Extreme Passeggiata! The Italian Town That Obsessively Walks in Circles

Photo: Alessandro Rizzo/Flickr

Even though you arrive there, it's not a destination or a location. It is a ritual, and the people of Altamura, an ancient walled town that’s set amid the olive trees and watermelon patches of Southern Italy have a name for it: El Corso, or the Course. It happens every night after the siesta hour, as the Altamurans tuck in shirts or slip on dresses and trickle through the stone streets to Via Federico II di Svevia, the main drag, and start walking up and down. 

And up and down. 

And up and down. Once a couple or a young family or a group of friends make their way down to the arched gate of the walled city, they merely turn around and walk back up towards the cathedral. Every night, hundreds of townspeople appear to engage in this people-watching merry-go-round, and it’s so populated that there are unwritten rules to keep order: Northbound walkers stick to the right side; southbound cruisers take the left. As the night falls and stars appear over the bell towers of the cathedrals, down and around they go again. The later the night gets, the younger the crowd appears. The major pit stops are the gelato shops, bakeries, and cafés in the piazza, or town square, which is rarely empty.

“We Altamurans love to gossip,” says Mario Stacca, the town mayor and also one of its doctors. Stacca describes the Corso as a needed burst of social activity for many residents who work in the fields outside the town, growing and harvesting Southern Italy’s prized produce. The Altamurans represent a special kind of worker, he adds, not typical rugged laborers of the field. “We are dreamers,” he says, and it’s not uncommon to walk El Corso and hear the tunes of an accordion bouncing off the walls of a side street or a garbage truck driver belting out "Ave Maria." The Corso not only provides a natural audience for everyman performers, it keeps townsfolk from getting too lonely. Don’t have anything to do? Looking for a date? Can’t find an old friend? Head down to the Corso. “Here, everyone always has someone,” Stacca says.

“It’s a distraction from everyday life,” says Celestine Corradino, taking a Corso break on a recent night, sitting on a bench with her friends outside one of Altamura’s many card-playing clubs. Like the vast majority of Altamurans, she was born here and has been walking the Corso since she could stand.  “This is when we get to see people we don’t get to see,” she says, adding that another benefit of the Corso is economic: Folks looking for work can find jobs in the fields and haggle over wages and food prices. 

The Corso is so popular and such an ubiquitous attraction, it's hard for anyone to hide. “There was a murder here once,” Corradino says. It started with a jilted lover. She was chopping vegetables with a kitchen knife, looking out her window and out onto the Altamurans walking the Corso, and she spotted the boyfriend that had recently dumped her. With the kitchen knife in hand, she fled out into the street and stabbed him. “He ran,” Corradino recalls. Southbound. Bumping into folks walking the Corso, his body covered in blood, he collapsed on the church of Saint Nicola, close to the center of town, and died of the stab wounds. The girlfriend was convicted of his murder and received a lenient sentence. “They took it easier on her,” Corradino says. “It was an honor killing.”

The woman never moved from Altamura. “After she got out of prison, she got married; now she has four kids,” Corradino says. She sees the woman and her kids often. Those and other memories of Altamura are impossible to escape. Everyone who walks the Corso sees everyone all the time.