Upon first pronunciation it may sound like a detour to India, but it couldn't be farther from that country. In many ways Calcata is your typical Italian citadel: well preserved, remote, and picturesque. Located about 30 miles north of Rome, the fortress hill town sits protectively on a volcanic mound and overlooks a valley of lush juniper and hazelnut trees. But this medieval village differs from others in that decades ago, it was on the brink of extinction because the Italian government had determined the rugged crag it was sitting upon was anything but protective; it was crumbling and a danger to its inhabitants. Most of Calcata (Vecchia) packed up and moved to the neighboring Calcata Nuova a half mile away.
Luckily the artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs who adopted and re-settled Calcata in the 1970s have revived the city from certain death (they even got the government’s death sentence lifted). Slowly these "re-animators" are bringing commerce and culture back to the slumbering village. They have become the village’s pulse by rebuilding it stone by stone, opening cafés, and fostering an artisanal spirit that is now evident when you stroll down the main drag of this one donkey town. Case in point: as I was strolling down the main street I came upon a tiny jewelry shop filled with exquisite handmade pieces. I settled on a ring, and wanted to pay, but no one was running the shop. I went across the street into a ceramics studio and asked (in broken Italian) the proprietress if there was someone running the jewelry shop. She promptly took off her cap (which held back her thick hair while she was using the potter’s wheel), wiped off her hands, and ran across the street, apologetic. Not only was she a jewelry designer, but a master stoneware artisan as well.
As with most hill towns, you have to check your car at the gate. In this case you just park your car along the road that approaches the city and trek in. There’s no mistaking where the entrance is...the way in and out are the same. As you pass through the ramparts, you’ll be struck at how the residents today are living much as their former inhabitants did during medieval times, like the town has been protected from the modern world. Furniture is delivered by donkey. No one does business during the siesta. Steep and sometimes slick cobblestones on an S curve lead into the historical center, where you’ll find the lone church (and some unusual stone chairs in front of it). At first glance, you may think the entire town has shut down (it may have if it’s Sunday or Monday), or maybe everyone is taking an extended siesta. But look closer down the cross streets and alleyways past the families of feral cats, and you’ll see and hear small signs of life coming from tiny artist studios, boutiques, and galleries.
Driving is the most convenient way to reach Calcata (see the town’s website for specific driving directions: http://www.calcata.info/enindex.html). To get there by bus, take one of the light-rail trains from the Ferrovia Nord station in Rome to the Saxa Rubra bus terminal (a 20-minute ride) and switch to a blue Cotral bus (www.cotralspa.it) that stops at Calcata. Buses leave almost every hour, and the ride takes about 45 minutes. Tickets are sold at the snack bar, Bar Saxa.
2009 Update: Calcata has recently been featured in David Farley's book"In Irreverent Curiousity." [Gotham Books, $25] In the tale, he describes the most holy and unusual of relics once owned by the village.