A toehold on change

October 25, 2008

By Guy Dinmore Published: October 25 2008

The crowd blocking the piazza surged up the steps and heaved against the doors, held back by good-humoured police urging patience as ceremonial guards in pith helmets took up positions inside. Finally, 100 years after Reggio Calabria was reduced to rubble in the most devastating earthquake ever to strike Europe, this city perched at the toe of Italy was reopening its Pinacoteca Civica gallery, bringing its art collections together under one roof once more. The sun was shining and the sea was sparkling at the bottom of the arcaded hill, with Sicily and Mount Etna looming beyond. People were in a festive mood.

“It is true that you cannot eat culture,” Mayor Giuseppe Scopelliti told important guests from Rome at the opening ceremony. “But culture is critical to social growth.”

But in spite of the occasion and the obvious pride in the renovated museum, there was still no escaping the twin themes that have made Reggio Calabria, both the city and the region, infamous: poverty and the Mafia.

Gianfranco Fini, speaker of parliament and leader of the National Alliance, addressed this directly, telling a packed news conference that the state must be strong in fighting organised crime. “Duisburg cannot be Calabria’s image,” he said, referring to the German city where a Mafia clan vendetta that began with an egg-throwing incident at a carnival in 1991 in the hilltop village of San Luca played out in the murder of six men at a restaurant. “There is no social hope without legality.”

But Calabria has a long way to go. Elsewhere in Italy most people still think of it as a lawless, corrupt backwater that the rest of the country has passed by. This is symbolised by the infamous incomplete highway stretching south but stopping short of its main cities, trapped between sea and mountains. The San Luca clans, the Pelle-Votari and the Nirta-Strangio, form part of an extensive, family-based Mafia known as the ‘NDrangheta, the most powerful criminal organisation in Europe, which dominates the cocaine trade from South America through the Calabrian port of Gioia Tauro. And Reggio Calabria regularly ranks near the bottom of Italy’s league tables for household income, employment and school attendance.

“Primitive” is how Luigi, a native Calabrian who fled north to find work in Rome (and declines to give his surname), describes his hometown. The exodus from the region – which provided much of the labour to build early 20th-century New York and post-war northern Italian factories – continues, at the rate of about 1,000 people a week. Villages ruined by the 1908 quake, which claimed as many as 100,000 lives on both sides of the Straits of Messina, are still abandoned.

Yet Scopelliti, one of Italy’s youngest mayors, believes Reggio Calabria is turning the corner. Impressive developments are in the pipeline, including a Mediterranean museum and civic centre designed by award-winning architect Zaha Hadid and possibly the long-dreamt-of bridge to Sicily. Foreign property investors are showing interest too.

On a recent evening, the city’s seafront esplanade was a picture of calm, with couples and families strolling beneath the palms and giant banyan trees, the lights of Sicily’s Messina twinkling across the sea. A railway line, inconveniently, once separated Reggio Calabria from its beaches. But a previous administration built the promenade to straddle the now concealed tracks, putting beaches and cafés within just a few minutes’ walk of central hotels and offices. According to one official, the Mafia extorts protection money from businesses but does not like micro-criminality, making the city a safe place to live.

Liberty-style villas have been rebuilt into homes and offices along what some writers have described as the “most beautiful kilometre” in Italy. Among them is the gothic Venetian and very esoteric Villa Genoese Zerbi, housing a collection of contemporary art and bronzes. The city’s revival is also seen in its restaurants specialising in local dishes – more of the farm than the sea – such as the bizarrely named U Pilu ‘Nta L’Ovu (dialect for “hair in the egg”) on Via Cimino, where prices are half those in Rome.

Property values have risen dramatically but are still much lower than in other parts of Italy. “As long as the state does not get rid of the Mafia, prices will stay low,” explains estate agent Domenico Comande. Yet investment is safer than it has been, he adds, since Scopelliti is working to stop abusivismo, or illegal construction, by enforcing tighter controls and even demolishing some structures.

Comande has a number of properties for sale in Reggio Calabria’s city centre, including a two-storey villa with six bedrooms, a garden and beach access for €650,000 and a five-bedroom flat with views across the port to Sicily at €550,000. To the north, in the popular town of Scilla (named after the monster of Greek mythology) on the Tyrrhenean coast, he is meanwhile offering a furnished, 230 sq metre top-floor apartment with a large terrace for €800,000.

He says foreign buyers in the market have been mainly Germans and, more recently, Italian-Americans and Britons. The latter group had been taking advantage of cheap Ryanair flights from London’s Stansted to Calabria’s Lamezia airport until the carrier axed the route in September athough it might be reopened in the spring. (Ironically the announcement came the same day that a big Italian daily ran a feature on the new “Calabria-shire” attracting UK property hunters.) Russians are also interested in the most expensive properties, Comande says.

Locals tend to opt for homes along the Tyrrhenean coast, closer to the airport, where the infrastructure, restaurants and nightlife are better. The Ionian coast, around the “toe” of Italy, is less developed because, he says, the Mafia likes to keep it that way. A two-carriage train trundles to these settlements, passing orchards and olive groves and miles of deserted beaches pockmarked by some uncontrolled development, drab public housing and red-tiled villas. Craggy mountains, riven by gorges, form an impenetrable barrier behind.

In the small town of Brancaleone, where a turtle protection centre welcomes visitors off the train, Comande recently sold an 800 sq metre villa with a hectare of land to a British buyer for just €450,000. There are also two new gated communities from developers Property Growth International (PGI) and Corsilope under construction. The Sands has 181 apartments and townhouses, with a restaurant, pool and tennis and volleyball courts, while Palm View has 42 properties. A two-bedroom unit with small garden or balcony is selling for €97,000, while three-bedroom townhouses go for €220,000. And most of those in the first phase at The Sands have been sold, mainly to British and Irish people but also some Italian investors.

Pauline Mors, sales director for PGI and a veteran of Spanish costa developments, says she sees Calabria as Europe’s last “emerging market” for a place by the sea and has faith in promises by the local authorities to put a brake on rogue construction. “Everyone loves Calabria and they love the price,” she says, noting that she was inundated with inquiries after the UK’s Channel 4 featured Calabria in its A Place in the Sun series.

She avoids referring to the Mafia, or the “M word” as she calls it. “Everyone is very welcoming. We have not had any problems,” she says. Besides, as Italians will point out, Sicily’s reputation as the original stronghold of organised crime has not stopped floods of foreign investors driving prices skyward.

“Foreigners should not fear the Mafia,” Comande agrees. “The Mafia does not touch individual interests, only the big interests.”

Trevor Pearson, a sales director from England who is married with two daughters and a place in Spain, recently decided to buy a flat in Brancaleone, after falling in love with it on his first visit. He always had an affinity for Italy but thought Tuscany was becoming too expensive.

As for the Mafia presence in Reggio Calabria, he says it doesn’t bother him. “I just hope they won’t come knocking at our doors.”

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