Restoring the Local Gold Building an Ecovillage on the Italian Riviera

A period of intense social unrest in the 13th century led a community in Italy to build the hamlet of Torri Superiore, in Linguria, near the Mediterranean Sea. The fortress-like structure eventually rose eight stories high, a labyrinth of 162 rooms built into a hillside above the river.

go green. credit: is abel, flickrCCAs the region is too mountainous to support large-scale agriculture, the villagers raised animals, made wine and olive oil, and traded. The building was gradually abandoned as locals migrated to urban centers, leaving the towers to decay.

The region, now known as “the Italian Riviera,” draws visitors from around the world to its famous beaches, but few venture inland to discover the “local gold” being cultivated at the ecovillage and guesthouse of Torri Superiore. It’s a model for sustainable living, set in the romance of the sweeping valley with its grape- and olive-studded terraces.

A Permaculture Evolution

In 1989, Torri Superiore was falling into ruin with collapsed vault ceilings and debris blocking rooms and hallways. A small group of people approached the site with the hopes of restoring it according to ecological principles. Local firms leading the effort followed a permaculture design philosophy—one that marries indigenous techniques with cutting-edge green technology.

Native stone, terracotta and natural lime—all traditional materials—are being used to rebuild the structure, creating breathable walls with excellent air quality. In the hot, arid Mediterranean climate, the thick stones are cooled at night, keeping the building comfortably cool by day. Along with these ancient technologies, the community has integrated a heating system fueled by wood stoves and solar panels, with radiant tubes set into walls and floors.

“Permaculture is a new door for people to come back to the land,” says resident Massimo Candela. “It is an entrance into techniques, some of which are ancient methods.” Today, he noted, because the soil and landscape have been degraded by modern farming, “it’s not just a matter of maintaining, but of restoring, the land.”

Many agricultural terraces are eroding in the region, and the ancient rows of olive trees that once framed the land have been abandoned. Resident Lucilla Borio, our host, compared the overgrown old trees and their precious oil harvest to a hidden treasure—the “local gold.”

By keeping their food production local, the ecovillage reintroduces a more sustainable system and revives the traditional, intimate Italian relationship with food. A few hours of hand-harvesting during our visit gave us a new appreciation for olive oil. We agitated the tree branches with a long stick, allowing the ripe olives to fall onto a fine net beneath. Large-scale olive growers often use a mechanized harvester which damages both trees and olives. After working for hours, emptying the nets and filling up a box, we learned it takes anywhere from 9 to 11 pounds of olives to produce a liter of oil.

Torri Superiore continues to be a work in progress. Fourteen of the 20 planned residences have been restored, along with the guesthouse, the modern common kitchen, the bathrooms, offices, dining terrace and hall. About 20 people live there, including members from Italy, Germany, France and Australia, and the group makes decisions by consensus.

Sitting on the dining terrace overlooking the valley, its long, candlelit tables topped with jugs of wine and loaves of bread, we noted that the residents seem to share a special conviviality that comes with working together for a shared purpose. At the same time, their efforts serve a larger cause—breathing life into the embers of an earth-based culture that was disappearing in the region and demonstrating a more sustainable way to live in modern Italy.