Battered, bruised and in love – Jonathan Schofield discovers the Basilicata region of southern Italy and gets a taste of festival life – Italian style

IFHow did I get here? More importantly how can I get out? The air is being squeezed from my lungs. I seem to be moving even though my feet aren’t touching the ground and the chanting around me is getting louder and louder. I’m in the thick of it, literally, at the climax of the week-long Madonna Della Bruna festival in Matera, a rugged, beautiful town in the Basilicata region of southern Italy.
At this point I’m beginning to question why, on this hot, sticky night, I joined the front of this  testosorene fueled crowd. Pale and badly dressed I clearly stand out. There are men laughing, pointing at me and repeating the word “Inglesi”. I fear the words that follow are “the poor fool has no idea what’s about to happen”.  And they’re right. What is a about to happen is a 700-year-old ritual where the men of the town charge towards a stunning, hand-made float, resembling a magnificent cathedral and rip it to shreds. Pulled by mules and led by 100 knights on horseback the float has been edging its way through the cobbled streets of Matera since 8pm. When the statue of the Madonna has been removed from the top it is no longer holy and the moment of frenzied destruction is close.
There’s some tension in the boiling atmosphere, boosted by the tens of thousands of coloured lights festooned over every building – making it seem like daylight, even now, close to midnight, in this small town packed with an extra 80,000 religious festival goers. I’m suddenly aware of my agnostic nature, but when the sweat-drenched, bare-chested man next to me asks if I’m Catholic, I tell him that I am tonight.
IFThe float arrives in the central square after its ritualistic three circuits of the church. This is the moment the riot police holding us back get out of the way and the carnage begins. The police make their way through the crowd in a way that would result in a public inquiry in the UK. Although for the past hour the frenzied chant aimed at them has been “you are Fascists and all dress the same” something they clearly don’t find funny.
There’s a surge behind me. I have no choice but start running towards the float. There are barriers on either side of the road so I can only go forwards. Unfortunately, a police officer, decked in riot gear is in my way. He drops his shoulder and uses all his weight to move me out of his way. I fall, unaware at this point I’ve broken a rib. Someone pulls me up. I’m in a stampede. I want to run for the float but look up and see it disintegrating under the might of hundreds of men. I spot a man leaping onto the float from a nearby balcony. I get shoved to the far side of the square, and there, pressed up against a window I decide to give up any ambition of taking a section of this sacred float – constructed by local craftsmen over the last year – back home. For those that do manage to rip an ephigy, column or angel from the paper machier float to take it home their families they will be blessed with good fortune and fertility. It’s a shame, I could really do with a dose of both.
A man, stripped to the waist, stumbles past, blood pouring from his head, clutching the Virgin Mary on his shoulder. It’s all very biblical.
IFThat adrenalin fuelled night in Matera was my second night in the Basilicata – Italy’s least explored region, which forms the instep of the boot, way down in the south of the country. Nestled between Campania and Puglia it looks like Tuscany with attitude. It is rugged and wild and the stunning towns and villages that dot the peaks of the hills are a little more lived in, earthy and all the more fascinating for being so.
I only had a day to explore Matera but it soon became clear that I would need a week to delve through the labarynth of complex streets and cave dwellings – known as the Sassi –  and the cathedrals and churches that somehow cling to the rocky landscape. A designated UNESCO World Heritage site, there can be few towns where you can witness the permanent presence of mankind over the past 10,000 years .
