Yes, really, an undiscovered part of Italy

You thought every region worth visiting had been visited. Wrong. We reveal a largely undiscovered area, that Jews walked over 1,700 years ago


Breathtaking views of Maratea, ‘the mini-Amalfi style port’ on Basilicata’s  Tyrrenhean coast

Breathtaking views of Maratea, ‘the mini-Amalfi style port’ on Basilicata’s Tyrrenhean coast

When any slice of Italy remains undiscovered by the demonstrably Italiophile British tourist, you have to wonder why.  

And given the beauty and diversity of Basilicata, it can only be down to its history - which is strange and exotic. The Jews who first peddled their wares along the Appian Way in the third century CE are long gone (even from Naples, the nearest major city, which once had a substantial community), as are the stonemasons who worked the quarries before emigrating to build New York's skyscrapers. 

Later, Mussolini - who regarded this wedge of southern Italy as best suited to accommodating exiled anti-Fascist activists - changed the name of the state which had been known as Lucania. Thus the instep and arch of Italy's foot became a well-kept secret.

But now that Basilicata has invested substantial sums in promoting itself, the secret is out, and it would be good to visit a jewel of a city like Matera before the hordes descend - an event that can't be too far on the horizon given the press interest and growing word-of-mouth.  

Famous for its amazing urban cave dwellings which have been designated a World Heritage Site, the town was made more visible a few years ago by Mel Gibson, who filmed The Passion of the Christ on its doorstep. And no wonder - there's something timeless and biblical about the rocky outcrops beneath the city, and the misty horizon beyond.

Matera’s sassi or caves, now a Unesco World Heritage Site, and among the oldest dwellings in human history

Matera’s sassi or caves, now a Unesco World Heritage Site, and among the oldest dwellings in human history

The finest views of the sassi - as the caves are known - and the landscape beyond, are from the piazza in front of the 13th-century cathedral which, regrettably for fans of the Romanesque and Baroque, is currently closed for restoration.  

The sassi themselves - among the earliest human settlements in the world - are grottoes enlarged to become homes for humans and their animals. But despite their picturesque appearance, they deteriorated from the 17th-century prosperity which made Matera the regional capital, to appalling 20th-century slums, with no electricity or running water.  

The Italian-Jewish writer Carlo Levi recorded how the inhabitants begged here - not for money but for quinine to stave off death from malaria. They were lawless, too, demanding a toll from outsiders who wished to pass through.

In spite of the poverty, such was the closeness of the community that there were years of rioting when the sassi were forcibly evacuated in 1956. Ironically, few families had the heart to return after the caves were modernised, with the result that grants are now offered to tempt B&Bs and restaurants to open there in a bid to help revitalise this beautiful and atmospheric quarter. A fine place to enjoy the ambience is the Restaurant San Pietro Barisano, where we ate the best dinner (delicious hand-made pasta - made in front of us - with dried peppers, rocket and pecorino cheese, followed by sublime fish) in Basilicata, enhanced by the beautifully-lit, bare stones both inside the restaurant and outside. Picturesque by day, the sassi are simply exquisite by night.

There are also boutique hotels in the caves, but nothing could emulate the stylishness of the Palazzo Gattini, located opposite the cathedral and one of Italy's finest design hotels.

Don't leave this area without descending a few steps to the right of the hotel for a vista of the sassi caveoso, or wandering across the square and down to the left to visit the charming little piazzetta containing Matera's music school.  

An easy stroll through town leads to the Latteria Rizzi, a fabulous cheese boutique which offers tasting lunches with local wines in its back room.

Kuoni - one of the few tour operators actively promoting Basilicata - have packaged the Gattini, but it would be worth investing a little extra in the services of Nadia, an excellent English-speaking guide who really brings the sassi to life. 

While the package includes a hire car, independent travel would allow for a change of pace with an overnight stay in the mountains. 

Reaching the Foresteria di San Leo - the finest place to start a proper exploration of Basilicata -, is pretty straightforward: two hours down the motorway from Naples, then a few miles winding round the mountain to the hamlet of Trivigno.  

