Campodimele, Italy (CNN) — Since the 1990s Campodimele, a hamlet straddling the wild Aurunci hills in central Italy, has been celebrated for the longevity of its inhabitants.
Over the years scientists and tourists have flocked to the tiny community, eager to learn what it was that made its residents live well into their 10th or 11th decade.
Today, Campodimele is still known for its old folks. But mysteriously, the old folks themselves seem to have vanished.
Instead, the village seems to have become a victim of its own success. An influx of cash led to an impressive refurbishment of its historical center, but the newer surroundings seem to have chased the elderly residents away.
"In the past I'd walk every morning to the village square to spend time with my friends, relatives and people I knew, chatting at the bar or sitting on the benches and admiring the valley," one local, 81-year-old Benito Spirito, tells CNN.
"It was buzzing with life, there were so many people and tourists. Now I hardly go anymore, it's almost empty. It's sad."
Rising mid-way between Rome and Naples on the ruins of an Italic tribal settlement, Campodimele's name means "prairie of honey," a nod to its past life as a center for honey production.
At the end of the last century, when word spread about its sprightly citizens, the village became a honeypot for scientists, doctors, university professors and curious tourists as they searched for the secret formula to a long and healthy existence.
After years of study it was concluded that the village elders benefited from a combination of the fresh oxygen-rich air that blew into the mountains from the sea, the uncontaminated nature, a diet rich in legumes and a simple lifestyle.
The result was a local genetic quirk that keeps cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure low.
Campodimele's once rough and ready streets have been polished to perfection.
Courtesy Visit Lazio / A. Di Nitto
As its fame spread, foreigners arrived to explore the bucolic scenery and the picturesque hilltop village's maze of narrow cobblestone alleys surrounded by thick circular medieval walls and ancient towers.
Everyone wanted to meet the hero centenarians, sitting on benches overlooking the lush Liri Valley, walking on sticks or chatting on the main piazza of the fortified hamlet.
Grandmothers rested on doorsteps spinning tales and gossiping, or smiled at visitors from their windows adorned with colorful flower pots. Chickens clucked in the streets and other family members tended vegetable plots.
Twenty years later, all that seems to have changed.
Today the population is down to barely 450 residents, half of what it was 30 years ago, and most of the old folks have gone -- either dead or moved to cities and newer homes.
An old photo shows Campodimele's streets before the makeover.
In 2000 those over-80 years old accounted for 80% of the village's total population, now they number just 67 according to local data -- but roughly just 50 live here all year round. Only two centenarians are left and they now live with their children in nearby larger towns.
In the meantime the historical hamlet, once thriving with life, is now inhabited by just a few families with six elders.
It's also been given a thorough makeover.
The village's streets are now picture-perfect. The restyled dwellings are neat and tidy, painted in pastel shades of pink, yellow and cream while the sidewalks and windows shine.
Once-crumbling roofs have been fixed. The old uneven streets and rough steps have been smoothed.
A centuries-old elm still stands, symbolizing the quest of longevity, but most of Campodimele's windows are shut and the piazza, once the oldies' hotspot, is empty.
Frozen in perfection
The hamlet still comes to life during summer when former residents return to unplug and enjoy the view, but for the most part it looks frozen in perfection. Silence rules. The only remnants of the past are the creeping vegetation and forgotten fenced gardens.
Spirito is among the few elders who have remained. He lives with his daughter in Campodimele's countryside where he kills time looking after his plot and a few baby goats.
The rural life has nearly disappeared, he adds, and the elders "tirano a campà" -- live day to day -- trying to survive on small pensions or the support of their families. The social pull of the village and its traditional rhythms have died out.
"People no longer look after plots that give us fresh veggies such as tomatoes, aubergines, bell peppers, making us healthy," Spirito says. "They prefer to buy awful food at the supermarket. Many plots have been forsaken also because of the wild boars that destroy our hard work. It's tougher for the elders on their own."
A new amphitheater has been built on the ashes of an old orchard.
Local culture councilor Tommaso Grossi says he's concerned about the depopulation trend that sees funerals far exceed births. He says public money has been invested to make the hamlet more attractive and accessible to old folks.
"We wanted to preserve the original identity and architectural integrity of the historical center by restyling the dwellings in a uniform way, applying a precise color plan so that all houses are painted in the same light shades," says Grossi.
