Venetians seek to buy Poveglia, ‘island of madness’ to foil luxury resort plan

Venetians seek to buy lagoon island of Poveglia - which some claim to be haunted - to prevent it being turned into yet another luxury resort

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 April, 2014, 8:47pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 April, 2014, 8:47pm


Andrea Barina, the owner of a no-frills restaurant on Venice's Giudecca canal, serves up mouth-watering plates of seafood antipasti and exquisitely fresh fish to a loyal clientele.

But one night earlier this month, the genial 50-year-old was confronted with an idea that was profoundly indigestible: the potential transformation of his beloved teenage playground into yet another luxury resort in the Venetian lagoon.

Barina and many of his neighbours were indignant when they heard of the Italian state's intention to auction a 99-year lease on Poveglia island as part of efforts to ease its huge public debt. Overgrown and deserted, Poveglia is an unlikely paradise. It does not feature in many tourist guides, and its eerie state of abandonment has fed many a ghoulish fantasy.

But to a committed band of locals, none of that matters. Its name alone evokes the simple pleasures of childhoods past. And when Barina, amid heated debate at his restaurant, had an idea, they were inspired. "He said, 'let's buy it,'" recalls Lorenzo Pesola, an architect. So that's exactly what they are trying to do - €99 (HK$1,060) at a time.

It may seem an ambitious plan - and to those who have read about Poveglia beneath any number of lurid headlines, downright odd. Owing to the potent mix of its colourful past and gloomy present - it has been officially off-limits to the public for decades - the seven-hectare island has attracted a reputation to rival any horror movie set.

A US television show, Ghost Adventures, branded it "one of the world's darkest epicentres" after a 2009 episode in which one of its hosts claimed to have been possessed while clambering about at night in the ruins and hailing the spirits in bad Italian.

Subsequently, Poveglia has been described as "the world's most haunted island", "the island of madness", and, for good measure, "like hell, but in Italy".

Strangely enough, this doesn't appear to put off the Poveglia Per Tutti [Poveglia For All] association. "This Anglo-Saxon tradition of ghosts is una cazzata [bulls**t],"says Pesola. "It's nonsense".

Yes, say the activists who want the lease, Poveglia was used in the past as a lazaretto - a quarantine station for the sick, particularly plague victims - but so were other islands. And yes, there was a nursing home, which still stands, dilapidated and partially roofless, amid the undergrowth.

But the island's more recent history is what counts for them.

"What people would often do was go where the water was very deep and fish for little squid. Then they'd go in little groups, secretly, onto the island and would grill and eat them," says Barina. "Another thing that was unmissable: there was a wooden bridge from which we'd hold diving contests. There'd be 30, 40 of us. And we'd go and steal the peaches from the trees, which were the best peaches in the whole lagoon".

Out of the wilderness of Poveglia, the group wants to turn it into a recreational space, vowing to keep two-thirds accessible to the public for activities such as camping, sailing and picnicking.

So far the project has won considerable local support and the tentative backing of Venice's centre-left mayor, Giorgio Orsoni, who was quoted as saying Venetians already had "too many luxury hotels" in the lagoon and didn't need another.

With more than 7,000 Facebook supporters, the group has seen some financial success. Three hours after opening the donation process last Wednesday, it already had the €20,000 necessary to take part in the May 7 auction.

But whether it will be able to raise enough money to see off big, private rivals remains to be seen. Should their bid fail, they will give the money back.