It’s Basilicata Time!
Article and photography by Michael Morcos
Our arrival to Matera could not have been any more spectacular. Just like a perfect postcard, this historic hill-top town glistened in the setting sun. It would prove to be the great beginning to a marvellous week of traveling through a wonderful and lightly traveled part of Italy.
Travelers will always associate Italy to its iconic destinations: Rome, Venice and Florence but there is a newly found travel destination that is vibrant and exciting and still serene and welcoming.
This fascinating area of Italy, Basilicata, is one of the most southerly of the Italian regions and lies on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Filled with forests and mountains it also borders the Calabria and Puglia regions, as well as the Tyrrhenian and Ionian Seas. There is so much to see and do for the world traveler.
We would be concentrating much time in the region of Matera. Mainly known for its Sassi district, a vast, hillside complex of cave dwellings dating back thousands of years, which is itself part of the Murgia Matera area, a gorge between Matera and Montescaglioso that includes around 150 rock-cut churches. But there was much more to this locale.
For centuries, Matera was a poor area and right up to the middle of the last century, the population lived in appalling conditions. With the aid from the rest of the country it has now risen to be a magnificently beautiful city. So much so that it has been chosen as the European Capitol of Culture for 2019 and its people are proudly working hard at beautifying the city to welcome the thousands of visitors this year. Activities, tourist attractions and many ceremonies are already ongoing.
The very old quarters also called the Sassi are bound by hills and ravines that give it a secluded feeling. Here its people would dig straight into the hills to create home dwellings. This is apparent all round, as construction material was scarce and expensive. All that was left to do was add a facade.
For history buffs, there is the Tramontano Castle, begun in the early 16th century, it has three large towers and as it was being refurbished large Roman cisterns were unearthed. Whole houses were discovered and are now on display to explore how the people of that era lived.
The area has been featured in many films, including 2004’s The Passion of the Christ and the 2016 version of Ben-Hur We had fun spotting locations seen in the films.
The best thing for me was to wonder the streets of both the Sassi and the newer more flat part of town. Life goes by very slowly, where there is no stress, rush or crowds. There are plenty of beautiful old churches as well as many museums that depict the Matera’s culture and struggles. There are also numerous Cafés, boutiques, artisanal shops and the main Cathedral to visit. My two favourites were a visit to a typical historic cave dwelling and a local bakery.
What a delight visiting a local bakery where you can smell this Panificio before you see it. This family business started decades ago and is now in the proud hands of the third generation. There are many offerings here but most of their regular clients bought Matera bread. This bread is special to this city and is made with a specific Durham grain from the region. The bread is also shaped in a unique way as it has been for centuries in Matera.
Not often have a slept like a king in a cave but this was no ordinary cave. Carved to resemble ancient grottos, it is none less than a luxury hotel with the best possible amenities including seamless Wi-Fi, floor radiant heating, marvellous washrooms and a to-die-for shower head.
The spa at the Aquatio is something to behold. Within the same design of caves and grottos, you can relax in the sauna, the Turkish baths or in a beautiful, heated swimming pool embedded in the natural rock with wonderful ambient lighting.
Palazzo Margherita Boutique Luxury Hotel
Leaving Matera, we would find this charming palace is owned by the famous Hollywood director Francis Ford Coppola. Having a grandfather from this region he decided to get back close to his roots and purchased this grand dame and turned it into a home for his family as well as a luxury hotel. The four year, top to bottom renovations have made this property a true gem and a delightful place to see Basilicata comfort at its best.
Our brief visit and tour of this remarkable estate included lunch but with a twist. We would have to make the meal ourselves. This was a blast as chefs taught us how to make three different kinds of pasta, all from scratch. With wonderful local wines we would feast Italian style in a marvellous atmosphere.
Charm around every corner, our visit to the twin towns of Pietrapertosa and Castelmezzano was like being in another postcard. This is the mountainous part of Basilicata and driving there is half the fun with great views of an unspoiled and well-kept farms and vineyards. The locals welcomed us with open arms and we felt like family in no time. This is truly an Italian hidden gem!
This lovely area has withstood bombs, invasions and earthquakes, and it is a treasure-filled town for visitors. I particularly enjoyed the San Francesco church which has been in existence since 1274 with a classic bell tower that dates from the 15th century. Our visit to the National Archaeological Museum is a trip into the past, with a twist, the building housing it is the Palazzo Loffredo, a 17th-century noble’s residence!
There are multiple other ancient churches, the ruins of a Roman villa and the Musmeci Bridge, a unique construction of modern civil engineering.
A perfect trip to Italy would have to include wine, after all some of the best wines come from this land. As wine was on every menu, we had to include a trip to a winery. The Basilisco winery was perfect in size. Growing their own organic grapes and producing wonderful fine wines right on their estate. Their cellars are very unique as their storage areas are inside the fascinating caves of the area. The caves facing north have a stable 16-18 °C degrees temperature, and are ideal as storage, processing and preserving oil and wine.
Abbey of the Santissima Trinita di Venosa
This historic location has had parts of it dated back to the eighth century. I loved that the old church stands on the site of an Imperial Roman building as some walls of the church are built directly on the mosaic floors of the earlier structure. The site holds the old church, the monastery buildings; and the Incompiuta, an unfinished church. The complex was declared a National Monument in 1897 and it is well worth a visit.
Cantina del Notaio
Another treat of the trip was a visit to this wonderful vineyard. The Giuratrabocchetti’s family’s passion for winemaking is evident in the exceptional quality of their projects. They believe that their unique blends come from three natural factors. The fertile and rich volcanic soil, the deep tufo rock layers that act as water reservoirs during the drier periods of the year and the unique micro-climate.
Be that as it may, after visiting the ancient wine cellars we would feast at a typical and wonderful Basilicata style meal here. A glorious Italian afternoon.
Cathedral of Acerenza
Again I was treated to a blast from the Roman past. This landmark has been around since roman times, erected on what remained of an ancient temple of the roman dedicated to Ercole Acheruntino. The current cathedral was built somewhere around the 11th century and the site is a wonderful place to visit. The Gothic architecture is really impressive and climbing up the four floors of the bell tower offers a great view. The most interesting detail of this place is the crypt, which contains a square space with four central columns. In front of the entrance there is a small altar surmounted by a niche that contains a tomb and the walls are covered with frescoes.
Although Basilicata is not very well known or travelled, it sure has a big heart and much to offer. It just might be the next big Italian destination to be discovered. Get there before the crowds and a wonderful laid-back and down to earth experience will be yours.
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