Italy has many little ghost towns, cities abandoned by virtue of earth movement or social movement. Some crumbled villages are brought back to life by artists and other crazies; people for whom stacked rock walls and light have a value that the rest of society refuses to recognize.

Craco tilts toward nowhere in particular. In relatively recent times it fell down, then was abandoned. What remains are scenes so compelling that even sugary beverage companies have used the ruins as a background. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, forget the sugar, you’ll die anyway—as you must.

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Craco Cracked

As you approach Craco, a hill town crowned by a Norman tower comes into view. It all seems so normal. But you can’t enter the town. It’s blocked off. You need to find the office and get a guide and pay the entrance fees. Then you need to put on a hard hat. Serious stuff.

So what happened here? Our guide, William, pulls no punches. In perfect English he lays it out plain and simple, insisting you understand.

“Look here. See what this says?” William asks, pointing to a sheet of paper giving a concise history of the area. “Earthquakes, landslides, year after year it goes on, but the town remains. Then, look at this, the last time, 1963, there was a landslide—and it took out half the town.”

What was different? The old part of town was built on bedrock, like most hill towns. The ancients might have been crazy, but they new a good foundation when they saw it. Then, when it came time to think of expansion, folks in charge decided to plant houses on the clay that sat over the slippery slope of rock like a wad of gum stuck to a handrail in the train station. Bad idea. But still, the place was stable for quite a while.

Yes, everything seemed to be in a rather precarious balance when the local government decided that the roads should be modernized and instead of each house having its own cistern, there would be a humongous water-holding tank built to distribute water to the “new city” built smack atop the clay.

Water is heavy. Lots of water in the cistern and the added weight of modern roads put an immense pressure on the big field of clay precariously stuck to the side of the slope. A bit of torrential downpour and down she came. Half the town—gone. Nobody had even looked at the geomorphology. It was just a place that looked ok to build upon. Luigi and Federico, they can do it…

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Craco: Here's Where It Cracked
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Craco Church with Majolica Dome

The church, siting pretty on bedrock, doesn’t seem in such bad shape. The Majolica dome needs a bit of restoration, as William points out.

The landscape, called “badlands” by some, could have been taken right out of Northern California.

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Craco: The Ghost Town

So there’s all this horrible beauty, this graceful decay Italy is known for and full of. And then, last of all, they take you into this little chapel.

Wow. It’s so, um, real. The detail!

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Craco: The Mummy

This is the hand of San Vincenzo Martire, said to be a Roman soldier and martyr. The holy relic of San Vincenzo came to Craco on June 4, 1792 and has been celebrated ever since. According to Wikipedia:

Traditionally, the feast in Craco celebrating San Vincenzo began nine days before the fourth Sunday in October with the recitation of solemn afternoon novenas. On one of those evenings, a small procession took place, with a statue representing the upright figure of the relic, starting from the Chapel and moving around the “Cross”, then located at the entrance to the town. On Friday evening, after the novena, the statue of the saint was brought into the Chiesa Madre [Church of San Nicola] located in the heart of the old town. On Saturday evening, before the feast day, the statue was carried in procession back to the chapel that served as its home. All celebrations culminated on Sunday with the Mass at the Friary and the procession that crossed the entire town. That evening, in front of the Palazzo Rigirone, there were bright fireworks displays.

So there you have it. A town that has been in many movies, films and commercials, including the hanging of Judas scene in The Passion of the Christ and some scenes in Quantum of Solace. A town with a really old relic. A town that is extraordinarily photogenic. Craco has been included in the watch list of the World Monuments Fund. What are you waiting for? It needs visiting. Don’t wait until the cruise ships decide to dock nearby and unleash thousands upon this tiny bit of real estate.

For more, see the official site with files to download in English.

You’re not going to go all the way down to Basilicata just to see a ghost town, so why not set up camp in Bernalda and go to the places in the article, which also offers lodging advice.

I can’t resist posting one more picture. It’s an odd picture. Oddly beautiful to me, even though it violates every composition rule they might have taught in art school.

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Craco and Sky

Craco: A Ghost Town in Basilicata originally appeared on Oct 23, 2015, © James Martin.

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Genoa is a city in Liguria. You may never have heard of Liguria, even if you’ve been to the Ligurian trophy towns of the Cinque Terre. Many people think the five tiny villages are in Tuscany because clever Tuscan entrepreneurs like to tell people how close the Cinque Terre is to their hotels and restaurants.

Genoa, then, is a port town along the Italian Riviera. It was once celebrated as the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, so Americans dutifully made the pilgrimage to the port city. Then Mr. Columbus fell out of favor and now the new, more fearful American traveler doesn’t go there any more.

