a mountaintop artists' utopia in italy
i think the term #yolo is one that needs to die a swift decisive death. no disrespect whatsoever, but you sound ridiculous. that said, i do firmly believe in its sentiment, especially when traveling. this is how i found myself deep in an artists’ utopia tucked within a medieval ghost town in the mountains of northern italy.
a jaw-tightening grind of the gears and the familiar smell of burned clutch told us we were not on the autostrada anymore. maybe the fiat wasn’t the best car for this particular journey but, hi, it’s italy. you’re driving a fiat even if you do end up dropping your transmission somewhere on a dusty mountain road where no one but goats can help you. #yolo
we were navigating hairpin turns and a steep grade higher and higher into the mountains just outside of sanremo, italy on the border of france. the destination? bussana vecchia. why? because when someone tells you there’s an artists’ collective utopia built out of an abandoned medieval mountaintop village, you don’t ask questions. you go.
bussana’s most recent history can be pinpointed to february 23, 1887 when a violent earthquake shook the stony village to the ground. most damaged were the old castle and the church of s. maria delle grazie, which was built in 1652. those that managed to survive lived in ramshackle homes built out of the remnants until they abandoned the village and sanremo condemned it as uninhabitable. there it lay, dormant for 60 years, until artists rediscovered the community and began to rebuild it, claiming it as their creative oasis. in the 70s the sewer system was reconnected to an aqueduct, and electricity followed suit, while the government reopened it as a semi-viable place to live. today it is a village of scattered nests - a haven for the peculiar and an enclave for the odd.
our Fiat finally crested the final hill as we rolled it into park on the side of a cliff road, overlooking the valley and mediterranean sea below. on foot we set off to the stone arched entrance into the village. we set up into the labyrinth of cobblestone streets and alleys that criss cross back and forth on the way up to the castle. along the roads are small galleries and studios showcasing the art of the resident artists, many of whom live perched above in renovated residences tucked among the rubble.
there isn’t much to do in bussana except wander. getting lost is impossible because after six or seven turns you end up right back where you started. a few minutes into our exploration we stumbled upon a small church with a caved in roof that sat on a bluff overlooking the valley. directly across from the church was a tall metal sign that formed an arch, with the words la barca (the boat), written in cursive. in the yard behind the sign was a crumbling pickup truck festooned with flowers, knick knacks hanging from trees and an assortment of mismatched lawn art. the work of a burning man creative genius? or straight up trash collected by your quirky grandma with dementia who lives in the middle of mumblefuck, idaho? tough call. a pig rooting around in the dust while a duck waddled by nonchalantly helped to classify the situation.
up some stone steps we climbed to the main floor of the house, an open-air patio strewn with memorabilia and odds & ends as if the inside of neal cassidy’s brain exploded. japanese lanterns dangled like heavy fruit from the trees. a long wooden, weather-worn picnic table ran the length of the patio. trees were wrapped with twine, tucked into which were dolls, sandals, and posters. license plates, dart boards, tiki torches, globes, jewelry, troll dolls. Tte only thing missing was a live baby ostrich running around underfoot. except that there was 100% a live baby ostrich running around underfoot.
a simple, “What in the actual fuck?” would have sufficed. but in the moment where we were seemed entirely business as usual. why wouldn’t there be the bowels of a flea market and/or your crazy uncle ned’s basement at the top of a mountain in italy?
it was then that we met ronald, a blue tank-top wearing expat with shoulder-length hair from the netherlands, and the proprietor of la barca. he muttered a gruff hello and stuck out his hand to us as we wandered (trespassed) aimlessly through the space. without question he began rummaging in a white fridge, laying out plates of italian meat and cheese, and promptly filled three glasses with dark purple contents from a plastic jug. i don’t make it a habit of drinking purple liquids handed to me from strangers in mountaintop towns. the would never find the body, and i’m pretty sure ronald could take me. but i felt i would suffer a similar fate if if i refused ronald’s hospitality, so might as well go down thoroughly quenched with a gentle buzz.
we drank what ended up being delicious homemade wine as he told us his story: la barca is an entirely free commune where everything belongs to the people. the fridge is always stocked, a bed is always available. no need to call, no need to reserve, no need for money. just show up and find a spot to curl up in, for as long as you like. ronald makes his way by running the errands he needs down in sanremo, but also by past guests, whom he genuinely refers to as his friends, who periodically return to bring him the things he needs, like food, shampoo, paper towels, or whatever else they feel like bringing. a small donation tin hangs from a nearby tree by the exit, as well. although, i’m not sure how lucrative one tiny coffee can can be when it’s hanging from a tree in a village with a population of probably 9.
with his blessing that his house was open to all, we wandered through to see what other kind of absolute ridiculousness we could find. through a blacklight-lit den, draped in christmas lights, with posters of jim morrison and mick jagger, up tiny wooden staircases to a room with bunk beds. the faint sound of a rolling stones record wafted its way up throughout the house. creepy af? maybe. but undeniably cool. through a small archway we emerged on a rickety terrace where only a bare, grimy mattress sat. cups of homemade wine in hand, we took a seat on the mattress and gazed out at the mediterranean sea below. in an abandoned medieval city, sitting on a naked (highly questionable) mattress in small utopia sipping homemade wine as a baby ostrich roamed the grounds below. fuck it. #yolo.