BUSSANA VECCHIA, Italy - Italy is filled with fabulous art galleries, famous opera houses, opulent churches, romantic vistas and Roman antiquities - not to mention the food - that make it one of the world's most-visited countries.
So, why would a tourist take up with hippie squatters in a medieval ruin?
A tourist should resist asking rhetorical questions as the tiny Fiat he's in climbs narrow, steep switchbacks to the former ghost town of Bussana Vecchia on Italy's Riviera Ponente, the ritzy stretch of Italian coastline nearest France.
The town, a short drive from the yachts and casinos of San Remo, might be one of the most unusual destinations on the peninsula: a colony of artists living in the ruins from a devastating earthquake.
Just how unusual, we should have guessed from the directions provided by a bed-and-breakfast owner: "Near the big church with the empty lady sitting on the steps." He turned out to have been as precise as possible, because there are no addresses in Bussana Vecchia. Nor are there any street names, only ancient cobblestone paths, some no wider than 2 or 3 feet. The adventurous visitor will find something - or someone - interesting down most of them, even if the rewards are less obvious than in Rome or Florence.
Bussana Vecchia ("old Bussana") sits atop a hill with views of the sea and picturesque valleys filled with olive groves and the hothouses where much of Europe's flower supply is grown. That vantage was probably important for the defense of villagers who established it more than 1,200 years ago.
The town was occupied under various rulers until a massive earthquake struck on Ash Wednesday 1887. Nearly 60 residents were killed, many when the roof of the main church collapsed. Survivors moved down the hill to build Bussana Nuovo.
The old town sat empty for seven decades until about the 1960s, when the painter and potter Clizia decided to establish an art colony in the ruins, according to an account by Franco Brunatto, a painter who has been here off and on since 1965.
The artists, many who aren't Italian, worked to make the stone remains into homes, studios and galleries without changing their exteriors. All the while, they battled local government officials who wanted to kick them out as illegal squatters. Even today, town ownership remains tied up in Italy's highest courts.
Brunatto estimates that nearly 50 people live in the village year-round, nearly 200 in summer.
The drive up from the nearest town, Arma di Taggia, is about two miles. There is no bus. If you don't have a car, a taxi ride from the train station will cost $25 to $30.
Our first glimpse of Bussana Vecchia is of a dozen or more residents - men, women and children - clearing brush from a small hill near the town entrance. Some rake and sweep while others pile weeds into a pile for burning.
We learn later that they're sprucing things up for Easter weekend, when the spring's biggest influx of tourists is expected from all over Europe. Thankfully, we beat the rush by a few days.
We ask someone where to find our host, Colin Wilmot, one of the colony's original residents, and are directed, in English, up the main cobblestone path. "Go under three archways and turn around," we're told.
The streets here go up and down and around. If you spend any time wandering, you'll get a little lost, especially if you venture into the upper reaches that remain as abandoned and ruined as they were in 1887. A good rule of thumb that will serve you throughout Italy: Find the church. Most towns, including this one, were built around a church, usually on the highest piece of ground.
The village can seem creepy, lonely, even scary. Redeveloped areas look much like any other small Italian village, with window treatments and well-kept flower boxes. But the less-inhabited upper reaches of town are as junky as you'd expect in a ghost town, with broken windows and 20th-century trash piling up. Brunatto tells of a time in the 1980s when the town was infested by drug dealers eventually flushed out by police.
We find the empty lady (a cool sculpture, it turns out) on Wilmot's stoop and knock on the large wooden door. Wilmot greets us with a bluster we'd come to expect as normal. He's just getting our room ready.
We're surprised by the size of the accommodations. After a week in a small Italian apartment, it feels like a castle: two large rooms with vaulted ceilings. A king-size bed faces a pair of west-facing windows that are perfect for watching the sun set over the seaside mountains of Riviera Ponente.
But this is no Ritz. (Remember, it's a medieval ruin claimed by squatters.) That's good to keep in mind when you find the chilly night is warmed only by a space heater and the dining table is painted plywood thrown over a couple of sawhorses. The spartan accommodations are closer to what you find in a state park cabin than the usual Italian bed-and-breakfast. But everything you need to be comfortable is here: a full kitchen setup (even if it's a hot plate) plus cooking condiments such as salt and sugar, and coffee. Mr. Wilmot asks guests to bring a flashlight. There are no streetlights to guide those who venture outside after dark.