It’s a shame, but a blessing, too. The Cinque Terre is being crushed under the weight of the tourists, especially now that the new tourist port in La Spezia has increased the tourist load immensely. But Genoa remains Genoa, a town of contrasts, town of light and dark the Italians call chiaroscuro. The darkness discourages the scardy-cats who desire the whitewashing of their destinations. The light is the light at the end of the tunnel we crave to see. There is no light without darkness, no good without evil.


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Genoa Chiaroscuro

When the well-connected travel planners Anna and Emanuela at Beautiful Liguria asked us what we wanted to see in their home city, we didn’t hesitate to choose Genoa’s underbelly, the narrow alleyways called caruggi that make up the checkerboard heart and soul of the city. We never tire of them.

Why? In narrow alleyways whose cobbles have seldom been touched by the sun, fluid light flows from windows over fish, over vegetables, over artisan carvings, over the tempting thighs of a whore gossiping with another.

You like well-lit places, primary colors, precise directions, informative street signs. You also like surprises; Roman columns propping up the ceiling of a shoe store, an old woman selling lush peaches from a basket. Your soul craves the same contrast, the same chiaroscuro, like it or not.

Walk the dark streets and glance nervously at the “new” pharmacy of Maddale with its murky marble signage:

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Nuova Farmacia della Maddale

Expecting medicine, what do you find? Surprise! Artisan carved, wooden iPhone cases!

The darkness likes when we play with it. Genoa’s alleyways make a fine canvas. Take an old barber shop, fill it with light, get a genius to make you some doors, cut some hair with class:

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A Barber Shop in Genoa

It’s not all about the cutting of hair, of course, it is about the spilling of the warm, diffracted light upon the public streets.

Look up. Artists have played with the light everywhere you look. Light and the lack of light is all the artist has to draw, paint or sculpt.

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Look Up and Genoa Will Amaze

Of course you might not be attracted to everything you see. Art is not always about pleasant things pleasingly presented.

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The Art of the Street: Genoa

Genoa is challenging. Genoa is fun. Genoa is a warm light at the end of your tunnel.

Try it—if you’re up to it. Contact Beautiful Liguria if you’re afraid to go it alone.

If you go it alone, you might be served by a good paper map of Genoa.

Genoa Chiaroscuro and the Soul of a Port City originally appeared on Oct 22, 2015, © James Martin.

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We were recently invited on a rather whirlwind press tour of Basilicata. It involved a lot of unpacking and packing. A day here, a night there.

One of the nights we’d be spending in Bernalda. If you’ve heard of it, it’s likely to be related to the fact that Francis Ford Coppola built a luxury resort hotel there, Palazzo Margherita.

I do not follow the rich and famous, and even though I have, by chance, actually seen Mr. Coppola getting a haircut in a North Beach barber shop in San Francisco, I didn’t know of his attachment to this little castle town. I have since discovered that he often speaks lovingly of the life of the village and the people and the festivals and dancing in the street that goes on here.

So as soon as we’d unpacked and checked the free wifi at the Hotel Giardino Giamperduto, we headed out. What a town. We never made it to the castle. The streets were alive with bars and restaurants. This didn’t appear to be a sleepy little town, at least as far as the main street went. I had to have a Prosecco, otherwise we’d be left out of the celebration they call “life” in this bustling place.

Thus fortified, we got off the main street, where traditional Basilicata insisted on showing us its quiet and spiritual side.

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Bernalda at Night

I was liking this town. Really liking it.

We scampered back to the hotel. You see, we had a reservation at one of the restaurants along the main drag. Our written schedule had us taking a meal at the Trattoria La Locandiera—and we had to walk to it.

No worries. The nice woman who’d checked us in had arranged a car for us. Driven, no less, by one of the owners of the hotel.

The meal at the Trattoria la Locandiera was spectacular. Yes, I’m a meat man, but there wasn’t a speck of carne in the whole meal. It was as if the owners wanted us to understand this cucina povera thing and had prepared a multi course meal to prove how clever the local women were to weave together a codified cuisine from the little they had.

Can you make a pasta dish from eggless noodles, bread crumbs, dried peppers, and a little oil? Why, not only could you make it, you could make it so that it might become one of your favorite dishes of all time.

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Pasta with bread crumbs and peppers | Trattoria La Locandiera

Then there were those plump “meatballs” standing triumphantly in a dollop of tomato sauce. They didn’t have actual meat in them either. But you didn’t miss it.

After, there was dessert, of course, then a plate of little bites in case you were still feeling that there was still a couple of millimeters of space somewhere in your digestive tract that wasn’t occupied. One of these small bites was eggplant with chocolate. Yes, it was good.

So we were liking Bernalda even more, except now we were full. Really full.