Inside one of the Sassi cave dwellingsThe town is a fascinating, atmospheric place. I knew I was hooked the moment I stepped into my room in the Hotel Sant’angleo. Carved into the rock, it was once the home of the Neolithic people that lived here – although without the whitewashed walls, fourposter bed and flatscreen TV. A traditional Sassi kitchen in MateraThe extensive cave dwelling districts of Matera are a traveller’s delight but back in the 1952 when nearly 20,000 lived here in squalid, malaria infested conditions, the national shame forced the government to remove every inhabitant. It was one of the biggest population displacements in European history and turned the Sassi into an overnight ghost town. Up until that point the caves had evolved from basic cave shelters, to homes, to churches, storage areas for wine and olives and in many cases dwellings of up to ten storeys high. One creative owner transformed a cave dwelling into a theatre for 150 people. Today the Sassi are once again being brought back to life. Many are being converted into modern homes, B&Bs, hotels and restaurants.
Exploring the intricate, bewildering streets it’s easy to see why Hollywood chose Matera as the setting for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ.
Perhaps the best description is penned by Carlo Levi, the doctor, writer and artist, who was exiled to the town by the Fascist regime in the 1930s. His book Christ Stopped at Eboli captures the poverty and superstition of the region while his description of Matera shocked the nation.
Matera's streets are a wonderful place to exploreToday the town is the perfect base to enjoy the best of the region’s history, culture and food and a great launch point into a dramatic landscape filled with ancient remains, snow-capped mountains and sun-drenched beaches.
The journey from Matera to the Parco Nationale Del Pollino in the south of the region close to Calabria hints at why Basilicata may have struggled for large numbers of tourists. There is little in the way of rail and motorway links – not so surprising in a landscape fractured with canyons, cutting deep, jagged cracks into the landscape and mountains that look the mountains a child would draw with their bald pinnacles jutting into the blue sky. Even the Romans struggled to conquer this beautiful but unforgiving land and its tough local inhabitants.
IFThe national park, Italy’s largest, is surprisingly lush and green and the deep ravines are still home to rare Appenine wolves, herds of wild horses and cats.
It is a great place to explore by foot, horse, bike or in a raft down one of its wild rivers. If you want the latter experience, as I did, head for the River Lao, which pours down the Raganello Gorge. The Lao Canyon Rafting Company run both tame sections of the river for the inexperienced and some of the wildest sections where the chances of a good soaking in pure, aqua blue mountain water are guaranteed.
Whitewater rafting and the occasional police baton charge might suggest this is an energetic place to visit. Don’t be fooled by my holiday needs, it is also a place where time seems to stand still; where ancient towns built by seafaring Greeks in the 8th century BC are dotted along the Ionian Coast. Sanctuary at Hera on the Ionian coastThe ancient remains of Metaponto, just a short drive south from Matera, was home to Pythagoras. It was also the first Greek city to overthrow a tyrant and set up a democratic system. In nearby Hereclea just along the coast the Romans were defeated by a combined Greek army using elephants as weapons of massive destruction – the likes of which legionnaires had never seen before.
The coast, with its long, wide beaches was a fabulous place to unwind, particularly
the stretch of Ionian coast at Circolo Velico – voted as one of Italy’s top ten beaches – where you can take part in snorkelling, dolphin spotting, waterskiing and scuba diving.  For those with a little more time sailing trips to the Greek coast, retracing ancient routes taken by the first Greek explorers, are available. Or, as I did, simply sit, soak up the sun, and nurse a broken rib with a gentle swim in the sea while planning next year’s visit.

Getting there

IF– Ryan air run daily flights from Stansted to Bari. From there connecting buses – including a free service which runs several times a day in summer – connect to Matera.

Must do’s

– For a luxury cave experience stay at Matera’s Hotel Sant’angelo – www.hotelsantangelosassi.it/en
– Experience the intensity of the Madonna Della Bruna Festival during the first week of July
– Spend a day or night touring the Sassi cave dwellings
– Visit the ancient Greek city of Metaponto
– Hike through the Pollino National Park or raft down the Lao River

For more information on the region go to www.discoverbasilicita.com.uk

About Jonathan Schofield

After 20 years working for newspaper, magazine and publishing companies Jonathan Schofield quit the commute, converted his shed into an office and went freelance. He now writes about travel, train networks, plant phenomics and fraud. When not in his shed he's usually in a canoe or on a bike.