When Emma Basile’s father was a child, he was regularly woken around 3 a.m. by the clip-clop of donkeys echoing through stone alleyways. In the early 1950s, wresting a living from the fields below Calitri meant rising before dawn.
Moonlit donkey cavalcades sound romantic. But back then, life was wretchedly hard throughout much of southern Italy. In Calitri, a Campania hill town, times were particularly tough.
Water was also hauled up its steep hill by donkeys. Meat was so rare that when one beast broke its leg outside the bakery, it got slaughtered to provide an impromptu feast.
I’m hearing family history from Emma (a real estate agent) outside Locanda dell’ Arco. We’re making inroads into home-made cingul pasta and a platter of salamis, hams and cheeses. Naturally there’s wine: the curiously-named Coda di Volpe (tail of the fox).
Beside us, three old boys decide to honor this glorious summer evening with song. They’re soon chased inside. From a window above, an elderly Juliet gives our Romeos a piece of her mind. Obviously, their serenade isn’t appreciated.
Calitri is a border town. Rising in layers, its old houses gaze toward the hills of Basilicata, the neighboring region. From my perch, I can see Monte Vulture—a name bestowed by Roman soldiers. An extinct volcano, its shape resembles a hovering vulture.
Between the old town ( Borgo Antico) and a modern part, Calitri has around 6,000 inhabitants. Although only 500 people now inhabit the Borgo, half a century ago it was very different. Then its tangled alleys teemed with 10,000 souls. Emigration has taken its toll, but so did an earthquake in 1980. Although most houses remained unscathed, the majority of locals moved into the new quarter.
Yes, Italy’s southern half has experienced quakes, tremors, and exploding volcanoes. Assisi, the town of St Francis in Umbria, was also rocked by a terramoto in 1997—and everyone knows Pompeii’s fate. But thanks to 29-year-old Emma’s efforts, Calitri’s Borgo is returning to life. Foreigners have started to buy here.
Does €14,000 ($) tempt you? That’s the unrestored price of a little 430-square-foot house with an ancient wall sculpture of angels. Basic restoration, including a fitted kitchen, brings it up to $42,000. Opting for the $62,000 “luxury” choice means new cotto floors, shower room, furniture, etc.
Too expensive? $15,500 buys an unrestored studio apartment with kitchenette and bathroom on via San Pietro. Emma has lots like this. Take a look at www.portadoriente.org.
Calitri is unspoiled Italy—and I love it. A ruined medieval castle…Corso Garibaldi’s nightly passegiata…cave-like cellars where cheeses ripen…pagan stone heads adorning high walls.
Secret passages too. Near the town hall, Emma pointed out a grilled-up entrance to one labyrinth that links some of Calitri’s older buildings.
A former convent, the town hall has also served as a jail. Armed brigands once roamed these hills. The most infamous was Carmine Crocco. He started his outlaw career in 1851 after killing a man who messed with his sister. At one time, Crocco’s bandit army was 2,000 strong.
This Italian Robin Hood has folk hero status. One of his hangouts was the woods of Monticchio across the border in Basilicata—a peaceful spot with an emerald lake overlooked by a monastery. From here, the brigands descended on Calitri to eat, drink, and roister. Wish I’d been around—bad boys often make for fun company.
Roving Europe Editor, International Living
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