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View of the Giardino Giamperduto Hotel

The Hotel Giardino Giamperduto once housed a cheese making operation, one that made fresh ricotta and, a recent and pleasant discovery for me, ricotta forte, a strong, fermented ricotta that will make you cry if you like stinky cheeses. (I mean really stinky. A little goes a long way.)

In any case, the room was large and included a private back yard as well as both a shower and large bath tub. Outside you could play chess with those large pieces that make you walk around as you play. Or you could just hang around the pool.

The next morning as we ate breakfast we discovered that this was a really hot place to be in summer, when you could hardly squeeze between the people to walk down the main street, even when it is closed to car traffic.

You see, the place is a hub for all sorts of tourism pleasure. In 10 minutes you’re at Metaponto, one of Basilicata’s main archaeological sites.

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Palatine Tables - Or - Temple of Hera

The temple of Hera, seen above, is also known as the Palatine Tables, a Greek temple from the 6th century bc.

There are four other temples at the actual site of Metapontum. There’s not much of them left, so there are some interesting looking reconstructions. Call it art.

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Metapontum: Remains of a Temple

There are also the huge pottery kilns and the arena, where the important people, perhaps like the ancient equivalent of Francis Ford Coppola, would have had those seats in the front. You’ll notice they have backs, unlike all the other seats.

After you have seen the spectacular archaeological museum in the modern town of Metaponto, it’s only a short drive to the sea. So you can spend an afternoon or two roasting in the sun between dips in the sea.

Matera is 40 minutes’ drive away from Bernalda. There is also the ghost town of Craco not so far away, a fabulous place to visit for seekers of artistically-crumbly eye candy.

So, the deal is, in summer and in the shoulder seasons, folks tend to stay a whole week in Bernalda, enjoying the town and going on trips to see the sites everyone misses in Basilicata. I’d recommend such a strategy, if only because I want to do it.

Bernalda: The Navel of Basilicata Life originally appeared on Oct 20, 2015, © James Martin.

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There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Ruvo di Puglia. Good. This article will be a pleasant surprise, especially if you’re planning a trip to central Puglia.

Ruvo is located in Bari province. It’s known for wine and olive oil. That’s never a bad thing. It’s not far from Castel del Monte. It is also near the Adriatic coast and towns like Trani and Giovinazzo.

Ruvo isn’t what I’d call a ravenously beautiful city. But then again, even on stormy days you might encounter a snippet of natural harmony that makes you happy.

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A Square in Ruvo di Pugia

The cathedral is Romanesque and has fine carvings and some famous art. You can get underneath it to see an earlier Palaeo-Christian church and Roman tombs. You can also find earlier remains under The Church of Purgatorio just down the street on Via Cattedrale.

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Ruvo Cathedral

The Museum Jatta

People have been living in the area since around the 9th century BC. You’ll find evidence of that in the archaeological museum inside the Palazzo Jatta called the Museum Jatta. It is a fabulous museum with four rooms.

The Jatta boys did a great job amassing the collection. I don’t usually say this about pot collectors, but the situation in the area was different, as I understand it. Farmers were always on the lookout for coins, which they could sell for a bundle. The pottery their plows found was just a marker for them. They threw ceramics aside as they searched for their coinage. The Jattas convinced them to save the stuff, and they made a place for it.

I like the ceremonial, animal head drinking cups. It’s like they were made yesterday.

Ceremonial Drinking Cups in the Palazzo Jatta Archaological Museum

One of the most famous items in the museum is huge in size and in archaeological circles. It’s what they call the Talos Krater. A krater is a vessel which was used to mix wine and water. Talos was the protector of the island of Crete. He was made of copper. The illustration shows the capture and death of Talos at the hands of Medea and the brothers Castor and Pollux.

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Talos Krater, Museum Jatta in Ruvo di Puglia

The museum is free. Surprised? I wasn’t because we had already known about a disastrous decision by the Ministry to make small museums free. I asked an employee anyway, and she confirmed that the museum had been declared free from higher-ups. Even worse, there can’t be bookstores in these little gems to make even pocket money. I love Italy, but sometimes I am left like this employee—shaking my head. The world is a surprising place.

Where to Eat in Ruvo di Puglia

There are many restaurants in Puglia. The oddly named Restaurant U.P.E.P.I.D.D.E. serves all the traditional foods of the region as well as the top wines. It’s not expensive. It has a fantastic “cantina”: for wine lovers looking for a special bottle.

The restaurant was a great suggestion by our host at the Posta Santa Croce Agriturismo where we stayed during this adventure.

U.P.E.P.I.D.D.E. Restaurant in Ruvo di Puglia

Find out more about planning a trip to the region: Puglia Maps and Travel Guide

Ruvo di Puglia originally appeared on Oct 19, 2015, © James Martin.

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