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.
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…
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.
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!
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.