Rolling Into Catenanuova, The Hottest Spot In Europe
The streets are deserted until 7 p.m., air conditioning for those lucky enough to have it blasts constantly, and locals dream of leaving the arid desert that has become of their hometown.
CATENANUOVA – No one would want to work as a baker in Catenanuova. Home to little more than 5,000 residents, the central Sicilian town is the hottest municipality in Europe. "Yet, you get used to it," says Salvatore Santoro, puffing clouds of flour. "There's nothing else to do."
The baker is putting pizza dough and snacks in the oven at noon sharp. The oven blasts hot gusts, the air conditioner tries to counter them with a creaking noise. Outside, it's the scorching summer of 2023. "Today, it's 42°C (107.6°F), so for us, it's a good day," Santoro quips.
Catenanuova is the town with the highest officially recorded temperature in the European Union: 48.5 °C (119.3°F) . But all its inhabitants claim that during this year's peak of heat, even that record was surpassed. "It was so hot that if you stepped outside for just five seconds, you felt like passing out. Forty degrees is almost autumn for us," baker Santoro jokes bitterly.
There are two sounds in Catenanuova. The hum of air conditioners all turned on at once, like a constant electronic buzz that permeates nearly every street streets. And then, the sound of cars left in neutral. No one turns off the engine during errands, thus transitioning from one air conditioning to another, from the baker's to the car's, and from the car's to home.
Aside from this, if you pay attention, in Catenanuova you can hear another undefinable sound. At first, it's hard to distinguish. It's the amplified noise of every tiny gesture, within a small lifeless town. Without humans. Without bars and without inhabitants. It's just like a lockdown or quarantine. In the square, all the tables of the outdoor seating areas are empty.
Business starts at dusk
Catenanuova is situated in a valley between Enna and Catania, surrounded by small mountains. Mount Scalpello. Mount Santa Maria. To get here from the southern coast, you pass through ruins, abandoned construction sites, closed roads, crumbling roads and fields of scorched wheat.
The only way to survive.
In the coming months, work on the doubling of the railway line towards Palermo should begin. And indeed, the only human beings you encounter are railway workers in their yellow vests. The bed of the Sineto River is dry. On the horizon, motionless wind turbines and the smoke of new fires.
This is not a typical afternoon here in Italy's south – it's the only way to survive in this desert land from 11 in the morning until 7 in the evening, you don't spot any humans on the street.
"It's our fault," says local resident Agata Salerno. "We did this because of the way that we're treating our world."
Thirteen years ago, Salerno opened a kiosk in the typical style of Catania. Seltzer, lemon, and salt. Orgeat. Almond milk. Highly aromatic mint. "I do everything myself, I go to buy the best raw materials. But look: it's lunchtime and the kiosk is closed. It hurts. But it's how it is. It remains closed until seven in the evening because no one comes out before that."
In the distance, a girl gets out of her car to retrieve something from the trunk and shelters herself with an umbrella to avoid collapsing on the pavement. "I've even put up an outdoor fan, I'm the only one in the whole town who has it," Salerno says. "But when it's 44 degrees at 5 in the afternoon, obviously, no one feels like coming to the kiosk. I don't know what we can do, it's a huge problem, and I'm very worried."
A panoramic photograph of Catenanuova
A different kind of heat
It has always been hot in Catenanuova, that's for sure, to the point that many residents remember their grandparents putting out lounge chairs at night to sleep on the balcony. But that heat has now turned into the future knocking at the door. And it's terrifying.
But we have to endure, there are no alternatives.
The Daidone family manages a renowned pastry shop throughout Sicily. Not a single piece of fruit comes from this land. The fields around are too arid, and the citrus orchards in the area are not very generous. This means that mulberries, peaches, oranges, mandarins, lemons, melons, and everything else needed must be bought on the coast, near the sea, where temperatures are milder and harvests still abundant.
"A heat like this, as in recent years, has never been seen before," says Daidone. "It's a different kind of heat, more humid and more extreme. There have been literally unlivable days. But we have to endure, there are no alternatives. Although perhaps there should be a closure during the hottest hours. The elderly are in danger."
One of the immediate consequences of this unbearable heatwave is reflected in electricity bills. "We only survive thanks to the air conditioners and refrigerators that never stop cooling. On average, the cost for our pastry shop, restaurant, and workshop was about 5,500 euros per month. But in August 2022 – for just one month – we reached 23,443 euros." This year has been a little better on the Daidone Pastry's pockets: 9,500 euros in July. But these are still figures out of proportion, no longer aligned with the world as it used to be.
"Through a grant from the Sicilian Region, we went through all the procedures to claim compensation for the difference in expenses, and they told us that we should receive the payment. But for now: nothing. We're struggling." Loans from the bank must be requested so as to not succumb to the heat and sustain a business in Catenanuova. If this is what the future will look like for many areas of Italy, then Catenanuova is where one should come to study.
The town's population is slowly and steadily decreasing. Enclosed in an air-conditioned bubble at the "Isola Bella" bar and deli, two patrons joke about the low birthrate: "With this heat!" With this heat, it's difficult to imagine, to kiss, to live. "I'm heading to the North Pole!" says Gianluca Proietto, 34 years old, a mason, forced to leave his house to buy cigarettes from the vending machine. "How can you stay here? There's no one. There's no work. You can't breathe. I swear that in September, I'm leaving for the North."
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