Quake-Hit Italian Town Looks to Food Culture for Survival

With Heritage Reduced to Rubble, Norcia Puts Hopes in Gastrotourism
March 16, 2017 Updated: March 17, 2017

NORCIA, Italy—The Chiesa della Madonna Addolorata, or Church of Our Lady of Sorrows, was a place of sanctuary for the people of Norcia, an ancient walled town in central Italy’s Umbria region.

Then its centuries-old roof was torn apart by a 6.6 magnitude earthquake—the country’s most powerful in nearly 40 years—on Oct. 30 last year.

Only the façade, with a niche containing a statue of St. Filippo Neri, a priest canonized in 1622, remains partially upright.

Opposite is a small shop selling fresh pasta, one of only a handful of premises in the town deemed safe enough to reopen ahead of what is usually a busy season for tourists.

 

The statue of St. Filippo Neri and the façade is all that remains of the Chiesa Della Madonna church. (Angela Giuffrida)
The statue of St. Filippo Neri and the façade is all that remains of the Chiesa Della Madonna church. (Photo by Angela Giuffrida)

As Norcia’s leaders strive to restore normality to a town that was as famous for its gastronomy as for its prized heritage, people here tend to count their blessings rather than misfortunes.

That the earthquake, whose impact was strongly felt 69 miles away in the capital of Rome, didn’t cause any deaths is nothing short of a miracle.

Today, the cordoned-off town center resembles a ghost town of ravaged churches, including the spiritually significant Basilica of St. Benedict, shattered shop windows, and heaps of rubble.

Alongside collapsed apartment buildings stand others perfectly intact, thanks to renovation improvements made after previous earthquakes in 1979 and 1997, which claimed 11 and five lives respectively.

“This is the main reason why people survived despite the extent of the damage,” said Pierluigi Altavilla, Norcia’s deputy mayor.

Another reason is that many had already fled their homes after a 6.2 magnitude quake struck 6 miles away two months earlier, killing 297 people and injuring hundreds more.

Others took to sleeping in their cars after a tremor hit on Oct. 26, badly damaging the villages of Visso and Ussita, about 20 miles to the north.

“My wife was five months pregnant at the time,” said Mauro Moretti, the owner of one of Norcia’s two reopened hotels.

“We kept feeling the aftershocks, so we slept on a mattress in the back of a friend’s van.”

Fate also played its part. Daylight saving time meant that when the Oct. 30 quake hit Norcia at around 7:30 a.m., firemen fixing damage to the basilica by the earlier temblors were not on-site when all of it collapsed except for the façade. Had the hour not changed, they would likely have been killed.

Some 40,000 people were left homeless by the series of quakes in the region, according to Italy’s Civil Protection Service.

On March 3, reconstruction work is underway on the Basilica of St. Benedict, which pays homage to Europe's patron saint, St Benedict. The basilica in the town of Norcia, Italy was damaged by an earthquake in October 2016. (Angela Giuffrida)
On March 3, reconstruction work is underway on the Basilica of St. Benedict, which pays homage to Europe’s patron saint, St Benedict. The basilica in the town of Norcia, Italy was damaged by an earthquake in October 2016. (Angela Giuffrida)

Norcia’s population was 4,000, but is now just 800. Around 1,300 people are in hotels along the coastline of the Marche region, while 1,200 are in accommodation provided by other towns, or family and friends. Too traumatized to stay in the seismic zone, others have gone further afield, said Altavilla.

Meanwhile, just 38 of the 600 prefabricated wooden homes assigned to Norcia by the government have arrived, he said.

Stifling red tape has severely delayed reconstruction and the arrival of prefab houses in worse-off areas, such as Amatrice, about 15 miles southeast of Norcia, prompting survivors to protest in Rome.

Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni recently approved a draft law to quickly release money to rebuild homes and support farmers whose businesses were affected by the quakes.

But the leaders of Norcia can’t wait. With the heritage structures needing years to be restored, the focus is on using food and the town’s location in the the pristine Sibillini mountain range, a popular spot for cyclists and hikers, to help revive the town.

Local Food Vendors

Legs of prosciutto and salami hung outside the three reopened butchers, while two restaurants were back in business on March 5.

“Just a week before the August earthquake, 20,000 people were here,” said Altavilla.

“It was a beautiful town, full of life, and it remains a beautiful place. We are strong people and I’m sure we will eventually get back to normal.”

Nero Norcia, a food festival that celebrates the town’s black truffles and other delights from the area like lentils, honey, and olive oil, went ahead this year despite the challenges.

The event was seen as a lifeline for small businesses whose premises were either damaged or completely destroyed. Among them was Il Massaro, a family-run company that has been making honey for over 30 years.

Manning the stand at the festival was Marco Agabiti, the owner’s 25-year-old son. He said the business now depends on selling its products at markets or online.

Norcia’s center is in tatters, but Agabiti is confident its soul will never die.

“There’s been a lot of solidarity—Italians have many defects, but the majority have a good heart. You see this especially in small villages,” he said.

“And as mountain people, we are very strong—we will overcome this.”

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