This agriturismo - a farm offering hospitality - is presided over by the fabulous Maria, who loves to share the history, culture and food of her region while her husband presides over their orchards, herds and dairy.   

Rooms are simple but comfortable - the green room with its canopied bed is particularly nice for families - and expect a feast both for dinner and breakfast, with delicious vegetarian options for those not interested in sampling the home bred lamb.  

Cooking lessons are available, and this is a good place to sample - or roll out - the region's almond-shaped pasta, enjoyed with a local sauce of tomatoes, crushed, dried red peppers and breadcrumbs which are used in place of cheese. (Parmesan from the north was unknown here till the 1970s, and frugal housewives still eschew it.)

Before leaving this area, it's worth visiting the pretty town of Venosa in the north of the region, where Jewish life flourished in the third to the seventh centuries.  The town has the largest Jewish catacombs in western Europe, which are usually - but not always - open to view. 

A surreal sight worth taking in on the edge of town is the unfinished Trinity church, a magnificent facade, including a bell-tower, with nothing but blue sky and an endless horizon behind.

Another mountain odyssey worth the pilgrimage is Pollino National Park.  Visitors come from far and wide to taste the food of Federico Valicenti, one of Italy's best-known chefs, who presides over the Luna Rossa at Terranova di Pollino. 

This rotund and hospitable chap serves fairly simple, hearty food (don't miss the porcini lightly sautéed with egg - just ask Federico to hold the bacon), and the views from the terrace of his pleasingly rustic restaurant are absolutely stunning.

Lest it be supposed Basilicata is all about Matera and the mountains, it actually has not one but two strips of coastline - the flat and less interesting Ionian in the arch of Italy's foot and the dramatic Tyrrhenian, hidden by mountains which plunge straight into the sea, on the instep.

The jewel in the crown of the latter is Maratea, a mini-Amalfi style ancient port with a pretty little village above, all narrow lanes, breathtaking clifftop views and a fountain-lined piazza. Here, Kuoni offer the excellent Locanda delle donne Monache, a mediaeval convent converted to a stylish art hotel. Perched high above the coast in the town's pretty, historic centre, there is no sense of it being a beach hotel, with its pool overlooking village rooftops. The main attraction here - other than the good food and playful art - is a trip up to the statue known as Christ the Redeemer which overlooks the town.

With its outstretched arms and altitude, the statue mimics the more famous one in Rio, and offers equally dizzying panoramic views of sea, mountains and the rooftops of the town hundreds of feet below.

A few miles down the coast at Acquafredda, Il Gabbiano is a more affordable, family-friendly hotel with a strip of private, grey-sand beach as well as a pool and a good fish restaurant overlooking the sea, where you can eat a piece of tuna, sea bass or swordfish you have personally picked for the grill. 

Whether from Maratea or Acquafredda, you should expect a slightly tortuous trip back over the mountains to rejoin the motorway to Naples - a journey best tackled in daylight.

Jewish Basilicata

Jewish life in Basilicata dates back to the third century, as evidenced by the Hebrew catacombs in Venosa, but  few returned after expulsion from the then Kingdom of Naples in the 16th century. One who did was the anti-fascist writer and painter Carlo Levi, banished from here in the 1930s, who worked as a doctor and wrote a memoir about his time in the region

Getting there

Kuoni (01306 747008, www.kuoni.co.uk) offers five nights at the Palazzo Gattini in Matera from £735 and five nights at the Locanda delle Donne Monache from £545, both are per person, based on two sharing, and include scheduled flights and Avis car hire.  Half-board at Forasteria di San Leo (0039 0971 981157), www.italialodging.coms) €66 (£55) per person. Independent travellers can reach Basilicata from Naples via easyJet (www.easyJet.com) from £45.99 one-way. To contact guide Nadia Garlatti: 0039 347 8548845 or nadiagarlatti@tiscali.it. More information on Basilicata at: www.discoverbasilicata.com/uk

    Last updated: 5:35pm, July 19 2010