Deep in the southern province of Basilicata, Italy, lies one of the most picturesque symbols of human civilisation in Europe. Situated 40km inland from the Gulf of Taranto, Craco is a sight to behold for all those who come across it.
For defensive reasons, the town is perched high on a steep summit of Pliocene sand. However, it has been completely abandoned since 1980, and ever since, it has sat there quietly, a reminder of the region’s tumultuous history as a faded poster on a wall evokes memories of events long since passed.
Europe’s number one ghost town, Craco has been a hotspot for tourists and filmmakers from the moment it was abandoned. There’s a delicate beauty about the town, as the historic buildings jut out high above the ground, making a manmade outcrop, a testament to the skill of those who build the town so long ago.
Approaching the location, you’re struck by its image. Craco exists high above the flat surrounding land as if some sort of ancient obelisk that has the power to delight and frighten in equal measure. This time of year, the town is covered in the candyfloss blossom of the trees, bringing the faded limestone to life.
The centre was built on the highest side of the town, and it faces a ridge that runs steeply to the southwest, where the newer buildings exist. The most breathtaking part of the town is undoubtedly the 1,300 ft cliff that overlooks the swarming Cavone River valley. From Craco, you also see that it is surrounded by flora-less mounds, that are known locally as calanchi or badlands, that were formed by intensive erosion over many years. While at the top, you can’t help but shake the feeling that Craco was one of the first flashpoints in the war between humanity and nature, which we clearly lost, as the crumbled, deserted buildings are stuck, suspended in a time long gone.
In terms of who first settled there, no one is sure of who decided to make their home atop this spectacular rugged inselberg, but it is easy to imagine that whoever it was must have felt that it was a gift from the Gods, with the many fruits of the sea not far away, and defence from other groups of people guaranteed.
Tombs have been found that date back to the eighth century BC, and researchers have found that around 540 BC, the area was inhabited by Greeks who had moved inland from the coastal town of Metaponto. The town’s name, meanwhile, dates back to 1060 AD when the area was in the possession of Arnaldo, Archbishop of the historical beauty that is Tricarico. He called the area Graculum, which means in Latin, “little ploughed field”. This kicked off a long and unwavering association between the Church and town.
A university was established in the commune in 1276, and by the start of the 16th century, the population had grown from 450 to 2500. During the last millennium, it would see countless moments of violence as it played a key role in the region and the country’s history, and would find itself pulled into the Anti-Jacobin movement, the Napoleonic Wars and the bloodstained unification of Italy.
Even though it remains a distinctly Italian town, there’s something inherently fantastical about Craco. Examining in more detail, there are elements of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Weathertop and even Helm’s Deep, as well as the Bald Mountain of Slavic folklore. There’s no wonder why blockbusters such as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ and the James Bond entry Quantum of Solace were filmed here.
The town rumbled on through the ages against all the odds and continually expanded. By the 19th century it had reached its threshold, but the townspeople were not aware of this. Mother nature was at breaking point, and she was about to collapse under the weight of humanity like Atlas tested by the weight of the heavens. She’s not Atlas though, and Pliocene sand is no match for the mechanised growth of humans. The townspeople weren’t aware of it at the time, but the expansion was putting incredible stress on the hillside beneath the palace, square, cinema and all the other signifiers of modern human civilisation and before too long it the flashpoint would occur.
Ironically, in the end, it wasn’t warfare that brought about the end of Craco. After the civil strife ended, the main enemy of the Crachesi became the environment. Between 1892 and 1922, 1,300 of the townsfolk migrated to North America due to declining agricultural conditions. This was just the start of the exodus, though.
In 1963, the writing was on the wall for the town that had managed to withstand so many sanguinary chapters. The town began to be evacuated due to a series of major landslides, as the inhabitants moved to the valley of Craco Peschiera, where there was no risk of this happening. In addition to the weight of the infrastructure on the sand, it has long been thought that it was faulty pipework that caused the landslide.
In 1972, things were made even worse, and the hope for repopulation was finished when a flood engulfed the town. Then, eight years later, in 1980, the devastating Irpinia earthquake turned out to be the final nail in the coffin, and the last remnants of humanity fled the town.
In 2007, the descendants of the original emigrants from Craco – now located in the United States – founded The Craco Society, a non-profit organisation that looks to preserve the culture, traditions and history of the town. Concerts are hosted there as fundraisers to help it from totally fading into obscurity.
These days, all that’s left of human life in the town is the shepherds that pass through with their flock, walking idly by, as this great testament to the accomplishments and failures of humanity is slowly dragged back into the earth on which it sits. It makes you wonder, how many more Craco’s will we have on our hands in the next 50 years?
Watch drone footage of Craco below.