Love Italy but tired of tourist-packed cities and overcrowded beaches? Head south to the country’s last undiscovered region: Basilicata. Never heard of it? That’s why you should go, says Coralie Modschiedler. Away from the crowds, discover rock cities, cave hotels, the highest and fastest zip wire in the world, and Francis Ford Coppola’s stunning new boutique hotel.
THE FLIGHT OF THE ANGEL
Here I am; suspended in mid-air, 1,000m (3,280ft) above the ground, and about to be thrown off a mountain at 120kph (70mph) on a zip wire. I was excited on my way up the mountain (a small trek to get to the ‘drop-off’ point), but now I am just terrified. As I prepare to say my goodbyes, someone behind me shouts “Buon volo!” (good flight) and I’m off.
As the ground drops below me to reveal the Lucanian Dolomites’ stunning scenery, I am feeling surprisingly calm and comfortable. My fear has been replaced with an overriding sense of serenity and exhilaration. My eyes are crying uncontrollably because of the wind in my face but the ride is so peaceful I don’t realise just how fast I’m travelling until I approach the end point. I am not slowing down at all and the only thought going through my head is “how on earth am I going to stop?” (and that’s the polite version).
By crunching into the braking system, that’s how. An abrupt ending to a sensational experience. I would recommend it to anyone. Apparently, an 80-year-old daredevil grandmother did it last year so if she can do it, so can you. And I already want to do it again! Luckily for me, after visiting the pretty mountain-top village of Pietrapertosa where I just ‘landed’, the fastest way back to Castelmezzano on the other side of the valley is on another zip wire. This time, I’m not anxious at all, and I can’t wait to fly.
ROCKING IT IN MATERA
An hour’s drive from the ‘Flight of the Angel’ is undoubtedly the most beautiful place in Basilicata: the UNESCO World Heritage city of Matera. The city’s old ‘Sassi’ area is an especially stunning sight: dozens of rock caves which have existed here since prehistoric times, used to be home to hundreds of Italian families until the 1950s, and have now been restored and turned into luxury cave dwellings, hotels, churches and restaurants. A part of the Sassi has been left untouched and is very interesting to explore to get an idea of the poor sanitary conditions in which people lived here only 60 years ago.
There are no big hotel chains in this part of Italy; instead you’ll find family-run boutique hotels and B&Bs. I’m staying at the Sant’Angelo Resort, one of the cave hotels. Each room is completely unique and designed around the rock formations (I’d especially recommend staying in room 44, 60B or 61). Huge baths, bespoke furniture, low lighting and the natural rock features make a stay here unforgettable and very romantic.
The Sassi are an enchanting maze of narrow paths, alleys, caves and limestone buildings built on multiple levels so make sure you wander around and get lost. The area is so inspiring that countless filmmakers have used it as a backdrop, most famously Mel Gibson in his 2004 film The Passion of the Christ. It’s true there is an almost biblical feel about the place; it’s unspoilt and unlike anywhere else I’ve been. Cross to the other side of the valley for more rock churches and a great view of the Sassi.
FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD
I’m in Italy; of course the food is glorious. You’ll find it all here: a dozen different types of pasta, locally produced cheeses, cured hams, delicious gelato and fantastic wines. Food in Basilicata is an interesting mix of local produce and ingredients originating from northern European, Spanish, French and Arabic traditions. Local specialities you have to try are Mischiglio pasta, salsicce lucane (sausage made from pork, fennel seeds and sweet red peppers), and peperoni cruschi (sweet sun-dried red peppers).
Flying there Low-cost and scheduled airlines fly to Bari, Brindisi and Naples. Flight time from the UK is about 2 hours 40 minutes. Search flights.
Getting around Rent a car – you won’t find public transport in most parts of the region, and taxis can be very costly. Search car hire.
Standout hotels In Matera, try one of these two incredible luxury cave hotels: Sant’Angelo Luxury Resort (Piazza San Pietro Caveoso, +39 0835 314 010) or Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita (Via Civita 28, +39 0835 332 744). Book here.
In Bernalda, stay in Coppola’s new boutique hotel: Palazzo Marguerita (Corso Umberto 64, +39 0835 549 060). In Maratea, another standout is the converted 18th-century convent La Locanda Delle Donne Monache (Via Carlo Mazzei, +39 0973 876 139). Book here.
The Flight of the Angel Open: April-September. Price: €35-40 return trip (2 flights). Minimum age: 16. See www.volodellangelo.com for details.
Best time to go May-September. If you can, join the locals on 2 July for the annual Festa della Madonna Bruna in Matera, when floats, processions, food and fireworks take over the city.