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Hidden Beauty, Basilicata

Rolling green meadows, craggy mountains and an exquisite coastline pounded by the Tyrrhenian and Ionian Seas. Basilicata is a quintessential Italian beauty.

Matera is one of the highlights and figures in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. The cave churches here served as refuges in the Middle Ages for monks who had to flee from invaders.They literally ‘dug in,’ excavating individual cells, tiny chapels and even some spacious churches in the hills, valleys and ravines around Matera.

There are around 155 of these unique excavations, many adorned with some of the finest Byzantine decorations and frescoes, just beyond the southeastern edge of town. While some are crumbling, others have survived the ravages of time. The Crypt of the Original Sin contains what is probably the most important 10th century fresco cycle. Visit the Sant’Eustachio cave villages and be transported to a different era. The outside of the 11th century Madonna della Croce looks like a prehistoric rocky mound, but the interior is etched with delicate frescoes. Santa Maria della Valle, the largest cave church, even has a cour tyard garden!

Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano may look like typical Italian hill towns but a closer look reveals that the ‘houses’ here are windowless grottoes with damp walls and earthen floors. In the distant past, humans and animals probably shared the same space! However, the sophisticated hydraulic systems (that kept water perennially fresh and cool) installed by the inhabitants indicate age-old wisdom. Till 1952, 15,000 people were still living in these houses until the government declared them unhealthy and unfit for use. There are several places where you can visit a typically furnished sasso or stone house especially the one in Vico Solitario 12, in Sasso Caveoso.

Other sights worth taking in are the incomplete 15th century castle, the D’Errica Gallery of Neapolitan art in Palazzo Lanfranchi and a handful of churches of Purgatory, St. Francis of Assisi, S. Lucia and Materdomini and the town cathedral. One of the last buildings erected in the Apulian-Romanesque style, the cathedral has an elegant façade, a beautifully carved 15th century choir, several 12th century frescoes and a stone Nativity Scene dating from 1534. It is a charming work of folk art that was probably inspired by the inhabitants of sassi di Matera.

One good reason to make a quick dash to Metaponto is to pay homage to Pythagoras, the man responsible for giving us sleepless nights when we struggled with geometry in our school days! It is said that Pythogoras spent the last few years of his life here. Then saunter off for a day in the sun to the sandy beaches of Lido di Metaponto.

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