“Basilicata has always been poor – even the mafia didn’t bother us,” my guide, Nicola, smiled. It’s a Iine I heard a lot in this improbable region. Paradoxically, it has enough oil to make a Texan envious – yet for decades it was known only as ‘Italy’s shame’.
In recent years, Matera claimed a European Capital of Culture title, famous for its once-abandoned caves, and the many other reasons it's become a must-see destination while in Basilicata, or even on a longer tour of Italy.
Why were Matera's famous caves abandoned?
In the 1940s, the writer Carlo Levi, exiled to southern Italy by the fascists, wrote of a city of caves called Matera. He told of its ‘tragic beauty’, and of its people who lived in ‘dark holes’ known as sassi, hand dug from the rock since prehistory.
Levi’s words later caused a stink in post-war Italy, and in the 1950s Matera’s sassi were cleared and its residents relocated. After lying derelict for decades, it was only in the 1990s – after a park was created to protect the 150 rock-cut churches pocking its hills, and once UNESCO had earmarked the city for World Heritage status – that redemption began in earnest. Caves became hotels, homes and restaurants, and shame gradually turned to pride.
Today, about 1,500 people live in the cave districts, though some 30% of the sassi still remain empty, Nicola revealed as we tramped the cobbles of the Sasso Barisano (cave district). When he was in his teens, he and his friends hung out in these caves; one we visited is now a theatre built into the rock.
After Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ was shot here in 2004, Italy woke up to Matera: locals throng its piazzas, and it was named European Capital of Culture for 2019. Yet beyond the sassi, the region’s wonders remain little known.
Basilicata is a wild land of lonely ghost towns, wineries in ancient volcanoes and colourful history – Greek ruins and Albanian villages built by 15th-century refugees stud hills and valleys.
Two days later, high in Pollino National Park, I saw its wild side for myself. My guide pointed at a solitary giant Bosnian pine, ancient and rare, surrounded by the skeletal remains of dead trees – one last tragic beauty in a region of slow wonders.