The mountainous areas of Italy are home to a number of ghost towns like Balestrino, abandoned as a result of damage caused by the frequent earthquakes that affect the country. Many date back to medieval times and beyond. Some, like Balestrino and Conza Della Campania, have seen their populations moved to safer locations nearby leaving the original settlements abandoned. Some of these have been restored for tourists, giving a glimpse into Italy’s past.
Earthquakes have left their mark right across Italy. Its position at the southern extent of the Eurasian plate is largely the reason behind the high amounts of tectonic activity. The Appennine Mountains which run along the entire Italian peninsula form the majority of the destructive boundary between the Eurasian and the Adriatic plates. The proximity to the boundary of where the African plate is subducting below the Eurasian plate is also an issue and is responsible for the formation of Mount Etna and Mount Vesuvius. An eruption of the latter in 79 A.D. destroyed the town of Pompeii.
Throughout history, earthquakes have caused much destruction and devastation. In 1908, an earthquake measuring a magnitude of 7.1 struck in the Strait of Messina. The resulting tsunami caused extensive damage along coastal areas with estimates of the numbers killed ranging from 75,000 to 200,000.
An earthquake in 1915 completely destroyed the town of Avezzano in the Abruzzo region. Estimates suggest 96% of the population, or 30,000 people, were killed. The town was rebuilt but was again damaged extensively in World War II. It has since been rebuilt yet again.
On 26 September 1997, a 5.5 magnitude earthquake caused damage to the town of Assisi, famed as the home of St Francis of Assisi. The Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi saw caused part of its vault to collapse, killing four people inside the church and destroying a fresco by Cimabue. Efforts to rebuild began immediately and UNESCO collectively designated the Franciscan structures of Assisi as a World Heritage Site in 2000.
An earthquake in on 23 February 1887 is the main reason that Balestrino was abandoned. The 6.7 magnitude quake caused extensive damage throughout Liguria. The town was not abandoned immediately after the earthquake though. Landslides and smaller subsequent earthquakes over the next 65 years continued to damage the already unstable remaining buildings and a decision was made to evacuate.
Balestrino dates back to the 11th century and was originally founded by the Benedictine Abbey of San Pietro Dei. It is located about 70km (43 miles) south east of Genoa in the Liguria region. The churches of St George and St Andrew were both built in the 12th century and are beautiful example of Gothic architecture. A medieval castle proudly sits overlooking the town, largely undamaged. Throughout the years, the small town bustled with olive farmers. By 1860, the population was 800.
There were surprisingly few casualties in the earthquake of 1887, estimates suggest there were less than 2,000 in the entire Liguria region, however the damage to the buildings in Balestrino and geographic instability meant that the number of people living there declined. By 1953, only 400 remained and the authorities decided that the area was no longer safe for inhabitants. The entire population was moved to a new location further down the mountain.
Today, the old town of Balestrino sits overlooking the new town. It is closed to tourists due to instability but urban explorers still find a way inside. Local authorities have plans to make the town safe for tourists and efforts to this affect have already begun.