A leisurely thirty-minute drive from Matera, Basilicata’s Ionian coast from Metaponto to Policoro consists of a mountainous interior backing onto a seaboard punctuated only by holiday resorts, a plethora of campsites – overflowing in the summer months – and some notable historical sites. Of these, the most significant are connected with the periods of Greek occupation, the most recent of which was that of the Byzantines, who administered the area on and off for five hundred years.
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The most extensively excavated of Baslicata’s Greek sites, METAPONTO was settled in the eighth century BC and owed its subsequent prosperity to the fertility of the surrounding land – perfect for cereal production (symbolized by the ear of corn stamped on its coinage). In about 510 BC, Pythagoras, banished from Kroton, established a school here that contributed to an enduring philosophical tradition. Metapontum’s downfall came as a result of a series of catastrophes: absorbed by Rome, embroiled in the Punic Wars, sacked by the slave-rebel Spartacus, and later desolated by a combination of malaria and Saracen raids.
Metaponto today is a straggling, amorphous place, lacking much charm but with sandy beaches at Metaponto Lido that attract holiday-makers in summer. There’s a train station at Metaponto Scalo, and Metaponto Borgo, some 800m from Scalo and 3km northwest of Lido, has an important archeological museum, otherwise the place mostly consists of the huge archeological park and modern villas, apartments and hotels.
Twenty kilometres south of Metaponto, the area between the Sinni and Agri rivers was in its time one of the richest areas on this coast and site of the two Greek colonies of Siris and Heraclea. The latter was where Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, first introduced elephants to the Romans, and, although winning the first of two battles in 280 BC, suffered such high losses that he declared another such victory would cost him the war – so bequeathing to posterity the term “Pyrrhic victory”. Artefacts unearthed from the area can be seen in POLICORO, where the Museo Nazionale della Siritide at Via Colombo 8 (Mon & Wed–Sun 9am–8pm, Tues 2–8pm; €2.50; t 0835 972 154) has a fabulous collection of clay figurines and jewel-bedecked skeletons, among other items. The ruins of Heraclea are just behind the museum and although in a poor state, they’re worth a wander. It’s a fifteen-minute walk from the centre of Policoro, or a five-minute walk from the nearest local bus stop.