One of Italy’s best kept secret (not for long though, I fear…), Basilicata is the perfect destination if you are after an authentic Italian experience, thanks to an unspoiled countryside, crystalline waters, warm hospitality and a delicious, rustic cuisine.
This time I take you to Basilicata, a region still quite untouched by big chainstores and mass tourism, offering a window on the simpler, slower pace of life of Italy’s beautiful south.
As in previous trips to the south, I opted for renting a car from Bari airport, the nearest gateway to Basilicata. Here’s the itinerary of my week-long roadtrip:
Day 1 Bari airport > Venosa > Castelmezzano
Day 2 Castelmezzano > Pietrapertosa > Maratea
Day 3 Maratea
Day 4 Maratea > Rivello > Maratea
Day 5 Maratea > Rocca Imperiale
Day 6 Rocca Imperiale > Metaponto > Bernalda > Craco > Policoro > Rocca Imperiale
Day 7 Rocca Imperiale > Valsinni > Colobraro > Tursi > Aliano > Rocca Imperiale
Day 8 Rocca Imperiale > Matera
Venosa is a small town at the foot of the extinct volcano Monte Vulture, and is considered one of the most beautiful villages in Italy, given its significant cultural and historical value. It was the birthplace of the greatest roman poet Horace and is home to stunning churches and interesting sites, such as the Archaeological Park that contains the ruins of a Roman settlement, and the Unfinished Abbey of the Holy Trinity, one of the most interesting monuments in Southern Italy.
My favorite place in Basilicata, Castelmezzano is a beautiful hamlet of colorful, little houses perched on the Lucanian Dolomites, about an hour drive from Matera. Forget clubbing and high-end boutiques, here it’s all about hiking, playing cards at the bar and take in the fairytale views from Caizzo Square (especially at night time, when the place turns into an enchanting nativity-like scene). And if you are more of a thrill seeker, here you’ll find one of Basilicata’s key tourist attractions, the Volo dell’Angelo (Angel Flight), a zip wire that takes you to an incredible journey through the village of Pietrapertosa – not for the faint-hearted!
About 10 km away from Castelmezzano, Pietrapertosa is the highest village in the region (1,088 mt.) with gorgeous views over the surrounding mountains. This place was founded by the Arabs and testament of this is the amazing network of alleys, passages and houses built in the rock. If you feel adventurous, you can reach Pietrapertosa either with the zip wire or by driving along the only tiny road that connects it to Castelmezzano – an unforgettable experience for sure (which will involve woods and hordes of sheep)! There is also a nice hiking trail (about 2 km) called Sette Pietre (Seven Stones) that connects the two towns.
Brienza is an elegant town overlooked by a castle that, according to the legend, originally had 365 rooms, one for each day of the week, plus an additional secret one. I particularly liked the elegant Piazza Unità d’Italia overlooked by the local town hall, and the many old aristocratic palaces dotting the streets of the town center, with their bronze portals and finely decorated halls.
I’m totally in love with this place: deep blue waters, a breathtaking seascape, wooded hillsides hiding secluded coves – no surprise that Maratea is often referred to as the pearl of the Tyrrhenian coast! Maratea’s coastline is dotted with beautiful seaside locations, but I strongly suggest to spend some time at Il Mirto Solarium, an enchanting bay with turquoise waters, where lounge chairs and sunbeds are surrounded by olive trees and myrtles. Maratea is also known as the city with 44 churches, due to the wealth of religious sites in the area, and boasts an enormous white marble statue of Christ the Redeemer, one of the highest in the world after the one in Rio de Janeiro.
Rivello is a picturesque village in a scenic position on top of a mountain, with an intricate network of narrow cobbled alleys and passages. Here you can see many treasures such as the Church of San Nicola and the Monastery of Sant’Antonio, and taste the succulent soperzata, a kind of cured meat that has been produced locally for at least three hundred years.
If you are an hopeless romantic like me, then Valsinni is a must-see! The alleyways and tiny streets of this cute hamlet preserve the tragic story of Isabella Morra, the Renaissance poetess that was savagely murdered by her brothers at the age of 25 because of an alleged clandestine affair with the Spanish lord of the close feud of Bollita (the present Nova Siri). It is told that her ghost keeps meandering around the castle walls where she was stabbed to death. In 1993 the people of Valsinni established a literary park in her honor, where theatrical and musical performances narrate this heartbreaking story.
