top of page

Italian Road Trip from Coast-to-Coast: Discover the Basilicata Region

Tired of the usual destinations? Check out this unknown Italian region, with plenty of diverse, authentic experiences to offer.

A view over Matera town in Italy

Overview of Matera | Photo by Paolo Bendandi

by Alessandro Ramazzotti

19 de oct de 2023

In 2010, the Italian comedy actor Rocco Papaleo directed a movie titled Basilicata Coast-to-Coast. The movie shows the funny adventures of a group of friends on their trip through Basilicata, a region in the south of Italy with a peculiar culture and wild landscapes.

Although we just heard about the movie without ever watching it, four years later my family and I decided to embark on the same journey. Basilicata, here we come!

Basilicata – the forgotten land

We traveled about 10 hours before finally entering the border of this southern region of Italy, located between Campania, Calabria, Puglia, and Molise. All these regions are well-known for one reason or the other: Campania has Naples; Calabria is the tip of the “boot”; Puglia is a popular vacation spot; and Molise is known as the region that barely exists, due to its size and small population.

Basilicata, on the other hand, is often forgotten. It is a typical example of a place that kids forget to place on the map when they study geography in school. It is a shame, however, and I can see no explanation for this. Indeed, Basilicata is full of wonders and offers experiences that are hard to find in other parts of the country. Traveling with our motor home from one coast to the other, we could see many of the beautiful places this region has to offer, and I would like to take you on this journey with me.

Get your camera out; you’ll definitely need it! Are you ready?

Maratea – the Tyrrhenian Coast

A good starting point before entering the wild, hilly hinterland of the region is Maratea, on the Tyrrhenian Coast. The beautiful golden beaches of this tiny town are surrounded by steep cliffs overlooking the sea. The contrast of the mountains so close to the deep blue waters of the sea is truly amazing!

If you are traveling with your own vehicle, you cannot miss taking a ride on the small roads on the rocky cliffs, which from a considerable height offer a wonderful view of the town of Maratea and the surrounding villages. The environment is similar to the more popular Amalfi Coast, but the number of tourists is considerably lower, which makes the experience more enjoyable and authentic. Indeed, here and there along the roads, you can find small groups of fishermen's houses where life flows at a different rhythm from any other place on Earth.

In these little settlements, as well as in Maratea, a fish dish is a must!

The hilly hinterland

Our motor home is quite old, and although we tried to climb the steep road that connects Maratea to Basilicata’s hinterland during the day, we had to refrain and do it instead at night – which allowed us to enjoy one more day on the sea.

Once the turns are over, and the small valley of Maratea is behind you, there is nothing but bare landscapes with fields of yellow grains to welcome you. This apparently desolated wilderness is something peculiar in a country that is one of the most densely populated on Earth. It is even more due to the unstable ground of the region, where the frequent landslides create big holes in the hills, giving them particular shapes that sometimes resemble desert dunes – they are called calanchi (badlands or gullies in English).

Hills keep appearing on the horizon. On their tops, most of the time there are tiny villages where three-fourths of the population is above 70 years old. They sit at the bars, drinking coffee – or small glasses of white wine – and playing cards the whole day long. Life in the villages on the coast seems to have another rhythm, slower and more peaceful than wherever else in Italy. Most of these villages have white-painted houses – a good protection against the hot sun beams – and with red tiles on the roofs. Another white element in the picture is represented by the linen hanging outside of windows to dry. Sometimes, dogs bark in the distance, and at night it’s possible to hear wolves howling – hopefully far from where you are.

Interesting places to visit between the two coasts of Basilicata are Melfi, Pisticci, Tricarico, and Miglionico.

With our old motor home, we had quite a few problems due to the steep roads climbing up the hills. The engine was getting overheated pretty fast and we had to make frequent stops. Moreover, the roads in the villages are most of the time really narrow, which got us stuck more than once. Luckily, locals are always ready to help and provide instructions to get unstuck… they probably have seen this happen many times already.

