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.
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.
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.