Today I take you to Basilicata for the ultimate coast to coast adventure in the south of Italy. It’s a region still quite untouched by big chain stores and mass tourism, thus offering a window on the simpler, slower pace of life of Italy’s beautiful south.
For this week-long trip I rented a car from Bari airport, the nearest gateway to Basilicata. Here’s my itinerary:
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
Highlights of Basilicata
What I particularly liked about this trip is that it takes you through an incredibly varied landscape. From the amazing mountain scenery of the Lucanian’s Dolomites and the lunar landscape of calanchi (badlands) to enchanting hamlets and the crystalline waters of the coast, I’m sure Basilicata will truly surprise you.
Here are the highlights of my road trip to Basilicata:
Venosa is a small town at the foot of Mount Vulture, an extinct volcano. It 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.
About an hour’s drive from Matera, Castelmezzano is a beautiful hamlet of colorful, little houses perched on the Lucanian Dolomites. Forget clubbing and high-end boutiques, here it’s all about hiking, playing cards at the bar and taking in the fairytale views from Caizzo Square (especially at night time, when the place turns into an enchanting nativity-like scene). If you are a thrill-seeker, don’t miss the Volo dell’Angelo (literally, the angel flight), a zip line that will make you fly above an incredible natural scenery up to the village of Pietrapertosa.
About 10 km away from Castelmezzano, Pietrapertosa is the highest village in Basilicata (1,088 mt.) and offers gorgeous views over the surrounding mountains. Pietrapertosa was founded by the Arabs and this is reflected in the amazing network of alleys, passages, and houses built in the rock. You can reach Pietrapertosa either with the Angel Flight zip line or by driving along the only tiny road that connects it to Castelmezzano – an unforgettable experience that involves woods and flocks of sheep! There is also a nice hiking trail called Sette Pietre (Seven Stones) that connects the two towns (about 2 km).
Brienza is an elegant medieval town that develops around the imposing remains of the Caracciolo Castle. Fun fact: according to the legend, originally this castle had 365 rooms, one for each day of the week, plus a secret and inaccessible one that contained a treasure! I particularly enjoyed strolling around in search of the old aristocratic palaces and the bronze portals Brienza is famous for.
Maratea is known as the pearl of the Tyrrhenian sea and it’s really no surprise. Here you’ll find a breathtaking seascape with deep blue waters, wooded hillsides that hide secluded coves and a delightful town center. Maratea’s rocky coastline is dotted with beautiful beaches, but my absolute favorite is Il Mirto Solarium, an enchanting bay with turquoise waters, where lounge chairs and sunbeds are surrounded by olive trees and myrtles. Maratea is also called the town with 44 churches, due to the wealth of religious sites scattered around the area, and boasts an enormous white marble statue of Christ the Redeemer, one of the highest in the world after that of Rio de Janeiro.
Rivello is a picturesque village on top of a mountain, with an interesting story. Because of its strategic position, Lombards and Byzantines fought for it for centuries, but since neither of them managed to prevail, they ended up dividing the village into two districts. Today these two centers are identified by the Church of San Nicola and the Church of Santa Maria del Poggio. Just outside the village, there’s the Monastery of Sant’Antonio. which houses the Civic Museum on the first floor. Also, don’t leave without tasting soperzata, a cured meat that has been produced by locals for at least three hundred years.
If you are a hopeless romantic like me, then Valsinni is the place for you! The alleyways and tiny streets of this cute hamlet preserve the tragic story of Isabella Morra, a Renaissance poetess that was savagely murdered by her brothers at the age of 25. She was accused of a clandestine affair with the Spanish lord of the close feud of Bollita (the present Nova Siri) and today it is told that her ghost keeps meandering around the castle walls where she was stabbed to death. In 1993 the people of Valsinni created a literary park Isabella Morra 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. When I arrived the place seemed deserted except for the sound of a TV from the windows of an old house. However, you will 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, 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 Colobraro to my itinerary. Stories of chandeliers crashing down, witches, and sudden landslides led people to believe that this cute village 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 Colobraro is anything but cursed. It has a pretty town center dominated by the ruins of a castle and some interesting churches. The funny thing is that its residents managed to turn this curse into a blessing by organizing an annual festival called Night Dream at That Town, where locals put on stage stories and legends of Colobraro through the streets of the village (twice a week in August). And guess what, you’ll get a good luck charm to ward off evil spirits!