Anyway, you don't visit Bussana Vecchia to be lavished but rather stimulated. And you'll find far more stimulation here than in any posh Riviera hotel.
When the innkeeper/artist isn't regaling you with his life story over a bottle or two of wine (Wilmot even had us at his kitchen table for lunch), you can wander the ruins without anyone looking over your shoulder. The collapsed church remains a wonder, though stripped to the walls by looters many years ago.
Then there are the galleries where artists are happy to spend hours describing their inspiration and methods. Art collectors on a budget can have a field day here. Artists whose work is displayed in galleries throughout Europe will sell you studies, sketches or limited-edition lithographs for as little as about $40. Take home souvenirs such as these, and you'll never buy another miniature leaning tower.
We were taken by the work of painter Brunatto, a onetime archaeologist from Turin who talked with us nearly four hours over two days. He even let our children hold one of his prized possessions: a Sumerian bowl he said was 5,000 years old.
We left the town with one of his paintings, four studies and a sketch of that bowl, all for about $300.
There's plenty more to discover, more than we could in 2 1/2 days: fresco painters, sculptors, music composers.
Be careful, though. Not everyone here is the genuine article, even some who claim to be. At least one shop sells clothes made in China. One man's leather goods were said to be produced at a factory in Rome.
There are several restaurants in the village. We sampled only one, Osteria degli Artisti near the village entrance. Five of us had a delicious Trenette pasta with pesto, garnished with fresh green beans and fried potatoes. We topped the meal off with espressos and got out for about $40.
We had hoped to charge the bill to our MasterCard, as stickers on the door indicated plastic was accepted. But, we learned, there might be no one in the village who actually takes credit cards, despite any stickers. Carry cash for whatever you want to buy. Otherwise, you'll be looking at a trip down the hill to an automatic teller in Arma di Taggia.
The thrifty will also want to hit one of several supermarkets near the base of the hill for pasta, cheese, bread and wine to prepare their own feasts. We bought plenty of food for two days, including two bottles of local red table wine and an amazingly fresh and tasty jar of local pesto, for under $30.
Better yet, invite an artist to dinner. That's the kind of connection this little detour is all about.
IF YOU GO:
GETTING THERE: Fly into nearby Nice, France. Depending on the airline, one-stop connections are available through most major European airports. If you aren't in a hurry, spend a day in beautiful, bustling Nice, shopping, museum-going or just recovering from jet lag. From there, rent a car for the 40-minute drive across the border (exit Arma di Taggia). Or, take a train; from Arma, take a taxi. Better yet, have a car for trips to the grocery store or sightseeing.
WHERE TO STAY: For the full experience - and to help support local artists' work - stay in one of several bed-and-breakfasts operated on the side by an artist. Start by e-mailing Colin Wilmot (email@example.com), who might be the village mayor if the village needed a mayor. If his place is full, he'll refer you to other artisans. The price was about $90 per night, off-season. A caution that might make some travelers uneasy: He doesn't take credit cards and requires wiring a deposit to his bank account in England. Another alternative, if you have a car, is to stay 10 minutes away in Arma di Taggia, which has plenty of conventional hotels and bed-and-breakfasts.
WHERE TO EAT: The veranda of Osteria degli Artisti, near the village entrance, is a pleasant place to take in lunch or dinner and get to know fellow travelers or village residents. The food was delicious and reasonably priced. There are other restaurants and an ice cream parlor, but they weren't open during our visit. For a better variety of restaurants and day-to-day amenities, such as groceries and a bank, go back down the mountain to Arma di Taggia. The town has a delightful promenade near the sea.
Osteria degli Artisti has concerts during busy seasons. If you need a change of pace from the peace and quiet of Bussana Vecchia, glitzy night life awaits in nearby San Remo.
RESOURCE: Go to www.bussana.com or http://bussanavecchia.free.fr.
Mike Drago: firstname.lastname@example.org
(c) 2005, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.