Exploring the beautiful region of Basilicata, southern Italy
Basilicata, a beautiful region in southern Italy, is one of the lesser known parts of the country but, as I discovered recently, certainly somewhere worth exploring. The stunning hilltop towns and villages rise above verdant green valleys. This region is very mountainous with the Dolomiti Lucane mountain range, craggy peaks of rock jutting into the sky, taking their name from the Dolomites in the north of Italy. Situated in the south of Italy, Basilicata has two stretches of coastline, the Ionian Sea to the east near Metaponta and the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west near Maratea. Not only is the region full of picturesque places to visit, but it is also relatively quiet compared to the big cities frequented by large numbers of international tourists.
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Matera – a UNESCO World Heritage City in Basilicata.
Matera, just over an hour’s drive from Bari airport, was the first town we visited. Matera, is one of the two European Capital of culture cities in 2019, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with a programme of cultural events running throughout 2019. Matera is in a dramatic setting with the old sections of the city being a maze of higgledy-piggledy buildings with numerous narrow passages and winding streets. Luckily we had a guide as it would have been very easy to get lost.
The heart of the city is built on a ravine with two Sassi, derived from the word saxum meaning a cliff made of stone, rising up from the rock face, traditionally the homes were in caves which have been renovated in recent times to create homes, hotels and other facilities. Built of sandstone the buildings have a striking mellow golden glow in the sunshine. Even the churches or Rupestri, meaning cave churches, are built into the rock. Many of these are currently closed as they are being restored to their former state.
We stayed overnight in the Sassi hotel, with amazing views of the cathedral rising up into the sky on the top of the ridge opposite. Many of the rooms at this hotel, the rooms are on different levels, with connecting staircases and steps, are built into the rock and resemble caves.
I stayed in room 101, a cave room on the lowest level, it was modestly furnished with an upper level containing a sofa and chair and I felt very comfortable and secure.
Luxury at Palazzo Margherita, Barnaldo.
As an alternative, a unique luxury hotel to stay in would be Palazzo Margherita in Barnaldo, 40 minutes’ drive from Matera. This beautiful boutique hotel, built by the Margherita family in 1892, is not far from the Ionian sea with the town being where Agostino Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola’s grandfather was born. It was bought by Francis Ford Coppola in 2004 and renovated to make a stunning, stylish, hideaway. All the rooms or suites have their own distinct character with luxury furnishings.
The garden and pool area have also been updated with great attention to detail. The atmosphere is relaxed rather than formal with guests having the option to chose various locations in the hotel or grounds for breakfast or dinner.
The lounge has an integral screen for showing the library of over one hundred films handpicked by Francis Ford Coppola. The level of service at Palazzo Margherita is excellent without being too attentive.
We were fortunate to participate in a pasta cooking class, available for guests staying at the hotel, it was great fun. I was amazed at how easy it is to make pasta dough, just flour, water and a good kneading with your hands. Our cookery host made shaping the pasta look very easy…sadly our results were not as impressive!
Having made the pasta the chef cooked it in a simple but tasty Italian sauce. We lunched on the pasta in the beautiful outside courtyard. To accompany the pasta, freshly baked bread and deliciously crispy, battered sage leaves straight from the vegetable garden. To follow gratinated artichoke hearts with buffalo mozzarella a hearty dish. For dessert a milk ice cream with sweet, local, strawberries, beautifully presented and a perfect end to our lunch. Our meal was accompanied by Angelina wine, a white wine made in Basilicata. I would love to stay at Palazzo Margherita if I travel to Basilicata again in the future.
Rural Charm in Castelmezzano, Basilicata.
Our next stop was Castelmezzano, a charming, small, village built into the cliff face. The streets are so narrow that a car can’t access the heart of the village. We climbed the steep steps up to a vantage point with stunning views over Castelmezzano and the surrounding countryside.
There are no hotels in Castelmezzano but accommodation called “diffusa”, similar to the B&Bs we find in the UK. My accommodation was at the very top of the village, up a steep flight of steps: a small light apartment, complete with a bedroom,/lounge, a bathroom and a kitchenette. The alcove for the bed receded into the rock, which made it very unique. The view over the valley below was amazing.
From Castelmezzano you can take the Flight of the Angel, a zip wire running across the valley, taking 90 seconds, which has proved to be an immensely popular visitor attraction.
An ancient fortification at Pietrapertosa.
The next day we headed on to Pietrapertosa another hilltop town built into the side of a rock face. The bells were ringing out as a wedding was taking place. This town is hidden from view, by the rock, a defensive strategy to avoid being spotted from the valley. We climbed up a path to see the remains of Pietrapertosa castle, on the top of the rocky crag, the oldest parts of this fortification date back to the 12thCentury.
The panoramic view from the castle is stunningly beautiful, with little hilltop settlements atop the surrounding hills, and Castelmezzano visible down below. You can also visit a beautiful church, which used to be the convent of Saint Francis, the inside walls are covered with colourful frescos.
A picturesque coastal stay at Maratea, Basilicata.
Our visit ended in Maratea on the Tyrrhenian Sea. The current old town is a maze of extremely narrow streets, with houses jutting straight up from the rock. This is another place where you could easily lose your way.
On the headland above, where the town was originally based, and a cross was located, is a striking twenty-two metre high statue of Christ the Redeemer. This was commissioned by the wealthy industrialist Count Stefano Rivetti, who gained his inspiration from the statue in Rio de Janeiro. The structure, made from marble and concrete, was built off-site and erected in situ by the Florentine sculptor Bruno Innocenzi in 1965, at the top of Monte San Biagio. The outstretched arms face inland welcoming the town inhabitants.
This is a destination in Southern Italy that I would definitely recommend. The countryside of Basilicata is stunningly beautiful with the hilltop settlements giving a unique character to this part of Italy and, as one of the less well-known parts of the country, there’s a timeless charm to the place.
Bari airport is probably the best starting point, to discover Basilicata and is easily accessible from all the main London airports. We flew into Bari from London Gatwick and were quickly through customs and on our way. An alternative would be to fly into Naples airport, this would be a better option if Maratea is your starting point, Naples airport being around two and a half hours from the town by car.
I was a guest of the Italian Tourist Board on a group press visit to Basilicata. As this is a mountainous region the towns and villages are not always suitable for those with mobility issues. For details on Basilicata in South Italy visit Basilicata Italy.
For more information on the Hotel Sassi in Matera visit Hotel Sassi Address: Sassi Hotel – Matera, Via San Giovanni Vecchio, 89, 75100 Matera MT. Tel: + 39 0835 331009. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org. It is not possible to access the hotel by vehicle, as the streets are narrow with steps, you have to walk to the hotel from the nearest square.
For more information on Palazzo Margherita Palazzo Margherita, Corso Umberto I, 64, 75012 Bernalda MT, Italy. Tel: +39 0835 549060.
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Do you like the idea of exploring ‘off the beaten track Italy’? We’ve explored a number of other places that you might consider exploring. If you are interested in the Marche region, we can recommend the charming boutique Hotel Leone in Montelparo. There’s plenty to do in the region, from wine tasting to hiking in the mountains and the team at Hotel Leone will help to guide you. We also recommend neighbouring Abruzzo, where you can stay in the charming Albergo Diffuso Sextantio in the Village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio.. Or how about truffle hunting and the famous white truffle fair in Alba? You’ll find more about our favourite Italian destinations on London-Unattached.