Basilicata is a truly under-appreciated region. Located in the arch of the boot, Basilicata is a region that has very clear roots back into pre-history. This is an easy statement for much of the country, as Italy can be referenced in almost all of the ancient texts, but Basilicata has a claim that not all can make: actual fossilized history! Past excavations in the region have turned up Cenozoic Age remains of saber-toothed tigers, Mesolithic Age cave art, and Chalcolithic Age (Copper Age) grottoes. While it’s actual name is attributed to the titled given by Hellenistic, or Greek, rulers that once dominated the area, the history of Basilicata is long and varied.
The Greeks lost the area to the Romans, who were swiftly conquering the boot, who in turn lost the land to the Germanic tribes, after the Empire fell. And again, as with most regional history of Italy, Basilicata traded hands between outside invaders (the Byzantines, the Saracens, and the Normans), and domestic powers (the Kingdoms of Naples, Two Sicilies (yes, two!), before finally joining the kingdom of Italy. This didn’t turn out to be such a great deal for the people of Basilicata. Large tracts of land were sold off to wealthy families who did not give back the population, leaving the average citizen dirt poor. And because Basilicata is the most mountainous region of Italy (with about half the land covered with peaks of varying size), the area is given to seismic activity and landslides, further wreaking havoc on the local population. It wasn’t until the end of World War II that things began to change for the people of Basilicata, and the region began to make marked improvements to its towns, roads, and general lifestyle of the native people.
What to See There
The best way to experience Basilicata is by driving around its mountainous lands. Beginning in the north with a visit to Potenza, the capital of the region, and its nearby small towns, will offer a glimpse of the growing present, with its contemporary museums and municipal buildings, and its historic past, with some of the most ancient sanctuaries of the region. Continue to the east, and the area of Melfi, for a literal taste of the past, at some of the oldest wineries in southern Italy. And for nature-lovers, Basilicata is a dream come true, with much of the land seemingly untouched. Hiking and biking are possible year round, spelunkers have a number of caves and underground grottoes to explore, bird-watchers will find Paradise in the Nature Reserve of Lake Potano, and any number of watersports are available along the miles and miles of coastline.
But the true jewel in Basilicata’s crown is Matera. The southern town is composed in two parts: half was constructed in the 1950s, with modern structures and homes, and the other is the ancient city, made up of cave-like dwellings, called Sassi. The sassi are houses dug into the actual rock of the land (tufa), and consist of one single area, with recesses and niches to mark the different “rooms” (ie, kitchen, bedroom, area for livestock). The sassi were inhabited until the 1950s when Italian government forcefully moved the residents to the new part of the city. You see, the sassi were considered the “shame of Italy” because of the level of poverty the folks were living in, in a such a modern era. It wasn’t until recent years that the sassi were recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as the rock-cut houses adapted perfectly to their terrain and ecosystem, including an intricate water filtration system! Today, you can not only visit a restored sasso, you can stay in one…or two. Matera is a must-see while traveling in Basilicata (and dare I say, any time you find yourself south of Naples).
What to Eat There
Basilicata’s mountainous landscape has sculpted its cuisine. Pig farming is a major part of the food culture, and with the animals grazing areas on steep slopes, the meat tends to be leaner, with a wilder flavor – perfect for grilling, and making the famous sausage produced in the region. Other crops like broccoli, onions, potatoes, and various legumes are staples in a cuisine that is known for its creativity, especially with simple products. If you embrace carbs (as good Italian-American girls do), you’ll find the selection of pastas made in Basilicata impressive (ie. orecchiette, minuich, firricieddi, tagliatelle, etc.) and the simple sauces delicious. But, if we’re being honest, the cheese steals the show. Predominantly made with sheep and goat’s milk, the cheeses of Basilicata (canestrato, caciocavallo, burrino, cacioricotta, pecorino, etc.) are flavorful and hearty, and compliment the local cuisine perfectly.
Bring Basilicata to your Kitchen Table
After visiting Matera in 2012, I was familiar with the type of food popular in Basilicata. While I love to cook, I’m a bit of a novice when it comes to working with meat, so was a tad nervous about picking up lamb or pork, which are so often found on the dinner table. Cheese I can handle with my eyes closed, however. After picking up a wedge of Canestrato cheese at the Chicago Eataly store, I made my way home with visions of a gourmet cheese platter in my head. Given the summer weather, I changed my mind, and toasted pine nuts with sliced garlic, sautéed a bunch of spinach, and topped it all with grated Canestrato. The sharp nuttiness of the cheese enhanced the toasted pine nuts, and melted delicately over the slightly bitter greens. Paired with the crisp flavor of the Cantine Manfredi Basilicata Bianco, it turned out to be a perfect summer meal.