More than any other Italian regions, Basilicata and Calabria represent the quintessence of the mezzogiorno, the historically under-developed southern tracts of the peninsula. After Unification in 1861, the area was largely neglected and sank into abject poverty that was worsened by emigration. Conditions here were immortalized in Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli–a vivid account of his time in exile during the Fascist era in which he describes a South characterized by apathy, where malaria is endemic andthe peasants’ way of life is deeply rooted in superstition. Things have improved, particularly in Basilicata, although tourism is yet to bring the riches found in neighbouring Puglia and Campania.
In Basilicata, the greatest draw is Matera, whose distinctive Sassi – cave-like dwellings in the heart of the town – give it a uniquely dramatic setting. In the northern part of the region, Melfi and Venosa are bastions of medieval charm with important relics from the Byzantine and Norman eras. Of the region’s two coasts, the Tyrrhenian is most engaging, with spots like Maratea offering crystal-clear water, a bustling harbour, and opportunities to discover remote sea grottoes. The Ionian coast is less charming, though worth a visit for its ancient sites in Metaponto and Policoro – ruins of the once mighty states that comprised Magna Graecia.
While conditions in Basilicata have improved, Calabria remains arguably more marginalized than it was before Unification. Since the war, a massive channelling of funds to finance huge irrigation and land-reclamation schemes, industrial development and a modern system of communications has brought built-up sprawl to previously isolated towns such as Crotone – often hand in hand with the forces of organized crime. The ’Ndrangheta Mafia – reckoned to be far more powerful and dangerous than the Neapolitan Camorra – continues to maintain a stranglehold across much of the region.
Although unchecked development financed by the ’Ndrangheta has marred parts of the coastline, resorts such as Scilla, Tropea and Capo Vaticano are still charming, and have become favourite hideaway resorts for discerning Italian and foreign visitors.
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Regional food and wine
Regional food and wine
The cuisine of Basilicata, also known as the cucina lucana (Lucanian cuisine), derives from a poor tradition that depended heavily on preserving food, especially pork and fruit, which are dried, and vegetables, which are preserved in oil. Arab influence still pervades in the form of aubergines and desserts incorporating figs, almonds and honey. Basilicata is an important producer of durum wheat, which is used to make fresh pasta, rustic breads prepared in wood-fired ovens, and friselle, stale bread softened with water, oil and tomatoes. Strong cheeses, like matured or smoked ricotta and aged caciocavallo are favoured. A rare breed of cow, the mucca podolica, grazes around Matera, and the milk and meat they produce are wonderfully flavourful.
Calabria shares many culinary traditions with its neighbour. The trademark of Calabrian cuisine, however, is peperoncino, spicy chilli pepper, used liberally in many dishes, and thought to ward off illness and misfortune. Try the spicy sorpressata salami, ’Nduia, a hot peperoncino and pork fat spread. As in all southern cuisine, cheeses such as caciocavallo, mature provola and pecorino are ubiquitous. The cipolla rossa from Tropea is a sweet red onion used in rustic pies, meat dishes, and in sweet preserves called composte. For desserts, try mostazzolo, an almond cookie sweetened with honey or wine must, or anything containing bergamotto, a citrus fruit that grows along the south coast. Dried figs are a staple and can be found stuffed, dipped in chocolate, or simply arranged in braids or wheels.
Cirò is the success story of Calabrian wine-making. Made from the ancient gaglioppo grape, it has been given some modern touches and now shifts bottles outside its home territory. Not surprisingly, given its far-south position, Calabria also turns out sweet whites such as Greco di Bianco. The aglianico grape makes a star appearance in Basilicata: Aglianico del Vulture is the region’s only DOC; it’s been dubbed “the Barolo of the south” for its complexity, late ripening and long maturation. Other wines worth trying are the sweet, sparkling Malvasia and Moscato.