The thick lines at the corner of the old man’s eyes fan out like cartwheel spokes down his leathery cheeks. He smiles with a shy pride as he points to the fresco on the far wall of the cave. In typical Byzantine style, the saint’s bold eyes are ringed with black, and an amber circle stands round her head. Corrosive centuries have erased her lower half, but the folds of her sleeves are still crisp and realistic. Similar figures gaze out from adjacent walls, silently surveying the dark, earth-smelling chamber carved into the rock by long-dead monks. An hour ago, on the other side of the ravine, my aged guide showed me the cave where his parents used to live – together with their pigs and chickens – until the authorities moved them and hundreds of others into the city’s newer districts, and into the 20th century.
I’m in Matera, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. People have lived here since the Stone Age – fashioning homes of increasing complexity into and out of the soft tufa rock. From a distance, the city seems to emerge almost organically from the landscape, a mound of golden stone pierced with dark doorways and window-holes. Down on the streets, it’s a shifting kaleidoscope of Italian structures – you emerge at random onto tiny piazzas, flights of steps, terraces with views, arches, columns, cave-mouths. History lies upon history, layer upon layer.
Matera is a fitting place to begin an exploration of Basilicata. It’s the region in microcosm – ancient, austerely beautiful, hard to reach, little-visited, and a byword for extreme poverty in recent centuries. Like the rest of the region, it’s also enjoying improved fortunes and drawing a growing number of visitors – especially those keen on human history, primordial landscapes, and the intoxicating sense of going where few tourists have ever gone before. Only Matera’s local geography fails to represent Basilicata in miniature, the region being far too physically varied to be summed up by one spot. The arid, lunar landscapes round Matera – treeless and prone to strange, wind-twisted rock formations – are completely at odds with Basilicata’s lushly wooded north, for example. Just as the fertile lowlands and expansive beaches of the region’s Ionian seaside are wholly unlike its jagged Tyrrhenian coast, where tiny cliff-bound coves lie far beneath tumbling hill-towns. If any feature predominates in Basilicata’s landscape, it’s hills and mountains. And silence, which lies almost everywhere.
My guide in Matera has been showing me the city’s unique sassi neighbourhoods, extensive networks of cave-dwellings and cave-churches worked into the local rock over many millennia and occasionally decorated inside with frescoes. By the 1960s, the sassi were witnessing scandalous, near inhuman living conditions – starving, penniless residents squeezed in amongst livestock and riddled with malaria. Fifteen hundred people were forcibly rehoused elsewhere in the city, and the empty caves became Matera’s secret shame. But in 1993, the city cleverly turned its poorest sections into a tourist attraction, having the historic sassi declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Restoration projects have been rife for the past twenty years, and people are creeping back into the once blighted dwellings. Plucky foreign buyers are even snapping up their own cave-home and getting Italian government grants to make it liveable by modern standards. And so the sassi move seamlessly into the future, from their Neolithic starting point.
The preservation and regeneration of the sassi would no doubt have pleased Domenico Ridola, the man who put Matera’s archaeological past on the map. A local museum bears his name and displays his extensive collection of artefacts – Stone, Bronze and Iron Age, Greek and Roman. It’s just one of the many excellent little museums in Basilicata stuffed with the fruits of local digs. But of course you don’t always have to go into an official building to get to grips with the region’s distant past. There are Mesolithic rock-paintings in the wilderness near Filiano, the remains of a Palaeolithic village just outside Atella (both in Basilicata’s north). And there’s no shortage of unearthed or partially unearthed Greek and Roman cities to go and walk around, either.
In the 8th century B.C., wily Greeks exploring the Mediterranean washed up in southern Italy. Realizing they were on to a good thing, they colonized the place extensively, building fabulous cities in what is now Campania, Sicily, Calabria, Puglia and Basilicata. As ‘Magna Graecia’ (‘greater Greece’), the area flourished and its cities grew even wealthier than those back in the Hellenic motherland. Cultured and comfortable as they were, the settlements couldn’t stop knifing each other in the back, however, and within a few centuries the bright flower of Magna Graecia was in tatters, trampled into the mud by rivalry, infighting, wars, raids and malaria. By the 5th century B.C., most of the once-glorious cities were ghost-towns.
