After the Quake
Story & photos by Michael Kiefer
Castelluccio di Norcia sits like a fairy-tale castle on a hill above tree-line, 4700 feet up in the Apennine Mountains of Central Italy.
Until last October it was a tourist stop-over, an idyllic, out-of-the-way village that was also famous for lentils, or more exactly for the fields of lentils in the high surrounding basin that shimmer iridescent with red poppies, purple gentian and other “weeds” that grow among the legumes.
And in fact, on that late June day, there were crowds of tourists along the two-lane road bisecting the fields, sitting on the grass and gazing into the flowering fields, though it is now a more difficult destination to reach.
From the distance, Castelluccio looked like many medieval villages in this part of central Italy, southeast Umbria, that is, nearly straddling the border with the neighboring region of Le Marche. But as we got closer, it looked more and more like a wedding cake that had fallen.
Buildings were literally bent in the middle, interspersed with piles of rubble that had once been homes and businesses.
On October 30, 2016, Castelluccio was at the epicenter of an earthquake that measured 6.6 in magnitude, the strongest in 35 years. It was the second quake that fall. The first, in August, had killed 300 people across the region. And though no people were killed in the October quake, it rendered the village uninhabitable.
Chain link fences had been erected all around the hill and the city above it. Young Italian soldiers stood guard next to a large complex of chemical toilets where the city entrance meets the road that on its way down the pass to Marche. The soldiers stopped every car to ask the intentions of the travelers and tersely answered their questions, turning many of them back. You need government permission to get there, and permission to get back out.
We had seen the first signs of the quake damage in the streets of Norcia, a small city that dates to Roman times down on the plains below. Norcia is so well-known for its pork and wild -boar meats, prosciutto and salami, that butcher shops in this part of Italy are called norcinerie.
The city’s ancient basilica tragically had sections that had been reduced to rubble, as did the ancient city walls. Some businesses seemed untouched, and others had erected tents or trailers in parking lots beside the piles of block and lumber that had been their stores and offices.
The salumeria seemed untouched, however. Inside haunches of pork and wild boar, which is called cinghiale, salami and prosciutto hung from ceiling hooks next to mule balls and pig bladders, and the butchers bustled to take care of customers.
From there, it was a winding hour drive or more up the mountains to Castelluccio, and the once-modern highway had taken a hit. Guardrails hung from the side of the pavement, which had fallen down the steep cliffs. Sometimes around a blind corner, a front-end loader or bulldozer would be clearing rock fall and other debris from the road. Then over a final pass, we stopped a moment to look at the old town from afar, where it still looked magical.
Only a few of the town’s 300 residents remained, we were told. Someone had to take care of the fields and the livestock. On one hillside, I saw a small portable trailer and what appeared to be a sheep camp, but I saw no people there.
But on that one open side street that dead-ended after about 10 yards, was a sign of persistence. Next to a hotel and restaurant, the owners had set up a food truck serving pork chops, pasta with mushrooms and cinghiale, and of course lentils. The hotel was closed, but the open-air porch of its dining room was still usable.
I ordered a beer and a bowl of lentil soup with a sausage in it. It was in a plastic dish, something you don’t often see in Italy, and I had to eat with plastic silverware. It tasted as rich and savory as defiance.
While I ate, the owner of the restaurant stood by proudly, wearing a white tee shirt with these words in big red letters: Resto in piedi.
“I’m still standing.”
Michael Kiefer is an award-winning journalist with The Arizona Republic and The USA Today Network. He mostly covers crime and punishment, but he’s also reported extensively from Europe and North and South America and has written for dozens of magazines including Playboy, Esquire, Self and Outside, where he was an associate editor. He is the author of six books, including Into Umbria, from which “After the Quake” is adapted.