Beamish In Basilicata
A resurgence of interest in this little-known region of southern Italy is underway, spearheaded by the sassy sassi of Matera.
Last year Matera silenced the critics by beating out better-heeled northern rivals like Siena and Ravenna to be chosen as European Capital of Culture for 2019. The run-up to 2019 is likely to generate a surge of travelers, which means that if you want to get ahead of the curve and off the beaten path, you should start planning your southern sojourn in Basilicata prestissimo.
An inhabited town since before recorded history, Matera’s residents have for millennia built cave-homes in the stone gorges overlooking the Gravina River below. There are two cave neighbourhoods, or sassi: Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso, set on either flank of the spur straddled by the 13th-Century Duomo cathedral. Recently declared a Unesco World Heritage Site, the maze-like sassi are being rapidly revived and rehabilitated, with B&Bs and trattorias sprouting like stalactites amongst the Byzantine frescoes and rock churches.
On my last visit I stayed at the stunning Sextantio Grotte della Civita, a unique hotel spread out amongst the sassi, with evocative candle-lit rooms cleverly designed to maintain the authentic original sassi feel — and a few well-chosen concessions to modernity (such as wifi and designer bathtubs). Sextantio is not the only hotel in town where you get to sleep in a cave; the L’Hotel in Pietra offers elegant modern accommodations in renovated sassi (but without the atmospheric minimalism of the Sextantio experience).
Beyond Matera, the surrounding countryside has plenty to offer — as long as you’re willing to self-drive, explore independently, and probably get a bit lost along the way. The landscape is striking and bizarre, a terrain of eroded geological features called calanchi, dotted with eerie abandoned villages and oddball agricultural settlements. Driving around this part of the world feels like you’ve stumbled onto the set of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western where the troglodyte bad guys have disappeared into a netherworld of calanchi and caves.
Between Matera and the Ionian coast lies the unassuming town of Bernalda, unremarked by the outside world until Francis Ford Coppola opened up a luxury hotel, Palazzo Margherita. It’s a gorgeous property, with spacious rooms and suites, a restaurant serving authentic Basilicata dishes, and a collection of movies personally selected by Mr Coppola (whose family hails from Bernalda) available for viewing in the cinema room. While the town is a bit limited in terms of what it has to offer, the hotel’s fantastically helpful and knowledgable staff can put together a range of unique local experiences in the surrounding areas.
For those wishing to incorporate Basilicata into a longer Italian itinerary, it works perfectly in conjunction with better-known adjacent Puglia on the heel of Italy, or else as a stepping stone between Puglia and the Amalfi Coast to the north.
If anyone could have survived the Middle Ages and enjoyed it, it’s Trufflepig’s own Italian troubadour Rudston Steward, who plans our Italy trips from a secret farmhouse location in Tuscany where he may or may not have electricity.