I’ m driving along the boiling tarmac of an empty road. The sun is aflame, and dries out the smooth hills all around me. There’s nobody around. The lack of signs and buildings of any sort might let me think I got lost in Arizona. It may be Mars, perhaps. But that’s a mirage. We’re just a couple of hours far from home. We’re still in the inland of Basilicata, South of Italy. After visiting Matera, we kept on exploring this harsh region, just wandering through the forgotten countryside, far from the bustling city life. It’s just this way you can get lost in time, and find a place where other kinds of life have been lived. And are not lived anymore.
Craco is a ghost city, nowadays. But through the ages, it has been contended by the Moors, the Normans, the Sforza and Bourbon dynasties, Napoleon and the brigands led by Carmine Crocco. Due to its strategic position, it always stood by. Nevertheless, at the door of the XX century, the rise of the American Dream let the people of Craco forget the simple life, and more than half of the inhabitants left oversea. A flood, a landslide and an earthquake between the ’63 and the ’80 pushed the town to be completely abandoned.
There’s a short guided tour to visit the site, but we preferred to overstep the fencing and climb the city to the very top, walking through the alleys where time stands still, breathing the life of another era, wondering how life was among these ruins, visiting houses where there’s no more host. A smiling white sheep seems to be the only living being still feeling home here; a wise watchman for the posterity.
We honestly didn’t plan to go further, but after the free expert advice of a barman in a tiny coffee bar along the way, we decided to keep on through the valley.
Only 45 minutes driving far from Craco, you’ll bump into Aliano. Victim of the earthquake which during the 1980 hurt the region, Aliano is still kept afloat, even though here, as well as in the whole surroundings, the new generation seems to repel the plainness of a bucolic life. It is no coincidence that Aliano is actually the Gagliano where takes place Christ Stopped at Eboli, the renowned memoir of Carlo Levi, the eclectic Italian artist who spent here his exile during the 30s, due to his anti-fascist tendency.
The meaning of the book’s title is fascinating: Eboli, in the region of Campania, represented where the road and railway to Basilicata branched away from the coastal north-south routes. “Christ stopped at Eboli” is, in southern Italy, a way to say that beyond Eboli life is nothing but misery, oblivion and hard work, and people are “not Christian,” uncivilized, forgotten.
Ancient traditions and beliefs are still alive in Aliano, as the “houses with eyes” testify: you’ll notice small windows that look like evil little eyes under frowning eyebrows, great open arches like devilish sneers, staircases gnashing broken teeth are making these houses so perfectly grotesque they are bound to fight off any malicious spirit, especially when the lights on let them look like flame-burning faces.
It was a long time we didn’t feel so deeply connected to our roots. The day was passing by, but there was another stronghold atop the badlands to be seen, Tursi. After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, and a short period under the influence of the Muslim Saracens, Tursi became the capital of the Byzantine province of Lucania. We went straight to breath the middle-east breeze from oldest and highest hamlet, the Rabatana. “Rabatana” derives from “Rabhàdi” and means “borough”. It is surrounded by inaccessible and deep gorges, and its origins date back to Alarico and his Visigotgh’s castle built in the V century AC. Thanks to its strategic position far off the rest of the town, this ancient borough has preserved in the time the most original dialect and customs of Tursi inhabitants, with its arabic shade.