PWk: Prod, Tlk: GS2, Datacash: Live
Nestled between Puglia, Campania and Calabria is the beautiful region of Basilicata. You won’t find hordes of tourists here like in the better-known areas of Italy, and this is probably due to its history. Also known as Lucania, it was always the poorest region in Italy and quite often forgotten about – even among Italians. One of my favourite films, Cristo si e’ fermato ad Eboli, portrays the poverty and hardships faced by the inhabitants in the 1930s. Over time, the beauty of the Lucanian mountains, the rich history of the area and stunning coastlines became all too apparent, and now Basilicata is a hidden gem just waiting to be discovered.
The main town of Matera, home of the sassi, is the jewel in Basilicata’s crown, and where most people head to. The sassi are ancient cave-like dwellings dug into the rock, which are said to be the first human settlements in Italy. As recently as the early 1990s, the sassi were rundown and mostly uninhabited – but once the area was recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, the dwellings were restored and many have been transformed into hotels, bars, restaurants and shops. You can also wander through the uninhabited caves, get a sense of how people used to live and see remains of beautiful frescos in carved into the rock. For me, Matera is probably one of the most unusual, spectacular and evocative places to visit in Italy.
If you’re staying in Matera, it really is worth exploring the region further. The Lucanian Dolomites, the most mountainous range in southern Italy, dominate the landscape, making it perfect for nature lovers and hikers. Reminiscent of a mini-Switzerland, the mountains are covered in snow in winter making it even possible to ski!
The area is rich in history, with beautifully preserved medieval towns and villages. The highest and probably the most stunning of all is Pietrapertosa, which sits very close to the edges of the rock with sheer rock faces on all sides. You can visit the castle and admire the wonderful views, as well as touring the pretty churches and monastery. For the more adventurous, brave the Volo d’Angelo (flight of the angel), one of the longest zip-wires in the world, taking you from Pietrapertosa to equally beautiful neighbouring Castelmezzano for a truly spectacular experience.
Basilicata is also blessed with two beautiful coastlines, the Ionian and Tyrrhenian seas. With crystal-clear waters, sandy beaches and little tourism aside from Italian families, the pretty resorts of Policoro and Scanzano (close to Matera)or the larger chic resort of Maratea (just over an hour’s drive from the Cilento resort of Palinuro ) make for ideal relaxing days at the seaside. From Maratea harbour, you can take boats to visit numerous sea caves, and the old town perched above is definitely worth a visit with its charming piazzas, winding alleyways and numerous churches.
Delicious, rustic home cooking using local produce is what you will find on restaurant menus all over Basilicata. Pork and lamb are popular meat choices and this is home of the lucanica sausage. Look out for senise peppers, a thin, red variety often dried and used in a variety of dishes for added flavour. Ciammotta is a veggie stew of aubergine, peppers and tomatoes (delicious eaten with the local bread of Matera).
Just like in neighbouring Puglia, orecchiette pasta is popular, served with a spicy tomato sauce. As in all cucina povera, bread is widely used in cooking - try pasta mollicata, made with the soft insides of bread, or pane cotto. Look out for local cured meats like soppressata and cheese like cacciacavallo podolico lucano. And for one of my favourite sweet treats – although it may not appeal to all – try sanguinaccio dolce, a chocolate pudding made with pig’s blood. The best wine of the area is the renowned red Aglianico del Vulture, which perfectly accompanies the local food.
For such as small region, Basilicata has everything you could possibly want – impressive mountains, pretty coastlines, national parks, picturesque villages, spectacular cave dwellings, a lot of history and amazing food for a truly wonderful holiday.