I Love Touring Italy – The Basilicata Region Part I

If you are looking for a European tourist destination, you should consider the Basilicata region of southern Italy. This region forms the instep of the Italian boot with two small seacoasts, one on the Ionian Sea in the east and one on the Tyrrhenian Sea in the west. Depending on your interests, Basilicata may be an ideal vacation spot. You can get classic Italian food, and wash it down with fine local wine. Basilicata is one of the few regions of Italy as yet undiscovered by tourists. There’s a trade off; you won’t have to fight the crowds to see what you want to see. But on the other hand, you’ll have a hard time finding fancy hotels. And its roads are not always the best, hardly surprising when you consider the region’s mountainous terrain.

Basilicata’s population is only slightly above six hundred thousand. While quite mountainous this is the only region of Italy in which farm workers outnumber industrial workers. Up until the 1970s it steadily lost population to other Italian regions and to emigration abroad. But all is not lost. Its east coast has become an important agricultural area. And the mountainous interior with poor soil and lots of sun; what could be better for producing some fine wine? Let’s not forget that many consider Basilicata’s native Aglianico (also found in Campania) to be Italy’s third best red grape, after Nebbiolo and Sangiovese. It sounds like there could be a major breakthrough in Basilicata’s wine industry.

We’ll start our tour of this region in the northeast at Matera. Then we head south and east to Potenza. From there we go southeast to Aliano and then south and east to Terranova di Pollino and the Parco Nazionale. If you want a bit of seaside you could continue to the little town of Maratea on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea. When driving in this part of the world, you’ll need a good map and good reflexes; the roads here don’t always go directly from Point A to Point B and rarely go in a straight line.

Matera, population sixty thousand, lies just south of the Apulia border. This area was settled way back in Palaeolithic times, in other words for at least twelve thousand years. The Romans claimed to have founded the city in the Third Century B. C. Like so many other parts of Italy it was occupied by an almost never-ending stream of invaders. One of the proudest moments in Matera’s history was in September 1943 when it rose against the German invaders, the first Italian city to do so. We’ll start with the usual sights and finish with something truly unique.

Matera’s Duomo (Cathedral) dates from the Thirteenth Century and was built in the Apulian-Romanesque style (Apulia is the region north of Basilicata, its architecture reflects Greek, Arab, and Norman influences.) There are frescoes and sculptures to admire. Check to see if the Thirteenth Century Romanesque Church of San Giovanni Battista has been reopened for tourists. If so, stop by. But these sights pale when compared to Matera’s unique old town in which the streets are often rooftops and the houses, churches, and chic restaurants are caves, hewn out of solid rock.

The Sassi di Matera (Stones of Matera) are caves that have been occupied continuously by human beings for an estimated nine thousand years. At twenty years per generation, (remember they didn’t wait to finish law school before starting a family in those days) this works out to an incredible 450 generations possibly living in the same neighborhood. The area has been named a World Heritage Site and numerous bars and restaurants now take advantage of this unique location. What a turnaround from the days when Matera because of the Sassi was called ”la vergogna nazionale,” Italy’s shame.

The area is said to resemble ancient Jerusalem, and thus has become a great place to shoot historical movies such as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Bruce Beresford’s King David, and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. To quote Mel “In fact the first time I saw it I just went crazy because it was so perfect”.

To quote the famous Italian author Carlo Levi (Matera, 1952) “In the Sassi caves is concealed the capital of the peasants, its heart hidden in their ancient civilization. Anyone who sees Matera cannot help but be awe-struck, so expressive and touching is its sorrowful beauty.” On the other hand he also wrote (Christ Stopped at Eboli, 1946): “They are caves dug out of the hard clay of the ravine…inside those black holes, with earthen walls, I saw the beds, the poor furnishings, the rag spreads. On the floors were sprawled dogs, sheep, goats, pigs. Each family usually had a single one of these caves for its entire residence and they all slept here together, men, women, children and animals. Twenty thousand people lived in this manner”.

This entry was posted in Southeast US Travel. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *