About Zonca Ecovillage
Zonca is a rustic and picturesque alpine village situated a few kilometers from the “Parco Naturale dell’Alta Valle Antrona.” The village was largely abandoned during the 1960s when many young people went to live in Domodossola so they were closer to the steel industry, a major employer. Many elderly Italians who had lived in the village found life increasingly difficult without an access road and so the village fell into disrepair.
The absence of an access road (which was only completed in 2009) ensures the unique character of Zonca with its many ruins. There simply was no way to maintain buildings with so few people choosing to remain in the village. Elderly locals recall that the village was once home to 350 people. Compare this to the twenty foreign nationals currently living there and the scale of the changes the village has undergone becomes apparent.
Some houses in Zonca are well over 400 years old. The village was 'rediscovered' in the 1990s and subsequently gained a new population of predominantly Swiss and German nationals with a smattering of other nationalities. Newcomers were attracted to the healthy forest environment, the silence and freedom.
Village or community?
All properties in the village are privately owned and most inhabitants are self-employed or of independent means. Although people work together when necessary, for example clearing and maintaining paths and terraces, each household has its own gardens. In addition, some people keep goats, sheep, chickens and there is even a llama. The owners of the goats produce and sell cheese. The goats are up in the alps during the summer months.
Due to the private ownership of property villagers do not consider themselves a community. They prefer the term 'neighborhood'. This can be confusing for visitors who sometimes think that because we live in such close proximity we form a community. Nonetheless, each household maintains its independence even if it is not always clear where the boundaries are.
During the summer months some households host volunteers who help to repair and maintain gardens, terraces, roofs and so on.
Where are the Italians?
At present, a few natives maintain a presence in the village although they do not live here. The lingua franca in the village is therefore (Swiss-) German although many also speak English and Italian.
In September Zonca celebrates a three day festival which includes live music and pizza. In December the locals hold a celebration for Santa Lucia in front of the church.
Today, several properties are either abandoned or well on their way to becoming ruins. Often the foundations are completely overgrown. This dilapidated state of the village poses a challenge because houses are built close to each other.
Maintaining roofs and walls is a priority. This is also true for terrace walls which regularly collapse when trees fall due to wind or snow. Another recurring effort is that of maintaining pastures, caring for grapevines and gardening in general. We also need to look after the water supply and make sure it is safe to use. During the spring and throughout summer, cutting and chopping wood is an absolute necessity to ensure there is enough wood to heat homes in the winter, when there can be deep snow and temperatures can drop to -10C.
Several houses now heat their water with solar panels. There is also solar shower at the top of the village. The “Casa Ambientale” is one of the bigger houses. There is a bathroom in the cellar that boasts both an electric boiler and a woodstove for heating water. The house is privately owned and access to the bathroom is only for guests and volunteers. A new solar water heater has just been installed in the centre of the village, with a sauna and shower that are open to the public for a voluntary donation.
One home in the upper part of the village has solar electric panels. Electricity from the grid is also available as three phase and two phase 220 volts.
Zonca has Internet although telephone reception is a little sketchy. Wifi access is available to visitors upon request. At least 4 homes now have their own Internet connections.
In Zonca there are various possibilities for accommodation. Guests are welcome and are expected to contribute at least €15. - euro per person per night. There are several guest rooms available throughout the village. Two homes are available to rent through Airbnb and Socialbnb. These are the 'Casa in Mezzo' and 'Casa Ambientale'. Please check out their respective pages on this website before making a booking.
Gardens and Foraging
Zonca is entirely surrounded by ancient terraces, although many have subsided and are overgrown. The area offers good prospects for permaculture gardening. The village is situated on the sunny side of the valley. This enables us to cultivate a wide variety of fruit and vegetables. We are still picking grapes, kaki and kiwi in November. Another source of food and possibly income could be chestnuts that grow abundantly and are ripe in September.
Gardens need to be fenced off the prevent foraging animals such as deer and wild boar from destroying them.
Wildlife you may encounter in Zonca includes boars, foxes, marters, squirrels, deer, weasels, rats, scorpions, mice and snakes (yes, poisonous varieties too). In addition there are lizards, salamanders, scorpions (tiny), toads, owls, bats, and hawks. Mosquitoes not too bad, bees and a few big hornets that feed predominantly on fruit. Although it is very silent on the mountain the natural world adds quite a cacophony. At dusk and in the night you can hear the owls out hunting. In the morning campers may awake to a chorus of birdsong.
Winters are relatively mild in the valley’s micro-climate. Fig trees survive due to the abundance of sun on this side of the valley. Temperatures seldom drop below -10° centigrade, and then only briefly. From October on the amount of snow increases significantly on the highest peaks. This snow remains visible even until August. However, the valley of Antrona was formerly known for three qualities — Fame, Freddo é Fumo —, meaning hunger, cold and smoke in Italian! During cold spells humidity increases significantly. Luckily, modern insulation materials and building methods coupled with the higher incomes of people living in Zonca today mean that we no longer have to endure such hardships.
As a matter of interest, Viganella, a village just a bit further up the valley is situated in a bend on the river and has almost no sun during winter months. Local authorities have placed a mirror on the mountain to reflect sunlight into the village.
Although winters are relatively mild, houses were traditionally not very warm and required constant heating from hearths. Many homes had stables beneath them and the warmth from goats provided some protection against cold but it is only now, with newcomers, that homes are being properly insulated and heated with modern rocket stoves that combust wood efficiently. To get an impression of life in Zonca during the winter have a look at the video's below shot by Brigitte Weiss.