Visitors to the tiny hilltop village of Aliano in Southern Italy are very unlikely to forget it. The surrounding countryside is as desolate as a lunar landscape and the village is perched precariously on top of CALANCHI which are deforested, sandy soiled rocky hills. In 1980, a major earthquake shook the region of Basilicata and rendered many of Aliano’s clay buildings uninhabitable. Young people have moved away to find their fortune and the population now numbers less than 1000.
Why then is this an absolute must-see place for visitors? The first and immediate answer to this lies in Aliano’s 20th Century history and importantly in its portrayal as ‘Gagliano’ in Carlo Levi’s outstanding memoir “Cristo si e fermato a Eboli” (Christ Stopped at Eboli). In his book Carlo Levi explains that the people of Gagliano “feel they have been bypassed by Christianity, by morality, by history itself – that they have somehow been excluded from the full human experience.” Eboli was the place in Campania where the road and railway branched away from the area of Lucania, where Aliano is situated. Aliano and nearby villages like it were extremely poor. The people lived on a meagre diet of bread, oil, crushed tomatoes and peppers. Sanitation, education and health care were virtually non-existent, and superstition and spells played a more significant role in people’s lives than Christian teaching.
Carlo Levi was born in 1902 in Torino to wealthy parents. He studied medicine and painting and spent some time living in Paris. On returning to Italy in the early 1930’s, he became involved in an anti-fascist movement in Torino and he was eventually arrested and exiled to Aliano from 1935 to 1936. Levi was shocked to discover a level of poverty there that was almost unknown in northern Italy. He worked as a doctor in Aliano and was made extremely welcome by the town’s hospitable inhabitants. He continued to write and paint after his exile ended and he eventually went into politics. Levi’s writings about the plight of the people in Southern Italy prompted changes in the Government’s thinking leading to more financial investment in the poorer areas of the country. After his death in 1975, Levi was buried in Aliano, where his memory is treasured to this day. Everywhere in the small town are plaques and statues of Levi and the town boasts a literary park and Museum bearing his name. Standing by his statue outside his well-tended house and looking across at eerie clay ravines stretching as far as the eye can see is an intensely moving experience for visitors.
Of course, no Italian town would be worth its salt if it didn’t house a fantastic place to eat and Aliano is no exception. When our Connectitalia-NZ tour party arrived in Aliano in May this year it was most definitely lunchtime. Breakfast at our agriturismo in Barricelle, although sumptuous at the time, seemed a long time ago and the streets were deserted. There was a small newsagent’s shop that seemed to be open but little else. However, on enquiry, we were smilingly directed up a narrow alleyway where we would find what we were seeking. As we walked up the cobbled street we could hear the unmistakeable sound of people having a good time and soon some most enticing aromas. La Contadina Sisina might be hard to find but it is unquestionably one of my best food finds in Italy (and that is saying something). A table was quickly found for us and we were spared the effort of choosing from a menu. The meal was a set menu with multiple courses and first class in every way. Our Italian escort, Beniamino, who is an expert on Italian food and wine was in heaven explaining the foods of his childhood not so very far away in another area of Basilicata.
At the end of our meal Beniamino asked to see the owner so he could convey our appreciation of the meal and his own as an experienced chef himself. Out from the kitchen came the lovely lady in the photograph accompanying this article, immaculately dressed in white with a smile that lit up the room. She explained that three generations of her family have run the restaurant and she proudly showed us a photograph of her father as a child being taught to draw by Carlo Levi. It was clear that Carlo Levi remains dear to the hearts of the villagers and they are immensely proud of their connection with him.
From Aliano it is just a short distance to the larger town I Sassi di Matera, which is fast becoming a fixture on tourists’ itineraries and for good reason. Matera is a magical place which warrants its own article but if you are travelling there, do try to fit in a side trip to Aliano. There is something about this small town that is unique and unforgettable and Aliano is definitely a place we will take you on our Connectitalia-NZ tours of Basilicata.