The road to Italy's best-kept secret is littered with saints and sinners

Adrian Hamilton finds an old Byzantine outpost that takes modern life slowly
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

If you have never heard of Basilicata, don't be abashed. Most of the inhabitants of this province in the far south of Italy don't often use the name either. The province was re-christened in modern times in a grand gesture to recall the time when this part of Italy was an outpost of the Byzantine Empire run by a governor, or "basileus". The name never caught on, but no one has ever bothered to change it.

If you have never heard of Basilicata, don't be abashed. Most of the inhabitants of this province in the far south of Italy don't often use the name either. The province was re-christened in modern times in a grand gesture to recall the time when this part of Italy was an outpost of the Byzantine Empire run by a governor, or "basileus". The name never caught on, but no one has ever bothered to change it.

Which is a pity because the name by which it used to be known - Lucania, after the tribe that dominated the southernmost part of the Apennines - was both more accurate and more resonant.

Stretching like the strap on a high-heeled sandal between the Ionian sea to the south and the Tyrrhenian sea to the north-west, Basilicata is the least known and arguably the most attractive part of the south of Italy, a land of wild landscape, limited development and isolation.

The isolation, of course, has been its drawback. Protected by a ring of mountains, its reputation was a long-held one of poverty, wildness and brigandage. Its main claim to cultural fame is the fact that the Marxist writer and painter Carlo Levi was exiled to this region by Mussolini and wrote his greatest book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, detailing in grim detail the barrenness of the landscape, the poverty of the peasantry and the malevolence of officialdom before the war. Even today, the guidebooks give it only the most glancing, and largely dismissive, mention.

Yesterday's isolation, however, is today's unspoilt landscape. In the eternal struggle to find an undeveloped part of the Mediterranean, Basilicata can claim its place. On the southern, flatter part, admittedly, the development is as bad as everywhere else, a ribbon of high-rise hotels, sandy beaches and some Greek remains. But the Tyrrhenian stretch at the north-west, a 20km coastal strip, is much as the old French Corniche must once have been. A single road winds its way along the hills that plunge straight to the sea, slipping down into a series of little bays of black sand and pebble and some of the clearest, cleanest water anywhere in the Med. There are no grand hotels, but then there are no factories, billboards or speed boats either, just a fubsy garbage muncher that trundles up and down, picking up any litter from the water around the beaches. Small hotels and restaurants dot a coast that is quiet, uncluttered and untrendy.

For the passeggiata you ascend half-way up the hills to the town of Maratea, where a converted convent, La Locanda delle Donne Monache, supplies the choicest place to stay - minimalist rooms in the old cells, highly designed lounges and a restaurant serving contemporary Italian food alongside the swimming pool. The town itself remains rather 19th-century and even Alsatian in feel, half-timbered houses and shops selling liqueurs made from the fruits of the forests that cover the surrounding hills.

If it's excitement you want you can drive up to the 20-metre statue of Christ that dominates the skyline and can be reached only by a series of looped bends of a road suspended out of the side of the rock face, leaving you in fear of your life or at least loss of your stomach.

Go over the mountains and you are in Lucania proper, a wild land of national park, deep valleys and some quite spectacular scenery. Levi gave it a bad name, and the part where he was confined is indeed a bleak landscape of white clay and scrubland. But it is also where the province's most exciting cultural city - a world heritage site - exists at Matera, the old capital of the region.

A fine city with cathedral squares, shopping streets and a dozen Gothic churches, Matera sits over a complex of ravines, honeycombs with cave dwellings and chapels chipped out of the tufa. These stone dwellings, the Sassi, date back 1,000 years or more and, in the manner of urban development, became quite grand in parts as the rich put on porticos and doubled the size of their stables and living rooms while the poor were confined to a single deep room, with a kitchen in the front and a stable for the mule in the back.

When Levi's sister, herself a doctor, came to visit him in the 1930s, the Sassi were rife with disease, deep in the stench of sewage - a terrible shock to her northern sensibilities. Now the caves are being restored as bijou residences, art galleries and a historic site. Thus does time wreak its own perverse confusions. This lunar urban landscape has provided the backdrop to no fewer than three films of Christ's life.

Across the ravine from Matera lies a series of chapels built by Byzantine monks fleeing from the iconoclast persecutions of Constantinople. The city itself is charming, a proper provincial capital with grand public libraries and markets, gloomy "Purgatorio" churches of death and skulls, gentle Dominican and Franciscan churches and several museums, as well as good old-fashioned southern restaurants where the menu is on the blackboard and the wine comes straight from the barrel.

Go out of Matera, to the north-west, and the landscape changes completely: deep green, almost alpine as you get close to the volcanic Mount Vulture, where some of the best wines of southern Italy come from. Here the Emperor Frederick II, the "Stupor Mundi", hunted, and pursued his scientific inquiries in between endless campaigns against the Pope's armies.

His castles are proper expressions of military might on the outside, royal residences on the inside. Lagopesole stands with the geometric purity which the great emperor made still more famous at Castel del Monte in neighbouring Apulia. Melfi harks back to the Norman style of square castles, now with a good archaeological museum containing a Roman sarcophagus from Ionia of a fleshly grandeur that even Canova would have blanched at.

The most difficult, and the most wondrous, part of Basilicata lies in its heart in the National Park of Pollino. Here, cut off from the world, and protected from the constant deprivations of pirates, Europe's early refugees took shelter: Byzantines from what is now Turkey, Balkan Christians fleeing the Ottomans. Their villages still hug the peaks of the hills, as yet unspoilt by modern development: the villas and the hoarding which have destroyed so many valleys of Italy further north.

In the case of the Albanians, who came here in the 16th century, they still keep their culture and their language. The older inhabitants of San Constantino Albanese, still wear the traditional dress and aprons of the homeland they left four centuries before and, until recently, forbade marriage outside their group or even village. It can't be kept up, of course. The art of weaving broom is already dying; so is the language and costumes. But for a brief time yet it will hold, just as the landscape will retain its wild beauty so long as the roads are poor and few.

And it has one good hotel, right at the end of a cul-de-sac at Terranova di Pollino. The Picchio Nero (the "Black Woodpecker") has mother's cooking and one of the most charming hosts, Pino Golia, in Italy to tell you how to reach the unique Lucania firs high up on the hills, from whose hard bark the Romans made their breast plates, or to gather mushrooms in season or to see the wild flowers and birds of prey.

Walking through the small village we heard the sound of Russian voices as a small crowd of teenagers swept by. "I see you're getting tourists from Eastern Europe, now," I said. "Oh those," he answered. "They're from Chernobyl. We have such good air here that, after the accident, we arranged to take a group of children every summer to clear the lungs. They stay with the villagers."

Not for the first time, I felt humbled by that absolute Italian consciousness of community.

Comments