Sign Up for Our Monthly Europe Newsletter
A jaw-tightening grind of the gears and the familiar odor of burned clutch told us we were not on the Autostrada anymore. Our tiny two-door Fiat was winding its way around hairpin turns as we climbed the sharp grade higher and higher away from the Ligurian coast into the mountains just outside Sanremo, Italy.
What was at the top of the mountain? That’s what we had to find out. We were looking for adventure. We were looking for abstract. We were looking for abnormal. What we wanted was Bussana Vecchia — a mountaintop village that we had heard about only days before. All we knew was that it was once an abandoned medieval ghost town that had fallen into disrepair until the 1960s, when it was taken up by hippies and artists. There’s not much more we needed to hear. We were in.
At last, our Fiat 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 arched stone entrance into the village.
Bussana Vecchia’s most recent history can be pinpointed to Feb. 23, 1887, when a violent earthquake shook the stony village to the ground. Most damaged were the old castle and the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, which was built in 1652 . Inhabitants who survived lived in ramshackle homes made from remnants of buildings until ultimately they abandoned the village, which was later condemned. There it sat, dormant for 60 years, until artists rediscovered the community and began to rebuild it, claiming it as their creative oasis. In the 1970s, the sewer system was connected to an aqueduct, and electricity followed. Today it is a village of scattered nests — a haven for the peculiar and an enclave for the odd.
We set off into the labyrinth of cobblestone streets and alleys that crisscross back and forth on the way up to the castle. Along the roads are small galleries and studios showcasing the works of the resident artists, many of who live perched above in renovated residences tucked among the rubble.
One of the rarer gems in Bussana Vecchia is La Barca — a veritable commune in a dilapidated skeleton of a medieval building. We entered through the back underneath a rusty metal archway, where “La Barca” was written in cursive on a rickety sign. In the yard was a crumbling pickup truck, knickknacks hanging from trees and an assortment of mismatched lawn art. A pig rooted around in the dust, while a duck waddled by nonchalantly. We climbed up some stone steps to the main floor of the house, an open-air patio strewn with memorabilia and odds and ends, as if a flea market had 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. A license plate here, dart boards there, shells, tiki torches, even a live baby ostrich — you name it, it had a place at La Barca.
It was then that we met Ronald , the proprietor of La Barca, a blue-tank-top-wearing expat from the Netherlands. He muttered a gruff hello and stuck out his hand to us as we wandered 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.
We drank the 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. Robert gets by on the basics he’s able to acquire, but also with the help of former guests who periodically return to bring him necessities such as food, shampoo and paper towels.
We wandered through the rest of the house, through a black-light-lit den with posters of Jim Morrison and Mick Jagger, up tiny wooden staircases to a room with bunk beds. Through a small archway, we emerged on a rickety terrace where only a bare mattress sat. Cups of homemade wine still in hand, we took a seat on the mattress and gazed out at the Mediterranean. It wasn’t particularly clean, and it wasn’t particularly comfortable. But it was abnormal, it was poetic — and it was so unconventionally beautiful.