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Planet Appetite: The Riches of Basilicata, Italy - the Land That Time Almost Forgot

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Sandwiched between Puglia, Cantabria and Campania, Basilicata is home to one of the world's oldest towns and boasts traditional festivities reaching back to pagan times, as well as excellent food and drink.

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For most people Italy is Tuscany, perhaps a bit of Rome, even a smidgeon of Naples with a dash of Venice thrown in, but Basilicata is off their map. Even getting here is a bit tricky since there's no international airport, and you have to fly into Bari, or Naples. This is really the instep of the Italy boot, with Calabria as the toe and Puglia as the heel Agriculture is king, with wheat being the main crop and there are even a few decent wines.

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Matera
This place seems to encapsulate the history of the region. It's one of the oldest settlements in the world, continuously inhabited for 9000 years, with people living in caves, known as Sassi, carved into the calcareous rock. It's not quite as primitive as it sounds since, even though they shared the space with their donkeys, pigs and hens, each cave had its own sophisticated water supply.

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In the late 1940's, Italy was racked with guilt when it was revealed that people were living in these conditions, and the government evacuated everyone and moved them to new housing. The Sassi lay empty until the 1990's when people began to move back and, in 1993, Matera gained UNESCO World Heritage status.

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It's still a work in progress and, although some caves have been refurbished as bars, restaurants and even hotels, there's still a long way to go. For this reason, exploring the Sassi district is a fascinating experience and it really does feel like the land time forgot, particularly at night. It's surprising how large some of the caves are and MUSMA is an atmospheric contemporary sculpture museum, occupying what was once the100 room Palazzo Pomarici, carved into the hillside. As you'd imagine, several rock churches are open to the public, complete with faded frescoes, and it's a dream film location - often doubling for Jerusalem in movies like Mel Gibson's Passion of Christ.

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Craco
Unlike Matera, Craco is a town unlikely to get its 2000 people back. Landslips caused by deforestation, and a leaky water system, meant the town had to be abandoned in 1963, and it's still on the slide.

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Guided visits are possible, but you'll need to don a hard hat and watch your step as you peer into houses that remain much as they were left. When you climb past the town's bakery, with tiled ovens still intact, up to the Castello tower at the top of the village, you get an awesome view of the ruins. Gazing at the remains of the San Nicola church, it's impossible not to feel moved.

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Il Maggio di San Giuliano
It's not all doom and gloom. Basilicata's isolation means it's rich in tradition with festivals harking back to Pagan times. May is the time for an ancient fertility ritual, known as the Maggio, the marriage of the king and queen of the forest, in the mountain village of Accettura. On Ascension Day, the townsfolk split into two and set off at dawn in opposite directions, walking around 15km into the heart of the forest.

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One lot cuts down a tall oak tree, known as the male or Maggio, and drags the 20m trunk back to the town with a team of 100 oxen. The others cut the sprouting top of a holly tree, the female or Cima, carry it back on their shoulders, stopping regularly, for fortifying slugs of wine. In theory the two teams are vying with each other to be first to town but, in reality, there's much eating, drinking and merry making on the way. It's a joyous occasion, each journey lasting most of the day, and there's music and dancing to keep them going.

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Once both trees have been brought to the village, they're paraded round the streets and then stowed out of sight of each other. Two days later they come together in an amphitheatre specially constructed for the purpose, and the holly queen is jointed to the top of the oak king and the resulting 30m pole raised in the air by a system of pullies. It's meant to symbolise the marriage of male and female and supposedly guarantees a good harvest.

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Around the same time, there's a procession from the church, led by the priest with bearers carrying the statue of San Giuliano, the patron saint of Accettura. In a perfect mixture of the sacred and the pagan, everyone gathers for mass and then the festivities begin, with local boys competing to scale the top of the super tree.

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Metaponto
Finally I travel to the Ionian Coast to visit the ancient Greek settlement of Metapontum, founded around 700 BC, and the place where Pythagoras died. Metaponto, as it's now known, is a bustling seaside resort, but you can still see the foundations of the old city, as well as 15 columns of the temple, Tavole Paladine, dedicated to the Goddess Hera. The city took the side of Hannibal so was destroyed by the Romans and until recently was nothing but a Malarial swamp. These days it's got a new lease of life with holidaymakers discovering its miles of white sand beaches. It seems that Basilicata won't remain Italy's best kept secret for long.

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Sant'Angelo Luxury Resort is a comfortable cave hotel in Matera.

Hotel Sextantio Grotte Della Civita
is more upmarket.

Discover Basilicata has tourist information about the region.
The Italian Tourism has information about the country.

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All pictures copyright Rupert Parker.