Essay: A Town Called Paola

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Perhaps it’s a bit self-indulgent to go to a town just because it shares my name. But in England, I’m the only Paola I know. With that in mind, David and I decided to include Paola in our holiday of Southern Italian resorts. After all, this tiny dot on the map between Naples and Reggio di Calabria at the toe of Italy had earned a paragraph in a tourists’ guidebook.  It was bound to have the things that tourists like us expected from Italy—or so we thought.

On the train going in I imagined it as a quaint little town, similar to others we had seen on the coast, with narrow winding medieval passages and slanted seventeenth century edifices and stairs. All of this would lead down to a small beach, nestled between mountains and full of boisterous Italians on holiday, bustling restaurants and the aroma of espresso lingering in the air.

As it was late morning when our train pulled in, we agreed to do the beach first and the town part later before the beach got too crowded – it was recommended in the guidebook. So, I prepared myself, imagining a search among the beach parasols and oily sunbathers for a rectangle of sand large enough to lay out a beach towel. But when we got there the stretch of beach some quarter of a mile long had a mere doPaolaMapzen families on it, a handful of people actually in the water. A stark contrast to the loud and splashy crowds I had seen in the neighbouring coastal towns of Maratea and Diamonte. I suggested to my other half that the town of Paola had a history of shark infestation. He wasn’t particularly amused.

After a string of jokes about Paola, Italy, we both sensed something spookier, more surreal still. For on this day with a sweltering sun the obligatory bars and gelateria, a strip of them along the shore, were closed. In fact, long since closed, battened down, grafittied and rotting. To make the ghost town complete there was an abandoned amusement park. It was now a shell of its former self, only a rusted carousel, a deflated castle.

We trudged through the heavy sand and eventually found a place to eat along the sea. It was the restaurant of a hotel where the locals came in for their midday meals. As we waited for a table, I glanced around the empty hotel lobby and wondered if the hotel was something like the Bate’s Guesthouse from Psycho, where people knew not to stay anymore. Despite these oddities, I cannot say that it was unpleasant as we enjoyed a perfect view of the sea and the rocky coastline which was to either side of the town and as it curved, my imagination could lose itself in distant green covered mountains.

Between the insalata caprese and the pesce spada, I checked the guidebook again to see if I had misread something or confused Paola, the derelict beach, with some other shoreline resort. Ah, yes, Marina di Paola just gets a small mention with the euphemistic phrase ‘relaxing,’ instead of the more accurate ‘boring’ and ‘sad.’ According to the guidebook, everything in Paola was happening on the other side of the rail station, where the old historic town was and where we’d find the sanctuary of San Francesco di Paola, the saint who drew in the tourists no doubt.

From the restaurant, the historic centre was about one kilometre uphill. The path was a grey, littered pavement, which ran along drab 1960s residences, a petrol station and a row of small businesses—accountant, computer shop, estate agent—all closed for the midday nap. Neither of us was optimistic at this point. When we reached the top we found the streets, now cobbled, narrowed into their medieval width and we started to regain the feeling of tourists’ Italy. As mentioned in the guidebook, the sanctuary was there with its Renaissance-baroque façade. I took a couple of snaps and strolled around, aware that we were the only tourists in the height of the Italian tourist season.

Depicting the life of San Francesco were a few murals worn by time and weather.  If they were in Florence, they’d be under glass and viewable at five euros a head.

Then it dawned on me. These murals were so faded, they looked black and white. In fact the unwashed grey of the buildings, the charcoal grey cobblestones and the aluminium grey shutters that sealed up the businesses while shopkeepers rested made the entire place appear as if in a black and white film. We had landed in a Fellini neo-realistic epic.

The only way back to colour was to return to the train station. With any luck, we could be in Maratea for a late afternoon swim. But we couldn’t do that, not having come so far, and maybe there was something more to this San Francesco than my now totally worthless guidebook led me to believe.

San Francesco di Paola was born in this town in 1416 and founded the order of the austere Minim Friars. In his later years, he travelled to Naples, where today a Basilica bears his name, and to France, where he died in 1507. Today he is the patron saint of seaman, which seems appropriate given Paola’s place along the coast. What really struck me about this character-saint wasn’t his years living as a hermit, nor the accounts of his performing miracles on the infirm and diseased as all good saints do. Rather, Francesco saw the town of Paola, then a mere village, as a religious and social point of reference for pilgrims on their way to Rome.

Perhaps it was in this spirit that the modern day expansion of little town went down to the seaside, making it a stopover on the way to someplace else. For me it was just that, a stopover, but not a stop between two places as such. The town of Paola was a resting point between expectations and reality, a chance to take a breather from the beach combers and the tourists. A rare glimpse of Italian life in its past and the shadows that remain in its present at the same time.

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