Travel /

Silence and Spirits of Eastern Basilicata

Reaching Neverland

“[…] time in Basilicata does not run, people live slowly, and there is no need for the type of discos you can find along the Apulian coast. People in Basilicata breath deeply.”

Traveling to Basilicata in summer is like reaching your own end of the world. Matera-born novelist Mariolina Venezia wrote that “Basilicata is moody. Not lunar, moody. In winter, it is all congealed and melancholy, and you are barely catching your breath before you find it yellow and burnt like hell, gloomy from too much light and the scorching sun.” The ideal explorer of this region–squeezed between Puglia, Campania and Calabria and unknown to the rest of Italy despite being in the beating heart of the south–must be at least as moody as she is.

It took another writer, this one from Piedmont, to describe her loneliness in the title of her book/diary set in Basilicata: Christ Stopped at Eboli. Eboli, the last town in Campania, gateway to a world where everything seems undefined, trains vanish and time drips like rivulets of water in the rock churches of Matera. For this, backpackers find it magnificent. If one leaves Matera and drives toward the Metapontine plain and the Ionian Sea, the landscape ahead is an open-air nature set. Wandering the provincial roads that climb the villages, isolated in the hills since the time of Frederick II and even before the Greek settlers, is the perfect way to get lost and find yourself on the same beat with wind and nature. 

The August heat gives no respite, but it is the best time to savor an unusual Italian summer. Just a few dozen kilometers away, Puglian Bari and Salento teem with tourists. On an ordinary map, Basilicata simply does not exist. As the Italian journalist Simonetta Sciandivasci cleverly pointed out in a longform for the Italian newspaper Repubblica, despite the success of the movies 007 or The Passion, Basilicata still remains the perfect place for an apocalypse (the death of Christ or the impressive explosions in 007’s No Time to Die). This is because time in Basilicata does not run, people live slowly, and there is no need for the type of discos you can find along the Apulian coast. People in Basilicata breath deeply.

The area of Matera, on the other hand, breathes in and breathes out life depending on the weather. In the 1963 film I Basilischi (The Lizards), director Lina Wertmüller recounts an afternoon in a small Lucanian village (Lucania is the other name for Basilicata, recalling the region of the Roman Empire) in the early 1960s–the time of Morpheus, the pagan goddess of sleep, who clears the streets and leaves dogs curled up along the shady roads. Lucani call this suspended time controra

Even today, the towns of the Matera area fall asleep in the afternoon to be revived at sunset, when the fresh air blowing in from the sea breathes life, raises the shutters of closed stores, and opens up the star-studded night. Precisely because it is sparsely populated, Basilicata is a region where at night you need only raise your head to the sky and see the Milky Way in sharp detail with its stars and comets–elsewhere a rare event thanks to light pollution. All it takes is a simple terrace, like the one that juts out in the old town of Pisticci, to admire the firmament and in the distance, the sea, illuminated by the moon as if it were a neon strip. 

The entire area of Matera, from the Murgia to the Ionian coast, is a quilt of hills topped by small villages. Some bear Greek names (Pisticci) and others medieval (Ferrandina). Under the reign of King Federico 2nd, Basilicata became dotted with castles from which local landlords dominated the countryside. There is no village that does not have its own castle. The one in Policoro is already visible from the provincial road, while others open up like stone buds between hairpin bends, as if emerging from the earth. This is clearly seen in Craco, a town abandoned because of a landslide in the 1960s and reduced to a ghost town. Today, this medieval Pompeii remains an empty fortress harpooned on the clay rock ridges; you can still see the dome of the church of San Nicola, made of tiles that look like scales, and the great tower where the battlements croak. Not coincidentally, director and actor Mel Gibson used it as a backdrop in The Passion, a Christian cult film of the 2000s. 

The province of Matera surprises the slow traveler, like the figs full of pulp bursting on the tree branches along the roads: you realize they were waiting for your hand to be picked after walking miles under the streaked shadows of pine trees and with the chirping of cicadas to conciliate the afternoon siesta. Unexpected is Tursi, a small town that preserves an Arab quarter: the Rabatána (from Arabic rabad = suburb), with its small disused castle and ancient buildings with half-open portals. In the 9th century, the small town was occupied by the Muslim Saracens. Today, bell towers look like minarets, and the narrow streets of the old city are a lace woven from the local stone. Reaching Pisticci is like celebrating a contemporary moon landing. The town is on the top of a clay hill surrounded by badlands, a dry terrain of sedimentary rock similar to that of the moon. On a full moon night in the badlands, visitors can experience what it’s like to be part of a sci-fi scene or a tale of witches: no artificial light, just the power of the essential, living nature.

In Pisticci town, the maze of streets that snake around a handful of white houses, the so-called Dirupo neighborhood, is the perfect metaphor for the labyrinth that is your life when, once lost, despondency passes and you begin to love where you are because you are alive. Only then do you happen to see an open door, blackest in the bright white of a wall, and an old woman who offers a glass of lemonade or a frisella (stale bread with oil and tomato) to the weary traveler. It happens to everyone in Basilicata. Because you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but also by places.