Calcata, Italy: The grooviest medieval village in Italy

"These people are strange." But – to quote the Doors hit from 50 years ago – that might be "because I'm a stranger".

I'm standing in a tiny cafe, surrounded by cats, in a near-deserted medieval hilltop village just 40 kilometres away from the bustle of Rome.

And I'm watching a rare mono video of a young Jim Morrison, the incomparable keyboard player Ray Manczarek, and the two guitarists in the doomed Doors, performing their early hits.

Everything about the cafe is quintessentially Italian – the striking waitress, the excellent coffee, the breakfast focaccias the other customers are tucking into.

Yet the posters on the walls of Calcata's Rock Cafe are mostly British or American. And the singers all died unnaturally early deaths. Apart from Morrison, there are photos of Janis Joplin, John Lennon, Brian Jones, Billie Holiday, Jimi Hendrix and Amy Winehouse.

Why this fascination with death? The beautiful waitress, understandably, doesn't understand my feeble Italian.

Perhaps it doesn't matter – it's just one more idiosyncracy of Calcata, a community the New York Times described as "the grooviest village in Italy, home to a wacky community of about 100 artists, bohemians, ageing hippies and New Age types."

People have been living around Calcata long before the Romans arrived. However, it's present incarnation as an artistic retreat – easily visited from the Eternal City – dates back to the 1960s and '70s. 

In the 1930s, Mussolini's government condemned Calcata, fearing the soaring cliffs on which it is built were liable to collapse. A new town, Calcata Nuovo, was built three kilometres away and the locals moved there. 

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Towering, ancient Calcata became deserted for three decades until the hippies moved in, patching up houses and streets and opening a plethora of galleries, restaurants and cafes.

This morning, when we visit, is a spring weekday, so the Rock Cafe is the only one open. But come here on a summer weekend and the village will be, well, "groovy, man".

For an hour we have Calcata to ourselves (apart from those cats!). 

We roam around the exquisitely beautiful village, getting lost in the rabbit warren of cobbled streets, admiring the tiny stone houses piled one on top of the other. 

Many of these homes are weekenders, our guide Daniele tells us. A typical house costs around  €100,000 and they are bought by Romans who want to indulge in an alternative lifestyle from time to time.

Sadly, though, modern tourists are no longer able to see what was once Calcata's most celebrated claim to fame.

In 2006, American travel writer David Farley set off to solve the mystery of "the Church's strangest relic in Italy's oddest town". The result was an engaging book called An Irreverent Curiosity.

For centuries Calcata's proudest boast was that it was home to "the Holy Prepuce" (that's Jesus' foreskin).

In his book, Farley explains how the Holy relic apparently passed from Charlemagne, via the Papacy, to a 16th-century German soldier. In 1527 that mercenary was part of a German army looting Rome when he grabbed the priceless foreskin from the Vatican's Sanctum sanctorum (Holy of Holies).

Legend says the foreskin-snatcher was eventually captured in Calcata, but hid the jewelled reliquary containing the relic in his prison cell where it was not discovered until 1557. (I know – how can a holy foreskin go missing for 30 years?).

Once the Vatican offered a 10-year indulgence to any pilgrim who made a journey to see the unusual relic, Calcata quickly became a tourism magnet.

Unfortunately, Farley explains, the story got a little murky when a second foreskin belonging to Jesus was found. 

In 1856, monks at Charroux Abbey in France discovered what they claimed to be "the true Holy Prepuce". Apparently it had been given to them by Charlemagne, but – again – somehow lost.

The Vatican eventually came to a sensible compromise. Anyone writing or speaking about either of the two candidates for Christ's foreskin would be excommunicated. 

In the 1960s, the Vatican removed the Day of the Holy Circumcision from the church calendar altogether. 

Nevertheless, the villagers of Calcata kept up their tradition of parading their disputed foreskin through town on the date that had traditionally marked when the operation took place.

Calamity struck in 1983. That's when the parish priest announced to a shocked congregation the Holy Prepuce had been stolen.

He'd apparently kept it in a shoebox in his bedroom wardrobe for safe keeping.

To this day, no-one knows who the thief was. 

Some blame the priest himself (though personally, I think one of those many cats might be the culprit).

Don't let the absence of the relic put you off. There's still more than enough eccentricity in Calcata to keep you entertained for a day.

As Jim Morrison wrote: "These people are strange."

And Calcata is so strange you'll never forget it.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

calcata.info/enindex.html

GETTING THERE

Emirates/Qantas operate daily flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Rome via Dubai. See emirates.com/au or qantas.com

TRAVELLING THERE

Rome and Calcata are featured in a 12-day Ultimate Italy trip by Luxury Gold by Insight Vacations from $7325 a person. That includes 11 nights in five-star accommodation, six gourmet evening meals, a Tuscan cooking demonstration, an exclusive behind-the-scenes visit to the Uffizi Gallery's private Vasari Corridor in Florence and access to the Vatican's Sistine Chapel before it opens to the general public.  See insightvacations.com/luxurygold or phone 1800 001 778.

Independent travellers can drive to Calcata, from Rome via Highway Cassia Bis (SS2), exit at Sette Vene and follow signs for Calcata. Or take the light rail from Ferrovia Nord station in Rome to Saxa Rubra bus terminal. Buses leave every hour.

Steve Meacham travelled as guest of Insight Vacations.

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