One of the best-excavated of all the Magna Graecia cities is Metapontion, dug up on the outskirts of the modern-day agricultural town and seaside resort of Metaponto on Basilicata’s Ionian coast. I stopped here on a scorching afternoon and wandered over the mournful low stone semi-circles where theatre spectators sat enthralled twenty-six centuries ago. Blond, sun-bleached grass sprouted from the stage now, and only cicadas in the nearby scrub shrieked any applause. Elsewhere in the zona archeologica, the chunky separate sections of elegantly fluted columns lay neatly stacked in squat piles – the fallen Lego of a once-mighty temple. As sunset approached and the light grew more golden, I headed across to Metapontion’s beautiful temple to Hera, fifteen columns of which still stand straight and true. The honey-coloured tufa stone bounced the day’s heat back to me, and the tall Doric pillars hinted at an ancient sensibility which prized order, proportion, and balance. Pythagoras had once lived here in Metapontion. How had these temples appeared to his clear-sighted mathematical eyes, I wondered. I studied the grass round the columns’ feet, hoping to miraculously discover one of Metapontion’s famous coins lying unnoticed there, always stamped on one side with an ear of wheat to acknowledge the source of the city’s wealth.
The next day, I travelled a few miles south to Policoro, which sits on the site of ancient Heraclea and even older Siris. Named after the mighty Hercules, there was little in Heraclea now to recall the ancient demi-god’s strength and vigour. A maze of low stone walls – the lingering footprints of homes and streets – sat quietly in the sun, ringed by elegant umbrella pines and overlooked by a line of distant hills. I went back into modern Policoro, to the Museo Nazionale della Siritide near the town’s castle, and mused on graceful Greek vases – taking comfort from the lively figures sporting across their surfaces. Hercules’ town had once seen liveliness like this, I knew. The silent ruins had once bubbled with life.
Having visited a Stone Age city then wandered Hellenic ruins, the next logical thing a lover of ancient history like me should probably do is go somewhere Roman – like Venosa in Basilicata’s north. My guidebook tells me that ancient ‘Venusia’ (the town of Venus) was in its time the largest of all Roman colonies, and boasts the poet Horace as its most famous local son. The book promises I’ll find excavated Roman baths and houses, an amphitheatre, and the remains of Jewish catacombs – all overlooked by Venusa’s impressive medieval abbey. From where I am in Policoro, Venusa is about sixty miles away as the crow flies. But empty, mountainous Basilicata is not famed for its fast, straight roads, and as I look at my map and plot a possible route, my spirits droop. I know the journey would be fascinating, a chance to see more of the region’s mournful, otherworldly landscapes, but it’s another hot day and the delicious air of the nearby sea is calling me. The Romans are just going to have to wait. I drive out of Policoro and park on a stretch of coastal scrubland. Treading over tenacious, sand-strewn vegetation, I emerge onto a long and semi-deserted beach.
The sole of the Italian boot is one long expanse of sand, almost entirely uninterrupted for three hundred miles – from the toe-tip of Reggio (in Calabria), under the ball of the foot and along the arched instep, to the beginning of the stiletto heel at Taranto (in Puglia). Basilicata claims twenty miles of this quiet and exceptionally clean coastline. Its portion has a handful of tiny seaside towns and a few hotels scattered about, but it offers considerable scope for wandering off to find your own empty stretch of sand. Gazing out across the rolling turquoise water, it’s thrilling to think that all of Italy stretches up behind you and that the next landmass that lies ahead is Greece. These are the beaches where ancient Greeks would have landed. The scent of the seaside air here would have been many settlers’ first whiff of Italy. Turning round to look inland, it’s easy to imagine Greek optimism at the prospect. The pale sand gives way to pine and eucalyptus trees skirted by fragrant Mediterranean macchia or underbrush. Beyond that stretches a fertile plain, full of fruit groves and cereal fields.
