Exploring the Greatest of Italy’s 6,000 Ghost Towns: Take a Tour of Craco, Italy

When Amer­i­cans think of ghost towns, we think tum­ble­weeds and crum­bling Old West saloons. These aban­doned set­tle­ments are mere babies com­pared to Italy’s ancient necrop­olis­es. We know, of course, the famous dead cities and towns of antiq­ui­ty – Pom­peii, the ruins of Rome, etcetera. Such famous sites are only the most obvi­ous haunt­ed ruins on any itin­er­ary through the ven­er­a­ble boot-shaped coun­try. Can they be con­sid­ered ghost towns? The first fell prey to a nat­ur­al dis­as­ter that encased its res­i­dents in ash before they had the time to leave; the sec­ond thrives as the eighth-most pop­u­lous city in Europe. It may be full of ghosts, but it’s hard to catch them in the throngs, traf­fic, and noise.

That said, there are no short­age of towns that fit the bill. Italy con­tains “more than 6,000 aban­doned vil­lages,” the video above explains, and “accord­ing to con­ser­v­a­tive esti­mates, anoth­er 15,000 have lost more than 95 per­cent of their res­i­dents.” That’s an awful lot of aban­don­ment. In the video tour above, we get to explore the “Cap­i­tal of all Ghost Towns,” Cra­co, a tow­er­ing vil­lage on the high cliffs of a region known as Basil­i­ca­ta in South­ern Italy, nes­tled in the instep of the boot. Found­ed in the 8th cen­tu­ry AD by Greek set­tlers, the vil­lage sur­vived Black Plague, “bands of maraud­ing thieves,” writes Atlas Obscu­ra, and the usu­al polit­i­cal insta­bil­i­ty and internecine con­flict of Ital­ian towns, duchies, city states, etc. before the coun­try’s 19th cen­tu­ry uni­fi­ca­tion. In the end, “a land­slide final­ly forced res­i­dents from Cra­co in 1991.”

The very loca­tion that kept the town safe for cen­turies from those who would sack it also exposed it to the ele­ments. “Once a monas­tic cen­ter, a feu­dal town and cen­ter of edu­ca­tion with a uni­ver­si­ty, cas­tle, church, and plazas,” Ancient Ori­gins writes, Cra­co has now become a des­ti­na­tion for adven­tur­ers and a set for sev­er­al films, “includ­ing Sav­ing Grace, James Bond’s Quan­tum of Solace and the hang­ing of Judas scene in Mel Gib­son’s The Pas­sion of the Christ.” Charm­ing, no? While such towns are hard­ly found in the usu­al his­to­ry text or guide­book, ancient Ital­ian ghost towns and aban­doned cas­tles have inspired actu­al ghost sto­ries for hun­dreds of years and are the very ori­gin of the goth­ic as a lit­er­ary genre, via Horace Walpole’s haunt­ed cas­tle nov­el, The Cas­tle of Otran­to.

Wal­pole might just as well have writ­ten about the cas­tle of Cra­co, which you can explore above with Mar­co, Till, Tobi, and Sam, hosts and pro­duc­ers of Aban­doned Italy, a web series devot­ed to exact­ly that. In sev­er­al sea­sons online, they trav­el to oth­er ghost­ly towns, vil­lages, and islands, ask­ing ques­tions like, “what if humans go extinct?” Answer­ing that one is a bit like pon­der­ing the tree-falling-in-the-for­est ques­tion. If no one’s there to see it.… ?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Data Visu­al­iza­tion of Every Ital­ian City & Town Found­ed in the BC Era

High-Res­o­lu­tion Walk­ing Tours of Italy’s Most His­toric Places: The Colos­se­um, Pom­peii, St. Peter’s Basil­i­ca & More

The Chang­ing Land­scape of Ancient Rome: A Free Online Course from Sapien­za Uni­ver­si­ty of Rome 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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