I suggest a stop in Tursi to visit the Rabatana, its old Arabic district located on a hill in the highest part of the village. There’s a strange atmosphere here, the place seemed deserted except for the sound of a TV from the windows of an old house. You could easily spend a good couple of hours here just exploring the many alleys, crumbling corners and abandoned houses, trying to imagine how life was like here… if only those stones could speak! There is also an old olive press open for viewing and – surprise, surprise – even a grand hotel, the Palazzo dei Poeti, which is also an elegant restaurant.
Intrigued by its reputation for being Europe’s most cursed town, I couldn’t but add this little village between Tursi and Valsinni to my itinerary. Stories of chandeliers crashing down, babies born with two hearts and three lungs, witches, and sudden landslides led to believe that this cute place with amazing views over the Sinni valley brings iella (bad luck). Can you believe that there are people who even refuse to say its name out loud and refer to it simply as “that town”? However, after my short visit I must say that Collaborator is anything but cursed, with a pretty town center overlooked by the ruins of a castle and some interesting churches. And what’s more, its inhabitants managed to turn this curse into a blessing with an annual festival called Night Dream at That Town (held in August, twice a week), where locals put on stage stories and legends of Colobraro through the streets of the village – and of course you’ll get a good luck charm to ward off evil spirits!
Regularly listed as one of the top ghost towns in the world, Craco is a little village that refuses to die. Located 50 km from Matera, Craco was destroyed by earthquakes and landslides (or shall I say by the negligence of local politics…) and gradually abandoned between the 60’s and the 80’s. Despite all this, Craco has turned into a museum park that aims at keeping the local history alive, as well as a natural set used for major international movies, such us The Passion of Christ and 007-Quantum of Solace. To visit the village you need to purchase a Craco Daily Card that gives you access to the historic center through a secured pathway (including a very informative guide that makes the exploration all the more enjoyable and interesting).
You may have heard of Bernalda because film director Francis Ford Coppola has his roots here and turned his old family home in the town center into a luxury boutique hotel, Palazzo Margherita, but there’s so much more than this. This small hilltop town has a lively main street dotted with noble palaces, bars and shops, but I particularly liked the stroll through the old part of the town that leads to piazza San Bernardino with the majestic Aragonese castle and the 16th century Mother Church, from where you can enjoy great views over the Basento valley. Also, its position close to both the seaside and the archeological sites of Metaponto makes it for a perfect base for touring this side of the region.
10 minutes from Bernalda, Metaponto is one of Basilicata’s main archaeological sites, as well as a popular seaside resort on the Ionian coast. It was founded by Greek colonists in the VII century BC and became a key center of Magna Grecia (so much so that the great mathematician Pythagoras founded a school here). Must-see are the remains of the Palatine Tables, a Doric temple dedicated to the goddess Hera, the Archaeological Park, preserving some key elements of the ancient town, and the Archaeological Museum with a unique collection of archeological finds from various excavations. And after all this sightseeing you can reward yourself with an afternoon on the white sandy beach of Metaponto Lido, cooling off in its blue, shallow waters.
Policoro is a pretty seaside resort located 20 km south of Metaponto. It was another important site of Magna Grecia and today it’s home to the National Museum of Siritide, which preserves some of the most significant finds related to the two Greek colonies of Herakleia and Siris. However, the key attraction of Policoro is its beautiful beach, with such clear, pristine waters that it’s not uncommon to see dolphins in the bay. There is also a WWF nature reserve dedicated to the protection of sea turtles who nest on these beaches.
Aliano is a little village south of Craco, located in the heart of one of Basilicata’s most dramatic sceneries, the lunar landscape of Calanchi. This place is most famous for being the inspiration behind the fictional town of Gagliano in Carlo Levi’s book “Christ Stopped at Eboli”, in which he recounts the story of his life while exiled to Aliano in 1935-36 (and his love for this place was such that he asked to be buried here). Today the village has turned into a big, open-air literary park where you can find quotes from the book at every corner. I really enjoyed exploring the tiny streets of this village and wander in front of the impressive views over the calanchi. And now a little curiosity: it is said that naughty spirits called “monachicchi” wander the alleys of Aliano and to keep them away used to build their front doors in the shape of human faces… look for the much-photographed jinx house in the town center!
