“Basilicata is a misshapen, green, rocky, mountainous piece of land forming the awkward instep of Italy’s boot, and Matera is its gnarled crown jewel,” writes Susan Wright for The New York Times, in an article announcing Matera, the region’s most well-known town, as the 2019 European Capital of Culture.
American movie director Francis Ford Coppola, whose family hails from Bernalda in Basilicata, describes the region more lovingly: “When you look at Basilicata, you see fields, vineyards, beautiful scenery. You see the earth as it was supposed to be.”
Located in southern Italy between the coastal regions of Puglia and Calabria, Basilicata is not a usual stop for many travelers. But with six of its villages being named among the most beautiful in Italy by I Borghi più Belli d’Italia, along with a mix of dramatic terrain from mountains to sea, Basilicata has much to offer today’s visitor, which has not always been the case.
The region was once so impoverished that during World War II, towns in Basilicata served as a prison of sorts for Italians who spoke out against the government. Political prisoners were banished from other parts of Italy (typically from the north) and assigned to live out their sentences in Basilicata. (Carlo Levi was one such prisoner who documented his year-long exile in the classic book, Christ Stopped at Eboli.) In subsequent years, Basilicata has moved more gracefully into the 21st century while still retaining its old world magic and authenticity.
As serendipity would have it, writer Karen Haid, an expert on Calabria, had been devoting her travel time to Basilicata as the region was gaining more worldwide attention. Her excursions and experiences are beautifully detailed in her latest book: Basilicata: Authentic Italy. Having spent several years living in and writing about neighboring Calabria (the “toe” of Italy’s boot) and ready for a new adventure, Karen set her sites on one of Italy’s lesser-known regions.
Over several extended visits amounting to about three months collectively, Karen experienced Basilicata town by town. Through her writing, we travel the region — an area about the size of Connecticut — as she meets locals, celebrates festivals in small-town piazzas, visits churches and museums, hikes the rugged terrain, all the while, building friendships with the people she meets along the way. Through her, we experience Basilicata not as a tourist, but as a welcomed guest.
Karen’s travels take us to the two most well-known cities of Basilicata — Potenza and Matera — but also to a great number of smaller towns (I counted around 20, each featured in their own chapter). Karen is an adventurous and plucky traveler who dives into the many diverse opportunities and experiences waiting to be discovered in Basilicata, even if she sometimes has to track down a museum owner or two to get inside and explore its treasures. Often in these small towns, it’s necessary to make an appointment to visit a tourist site, not to beat the crowd but because a daily influx of visitors is unexpected. For travelers used to sold out sites and queuing for hours, this is a welcomed twist on the travel reservation.
Karen shows us the many faces of this part of the Italian boot. There’s a Basilicata for nature and adventure lovers in Castelmezzano and Pietrapertosa where you can hike or even zip line between the two villages (she did both!); a Basilicata for wine lovers and foodies (the regional DOC vintage, Aglianico del Vulture, and food specialty peperoni cruschi are staples on tables throughout the region, not to mention the pecorino cheese from Moliterno). I especially enjoyed her chapter on Rapolla, where she spends a week at the local spa, (here called a wellness center and supervised by medical staff), where the prescription called for “six days of therapeutic mud, curative baths, aerosol, inhalation, nebulization and massages, plus one aesthetic treatment of my choice for good measure.” (Yes, please!)
And then there’s the centuries-old history of the region, often sprinkled with myth and magic, which you can’t help but “tripping over” during your time in Basilicata, notes Karen. She takes us to local festivals celebrating ancient traditions, such as the Ancient Marriage of the Trees in Accettura and the twice-yearly procession of the Black Madonna in Viggiano. She explains brigandry, which, in the 1800s, evolved from “ordinary banditry…not a new concept on Italian territory,” into a form of political resistance (at that time, it was against Napoleon). Karen takes us to the three cathedrals (basilica) for which the region is named. With her, we experience the sassi of Matera and the ancient Greek temple ruins of Metaponto. If Basilicata is filled with rich history, so too are the pages of Basilicata: Authentic Italy.
One theme throughout this book which I especially enjoyed is what I most enjoy in real-life Italian travel: connecting with a place through the people who live there. Through her genuine interest in wherever she happens to be and her language skills, Karen makes connections and shares those with her reader, giving us a deeper layer of travel.
Another angle which resonated with me, as the granddaughter of a southern Italian immigrant, was the chapter dedicated to emigration from the area. A great percentage of Italian-Americans trace their roots specifically to a southern Italian ancestor, because the overwhelming majority of immigrants left their family homes in southern Italy, seeking work and an escape from poverty. And while much has been written on the experience of those immigrants (rightfully so), it’s not often that we are reminded to reflect upon the people left behind, the flip side of the immigrant experience. Karen touches on both aspects here.
“Once you commence, the briganti [people of Basilicata] get under your skin. You listen to their stories and they listen to yours,” she notes, reflecting on her time in the area. “You have elbowroom,” she writes. (Basilicata has the second lowest population density of Italy’s twenty regions.) “You need to make a reservation not to beat someone else out, but because you’re the only guest who planned on taking the tour that day.”
Admittedly, knowing the language was a huge benefit for Karen, who is fluent in Italian, which allowed her to connect with locals on a much deeper level. But she notes that knowing the language is not necessarily a pre-requisite. “A traveler doesn’t need to speak the language of the country to have a great experience,” she reflects. “Of course, traveling on one’s own without any knowledge of Italian may produce some challenges at times in more remote areas, where pre-arranging bilingual guides or visiting on a small-group tour may be recommended.”
If a trip to Basilicata is on your travel wish list, I would tuck this book into your bag. You’ll have with you not just a well-informed travel guide, but also, an intelligent and enthusiastic companion.