Conal Gregory visits Matera ahead of its bid to become European capital of culture.
Basilicata in southern Italy is arguably the country’s least known region. Called Lucania for generations, forming the instep to the heel of Puglia, it enjoys a rich heritage of Greek and Roman settlements with an intriguing cave habitation.
Matera is its cultural capital. Walking through the narrow streets of its historic heart, music wafts through the air as the visitor is enticed into art exhibitions and a myriad of fine churches. It is no surprise that UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site.
The Sassi district is the original settlement with Palaeolithic remains discovered nearby. Later inhabitants found the soft limestone rock ideal for cave excavation, a good defence to hide against invading Byzantines, Longobards, Normans, Arabs, Slavs and Aragonese, all of whom have left their mark.
Above the city’s two ravines, families settled in grottoes which became so unhygienic that they were finally evicted in 1956. Such conditions have been recreated today in a couple of caves, which can be visited, depicting life with loom, bed and even livestock. A few have been converted into restaurants, wine bars and even an hotel (Sasso Caveoso).
Yet the most wonderful surprise is to discover the beautiful rock-hewn churches, decorated with Byzantine frescoes. Do not miss either San Giovanni in Monterrone, whose paintings depict St James and St Peter, or San Nicola dei Greci. By the 15th and 16th-centuries, noble houses and monuments were built to enrich the town and more in the ensuing era constructed over the water cisterns, which can be visited.
It is not surprising that the city has been chosen for setting many films including King David with Bruce Beresford.Driving is almost impossible in the Sassi. After flying into Bari on the Adriatic coast, either take the airport coach or, if hiring a car, leave it at one of the car parks outside the centre.
The hilltop Romanesque cathedral, built 1230-70, is currently under renovation but can be visited. Its 150ft high bell tower can be seen for miles around. It is easy to miss a stunning nativity carving sculptured from rock in 1535 which can be seen in a side chapel.
Possibly the finest rock church lies five miles south-east of Matera, the so-called crypt of Original Sin. Discovered as recently as 1963, the 9th-century paintings still have a vibrancy of colour. A light and sound presentation in English is offered. To view, it is essential to pre-book and then be escorted from a garage forecourt through vineyards to a site set high above a ravine.
Chefs pride themselves on using local produce, usually organic, and have developed cuisine from the many invaders. The specialities include cornet-shaped bread, ‘caponata’ (fried aubergine, peppers, potatoes stewed in tomatoes), ‘Mischiglio’ fresh pasta and sweet ‘Taralli’ biscuits.
To enjoy such fare, head for San Biagio (Via San Biagio 12) with a lovely terrace overlooking the caves and chef trained with Rocco Forte. For style and service, Don Matteo (Via S Potito 4), close to the cathedral, is a close rival.
Arguably one of Italy’s star red wines is made away to the region’s north-west: Aglianco from the vine of the same name, the last grape to be picked in the country, grown on the slopes of the extinct Vulture volcano. It is made in Barile, Rionero in Vulture and Venosa.
The latter town has the impressive abbey of La Trinita, incorporating an early church, and a late 15th-century castle. Taverna Ducale, a posthouse in the Middle Ages, today features local cuisine, notably fish and mushrooms.
The top Aglianico producers are Cantine del Vulture, Eubea, Grifalco and Armando Martino. If visiting the wine district, take in the 13th-century castle of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, which dominates the town of Melfi. It is remarkably well looked after and houses a rich archaeological collection.
The Dolomite mountain range offers breathtaking peaks and forested valleys, notably the hilltop towns of Irsina, Rivello and Montescaglioso. Basilicata is home to the country’s largest national park, Pollino, offering riding, walking and even white water rafting.
There is a novel way to see the landscape. Unique in Italy, take an exhilarating flight suspended 880m above the ground. A steel cable has been erected between two of the region’s prettiest Medieval villages: Castelmezzano and Pietrapertosa. The 1,550m – known as ‘The Flight of the Angel’ - are travelled at 120km/hr.
Basilicata nestles between two coasts: on the Ionian sea to the east, there are resorts close to Metaponto with miles of white sandy beaches and, to the south-west, the Tyrrhenian sea offers coves around Maratea, as dramatic as Amalfi but far less known.