Regularly listed as one of the world’s top ghost towns, Craco is a little village that refuses to die. It was destroyed by earthquakes and landslides (or shall I say by the negligence of local politics…) and gradually abandoned between the ’60s and the ’80s. However, despite these disasters, Craco is still alive and has become a museum park that aims at keeping the local history alive. It is also used as a natural set for major international movies, such as 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 and includes a very informative guide that makes the exploration all the more 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 tiny 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 Aragonese Castle and the XVI 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 a perfect base for touring this part of the region.
Just 10 minutes from Bernalda lies Metaponto, one of Basilicata’s main archaeological sites as well as a popular seaside resort on the Ionian coast. Metaponto 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). Highlights include 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 that once inhabited this area. 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.
The village of Aliano stands in the heart of one of Basilicata’s most dramatic sceneries, the lunar landscape of Calanchi. Its fame mostly derives from being the inspiration behind the fictional town of Gagliano in Carlo Levi’s book “Christ Stopped at Eboli”, in which the author recounts the story of his life while exiled to Aliano in 1935-36. His attachment to this land was so strong that he asked to be buried here. Nowadays Aliano is a big, open-air literary park, with quotes from the book at every corner. Fun fact: it is said that some naughty spirits called “monachicchi” wander the alleys of Aliano and locals built their front doors in the shape of human faces to keep them away… keep your camera at hand!
My road trip through Basilicata ended in Matera, the region’s most famous city and one of those places that everyone should see at least once in life. It’s 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. It’s no surprise that Matera is a Unesco World Heritage Site and has been chosen as the European Capital of Culture 2019. I’m not going to list all its major sights, as this deserves a separate post, but I recommend to spend at least one full day here to explore its intricate network of caves, terraces and rock churches and soak up the special atmosphere that surrounds the town. It’s amazing how the colors of Matera change from dawn to night when its Sassi turn into a living nativity scene. Just wear your comfiest shoes and be ready to climb lots of stairs!
Where to stay in Basilicata
Despite being a little out of the major tourist routes, Basilicata offers a wide variety of 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
- B&B Le Tre Casette in Maratea: I don’t even know where to start to describe this magic place. Rooms are super cozy and stocked with tasty treats. But my best memory of this place is the scrumptious breakfast waiting for me on a terrace filled with plants and flowers overlooking Maratea’s harbor!
- 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 a fantastic base for exploring the Ionian coast. I discovered this place thanks to the recommendations of Celeste, the owner of the Agorà B&B in Trani where I stayed during my recent trip to Puglia, and I cannot thank her enough. Close your eyes and imagine a little place on top of a quiet hill between the sea and the sky, surrounded by untouched countryside and with some of the most spectacular views ad the loveliest hosts – this is what Villa Sveva is all about!
- B&B Giulietta nei Sassi in Matera: a great base for exploring the Sassi, with free parking space close by and at 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?
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.
Best time to visit Basilicata
The weather in Basilicata is pretty varied due to the diverse altitudes across the region. The Ionian and Tyrrhenian coasts enjoy a warm climate all year round, while inland there’s more of a continental weather with some winter snowfalls in the mountainous areas. I personally think that Basilicata is a great destination all year round, thanks to the variety of places and activities it offers, with a preference for the months of May-September to fully enjoy its beautiful waters.
1,000 km and 8 days afterward, 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: exciting adventures for thrill-seekers, lots of itineraries for the cultural explorers and lovely beaches for those in need of a relaxing holiday.
- Renting a car will make it so much easier to move from one place to another. However, if you feel more comfortable using public transportation, check out the Sita Sud website for a schedule of local buses.
- Reaching Basilicata by train can be quite a challenge, but you could try with the 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 and some of my favorites are 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,