The region of Basilicata has but two provinces – Matera and Potenza. Basilicata is sometimes called by its historic name Lucania and is a fascinating and varied region with dramatic scenery and a unique culture and history. The region covers the area above the instep of Italy’s boot, with two coastal stretches on the Ionian Sea in the south and the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west.
Although not yet a major tourist destination, Basilicata is one of Italy’s marvelous areas that is off-the-beaten-track and contains places that should be included on everyone’s list to visit. In particular is Matera, located in the province of the same name and Maratea, located in the province of Potenza. These two towns are among Italy’s best destinations, being both fascinating and picturesque.
Matera is one of the most interesting, unusual and memorable tourist destinations in Italy. It is still little-visited by foreign travelers, but the town is famous for its extensive cave-dwelling districts – the sassi. The caves of Matera had been inhabited for centuries; some humble and some more elaborate, but following WWII, new buildings were constructed on the plateau above the caves. The residents were moved to the modern spaces, but the historical elements of the cave dwellings continued to fascinate every visitor to the region. For the past generation, Matera has become revered for its historical significance and in 1993, the town was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been selected as the organizations European Capital of Culture for 2019. A few wealthier residents have since moved back and renovated the old cave houses. Numerous dwellings now operate as B&Bs and restaurants. You can take guided tours of the sassi and visit historic reconstructions of cave life. Matera was the one of the filming locations for Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, with shots showing the sassi and the gorge below.
The best way to appreciate your visit to Matera is to take a guided tour, visiting a cave-life reconstruction, as well as a visit to one of the fascinating local museums. It can be hard to get one’s bearings in Matera. The town center, the oldest part of town, was built on the edge of a plateau where a rocky mount looms over a valley that descends to the long deep river-ravine. As time passed, the rocky valley slopes below the town were dug out to create caves, used for housing, storage and stabling. These cave areas run along the side of the gorge itself. The cave districts are called the Sasso Barisano and the Sasso Caveoso. Small lanes, alleys and stairways wind through the districts. These parts of Matera are timeless, quiet and remarkably picturesque.
In Matera and throughout this part of southern Italy, there are many churches cut into the rock of hillsides and ravines. These rock, or rupestrian churches, chiese rupestri, were mostly created by Basilian monks during the 8th and 9th centuries. Two of the churches, Madonna dell’Idris and San Giovanni in Monterrone, are connected by a tunnel and are well worthy of a visit. As well as their cave-like atmosphere, each contain numerous Byzantine-style wall paintings.
In the southeastern area of Matera lie many beautiful towns containing relics from centuries past, such as Montescaglioso, with its wonderful Abbey of San Michele Arcangelo; the village of Miglionico, with its Castle of Malconsiglioan and Bernalda and its 15th century castle.
Moving further south is the Calanchi (Badlands) area, a remarkable landscape of white clay hills which look as though they have been scratched by giant fingers. Throughout this desert-like territory are canyons carved by rain and cones that emerge from the ground out of nowhere. In this area, the uninhabited village of Craco is quite intriguing and continuing through the area you will find the village of Tursi with its Rabatana district, ruins of a castle and the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore of Rabatana.
The coast fronting the Ionic Sea is also rich in archaeological ruins. In particular, Metaponto deserves a visit, with ruins that include temples dedicated to the goddesses Hera and Aphrodite and the god Apollo. The National Archaeological Museum of Metaponto boasts a treasure trove of many more archaeological finds.
Moving west into the Province of Potenza, the capital city has been rebuilt numerous times following earthquakes, but the city still bears many traces from ancient times. The Romanesque Church of San Michele Arcangelo, constructed in the 12th century, is home to many important works of art, while the Roman Villa of Malvaccaro is known for its beautiful mosaics. The National Archaeological Museum and the Provincial Archaeological Museum boast numerous finds that help to define the city’s history.
For those who are interested in experiencing the history of the province, you will find quite close to Potenza are the ancient villages of Tolve and Vaglio Basilicata. To the south of Potenza, you will also enjoy a visit to the medieval Borgo of Brienza, Picerno and Vietri di Potenza.
Within the province, Maratea is the star attraction. The village is set high above the sea on Italy’s southern Tyrrhenian coast. Its wonderful climate and beautiful scenery make it an ideal destination for a relaxing and refined stay. The picturesque village has numerous excellent places to stay and the town’s small size, steep slopes and distance above the sea have made it an ideal vacation spot for Italy aficionados – those who are in tune with the richness, but slower pace that defines the essence of Italian life.
Part of the allure of Maratea is in exploring its quaint little lanes and then sitting at an outdoor cafe in the charming main square and watching the world go by. Piazza Buraglia is like a quieter version of Capri’s famous piazzetta; an elegant village square dotted with cafe tables. A narrow street connects it with Piazza Vitolo. Between the two squares are a variety of shops and a statue of the town’s patron saint, San Biagio on top of a column. Piazza Vitolo is almost as appealing as Piazza Buraglia. One side of the square is dominated by the stately town hall and in the center is an elegant fountain. Restaurants look out onto the square. From upstairs terraces you can enjoy the evening scene while dining. The town is attractive both by day and by night and is a fine spot for photographers and lovers of the little details of Italian life, from centuries old grand archways, to religious icons tucked into niches and grottoes.
Maratea’s old village or borgo, is in the hills far above the sea, providing extraordinary views over the Gulf of Policastro below and the cloud-shrouded ridges above. Dominating the view is Christ the Redeemer, Il Redentore, a huge white statue of Christ opening his arms in benediction.
Down by the sea, Maratea Porto is the most luxurious of the numerous beach resort towns. Each town has a far different atmosphere than that of Maratea, but all have plenty of restaurants and seaside cafés near the beach providing a different kind of experience altogether. Other seaside places to stay are nearby Fiumicello and Marina di Maratea, while a few miles to the north is Acquafredda. Regardless of where one stays in the region, make sure to include the sassi on your itinerary and your trip to the Basilicata will be truly unforgettable.