“Paese mio che stai sulla collina...” So begins that iconic song that Ricchi e Poveri first sung back in 1971. Those rich, melodic bars of music are the first that I can remember hearing as a child. But beyond the music, it is these first words that made the most profound impression on me. It brought up warm images of idyllic, sleepy towns in the Italian countryside; small clusters of brightly coloured stucco homes and terracotta tiles that seem to shimmer in the sunlight. It wasn’t until I saw pictures of my family’s home town that this fanciful, storybook setting roused in my imaginings by this song materialized into an actual, tangible place. Granted, the Italian countryside is well known for its absurdly picturesque landscapes featuring countless small, quaint towns. But this was different, this was special, for this was my home town: Muro Lucano.
First, let us situate ourselves and delve into the heart of il Mezzogiorno, in the region of Basilicata. Dominated by arid mountains and lacking a truly developed transportation infrastructure (not surprisingly), Basilicata has been traditionally overlooked by many tourists. One of the least-explored regions of Italy, Basilicata makes up the ‘arch’ of the Italian peninsula’s boot, nestled between Campania, Puglia and Calabria. Known as Lucania in ancient times, its charm lies inherently in the numerous small ancient towns decorating the region. Muro Lucano is no exception. Poised atop a mountain ridge, some 600 meters above sea level, this commune lies some 50 kilometers northwest of the regional capital: Potenza. In antiquity, important fortifications surrounded a Roman encampment on the towns current site; these walls would serve as the foundation of the towns’ first structures and of its name.
The tenth century saw the addition of a castle, which has become the most recognizable landmark of the town. The castle, perched above the town, has a commanding view of the breathtaking mountain landscape which surrounds the town. It does seem that more often than not the history of the region has been mired by hardship. Some say that this mirrors the qualities of the rugged terrain. Even nature has marked the town. The area has been the victim of many devastating earthquakes over the centuries, making it hard for the region to develop. In 1705, Muro Lucano was almost completely destroyed by a powerful quake. More recently, the town was hit again in 1980, the repercussions of which can still be seen to this day through the ongoing reconstruction efforts. In recognition of the townspeople sacrifice and stalwart approach in dealing with the crisis, the town was awarded a citation in 2005 by the Italian government.
Yet, even under the constant threat of the next quake, the townspeople refuse to yield. For such intransigence they are rewarded; the towns’ location in the foothills of the Apennines mountain range provides almost every house with a view of the rugged rural landscape: a rich, verdant beauty which has remained mostly untouched throughout the centuries. Even viewed from the ravine below, the town seems to undulate over and around the crest of the mountain. The oldest section of the town, in the shadow of the castle, il Pianello, is filled with narrow pedestrian alleys and handsome, stucco homes, painted in vibrant pastels. Not even these narrow, cobbled streets can hide the rustic beauty of the town. Seen from above the terracotta roofing tiles of this quarter seem to ripple and blend into one another, in soothing uniform patterns.The rest of the town spreads out from this older section following the relief of the mountain. The center of the town is located in the natural inward curvature of the mountainside. Here we find the main piazza, Piazza dei Monachi, and one of the half-dozen churches of this town of 6,000 inhabitants. Although small in size, this piazza does heighten the intimate qualities and close-knit nature of small town life. Numerous balconies from surrounding houses open up onto the piazza and it is not uncommon to hear neighbors conversing with one-another between balconies and with those on the piazza below. The appeal here is that there is no pretense, no false pride, accepting life in its purest form. Merely walking the piazza, this rural leitmotif seems to permeate the surroundings and one cannot help but become intoxicated by its effect. Here, time loses its conventional sense. If it was not for the regular chiming of the church bells to indicate the hours, one would easily get carried away by the charm of the town.
Refreshing mountain air and rugged vistas coupled with the simple life and coloured history serve to make Muro Lucano the embodiment of the towns way of life in il Mezzogiorno. How many people can say that their town is in song? Muro Lucano’s uniqueness lies in its quiet humbleness, ensconced in a rugged, yet majestic shroud. A town I’m proud to say is my family’s origin.