Norcia after the earthquake: my visit to Castelluccio and Norcia

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Norcia after the earthquake… what is it like? Norcia is famous in Italy as the birthplace of Saint Benedict and as one of the cores of good food, so much so that the town gave the name to the norcinerie, spread throughout central Italy, shops intended exclusively for the processing and sale of pork products. The local specialties are the prosciutto di Norcia igp and the black truffle, il tartufo nero. 

Norcineria in Norcia after the earthquake
Norcineria in Norcia after the earthquake

I first visited Norcia about 10 years ago and I found it very bright and lively, with tourists strolling along the streets, that smelled like cheese truffle and ham, many deli shops and trattorie here and there, the beautiful piazza San Benedetto with the XIII century Town Hall, the statue of Saint Benedict, Saint Benedict Basilica, built in 1200 over the birthplace of the saint,  the Castle and the Cathedral of Santa Maria Argentea, dating back to 1500.

In 2016, Norcia, together with other towns and villages in Umbria, Lazio, and Marche, was hit by two earthquakes. The first in August (magnitude 6.2) and the second in October (magnitude 6.5). I watched the news, I heard rumors but I wasn’t expecting what I found there. Mostly because 3 years had passed. I thought that the situation had improved since then. 

Norcia after the earthquake

Matteo and I arrived by car from Le Marche, along the road that goes up the Sibillini mountains, driving through Arquata del Tronto, one of the villages which was most heavily affected by the earthquake. I think that everyone should go there and see. It’s like a ghost town, surrounded by barricades: collapsed roofs, houses destroyed or torn apart, huge cracks, bricks, and stones crushed here and there and then protest banners against the government. And a little further the so-called casette provvisorie, the provisional little houses. That are not so provisional. With my poor English I can’t describe the sight and the pain I felt just passing by. 

Not to rebuild is like dying a bit.
Not to rebuild is like dying a bit.

The same feeling I got when we arrived in Norcia. Another ghost town. Many shops, trattorie, and b&b are still unfit for use. Here and there you spot protest banners on the facades of the houses. There are several Zone Rosse (red zones) with cartelli di Divieto d’Accesso (No Trespassing signs) because the buildings are unsafe. I only saw a few tourists around. And even the locals… I guess many moved elsewhere. 

Red Zone in Norcia
Red Zone in Norcia

The landmarks

But the most impressive sight was that of the landmarks. The city doors, the churches, the Town Hall, all covered in heavy scaffolding. And they’re not under restoration. There’s no money. They just covered them in scaffolds to prevent them to collapse again. But they’re there, wounded exactly like 3 years ago. The Saint Benedict Basilica was particularly impressive. The facade is up. But, once you get close, you see that the interior of the church is ripped apart

Norcia after the earthquake
Norcia after the earthquake

The shops

About 20 shops of the center, unable to reopen on-site, are now located, inside prefabricated units, along the street that connects the train station with the center.

Shops in the new area in Norcia after the earthquake
Shops in the new area in Norcia after the earthquake

The hostel

Matteo and I spent 2 nights at the Capisterium hostel close to the center, with a parking lot (3 minutes by car and 15 minutes by foot from Norcia). It was quite comfortable and the location convenient at a cheap price. And there was even a swimming pool. The most moving thing was to see the ruins of the building next door (still up in the photo below).

Only 2 minor flaws: the rooms are exposed to the sun in the afternoon so they are very hot and there’s no AC, but at night the air is cool even in summer there, so you can leave the door askew and sleep well enough. And breakfast is basic: coffee or tea and supermarket products: orange juice, fette biscottate, jam, packaged brioche, and cookies. I’m not complaining or criticizing, just reporting, so that you know how things are and decide. 

Photo by Capisterium Norcia

But, if you want to visit Norcia, I will surely recommend it anyways. First, because there are not many places now up and running, second because I think it’s only fair to help them. If they run it low budget, it’s understandable. They once had a B&B downtown. When the first earthquake hit Norcia, they were hosting a group of kids, all safe and sound, luckily. The second earthquake destroyed the B&B completely.  

Norcia after the earthquake
Norcia after the earthquake

The lady who cleaned the rooms and served breakfast told me she now lives in one of those casette. They’re very hot in summer and very cold in winter. The government stopped taxation in those areas for 3 years but this break is about to expire. And she told me many people have no money to pay, ‘cause they were deprived of their jobs. Her sister-in-law used to run an agriturismo that collapsed due to the earthquake. She did not have the money to restore it during these 3 years and so she stopped earning from it. She started another job, earning enough money to live but that’s all. And now the government is about to start the taxation again. And she doesn’t know what to do next. She doesn’t want to leave. 

Unblock the reconstruction. We have been forgotten.
Unblock the reconstruction. We have been forgotten.

Castelluccio di Norcia

And then we visited Castelluccio di Norcia. Castelluccio is a tiny village 40 minutes by car from Norcia, perched on a hill on top of the Sibillini mountains, at 1.452 meters above the sea level. It counts about 100 inhabitants. Luckily, only about 30 people live there all year long. Others live in Norcia and move to Castelluccio only on holidays. So no one died because of the earthquake, even if about 60% of the village was razed to the ground.

Castelluccio di Norcia
Castelluccio di Norcia

The flowers

As you may remember, I have been wanting to see the plain in full bloom since years: 15 square kilometers of yellow, blue and red flowers. This blooming starts in mid-June and ends in mid-July. But the peak of flowers in bloom varies a lot, according to the weather of each year. So no one can tell when it is going to happen. Unfortunately, last May was too rainy, and June too hot, so the plain was only partially in bloom. But it was beautiful anyway. Plus this means I’ll have to go back again. What a pity! I’m obviously ironic. 

Castelluccio di Norcia
Castelluccio di Norcia

The red flowers are poppies, the blue/violet flowers are cornflowers, the yellow ones are mustard flowers (yes! I had no idea) and the white flowers are lentils. Sadly many people there were stepping on the flowers. But it’s a crime! Lentils are the main income for Castelluccio’s people. The other flowers are important too. In fact, they grant the right soil to grow the lentils. In order to take pictures, there are some paths you can follow without stepping on the flowers

Castelluccio di Norcia
Castelluccio di Norcia

How to help

If you want to help out, I suggest you buy some lentils packs or other local products in the shops in the village or to eat at a local restaurant. Only 1 restaurant and 1 café reopened in the village center. The others are in a new prefabricated area just outside the village or in food trucks or other kinds of units. Matteo and I had lunch in the village at the Bottega Albero Bello (reopened in April 2019), right next to the debris. And it was quite impressive and moving. Lentils soup is a must! We also bought some products. Besides, Castelluccio’s lentils do not require soaking. 

In the plain of Castelluccio and in the surrounding mountains you can do paragliding, horse riding, excursions, and ski in winter. When you go there, please notice the small wood in the shape of Italy. It was planted in 1961 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Italy’s unification

Italy shaped wood in Castelluccio di Norcia
Italy shaped wood in Castelluccio di Norcia

In conclusion, it was a touching experience and I suggest you go there, too, if you can. The Plain of Castelluccio di Norcia is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, and the population needs our help.

Castelluccio di Norcia
Castelluccio di Norcia