More than any other Italian regions, Basilicata and Calabria represent the quintessence of the mezzogiorno, the historically underdeveloped 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 internment 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 mountainous Tyrrhenian is most engaging, with spots like Maratea offering crystal-clear water, a bustling marina, and opportunities to discover remote sea grottoes. The flatter 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. The interior of the region is dominated by the mountain grandeur of the Pollino, Sila and Aspromonte ranges, offering excellent hiking and rustic local cuisine.