Much of Basilicata is an otherworldly landscape of mountain ranges, trackless forests and villages that seem to sprout organically from the granite. Not easily penetrated, it is strategically located, and has been dominated by the Lucanians, Greeks, Romans, Germans, Lombards, Byzantines, Saracens, Normans and others. Being the plaything of such powers has not been conducive to a quiet or happy fate.
In the north the landscape is a fertile zone of gentle hills and deep valleys; the interior is dominated by the Lucanian Apennines and the Parco Nazionale del Pollino. The Tyrrhenian coast is a fissured wonderland of rocky coves and precariously sited villages. Here, Maratea is one of Italy's most charming seaside resorts.
But it is inland Matera, where primitive sassi (caves) lurk under grand cathedrals, that is Basilicata's most precious gem. The third-oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, it's intriguing, breathtaking and tragic in equal measures.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Basilicata.
Dating in its earliest parts to the 12th century, St Peter's, the largest of Matera's rupestrian churches, overlays an ancient honeycomb of niches where corpses were placed for draining. At the entrance level can be found 15th- and 16th-century frescoes of the Annunciation and a variety of saints. The empty frame of the altarpiece graphically illustrates the town's troubled recent history: the church was plundered when Matera was partially abandoned in the 1960s and ’70s.
This monastic complex, one of the most important monuments in Matera, comprises dozens of chambers carved into the tufa limestone over two floors. Chiesa di Madonna delle Virtù was built in the 10th or 11th century and restored in the 17th century. Above it, the simple Chiesa di San Nicola del Greci is rich in frescoes. The complex was used in 1213 by Benedictine monks of Palestinian origin. The churches are sometimes used for art installations (admission charges apply).
This giant cistern, arguably as magnificent as a subterranean cathedral, is one of Matera's great sights. Lying under the city's main square with arches carved out of the existing rock, it is mind-boggling in its scale and ingenuity, and was still supplying water to Materans within living memory. Book ahead for a 25-minute tour with the multilingual guides, who explain its conception and history (English-language tours generally leave at 10.30am, 12.30pm, 3.30pm and 5.30pm).
Highly recommended as a precursor to visiting the sassi themselves, this wonderful 25-minute multimedia exhibit, spread across three rooms of a 16th-century family home donated to the Fondo Ambiente Italiano, relates the astonishing and often painful social history of the town and its sassi. Your appreciation of Matera's unique history and renaissance, and the tribulations of the sassi dwellers, will be transformed.
The setting of this fabulous museum of contemporary sculpture – deeply recessed caves and the frescoed rooms of the 16th-century Palazzo Pomarici – is as extraordinary as the exhibits. Italian sculpture from the late 19th century to the present day is the principal focus, but you can also see beautiful examples of graphic art, jewellery and ceramics.
For a great photograph of the sassi, take the Taranto–Laterza road (SS7) and follow signs for the chiese rupestri. This road takes you to the Belvedere, the location of the crucifixion in The Passion of the Christ, which has fantastic views of the plunging ravine and Matera. It's especially impressive at sunset.
Set high up on a spur between the two natural bowls of the sassi, the wan, graceful exterior of the 13th-century Pugliese-Romanesque cathedral makes the neobaroque excess within all the more of a surprise. Following 13 years of renovation, it's possible once again to admire the ornate capitals, sumptuous chapels, 17th-century frescoes, 13th-century Byzantine Madonna and two 12th-century frescoed crypts, uncovered in the works. Note the pediments mounted on the cathedral's altars, which come from Greek temples at Metaponto.
A fascinating Benedictine site dating to the Lombard period, the Cripta del Peccato Originale (Crypt of Original Sin) houses well-preserved 8th-century frescoes – depicting vivid scenes from both Old and New Testaments – that have earned it a reputation as the 'Sistine Chapel' of Matera's cave churches. It's 7km south of Matera: all visits must be booked through the website, then joined at the ticket office (at Azienda Agricola Dragone on Contrada Pietrapenta) 30 minutes prior to the scheduled starting time.
Not to be confused with the Tavole Palatine, the Parco Archeologico is a larger, if less immediately impressive collection of Metaponto ruins that contains the remains of a Greek theatre and the Doric Tempio di Apollo Licio. The classical coastal Greek colony that once flourished here can be readily imagined, walking through the quiet fields and shin-high remains. It's especially interesting to see where the artefacts displayed in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, 2km west, came from.