The History of Basilicata
Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Saracen, Lombard and Norman land of conquest
Lucania (as Basilicata was called from 1932 to 1947) derives its name from the Latin word, Lucus, which means wood, because it was once rich in huge forests, or from the Greek word, Likos (wolf), for the packs of wolves that populated its woods, or, according to some historians, from the word Luci, ancient populations that came from the East through the Illyrian coasts around 1500 B.C.
The name Basilicata, on the other hand, comes from the eastern Basilian monks who populated the localities of Matera where there are still numerous testimonies of monasteries, underground churches and cloisters, or from the Basilikos, Byzantine imperial officials, when in the 10th century the region came under the dominion of the Eastern Empire.
In any case, the Lucanian land is reminiscent of glorious periods and important historical events that are a living part of the history of Italy.
Always a landmark of people, it has experienced both glory and darkness with moments of great prosperity alternating with domination and devastation.
The Greeks passed through in the eighth century B.C. and founded the Greek colony of Siris (so flourishing and prosperous as to arouse the envy of the Achaeans who invaded and defeated it in 570 B.C.) as well as colonies on the Ionian Sea. Then it was the Romans’ turn, extending the Via Appia to Brindisi around 298 B.C.
At the end of the 5th century, Basilicata was already largely Christianized and after the fall of the Roman Empire, it remained under the Byzantine dominion until the Lombard conquest. The Saracen raids led the local populations to abandon the settlements in the plains and on the coast in favor of more protected centers in higher altitudes. Tricarico and Tursi, however, experience a longer-lasting Arab domination that has profoundly influenced the structure of the settlements that retain an Arab layout, still clearly visible today in the Ràbata and Saracena neighborhoods in Tricarico along with Rabatana in Tursi.
Conquered by the Normans and the Swabians of Emperor Frederick II, Basilicata underwent its last domination by the Bourbons, just before the unification of Italy.
Nature and Landscapes
Tyrrhenian and Ionian sea
Overlooking two seas, the Tyrrhenian and the Ionian, this region offers many opportunities for seafarers.
The Ionian coast boasts fine sanded, white beaches, some still wild where the native lily grows while other beaches are well equipped for tourists. On the other hand, the Tyrrhenian is more rugged and forested, combining the blue of the sea with small inlets, promontories and islets.
Those who love long walks and hikes will find a great variety of choices with its eleven protected areas, two of which are national parks, the Pollino and Val d’Agri, two regional parks (Gallipoli Cognato Natural Park – Piccole Dolomiti Lucane Mountain Range and Natural Historical Archaeological Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Materano) and seven regional nature reserves. Basilicata can be seen by many routes, each with a particular characteristic offering everything from extreme sports, to the enchanting beauty of tranquil views.
The Pollino National Park boasts the highest peaks in Southern Italy which remain covered with snow from November to May. Snow-shoeing and cross-country skiing are popular winter sports here, and a great way to experience the natural beauty of the mountains.
This natural area, which enjoys great prestige, is extremely varied and is composed of Dolomite rocks, limestone bastions, fault walls, cliffs, deep gorges, karst caves, gables of volcanic origin, sinkholes, as well as plateaus, meadows and high altitude pastures.
The Calanchi, or badlands, are deep furrows arranged in a parallel or fan-shaped manner, created by the erosion of surface waters on the clay slopes, very well described in the work of Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli. The Calanchi are located in the south-eastern part of Basilicata and offer great opportunities for hiking and climbing.
The Villages of Basilicata
Basilicata has acquired fame in the last two decades, especially during the last year with the proclamation of the city of Matera as the European Capital of Culture 2019.
Already known as the set of Mel Gibson’s famous film The Passion of the Christ, Matera is a city historical gem. Famous above all for the Sassi, ancient dwellings carved into rock which make the city a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It sits on the Murgic Plateau territory and is rich in human settlements dating back to the Lower Paleolithic and Mesolithic Ages, encompassing rock churches, ascetics and ancient shelters still used today by shepherds. The city also boasts architectural relics dating to more recent periods.
In the region, there are also imposing medieval buildings dating back to the Norman period such as the Lagopesole Castle, favorite residence of Manfred, son of Frederick II, as well as the Castles of Melfi and Venosa.
An evocative ghost town, Craco, dates to the eighth century B.C., but lived its splendor in medieval times, so much so that it housed an important university. Craco was built on a very steep hill, giving it a striking appearance, but this also caused its downfall. The town had to be abandoned in the 1960’s because a broken pipe caused landslides. Today, Craco is a popular tourist attraction and film set.
The Flavors of Basilicata
Among the typical dishes of the region, we can find the delicious calzone with herbs, stuffed with chard and sultanas, the Acquasale, prepared with eggs, oil, onion and firm bread and another delicious and cheap, but very tasty dish, ciammota, where aubergines and yellow peppers are paired with bruschetta flavored with olive oil.
Cruschi, these sweet Senise peppers dried in the sun and in the open air are a symbol of Basilicatan cuisine. In the inland villages, the fragrant red garlands of cruschi often decorate the windows and balconies of rural homes.
Among the cheeses are the podolico caciocavallo, ricotta and scamorze which are the components for appetizers or tasty main courses.
Homemade pasta is a main ingredient of many recipes, such as orecchiette alla materna and strangolapreti (fresh pasta in the shape of sticks) alla Potentina.
One of the oldest Basilicatan recipes is spezzetino di agnello, lamb stew, which is cooked in earthenware pots with potatoes, onions and tomatoes.
For a real treat, taste the Lucanica, a horseshoe shaped salami flavored with parsley and cumin, as well as the typical Pezzenta, a dried sausage made with spices.
Bread is another typical element of Lucanian cuisine. Cooked in wood-fired ovens and made with white and wholemeal flour, it is particularly fragrant and is one of the Lucanian products that crosses regional borders to land on tables throughout southern Italy.
These tasty dishes are accompanied by excellent local wines. We can identify three areas in which vines are grown from which DOC wines are obtained: Vulture (Vool-tour-ay), Val D’Agri and Materano.
In the Vulture region, the Aglianico del Vulture Superiore DOCG is produced. Its color is an impenetrable ruby red and the scent is elegant with hints of ripe red fruit, cherry and licorice with flavors of cloves, black pepper and toasted notes come from aging in small barrels called barrique. The important tannic acid charge makes this wine very long-lived, perfect to accompany a peppered podolica meat fillet.
In the Val d’Agri, in the province of Potenza, the vineyards are planted in soils rich in sand and clay at an altitude of 600-700 meters and, from August to mid-October, undergo strong temperature variations. This favors the production of the Terre dell’Alta Val d’Agri DOC, Grottino di Roccanova DOC and also the organic Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese and Montepulciano – wines rich in structure, with hints of red berries, spices and licorice.
In the Materano area, in the vineyards that slope towards the Ionian Sea, Matera DOC and other powerful red wines based on Primitivo are produced, with their pleasant aromas of raspberries, currants, white pepper and balsamic flavors (excellent combined with grilled tomatoes with flakes of aged pecorino). Matera Greco is also produced here, the only valuable white wine of the region, containing delicate aromas of white flowers and peach, perfect with spaghetti accompanied by mussels.