A traveler to an Italian island enters a city that seems to have long been forgotten by the outside world.
Bus stations are rarely places to linger, and squeezed between the menacing cranes of one of Italy’s largest ports and a motorway blind spot, this one urged me on more than most.
With some relief I shimmied across the highway, crossed the tiny Ponte de Pietra and stood facing a graceful waterfront of three-story buildings. The cracked masonry, splintered wood and shuttered windows of this vacant-looking place were so utterly different from the working world of cranes and smoke I had left behind that it felt like I was crossing between zones in a theme park – there was no relationship between the two places; no buffer to ease the transition. “You have now left the Industrial Future Zone and are entering the Renaissance Zone” would have been an apt welcome sign.
At a kilometer long and three-hundred meters wide, and surrounded on all sides by the shimmering waters of the Ionian Sea, Taranto’s “Borgo Historico” is the smallest of any Italian city. As such, it barely registers in tourist guides, nor does it merit much attention in the recommendations of Italians keen to boast the merits of august Rome or Baroque Lecce. My students in Bari dismissed it out of hand. People came to Taranto as a jumping off point for the famed beaches in the region, and little else.
I was content though to be in this forgotten, little place, and I walked the empty lungomare in the bright sunshine feeling the simple thrill of being alone in a new place with no itinerary or plan.
Near a sand-colored Aragonese Castle jutting into the shallows, I pressed the buzzer of my hotel: Cuore di Borgo – Heart of the Village.
Up a flight of delightfully cracked stairs, a graceful woman of fifty showed me into what was essentially her spare room, a bit of extra income for a family of old-timers who had known this place for generations. An elderly matriarch made a brief appearance, smiled in approval, and retreated to the living room. My room came from another era. There was a brass bedstead with voluminous quilts, boiled sweets in a saucer on the bedside cabinet, family photos on the mantelpiece. A heater hummed with an ominous glow, and an old JVC television declined to turn on, as if in deference to the archaic world around it. I walked around the room, reveling in the contrasts between my modern flat in Bari. Bizarrely, among the Bibles and family photos on the bookshelf, I found a 1968 guide to British Politics. Opening it, a TV crackled into life in the grandmother’s portion of the flat: The Godfather theme, that irresistible trumpet! So it was I settled down in my creaking bed, and in the glow cast by the heater and last of the setting sun started to read: The Lords Temporal are life peers created under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act…
I realized by noon next morning it was not just my hotel that was a time capsule – the whole place was. Taranto was a barely-habited labyrinth of rounded arches and abandoned palazzos, an open-air museum to which I felt I had unfettered access. Flanked by walls of tan and terracotta, winding alleyways ended at church doors of startling antiquity, and in the San Cataldo Cathedral, I feasted on the painted ceilings, entirely alone. In window-less balconies cats perched, like sentinels to dynasties long-forgotten.
It was winter in the age of Covid, in a country of sun-worshippers, but how to explain this emptiness? When a police motorbike overtook me, I was reminded of the common Italian warning that old town centres were still hotbeds of petty crime, and even worse: “Mafia, profe,” my students would say.
The smiling faces looking out at me from the black and white photos in a curio shop window in the Via Duomo looked happy. The nattily dressed tradesmen in their Sunday best puffed their chests out, the children smiled impishly.
An old man approached.
“All is derelict,” he shrugged lamely, looking up at the empty balconies. “More people used to live here.”
His hands turned upwards to the Heavens in that Italian way meant: “and what can you do about it?”
But the Italian government was trying to do something about it. Run-down homes in remote villages all over the country were being put on the market for as little as a euro. Thanks to a well-placed article on CNN, Americans were buying up these ruined bargains in Puglia, Abruzzi, and Sicily, Dualingo downloaded for the flight and copies of Under the Tuscan Sun in their suitcases. The government didn’t want holiday-letters; it wanted people to stay and fall in love with the Italian way of life, start afresh, breathe new life into decaying communities.
But it wasn’t working here, not yet at least. The facades of these buildings might portray an image of faded grandeur, but behind them many a living room remained a builder’s hell of damp and mold. The old man had looked up and seen through the walls; my impressions were just skin deep.
The man’s sad reflection on his neighborhood’s decline reminded me that the traveler and resident see different things. As tourists we are unreliable witnesses to a city’s decline. Our compulsion for the bizarre and new means the cluttered weirdness of oriental streets, their faulty wiring and leaky, tin roofs are all part of the allure of being somewhere else. When power cuts in Zimbabwe lead to candle-lit evenings in ramshackle restaurants, an anecdote might be gained. Potholes in Bangladesh mean thrilling rickshaw rides on flooded roads. But to the resident, that power cut means fresh produce goes rancid, roads ruin suspension, and oh God what I would give for a modern roof, charmless but leak-proof!
Rarely do I visit a place and think “I wish this place was more up-to-date,” but residents want exactly those things – the gyms and supermarkets and decent parking – and as result this part of Taranto had fallen into decline. Those photos in the shop windows now seemed like proud attempts by those who remained to remind people this place had once been lived in by more than ghosts.
If it had a melancholy air in the day, then the Borgo Historico was plain spooky at night. Enormous lanterns cast the walls in a luminous glow, giving the central thoroughfare the papery, fragile texture of old maps. Lanes often narrowed to a point of darkness, like a burrow; and like some sickly house from a Gothic Horror story, some of the bigger walls were covered in sinister, spreading moss. The cats, noble-looking in the day, now looked like the shell-shocked survivors of some disastrous event. The very few still about at this hour silently watched Serie A at pizzerias, and by 8 p.m. the little plaza by the cathedral was empty; when I bent down to better place my phone for a wide-shot of a church, a woman stared in alarm and then hurried away in response to my reassuring gaze. People didn’t linger here. While the newer town across the water hummed with end-of-weekend activity, this place brooded with a hint of menace. I rejoined the lungomare, pleased to gaze at the sea for a moment, with the little boats in the marina and the horizon of tankers twinkling in the bay. I then circled the island three or four times, eager to gaze, but not daring to enter its depths.
Before I left the next morning, I spent some time in the newer city, across another little bridge. Cafes hummed with brisk trade, and students laughed on street corners: it was a lived-in place with a pleasant air of prosperity. If you were a parent with young kids, it seemed a nice place to raise a family. The man I had met, who still lived in the old center, probably had younger family on this side of the water; and maybe, when the old center was spruced up, they would leave to rejoin their grandfather.
But until that day comes, the old center will remain a semi-abandoned prospect, and I think I wanted it to remain that way. Sure, there was a part of me that wanted to see new life return, to see the balconies peopled by smiling families and the roofs fixed. But with historical centers being gentrified and renovated the world over, to have a place age in its own way, unbothered and unloved, seemed worth – well – not preserving.