On our recent trip to Matera, we heard about another town in Basilicata that immediately captured our attention—Craco. Less than an hour drive from Matera, we decided to detour and visit this intriguing place on our way back to Puglia.
Craco is a historic hill town in southern Italy that, for centuries, was a dynamic place with a large population of agricultural laborers, artisans, clergymen, and professionals. Throughout the years the town weathered many challenges such as raids by brigands and the plague, but the populace always rebounded. In its centuries of existence, the town and its people have continued to evolve. Craco became a center of education and religion, with a university established in 1276, and the monastery of San Pietro founded in 1630. A grand baroque church, San Nicola, was built in the 19th century. As a testament to the city’s success and prosperity, there were several grand palazzi, and in the 20th century there was even a cinema.
Craco was built at the apex of a large hill, which was the perfect location for the Normans to build a defensive tower in 1040 (it is the oldest building in town). The top of the hill is solid bedrock, and the oldest parts of the city were built on this solid ground. The rest of the hillside is composed of clay, a geologic feature typical to this region. As the city continued to grow in the 19th and 20th centuries, building started to expand beyond the solid bedrock onto the clay soil. Due to the instability of the clay soil, the town suffered a number of smaller landslides (most notably in 1805, 1857, 1870 and 1933), but each time the populace recovered and rebuilt.
In the 20th century, the city started to move away from the ancient system of water collection and distribution through a system of cisterns, and started to store water at the top of the hill and distribute to the homes through a series of pipes. This modernization of the water system helped to contribute to the largest disaster in the town’s history. Over the years leaks from the new water distribution system settled into the clay soil, and in 1963 the city suffered a massive landslide, a disastrous consequence of the development on the slippery clay soil layers, and a build-up of water in the ground. The government deemed Craco unfit for habitation due to the natural disaster (and risks of further landslides), and started to relocate the population to newly constructed homes in a location off the hillside.
As the town emptied out, Craco slowly became a shell of its former self. A 1972 flood removed any consideration of ever repopulating the old town center, and an earthquake in 1980 caused the site to be abandoned completely. Buildings started to crumble and decay, and vandals raided the town for any items of interest or value.
Despite the abandonment of the town and the deterioration that started to follow, there was still interest in this unique place. The crumbling buildings and hilltop setting provided the perfect set for scenes in movies like The Passion of The Christ, Christ Stopped in Eboli, and the James Bond film Quantum of Solace. Due to its historic nature and architectural value, the town was added to the World Monuments Fund watch list in 2010. The municipality was able to secure EU funding to help set up a proper (and safe) visitation route through the old town, and develop a series of cultural activities and events that help raise awareness and bring attention to the town.
The Visit Experience
We approached Craco by car after driving through the village of Craco Peschiera (where many of the families were relocated after the 1963 landslide). The road to the top is winding, and nearing the top you start to get views of the craggy hilltop and abandoned buildings.
To have access to the old town you must go on a guided tour. Tours are offered at various times from 10:00 a.m. through sunset in both Italian and English (but there didn’t seem to be a set schedule). We called in advance just to be sure there was an English language tour available on the afternoon we planned to go. They don’t take reservations and there’s no set tour schedule; you just show up and they’ll let you know when they can do the next tour. A “Craco Card” is necessary for the tour, and you can purchase that at the Multimedia Office, just past the old town. The card for the Italian tour was €10, and for the English tour was €15. (Information from the Comune di Craco about visiting can be found here.)
At the designated time we met our guide, Saverio, at the access gate in the fencing around the town, and he issued us hardhats for the journey. Our guide led us on an hour long tour, starting with what was once a main street in the town. Saverio spoke excellent English and gave us a good background on the geology and history that have made Craco what it is today as we began our tour. We passed what was once the old bakery as we approached the former central piazza. He pointed out a section of original paving that had been cleared of debris, which allowed us to see the actual depth of landslide material covering the old town square.
From there we climbed up a series of steps, peering into old houses along the way. In some you could see original paint still on the walls, or the odd bit of furniture. Everywhere you looked plants have taken hold and are starting to grow up through floors, walls, windows, and onto roofs. We passed under an archway and entered what was once a piazza in front of a grand palazzo, bordered on one side by the baroque San Nicola church. Inside the church you could still see decorative columns and side altars, but where the main altar once stood there was a hole in the roof and plants growing out of the debris. Looking up through the windows of the top floor of the palazzo, you could still see decorative frescos on the ceiling.
The last stop was a climb to the old Norman tower. Although you can no longer go inside or climb up the tower (thanks to its repurposement as a water containment tank in the 20th century), you still get fantastic panoramic views of the surrounding countryside from the base.
As we departed Craco at sunset we found ourselves captivated by the place and wishing we could have seen more. (For some fantastic aerial footage, we liked this video.) The town is hoping to expand the tour route in the future with additional funding, much of which comes from tourist visits. We were glad we sought out this unusual place—it truly was a glimpse into the Craco of old, and provided an intriguing look at what life must have been like in this hilltop town decades ago.