Despite Basilicata’s wealth of archaeological sites, it’s the coast that the majority of the region’s visitors come for. But not this coast. Not the long Ionian coast in the south, but the short Tyrrhenian coast in the west. Just south of Campania, after the giddy tumble of the Amalfi Coast has softened into the Cilento seaside, Basilicata seizes the Tyrrhenian coastline for a short but glorious seven miles before ceding it to Calabria. The only significant town on this brief stretch is lovely Maratea, Basilicata’s single most visited locale. The town fractures across the rocky landscape, broken up by history as much as by geography. The largely medieval ‘Maratea Paese’ sits a few kilometres inland, a quiet tangle of steep alleys and tiny piazzas clinging to a hilltop. Behind it, the ruins of ancient ‘Maratea Antica’ straggle sorrowfully up Monte San Biagio. Down on the waterside, little thickets of homes and hotels gaze out over sheer cliffs onto inspiring displays of secluded bays and small sandy beaches.
Maratea has become quite fashionable and chic in recent years, a cosy bolthole for the discerning traveller. Wandering past the sleek yachts at rest outside the snazzy bars and restaurants of the ‘Maratea Porto’ area in the height of summer, it’s hard to believe that you’re still in sleepy old Basilicata. But the balconies of the houses in ‘Maratea Paese’ give the game away. They face inland, not out to sea. As does the 66-foot statue of Jesus atop Monte San Biagio behind the town. Local instincts, it’s clear, have long been insular and inward-facing. Much as Basilicata would like to open its arms to international tourists (and the wider world in general), it’s an unaccustomed posture, and one which the region is only just beginning to learn. Maratea may be a tourist success story, as, to a lesser extent, is the near-anagrammatical Matera with its cave-dwellings. But how many foreign holidaymakers are going to penetrate the rest of the region in coming decades? It remains to be seen.
Taking my cue from the balconies, and from the giant marble Jesus, I set out on one last push to know Basilicata. I head inland from Maratea, through ever steeper and wilder terrain. Thickly wooded mountains rise and fall around me, tiny villages occasionally tumbling a maze of terra cotta rooftops down their flanks. I drive into the vast, rugged expanse of the Pollino National Park and climb out of the car, armed only with a detailed map of the park’s many walking routes. My guidebook said I might find myself on ancient paths and drovers’ tracks, promised I’d glimpse doughty castles and remote hamlets, and hinted I might spot falcons and wild boar, even wolves. It feels like stepping out into the wilderness, into the complete unknown. Which is pretty much how it felt when I first crossed the border into Basilicata a week ago. Then as now, I take my first curious steps into a strange, magnificent landscape with a feeling of going where very few have gone before.
If you love history and the idea of going on an archaeological dig appeals to you, it’s easy to experience one in Britain. Visit www.britarch.ac.uk for descriptions of UK digs needing volunteers. Getting onto a dig overseas requires a little more effort. Why would an Italian archaeologist give you the shovel when a local Italian-speaker could wield it just as well and understand every instruction? You’re probably better off identifying British people doing a dig in Italy and joining them. For a comprehensive listing of worldwide digs, see www.archaeology.co.uk and order a copy of the Current Archaeology Handbook (£3.99) sold from the site. You could also contact The British School at Rome (www.bsr.ac.uk). They concentrate on digging up central Italy, but sometimes dig further afield.
Archaeological digs tend to fall into two categories: wholly amateur affairs for enthusiasts, and more serious undertakings where a professional academic needs aspiring archaeologists and unpaid volunteers to help out. At the latter kind of dig, would-be professionals often pay for on-site training in the finer points of unearthing artefacts, while volunteers do the donkey work for the sheer fun of it. As an unpaid donkey, expect hard manual labour in the sun. Archaeological digs usually take place in the summer to make it easier for university students to attend. You’ll be hacking at soil with a shovel and clearing away masses of earth. The fine brush work you see on the telly forms only the tiniest part of a dig – the rest is pure spadework. If you’re a newcomer, you can expect to be warmly welcomed and included – as well as thoroughly guided. There are usually plenty of old-timers about with lots of volunteer experience, and you learn as much from them as from the archaeologist running the dig. All working together and focussed on the same goal, there’s an excellent camaraderie. You’re likely to have a great time and make firm friends.