Things are what they used to be

Just south of Amalfi's well-trodden shores is the sensational coast of Basilicata. Yet, only the true Italy aficionados know about it. Juliet Clough finds out what we've all been missing

It was a first for me: the sight, in modern Italy, of a woman carrying a bucket of potatoes on her head. Promised bats in a grotto, I had crossed from Basilicata into Campania, to Morigerati in the southern corner of Cilento National Park. The drive from my base at Maratea's little port of Fiumicello had linked two different landscapes: Mediterranean brochure meets Grimm fairy tale. This part of the Lucanian Apennines, 200km south of Naples, reminded me of Slovenia with its oak and chestnut forests, its glimpses of towns such as Rivello, coiled like snail-shells on prongs of naked rock.

It was a first for me: the sight, in modern Italy, of a woman carrying a bucket of potatoes on her head. Promised bats in a grotto, I had crossed from Basilicata into Campania, to Morigerati in the southern corner of Cilento National Park. The drive from my base at Maratea's little port of Fiumicello had linked two different landscapes: Mediterranean brochure meets Grimm fairy tale. This part of the Lucanian Apennines, 200km south of Naples, reminded me of Slovenia with its oak and chestnut forests, its glimpses of towns such as Rivello, coiled like snail-shells on prongs of naked rock.

Morigerati represents the kind of Italy that tourism has tended to ignore, along with whole swaths of the mountain country south of the Amalfi coast. It is a place where wood lies stacked under the arches of every cellar; where farmers daily scale an 800m ravine to tend a few stony terraces; where the three-stall market majors on serious items - carpet-beaters, tin pasta-strainers and little boys' school smocks, their collars embroidered with ducklings.

My guide Demetria and I descended an old donkey track leading to the Bussento gorge, its banks green with ilex, ash and stunted olives. At its foot, the river thundered out from under the twisted limestone roots of Mount Cervati. "A living grotto," said Demetria as slow drips fell on our heads and the bats did whatever bats in a forest of stalactites do best. Trying to banish claustrophobia, as we felt our way along the 70m tunnel, listening to the faint, subterranean thunder of the river, I summoned the remains of a distant classical education. How suitable to have as escort into the bowels of the earth a woman named after the goddess who sought her lost daughter in the Underworld.

The Bussento gorge is part of an oasis within Cilento National Park. Two small and tumultuous rivers meet in this fragile green cleft, their spray nurturing the rare mosses which festoon the branches stretched across the water. We did not see any otters but, upstream, came on a ruined 18th-century mill, an escapee from a fairy story, its red-tiled roof smothered in ivy, its stonework prised apart by wild figs and maidenhair fern, each frond sparkling with sunlit waterdrops.

An elderly farmer passed us, hoe slung over his shoulder. The mill, abandoned only in the 1960s, is being restored, Demetria told me, partly to preserve the memory of traditional farming. "But in a part of the world where no one needs to buy a chicken or a ham or thinks anything of carrying a bucket on their heads, it's no big deal."

Poverty may explain the fact that great architecture is comparatively thin on the ground in Basilicata. It is less than 50 years since the poorest inhabitants of Matera, on the region's eastern boundary, were offered new housing in exchange for their sassi, tiers of cave dwellings dug in the face of the ravine. Rivello, like Maratea, is a mountain town with a poignantly tumbledown medieval core; both repay a visit. But the big sightseeing stuff - Paestum, Velia, the Certosa di Padula - lies beyond the region's boundaries and involve considerable drives.

Nevertheless, Maratea, on its quietly sensational stretch of Basilicata's narrow Tyrrhenian coastline, has for the past 50 years attracted a small share of the kind of British visitors who keep their antennae for such places well primed. Today these tend to be seasoned Italy hands looking for a country holiday, an armchair from which to watch in deepest comfort the rural southern Italian world go by. Now, the area round Maratea, its potential spotted by a Turin-based group, is undergoing serious gentrification.

No high-rise hotels or other concrete will be allowed to sully the strictly protected area of Mondo Maratea. The creation of a handful of exclusive shops, boutiques and bars, and the sprucing up of three hotels, so far costing an estimated €60m (£43m), have set the tone so far. The boss's cashmere sweater, designed by himself - as is much of the sumptuously simple knitwear displayed in one of the project's boutiques - says all that is necessary about the tone being set. Overtures from the purveyors of fancy labels have already been spurned: "Anyone can sell Prada and Fendi."

The 50-year-old Santavenere Hotel, relaxed and informal for all its five-star chic, flags up the same message: drop-dead gorgeous simplicity. A team of nationally renowned chefs and sommeliers may have designed the chicken with spiced honey on my plate, but it was still cock-crow that woke me in the mornings.

Country produce of excellent quality, often given a playful urban twist, appeared at every meal: mozzarella a million miles from the squeaky plastic numbers found in British supermarkets, honey scented with truffles, prawns teamed with a pineapple mille feuilles. In founding a Scuola del Gusto in Maratea, an occasional "school of taste" introducing top cronies to a gastronomic tradition of true quality, the project's head chef, Federico Valicenti, has to be doing all of us a favour.

In Maratea, I climbed a maze of twisting lanes, the kind undecided as to whether they were streets or stairways, to a former nunnery. Now a delightful small hotel, La Locanda delle Donne Monache affects conventual airs with artfully distressed paintwork, then undermines them with saucy prints and a worldly wine list.

At the end of an old cliff path, rambling between stunted olives and carob trees below the town, my guide parted the brambles to reveal a cave containing the stone bed and crudely scored crucifix of a seventh-century hermit, still revered in Maratea. His broken arch had the same five-star view as my hotel: precipitous rock and greenery tumbling to meet the peacock-coloured Gulf of Policastro. "Undeveloped" perhaps, but for Basilicata's visitors, at least for now, that's the whole point. Maratea has always known where to site its des res.

The Facts

Getting there

Juliet Clough travelled to Basilicata as a guest of Mondo Maratea ( www.mondomaratea.it).

Citalia (020-8686 5533; www.citalia.co.uk) offers seven nights at La Locanda delle Donne Monache in Maratea from £985 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights from Gatwick to Naples, car hire and half-board accommodation. Transfers from Naples to Maratea by car cost about £80 and can be arranged through the hotel direct or with the tour operator.

Inntravel (01653 629004; www.inntravel.co.uk) features a nine-night walking itinerary in Basilicata, including four nights at the Locanda delle Donne Marche, costing £1,061 per person in June, based on two sharing, including return flights from Gatwick to Naples, transfers and half-board accommodation.

Being there

Double rooms with breakfast at La Locanda delle Donne Monache (00 39 0973 877 487; www.monomaratea.it) start at €105 (£75) per person, based on two sharing. Doubles with breakfast at the Santavenere Hotel (00 39 0973 876 910) cost from €370 (£264) per night, based on two sharing.

Further information

Italian State Tourist Board (020-7408 1254; www.enit.it).

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