Peering through a glassless window into a kitchen, I spied cobweb-covered dishes in a dish drainer next to a stove and four rush-bottom chairs surrounding a table with a dusty red Formica top. This intimate tableau of family life made it seem as if the owners might still return one day. But then I noticed the year on a calendar pinned to the kitchen wall below a small wooden crucifix: 1980. This was the year that an earthquake doomed the ancient hilltop village of Craco, Italy.
Founded in the eighth century B.C. by Greeks who prized its strategic location — on a clear day it is possible to glimpse the distant deep blue of the Ionian Sea — Craco thrived during the Middle Ages. But between 1890 and 1920, much of the town’s population emigrated to America. The village survived, barely, until a catastrophic landslide in 1963. The Italian government decided it should be evacuated, but many residents resisted until the earthquake of 1980. Today the ghost village, which is often used as a film set, is on a protected-monument watch list and can be visited on guided hard-hat tours only. Strikingly beautiful when seen from afar, it is a crumbling and poignant place up close.