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The Land of Swords and Kings

Situated in the south of Italy in the ‘instep’ of the boot, with the Ionian Sea to the south and the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west, the region of Basilicata is a land of mountains, valleys and forests. Strategically located and not easily penetrated because of its terrain, Basilicata is one of the very few locations in the world where you can explore an area steeped in history dating back to the Palaeolithic age, a time when woolly mammoths roamed the earth. From pre-historic times until the modern day, Basilicata is a land of many influences. It was known to the Greeks and Romans as Lucania (a name still heard today) after the Lucani tribe who lived here as far back as the 5th century BC.

The Greeks also prospered here, settling along the coastline at Metapontum and Erakleia. Ruled by many kingdoms which constantly tussled over its strategic location right up until the 19th century, the rich history of the region can be seen in its architecture, ranging from the exquisite rock churches of Byzantine monks to Longobard, Angevin, Norman-Swabian, Benedictine, Franciscan and Romanesque architecture. Frescoes, paintings, sculpture and carving throughout Basilicata represent a long and beautiful artistic heritage. The result is a landscape reminiscent of the Land of Swords and Kings with castles, ancient churches and monasteries, temples, caves and tiny mountain villages dotted throughout the dramatic countryside. Medieval villages perched on hillsides or nestling in valleys are a treat to visit. The majority of them have very few inhabitants; some are in fact deserted.

This is a poor area of Italy and many people have moved to the north or emigrated to find work to support their families. Those who have remained are rightly proud of their heritage and welcome visitors. Before writing this article I asked Beniamino which villages I should write about. He reeled off a list that would fill a book so I will limit myself to just mentioning three lesser known places that have much appeal. One of these picturesque villages is Brienza in the province of Potenza. The ruin of an Angevin fortress, Caracciolo’s Castle, perches on top of a rocky spur overlooking the Melandro valley. The many churches in the town of Brienza dictate the rhythm of daily life for the local people, with feasts and historical commemorations held throughout the year. About four kilometres away is Ponte alla Luna, a hair-raising footbridge in the sky with wonderful views of the surrounding countryside.

A speciality of the area is the famous Lucanica sausage first introduced to Rome by Lucanian slaves and documented in the first century BC. This most delicious of sausages is characteristically U shaped, weighs between 250 and 500 grams and is 40 to 70 centimetres long. Made from cuts of pork seasoned with wild fennel seeds, spices and pepper it is stuffed into natural pig gut and dried.

The hillside town of Viggiano is also in the province of Potenza and overlooks the Val D’Agri. This attractive settlement is known for migrant street musicians and the construction of harps. The village hosts the International Flute Competition “Leonardo de Lorenzo.” Throughout the town are low marble reliefs depicting musical instruments in the doorways of buildings in its historical centre. The Basilica Santa Maria del Deposito is a very important church and from September to May it houses an imposing statue of the Black Madonna dressed in gold. On the first Sunday of May there is a great procession on foot 9 kilometres up the mountain to the Santuario del Sacro Monte with thousands of pilgrims descending on Viggiano and enjoying a splendid local feast.

From Viggiano one can see the ancient village of Marsicovetere sitting on the southern slopes of Mount Volturino. At night the lights of this tiny village shine out across the valley and form the shape of a sleeping dragon. Tramutola is the last of the three villages I will mention. This little town in the Val D’Agri not far from Viggiano has character with a capital “C”. The village has Roman origins, was destroyed in the 10th Century by the Saracens and was later populated by the Benedictines. The Benedictine monks cultivated mulberries and the breeding of silkworms led to an important textile production that supported the local economy over many years. In the streets of the village one can see portals and arcaded loggias of ancient palaces but perhaps one of the most impressive sights in the middle of the village is the old stone area used for washing clothes, where until recent times women used to kneel to do the washing.

In Tramutola as elsewhere in Basilicata, one can also find the famous Lucanian Caciocavallo Podolico cheese, a pear-shaped cheese hung between roof beams to mature. Its aroma is of the Lucanian woods, rosemary and heather. Perhaps the most enjoyable feature of Basilicata, however, is the warmth and hospitality of the local people. Wherever one visits, one is sure to find a warm welcome in the bars, the restaurants and around the villages from people who are proud of their ancient culture and customs. Constantly evolving, exciting and full of vibrant culture and traditions, Basilicata is also the perfect destination for nature lovers with an astonishing range of flora and fauna to enjoy on foot or on horse-back. There is even a zip line adventure known as the “Volo dell’Angelo” (flight of the angel) travelling from the peaks of Castelmezzano to the picturesque mountain village of Pietrapertosa. These mountain villages belong to the “I Borghi piu belli d’Italia” (The most beautiful villages of Italy), an association of small Italian towns of historical interest.

Lovers of Greek, Etruscan and Roman antiquities will relish the treasure trove to be found at the Archaeological Museum at Metaponto and they will be delighted by the nearby Greek temple surrounded by fragrant oleander trees. Touring this magical region of Italy with a native born ‘Lucanian’ is an experience not to be missed.

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