A ghost town in Italy

Craco ghost town | Photo by Alfonso Scarpa

Craco – a ghost town

A really interesting village in the Basilicata hinterland is Craco. It is a small settlement of stone houses located on the top of a small hill – no surprise about that! – which was abandoned following a landslide in 1963. Although some people tried to return following the event, they were forced to leave again due to floods in 1972, and the risk of other landslides. In 1980, the earthquake that hit the region gave the final blow to this small village, where houses still stand strong notwithstanding nature’s force. Today, only ghosts walk its streets.

It is slightly famous because the renowned author and painter Carlo Levi was confined here during the early years of the fascist regime – which gives an idea about the remoteness of the place. The experience strongly impacted the artist’s mind and led him to write the book Cristo si è fermato ad Eboli (Christ stopped at Eboli), where he depicts life at the time (1935-36) in one of the least developed regions of Italy; so far from other realities, that the author felt as if even Christ forgot about the existence of Basilicata.

Walking the deserted roads of Craco is a powerful experience. You can feel the despair that repeated natural disasters bring, and the emptiness of the place leaves a big space for imagination. Kids running here and there, old ladies shouting from the windows, and men cursing at each other could still be heard among the walls; then you open your eyes again, and no one is there. Just the sound of the wind.

That night we randomly met a few locals who invited us to a classical music concert in a house nearby. After dinner we decided to go, and the crowd – not too big, but neither too little – felt almost inappropriate in a ghost town like Craco.

Matera – the magic of a cave town

Matera is the main town of the region. It was named the European Capital of Culture in 2019, which boosted tourism in the region for a while. It is a wonderful place; one that has no equal! Indeed, it is probably the only cave town still inhabited today.

It is built on a ravine that overlooks a beautiful gorge, on the other side of which there are ancient monks’ caves and little churches where ascetics retired to meditate. These are painted with amazing ancient frescos, and from there, the view of the city of Matera is even more mesmerizing. Especially at night, when the warm yellow lights switch on and they look like many little candles in a Christmas nativity scene.

The caves are called sassi (literally, stones) and they are among the most ancient settlements in the Italian peninsula. They are believed to be inhabited since 7000 BC. And the interesting fact is that people still live there today! Of course, with modern amenities…

As in other parts of the region, Matera is a place out of time. Although it is the capital town of Basilicata, it still feels like one of the many villages perched on hilltops. And as everywhere else in the region, there are plenty of churches, some of which are hidden in the small alleys that wind around – and sometimes above – the ancient houses.

The Jonic coast – temples, protected areas, and sea settlements

The Jonic Coast of Basilicata is no less wonderful than the Tyrrhenian one, and it offers the most diverse experiences.

In Metapontum, gazing at ancient Greek temples – yes, Greeks were here too! – will let you dive into ancient history. Facing earthquakes, floods, and other natural adversities, these constructions stood fierce against time.

Near Policoro, a protected WWF oasis serves as a safe refuge for many wild species, both on the land and in the sea. Uncountable species of birds of every shape, color, and size populate the oasis. A real paradise for birdwatchers! And if you equip yourself with a scuba mask, the underwater world will offer other beautiful sights, including starfish and sea urchins. When we were there, the wind on the coast was really strong, moving the bushes around in really funny ways.

The little port town of Policoro is also a recommended stop. After the adventure through Basilicata, you can have a final rest on the numerous sandy beaches around town. No cliffs on this side of the region; a totally different environment instead, but not less suitable for taking a few pleasant baths. Wonder about the streets of Policoro in the evening and treat yourself to a final fish meal. Fried, baked, or boiled, the fresh fish will awaken your senses.

A overview of a coast in Basilicata

Coast of Basilicata | Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino

A destination in the spotlight

Rome, Florence, Venice, Naples. They are all beautiful cities. However, the truly Italian experiences that you can have in Basilicata are unique. Back at home, people will be really interested in listening to your Coast-to-Coast trip more than in the classic visit to the Colosseum.

Basilicata is a destination finally and deservedly getting in the spotlight. Don’t miss it!

bottom of page