Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2006/19 posted by hidden europe on

Many are the European communities that have been lost to warfare, natural disasters or other agencies. The old town of Tocco Caudio in southern Italy was abandoned after an earthquake in the 1980s, as was Poggioreale in western Sicily a few years earlier. The modern world's voracious appetite for water has spelt the death knell for many communities. On Russia's Volga River, the great Rybinsk dam project in the 1940s led to the flooding of a huge area, engulfing over a hundred villages and the entire city of Mologa.

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Dear fellow travellers

But now the sounds of population fail,
No cheerful murmurs fluctuate in the gale,
No busy steps the grass-grown footway tread
But all the bloomy flush of life is fled.

from The Deserted Village (1770) by Oliver Goldsmith

Goldsmith's elegiac poem, although written with Ireland in mind, might well be an appropriate eulogy for lost communities all over Europe. Of the almost five hundred communes in France's Meuse département, Bezonvaux is one of the most intriguing. For it has a population of zero. Not one person! For Bezonvaux is one of a half dozen villages in the forests northeast of the town of Verdun (on the River Meuse) that were pummelled into oblivion in 1916. Nowadays there are just the shells of old buildings in what was a hundred years ago a thriving rural community. But then came the First World War, and German and French forces were locked in bloody battle here for ten long months. Bezonvaux was destroyed, utterly and completely, and yet happily its name lives on in an ingenuous piece of French civic bureaucracy - perpetuating an abandoned village by letting it retain the status of a commune.

Many are the European communities that have been lost to warfare, natural disasters or other agencies. The old town of Tocco Caudio in southern Italy was abandoned after an earthquake in the 1980s, as was Poggioreale in western Sicily a few years earlier. The modern world's voracious appetite for water has spelt the death knell for many communities. On Russia's Volga River, the great Rybinsk dam project in the 1940s led to the flooding of a huge area, engulfing over a hundred villages and the entire city of Mologa. Some 130,000 people were forced to leave Mologa alone. The flooding of a few English villages seems small beer by comparison, but each community that disappears diminishes our shared cultural heritage. Beneath the waters of Ladybower Reservoir in the English Peak District are the submerged villages of Derwent and Ashopton, both flooded in 1943. In the Lake District the village of Mardale Green was sacrificed to appease Manchester's need for fresh water, as the entire Mardale valley was flooded in 1935.

Human agency of another kind led to the hurried evacuation of the Ukrainian town of Pripyat twenty years ago, as the Chernobyl nuclear accident contaminated a huge area of northern Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus. In Pripyat, dozens of empty apartment blocks bear witness to the limits of technological prowess, while the bumper cars in the town's amusement park stand just where they were on the morning of Saturday 26 April 1986, when Chernobyl's No.4 reactor exploded with such disastrous consequences.

This summer marks the end of the road for a German town which is about to succumb to the relentless advance of opencast mining for brown coal. hidden europe has been in Haidemühl these past days. And it is an important moment for the town. Tomorrow the kindergarten doors will be locked for the last time, as the last four children move away. The glassworks which once employed over a thousand people now stands silent sentinel over an almost empty town. But the Haidemühl story has a happy end, as we shall report in the next issue of hidden europe due out on 5 September.

Meanwhile, the Irish village that Oliver Goldsmith is said to have had in mind when he wrote The Deserted Village seems to have made a comeback. Glasson, just northeast of Athlone, is the spot that claims to be the village of Goldsmith's poem (referred to only as Sweet Auburn in the text). Nowadays, the place positively bristles with business as all and sundry exploit the Goldsmith connection to the full.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.