A huge red crane is swinging back and forth into a box-like five-storey structure, built in tackiest Sixties style and materials, and is slowly but relentlessly reducing it to rubble. The Hotel Fuenti in Vierri is much more than just a nasty blot on one of Italy's loveliest coasts. It has become a symbol of the scourge of abusivismo edilizia, illegal construction that has ruined many areas of natural beauty and contributed to floods, landslides and other not-altogether natural disasters.
The demolition of the 400-bed hotel, nicknamed "The Monster", is being done by two teams of workmen with five specially designed diggers. Their task is not only to obliterate the hotel by the middle of June, but also to return the area as far as possible to its natural state. Environmentalists are hailing the demolition as a victory in a battle that has lasted three decades.
The hotel was built between 1968 and 1971 without proper permission. Its owner dreamt of cashing in on the jet set and royalty who patronised the Amalfi coast, Sorrento and the island of Capri.
Yet even before his "Sheraton of Southern Italy" was completed there were protests. Perched on a purpose-built concrete ledge, it resembled a state housing complex and jarred with the rocky and unspoilt coast behind it.
A series of legal challenges has meant that the hotel has never been fully functional. It was only open from 1980 to 1984 to house the homeless after an earthquake near Naples. Yet getting the thing knocked down seemed to be "Mission Impossible". Numerous demolition orders were issued by courts but never implemented by local authorities. There were always counter appeals and conflicting court decisions, plus a healthy share of buck- passing. Locally there was pressure to keep the hotel to provide employment and a boost to the economy.
Anyone who has the fortune to take a boat trip along the Amalfi coast, whose staggering cliffs, crystalline waters and picturesque villages have inspired artists from Wagner through to Gore Vidal, couldn't miss it. When the coast was named a World Heritage site by Unesco in 1997, environmentalists upped the pressure to have "The Monster" removed. Last December, a decree, dubbed The Fuenti Law, gave the Environment Minister, Edo Ronchi, a Green, the power to intervene if the local council failed to implement demolition orders. The owners were given a choice: either you knock it down at your own cost, or we will confiscate the property.
Ermete Realacci of Legambiente, the Environmental League, said: "The demolition is a victory for our association but above all it strikes a blow for legality. It gives a clear signal to the illegal construction industry that each day puts up 142 houses against the law. More illegal structure been destroyed in the past six months than in the past fifty years."
Mr Realacci says he hopes the demolition of the offending hotel will have a domino effect. His organisation is campaigning for the destruction of villas built inside the splendid Valley of the Temples at Agrigento, and of unfinished buildings that litter the Cinque Terre, on the Italian riviera near Genoa.
Legambiente says that as much as a quarter of all Italian construction is illegal. In the past town councils, especially in southern Italy, have often been accomplices; turning a blind eye to abuse or appeasing building speculators with permissive planning laws.
One of the reasons there is so much abusivismo edilizia is Italy's legendary bureaucracy and planning laws. Over the years this has become a blanket excuse for people to ignore the rules altogether.
Beyond the aesthetic damage, the habit of building without permission or ignoring zoning laws has created immense hydrogeological damage. This has been identified as one of the causes of recent disasters, including the spectacular mudslides that enveloped entire villages inland from Naples last April, severe flooding in Piedmont five years ago and recurrent landslides after heavy rains in the Genoa area.
National governments, instead of combating the phenomenon, have incited it. Every couple of years, they would pass a sanitoria, or amnesty, for illegal buildings, prompting a "build now, apologise later" mentality.
In fact, the owners of the Hotel Fuenti have an appeal lodged with a regional court protesting at the decision to exclude them from the latest sanitoria. Should they win, the bulldozers, cranes and diggers will have to stop and the Amalfi coast will be left with a half-dead Monster, even uglier than before.
Frances KennedyReuse content