food / travel

Welcome To Gorreto, The Oldest Town In An Aging Europe

Average age: 65. The one immigrant family in town had a baby girl, the first birth in a decade -- and they're already making plans to leave.

Panorama of Gorreto
Panorama of Gorreto
Niccolò Zancan

GORRETO â€" Giorgio Boretti, a retiree, sits on the only bench in front of state highway 45 and considers the reasons to flee this sleepy town. “I wish I could leave this place,” he says. “Nothing ever happens, no one is ever around. It’s even hard to find enough people to play a game of cards.”

On a bridge on the Trebbia river â€"which runs through Gorreto â€" Maria Adelaide Nicoletti, another local pensioner, lays out a banner announcing the upcoming chestnut festival. “Good air and peace” keep her in Gorreto, she says. “When people in the cities suffocate (from the heat), we put on a sweater. But we have to convince young people to choose our lifestyle.”

Some say that the future will resemble this town; a world full of senior citizens. But many of Gorreto’s aging inhabitants are still young at heart, full of desires and with plenty of time to waste. Gorreto has the highest average age in Europe at 65.1: If this doesn’t seem quite old enough, it’s because the 94 inhabitants’ combined age is brought down by the presence of a 2-year old Romanian child. In any case, it’s not a record to be proud of.

“I don’t like this news,” says Stefi, the owner of the town’s only bar. “I’m scared thieves will target us, they might think Gorreto is more vulnerable than other towns. Did you know that after 6 pm the local Carabinieri police station closes â€" for emergencies, they’d have to come up from Chiavari?”

Chiavari is a coastal town more than an hour’s drive away, and is a world away from Gorreto. Here, we are in the remote interior of Liguria, Italy’s northwestern region, and part of a forested regional park. State highway 45 â€" which connects the port of Genoa to the city of Piacenza in the Po valley â€" was ordered built by Napoleon, and its route has remained unchanged since then.

Tides of change

Italy, like other places in Europe, has been struggling with a declining birthrate that is too low to keep the population replenished. And now, Goretto stands as the national symbol of the problem.

We ask the patrons of Stefi’s bar who is the oldest person in Gorreto. The answers are many: “Maybe Pina, or Elia. Merigo was born in 1928. Maybe it’s Agnese, she’s 86.” Thankfully Chiara Galin â€" just 2 years old â€" also lives in Gorreto. She’s the daughter of Eusebio and Gabriela, who arrived here in 2004 from the Romanian city of Bacau.

“When my daughter was born, local journalists rushed here to take photos,” says Gabriela. “They put Chiara on the front page because she was the first child born here in the last decade.”

Indeed, the last child born in Gorreto before her was the daughter of the local bank manager, and the bar’s patrons don’t remember any other births in recent years. It now seems all but certain that few will come after Chiara.

The old facade of Gorreto’s town hall still bears painted fascist slogans from the 1920s. There are even traces of older ones, from World War I. There used to be a restaurant in the town, named "da Attilio", but it closed 16 years ago.

The locals in Stefi’s bar reminisce about how good the restaurant’s food was, especially the pansotti al sugo di lepre â€" a local triangle-shaped variant of ravioli served with hare ragout. The locals at the bar all remember pieces of a world that no longer exists: “Here there was a tailor, a butcher, we even had a hardware store and a shoemaker.”

The only newcomers, the Romanian family, were seen as a blessing. “I was immediately welcomed here, by the second day I already felt at home,” says Eusebio Galin, Chiara’s father. “I found a job at a small construction company, we restructure the farmhouses of villagers who come here in the summer."

He also points out that rent is only 200 euros, except for the summer vacation period. “Winter is very tough, we work less and the days seem to never end,” Galin adds.

The destiny of Gorreto’s European record is tied to two unpredictable choices, and one of them is the Galin family’s decision. “When Chiara turns 5 she’ll have to go to school, and the economic crisis has reduced job opportunities,” says the father. “My wife and I are thinking of returning to Romania.” Without Chiara’s presence, Gorreto’s average age would spike further.

Gorreto’s mayor, Sergio Capelli, is determined to fight for his town. “We need funds to fix the road, and we have a 17th century castle that’s falling to pieces that we need to buy and restructure,” he says. “We need to attract commuters and tourists to preserve life here.”

As the setting sun disappears behind the mountains, the smell of burnt wood fills the air amid perfect silence. Paolo Salomoni, owner of the local Miramonti hotel, finds Gorreto’s tranquility wonderful. He says he did some quick research online: in Trentino there are 46 inhabitants per square kilometer, in the Aosta Valley there are 27, and in Alaska, 0.4. The Trebbia valley has almost as few as Alaska, with 0.7 inhabitants per square kilometer.

“Nowhere else in Italy has air this clean, and an untouched valley is a great tourist attraction,” he notes. “Our river has unique characteristics, and the first one to realize it was Ernest Hemingway, who called this the most beautiful valley in the world.” These days, in warmer months, Gorreto is a popular spot for fly fishing, with visitors from all over Italy and even from England and Sweden. Says Paolo: “They come for the uncontaminated river, the silence, and the legendary trout.”

For Gorreto, even while maximizing the opportunities around tourism is essential, history is heading decidedly upstream.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Saving The Planet Is Really A Question Of Dopamine

Our carelessness toward the environment could be due, in part, to the functioning of a very primitive area of our brain: the striatum.

Ad scuba-diver and brain coral

Stefano Lupieri

PARIS — Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Addictions to sex and social media

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the 'pleasure hormone.'

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

Transverse section of striatum from a structural MRI image

Lindsay Hanford and Geoff B Hall via Wikipedia

Tweaking genetics 

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Les Echos
Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!