A giant elm tree connects the town with its past.
"The wooden window frames and balcony railings are identical, and electric and phone wires have been placed underground. When newcomers arrive, we want this to be our calling card as the 'town of longevity'. We want to live up to our fame."
Only the village's medieval fortified walls have so far escaped restoration. They feature a scenic, pleasant walk called "the street of love," which overlooks olive groves and a beech forest.
Today most locals live in a district of Campodimele called Taverna that lies three kilometers (nearly two miles) from the old center.
Taverna, located on a main road, has bigger homes and easier access compared to the ancient hamlet, which sits like an eagle's nest at the top of a winding, hairpin curved road.
New houses have also been built on lower ground outside the hamlet to ease living conditions and make room for families.
'Tiring for old people'
Winters can be harsh in Campodimele.
"Living in the old center 365 a year is tough," says Grossi. "No cars are allowed in and residents need to carry everything, from food to logs for winter fires -- quite tiring for old people.
"The ancient dwellings are very small, while the larger new ones allow grandparents to move in with their families who take care of them. They're not alone and are more comfortable."
Winters can be harsh in Campodimele and it often snows.
While other elders have moved to nearby towns where their families live and occasionally visit during weekends, many restyled houses in the old hamlet have been purchased by descendants of Campodimele's post-war emigres, who visit during summer.
"We're proud to boast a large Campodimele community in Canada, Brazil and England who feel the pull of their origins and like to spend quiet months in the village of their ancestors," adds Grossi.
"Our town is at the heart of a huge protected natural reserve with many trekking trails that unwind through the wilderness. Many appreciate its beauty and architectural uniqueness."
Picnic spots with wooden tables and stone braziers have been set up at the old mill garden and the park, once swarming with bandits and religious pilgrims, is a center for breeding deer.
Spirito's daughter-in-law, Alessandra De Filippi, has vivid nostalgic memories of her childhood in the vibrant hamlet. She recalls going to attend mass on Sundays, chatting to old women sitting on street steps or in front of the church.
"I can still picture it. It was packed with people, foreigners, visiting groups of school children," she says.
"It was a feast. Now when there's Mass you just bump into the few who attend. It's a real pity, the hamlet was at the height of its splendor in the 1900s.
"Aesthetically today it may be beautiful on the outside, but the social buzz is gone, that familiar chit-chat of our elders, it's not lived in."
Life was better before, she adds.
"In the past 20 years there's been a radical change, a social degradation. The hamlet has emptied, the traditional vibe is gone.
"When youth left searching for a job in cities the elders were left behind so when they started getting old or sick, with nobody to look after them, they couldn't make it on their own so had to go join their families. Many others have died or have been put in old age homes."
Steps where grandmothers once sat and gossiped.
Courtesy Silvia Marchetti
In 10 years' time De Filippi fears all there will be left of Campodimele's ancient heart will be the entrance to a "new" ghost town.
Back in the day, the hamlet's families were small-scale self-sufficient economies, she explains. So when the young people left, it was the beginning of the end for the elders, triggering "a social chain reaction."
De Filippi swears she'll never abandon her hometown and pledges to keep eating foods that she says will give her a healthy, long life. "I don't believe in this longevity gene, it's a matter of diet: daily doses of garlic, onions and shallot -- stuff young people don't much appreciate."
It's not over yet for Campodimele though. During normal non-Covid times, events and food fairs are staged during summer to lure tourists and offer them recipes said to contribute to longevity.
Among the "miraculous" local foods are soup or pasta with cicerchie, a primitive iron-rich version of chickpeas with a richer flavor, that allowed generations of peasants to survive.
Ciammotte are snails flavored with mint while laina is egg-less long handmade pasta served with beans and dried goat ricotta cheese. There are also premium olives and succulent baby goat and wild boar dishes.
Grossi insists Campodimele still has all the ingredients its citizens need to live to a ripe old age.
"The research is still ongoing," he says. "Doctors are analyzing a group of young people and it appears they too bear the same gene, boasting low blood fats and pressure.
"Many elders still keep fit walking around the hamlet, going to the bar for an espresso, looking after hens and plots."
Is it enough to keep Campodimele going? Only time will tell.