My road trip through Basilicata ended in Matera, the region’s most famous city (and the easiest gateway to Bari airport for my flight back home). This is one of those places you should see at least once in your life – one of the world’s oldest towns, completely made of stone, with dwellings carved out of the rock (called “Sassi”) that were inhabited up until the middle of the XX century… no surprise that it became a Unesco World Heritage Site and was chosen as European Capital of Culture 2019. I won’t list here all the major sights of Matera, as this deserves a separate post. Let me just recommend you to spend at least one day to explorie this intricate network of caves, terraces and rock churches with beautiful frescoes and to soak up the special atmosphere of the place from dawn up until night time, when the Sassi turn into a living nativity scene – just wear your comfiest shoes and be ready to climb lots of stairs!
Where to stay
Despite being a little out of the major tourist routes, Basilicata offers many accommodation options. Here’s where I stayed:
- B&B Del Duca in Castelmezzano: you must leave the car at the entrance of the village and walk uphill but you are rewarded with the warm smiles of the old owner and a spacious and clean apartment all to yourself (no breathtaking views, though)
- B&B Le Tre Casette in Maratea: where shall I start? Shall I talk about the amazing leafy terrace with breathtaking views over Maratea’s harbor, the scrumptious breakfasts, the lovely rooms stocked with tasty treats? I thoroughly enjoyed my time in this little corner of paradise!
- B&B Villa Sveva, in Rocca Imperiale: ok so, technically we are in Calabria here, but it’s on the borders with Basilicata and it’s such a fantastic base for exploring the Ionian coast. I discovered this place thanks to the recommendations of Celeste, the owner of the B&B in Trani where I stayed during my recent trip to Puglia, and I cannot thank her enough. Close your eyes and picture a little place on top of a quiet hill between the sea and the sky, surrounded by an untouched countryside and with some of the most spectacular views – this is what Villa Sveva is all about.
- B&B Giulietta nei Sassi in Matera: this is a great base for touring the Sassi. There’s free parking space nearby and it’s walking distance from all the main sights. It’s very basic but rooms are sparkling clean and there’s a kitchenette in the common area stocked with everything you need for breakfast.
What to eat
Cucina povera (literally poor cuisine) is the core of Basilicata’s culinary tradition. Being historically poor and isolated from other areas of Italy, people here learned to cleverly combine the products of their land into simple yet tasty dishes that can still be found in restaurants and trattorias across the region. Let me give you an example: who would have known that some toasted bread with ricotta and sliced pears could become one of my favorite desserts of all time? And how about a pasta dish with dried peppers, bread crumbs and a olive oil? So simple, yet so delicious! Don’t leave Basilicata without tasting its famous Senise pepper (known locally as peperone crusco), which are sundried crunchy peppers that can be eaten raw or cooked, and the tasty Rotonda red eggplant. Other typical products include Matera bread, Lucanica sausages and Pecorino cheese of Filiano DOP – all washed down with a glass of Aglianico del Vulture, one of the greatest Italian red wines produced in the region.
When to go
Basilicata’s weather is pretty varied due to the diverse altitudes across te region. The Ionian and Tyrrhenian coasts enjoy a warm climate all year around, while the interior has more of a continental weather, with some winter snowfalls in the mountainous areas. With so many places to explore and a great variety of activities, cultural events and festivals, I’d say that Basilicata can be easily visited all year around – with a preference for the months of May-September to fully enjoy its beautiful waters.
1,000 km and 8 days afterwards, I can say that Basilicata is a region of unique charm and genuine hospitality, one of the few remaining places that still preserve their authenticity and seem to be left untouched by mass tourism. And then Basilicata has a little something for everyone, from exciting adventures for thrill-seekers to lots of itineraries for the cultural explorers and lovely beaches for those in need of a relaxing holiday.
Renting a car will lessen the time spent traveling from place to place. However, if you feel more comfortable using public transportation, check out this website of the schedule of local buses. Reaching Basilicata by train can be quite a challenge, you could use Ferrovie Appulo Lucane from Bari. Alternatively, fly into Bari and then take the shuttle bus to Matera, timetable here.
You’ll find many amazing restaurants and trattorias but my top favorite ones have been Peperusko in Castelmezzano, opened by a group of local young people in an effort to keep the village and its traditions alive, and La Cambusa near Maratea for some amazing fish dishes – this was suggested by Marco, the owner of B&B Vista Mare, another great lodging option in Maratea.
Until next time,