient town
An alley with a view
A neighborhood divided
Romantic name
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Oscar De Lena has made it his mission in life to prove his hometown of Termoli has Italy's smallest alleyway
  • He faces strong competition from rivals in the towns of Ripatransone and Citta della Pieve
  • For De Lena it's a matter of pride. For others a lucrative tourist attraction is at stake

(CNN) -- Oscar De Lena is a man with a mission.

And a measuring stick.

De Lena is president of the local archeological society in the picturesque hamlet of Termoli, on Italy's Adriatic coast.

For the past four years he's also been self-appointed guardian of Termoli's claim of being home to Italy's narrowest alleyway.

It's a boast hotly contested by rival villages, but De Lena is determined to see off all challengers.

"I've known it since the day of my birth," he says. "So I started measuring it over and over again, up and down, down and up. I've covered each single point."

Termoli, a jumble of white cobbled streets and bright-colored houses covered in bougainvillea, is already a draw for visitors to Italy's Molise region.

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There's a cathedral and a castle, both of which still bear the signs of pirate attacks -- every August a festival and firework display commemorates one raid in 1566.

And now there's the alleyway.

Named Rejiecelle, or "the little street," it's said to date back to a French invasion of 1799.

'Don't open an umbrella'

Oscar de Lena: A man in a tight spot
Oscar de Lena: A man in a tight spot

"It's just 41 centimeters (about 16 inches) wide but in some parts it shrinks down to 38," says De Lena.

"If you're a bit overweight and your tummy sticks out like mine then you'll have to walk sideways to squeeze through. Oh, and don't open an umbrella."

Since making the discovery, De Lena has made it his life's work to promote it, traveling across Italy with a meter stick in his suitcase to size up rivals.

"Wherever I go I measure each single street just to make sure we're the winners. So far, no one has beaten us.

At one end of Rejiecelle lies a tantalizing glimpse of the shimmering blue Adriatic.

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Within its walls, a lingering smell of urine indicates that perhaps not everyone shares De Lena's pride in the alleyway.

"Local authorities should take greater care of if, place a sign and some lights. It's one of the city's jewels," he adds.

De Lena could have a point.

Two other Italian towns, Ripatransone in the Marche region and Citta della Pieve in Umbria, have made identical claims about the width of their alleyways.

Both use them to lure in tourists, and bitterly dispute rival claims.

Simply called "the Alley", Ripatransone's well-kept 43 centimeter-wide passage has for decades drawn crowds of visitors to what a sign proclaims is the narrowest in Italy.

Ripatransone: Big on museums, small on alleyways.
Ripatransone: Big on museums, small on alleyways.

'Glowing cobblestones'

The town's mayor grants a faux-medieval certificate to those who succeed in squeezing through "a place where bodies shrink and dreams come true."

Not everyone fits.

In Ripatransone, townsfolk speak about the alley with pride.

"Who cares about the other towns?" says Carlo Michettoni, a waiter at the nearby Sammagno bar. "Italy's tightest pathway is here."

Ripatransone, dates to prehistoric ages, is also home to a necropolis and seven museums.

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The strategic clifftop position that once warded off barbarian invaders gives it superb panoramas across the Apennine mountains.

Ilene Acquaroli, a tourism official who is also curator of the local archeological museum, says many visitors come just for the alleyway.

"So many people have walked through it the cobblestones glow," she says. "Many others probably had to give up because of claustrophobia.

"They contact ahead the museum for guided tours. We've been listed in the Guinness Book of Records and we'll fight till the very end to defend our top attraction."

Acquaroli dismisses Termoli's claim, insisting it fails to meet the criteria of a proper alley. To qualify, she says, they must have a window or entrance contain a sidewalk and connect two roads.

Bickering neighbors

The third contender, the "Kisswomen Alley" in the Umbrian town of Citta della Pieve, fits the bill.

Kisswomen alleyway: Amorous name, angry past
Kisswomen alleyway: Amorous name, angry past

At 45 centimeters wide, it was originally set up to divide the estates of two bickering neighbors.

According to a sign at its entrance, the romantic name "springs from the inhabitants' fertile imagination."

"It's so tight you can easily imagine Renaissance ladies and knights passing by, shyly brushing against each other... gentlemen kissing ladies' hands,"says Fiorella Fringuello at the local tourist office.

The Kisswomen pathway opens up to a spellbinding view over local beauty spots including the Chiana Romana valley and Mount Cetona.

Here too there's determination to claim the record.

"We'll keep on saying that it's Italy's narrowest alley, or at least among its narrowest. It's part of our identity", says Fringuello.

Back in Termoli, De Lena is still brandishing his measuring stick.

"It's a matter of historical accuracy. People must know that Termoli has the narrowest alley in Italy. It's a fact", says De Lena.

At least until another town claims the record.

Silvia Marchetti is a freelance journalist and writer based in Italy.

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