magic lucania - driving tour of basilicata
could it be magic?
The open roads of Basilicata in Italy's deepest south offer a unique holiday glimpse of how latin life used to be. Especially if you experience them as part of an affordable 'Magic Lucania'programme designed to open up the region's treasures to adventurous British drivers. Jonathan Crouch and family tried it.
Where does 'Italy' become 'real Italy'. No one, it seems, is quite sure. Even the Italians themselves. Where does the magic start? Well, you know it when you see it. When you fly there, rent a car and lose yourself in the place.
It's a family thing, the side of their nation these people keep hidden from those outside, a secret hidden in a kaleidoscope of private latin life. The endless meals with their convoluted courses. The secret squares in the cities. The covered caves in the hills. The mist that falls in the afternoons over the mountains.
To understand it all, you need to understand where this country came from. A hard thing indeed in the industrialised north, the tourist towns of Tuscany or the rolling hills of Rome. But possible if you're prepared to venture deep into the south to a part of Italy forgotten, even by many Italians. A strange, beautiful, bleak strip of land between the regions of Puglia and Calabria. A place called Basilicata - or as older Italians know it, Lucania.
People come here to find themselves, but first, they must find Lucania itself - become a part of it. Live with those who are themselves as much a part of Basilicata as the valleys and the villages. Impossible in a hotel but probable as a guest of 'Magic Lucania', a programme pioneered by three 'agriturismos' - working farms - that together offer a trio of very different perspectives on the north, the south and the east of this fascinating land.
A week-long visit like that we tried is divided equally between each location L'Orto Di Lucania near Matera in the East, La Dimora Dei Cavalieri near Potenza in the North and II Querceto near Marcicovertere, a little further South. All are no more than a couple of hours easy drive once you've hired a car at one of the convenient major airports that serve the region, Naples to the North and Bari to the East, both themselves served by low cost carriers.
People come here to find themselves, but first, they must find Lucania itself - become a part of it.
So, a forgotten region perhaps, but a surprisingly accessible one - and not only in terms of journey. Each Magic Lucanian agriturismo is run by a family who've lived in this land for generations. A stay with them feels less like being a guest and more like joining a part of an extended family. There are no issues of where to find the best local food, the most experienced guides or the must-see sights. Once you've got yourself there, then supplied a car and an adventurous spirit, pretty much everything else is included as part of one 500 euro per person week-long package. That means very comfortable accommodation, detailed programmes mapped out for each day and, best of all in my view, just about as much locally produced, farm-cooked melt-in-your-mouth real Italian food as you can eat, from breakfast through a packed lunch to a sumptuous dinner.
We started our voyage of discovery at L'Orto Di Lucania, near the Basilicatan capital of Matera in the East, a working vegetable farm run by Fulvio and Cinzia Spada, a stone's throw from the enchanting medieval hilltop town of Montescaglioso. Eating, I was glad to find, is here the first order of the day. Cavatelli, calzone, strascinati, triiddi (gnocchi) and firricieddi (fusilli) are some of the types of pasta which, depending on the season, are dressed by Cinzia with different sauces, made perhaps with local tomatoes, sarconi beans or mushrooms and garnished with wild herbs - basil perhaps, or mint, fennel, rosemary, sage or thyme.
All three of Magic Lucania's agriturismos pride themselves on such cuisine - but even more, on the guidance they can give to enable guests to unlock Basilicata's hidden treasures. Most you wouldn't find alone - La Cripta Del Peccato Originale (The Crypt of Original Sin) for example, a recently discovered 8th century pilgrims' cave near Montescaglioso. But an exception, a few kilometres from L'Orto Di Lucania, is the city of Matera, most famous perhaps for its setting of Jerusalem in Mel Gibson's film 'Passion of the Christ'. The older part of the town, the Sassi, is made out of dwellings literally carried out of the craggy rocks. A little like the deserted ghost town of Craco an hour's drive further south, also used in Gibson's film and many others. With inhabitants long ago frightened away by landslides and crumbling rock, you'll need a guide here - mine was Silvio Scocuzza (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Forty five minutes drive southwest from Matera, the route to the programme's second agriturismo location, Il Querceto near the hilltop town of Marcicovertere, takes you through the Lagonegrese National Park, the youngest and arguably the most varied of its kind in Italy. More than ever here, as you drive through deserted valleys or twist your way around mountain roads, you're struck by the boundless space of this place, the sheer extent of the unpopulated land. Basilicata occupies the landspace of a small European Nation, yet is home to few more than 600,000 inhabitants.
One of them is Francesca Leggeri, owner, cook and passionate originator of Il Querceto, our second Magic Lucanian home. Tired of the car, my kids were glad to find that here, the adventure doesn't even need a road. Just walk up Francesca's garden, take a right at the apple tree and you will find yourself climbing into the National Park itself. When we were ready to get behind the wheel once more, our guidance took us from the ski heights of Monte Volturino to the valley-based Roman remains of Grumentum, known as the 'Little Pompei of Lucania'.
Too soon, it was time to head on to the final stop on our journey, the La Dimora Dei Cavalieri not far from the city of Potenza, up in the hills near Vaglio Basilicata with its archaeological sites that go back to the 8th century BC. La Dimora is located right in the centre of Basilicata and is a good base for a drive to the castles and ruins of the ancient Northern Lucanian cities of Melfi and Venosa. Our host Angelo Ricciuti had a programme prepared and ready and a kitchen sizzling his own farm-produced agnello bianco (white roast lamb) for our return, to be washed down by a glass of rough, rich primitivo local red wine.
As I drove back to Naples at the end of it all on the road to Sicignano, the neighbouring region of Campania and home, I felt curiously refreshed, despite the many miles covered with so many experiences crammed into so short a time. Perhaps because the barren Basilicatan landscape of Lucania lets you dream, with empty spaces that call for creativity. A place you lose what went before and find yourself again. A place indeed of magic.
'MAGIC LUCANIA' DRIVING TOURS OF BASILICATA IN ITALY - WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Finding out about it - Go to www.magiclucania.it or go to any of the websites of the three agriturismos on the programme - www.ortodilucania.it, www.ilquerceto.it & www.dimoracavalieri.it
The cost - 500 euros per person per week - including breakfast, dinner and a packed lunch each day and a full suggested programme of visits. Guests have only to arrange their own flights and hire cars
Getting there - Fly to Bari in the South East of Italy (RyanAir from London Stanstead) or to Naples in the West (British Airways or Easyjet from London Gatwick). Then hire a car.