I’ve long forgotten most of the books I studied at school, but one volume I’ve always remembered is a true story by Italian doctor, author and painter Carlo Levi. Published in 1945, Christ Stopped at Eboli is the story of Levi’s year in the southern Italian province of Lucania – now Basilicata – exiled as a political prisoner in 1935 because of his objections to the Fascist regime.
His evocative descriptions conjure up a bygone way of life and the poverty that existed at the time in this poor rural region, far from Italy’s prosperous north. Levi’s book did much to highlight the living conditions of local peasants who felt they had been forgotten by the decision-makers in Rome. But he also fought to preserve the area’s rich heritage and helped launch a wave of regeneration during the 1950s.
Seventy years later, the Basilicata region is becoming increasingly popular with holidaymakers in search of a different kind of Italy. And top destination is Matera, which will make travel headlines next year as European Capital of Culture 2019, along with Plovdiv in Bulgaria.
Built on a steep hillside above the Gravina river, Matera is famous for its sassi cave houses, hollowed out of the limestone since Neolithic times and enlarged over the centuries with layer upon layer of ‘stacked’ houses, winding alleyways and hidden courtyards. Levi writes movingly about this extraordinary town, so half a lifetime after my Italian A-level course, I was delighted to see it for myself at last, as part of a two-centre walking and sightseeing adventure with Ramblers Walking Holidays.
New in spring 2018, the Ramblers Walking Holidays itinerary begins with three nights in Matera, followed by four nights at Alberobello in the neighbouring province of Apulia (Puglia). Both communities are united by a coveted UNESCO World Heritage listing for their rich history and unique style of housing – the sassi of Matera and the conical stone trulli of Alberobello. Originally built as temporary accommodation, trulli could be quickly dismantled in an age when permanent dwellings were heavily taxed.
Both towns are gems in their own way. Matera is a maze of steep alleyways, winding staircases and bijou courtyards that just invite exploration on foot. A number of museum trullis show life as it was in Levi’s time, and I was fascinated by his huge frieze of peasant life in the art museum. In Alberobello, I felt like Bilbo Baggins in Hobbiton as I meandered amongst whitewashed trulli, their conical roofs topped with decorative pinnacles and painted with religious and mystical symbols.
This excellent itinerary with Ramblers Holidays ticked all my boxes for culture, countryside and companionship. So here’s what to expect:
Graded level 4, the itinerary is billed as a Sightseeing and Walking Holiday and there’s a fairly even split between the two. On arrival in both towns, our tour leader took us on a brief orientation tour to pinpoint essential amenities such as shops for buying picnic provisions, cash machines, pharmacy etc. We also had a guided tour in each town with a knowledgeable local guide, with plenty of time for independent exploration.
There were two countryside walks in each location. The countryside around Matera is limestone and mostly open, so sunhat and sunscreen were essential for our short circular walk in the Murgia Archeological Park and the longer linear walk which offered views across the gorge to the town as well as the chance to see tiny churches hewn from the rock.
In Alberobello, there’s a visit by train to the local heritage towns of Martina Franca and Locorotonda, with a walk in-between. And two longer walks to discover the trulli, vineyards and cherry orchards of the surrounding countryside. I also liked the flexibility for the group to add other visits onto the itinerary. We unanimously decided against the baroque centre of Bari, only because of the 90 minute train journey involved. But agreed wholeheartedly on wine tasting in Alberobello and a visit by coach to the extraordinary Castellana caves, both payable locally and highly recommended.
The Albergo Italia in Matera is located right in the heart of the historic town with breathtaking views from the roof terrace and some of the bedrooms. My room looked over an inner courtyard but I was woken each morning to the delicious smell of freshly baked bread which seemed a fair exchange. This upper part of the town buzzes with visitors during the day but is blissfully quiet at night.
In Alberobello, everyone had their own trullo, located in the tranquil Aia Piccola district behind the baroque Basilica. I’d imagined sleeping in something akin to a round stone tent, so was delighted with my ‘hobbit house’ which boasted three pinnacles. Run by Charming Trulli, every trullo was individual and surprisingly spacious, so we enjoyed popping in and out of each other’s accommodation to compare styles. Mine had a bedroom, kitchenette, sitting area and bathroom, plus a tiny roof terrace with table and chairs for two, just right for my evening aperitif!
The package is half-board so walkers buy filled rolls from local delis and other picnic fare. Dinners are taken in local restaurants, a different one every night, and I was impressed with the variety of the set meals we were offered, many of which included wine and water. Classic fare was an imaginative first course of antipasti – a different choice in every restaurant – followed by a pasta dish or occasionally meat, and a dessert. Special diets can be accommodated with advance warning and our vegan walker was happy with her dishes.
By the end of the week I’d notched up 130km (80 miles) along the quiet streets and countryside trails of southern Italy and my Fitbit was in meltdown over this unexpected hike in my step count. Personally I can’t think of a better way to earn that fragrant plate of fresh pasta!
The ‘Matera and Alberobello’ week with Ramblers Walking Holidays starts from £1,215 per person including return flights, half board accommodation, local guides and local transport. Departures on 8 September 2018, 6 and 21 October 2018, plus 6 and 13 April 2019 and 25 May 2019. www.ramblersholidays.co.uk. 01707 331133.
Gillian spent a supremely restful night before departure at Bloc Hotel in Gatwick’s south terminal – www.blochotels.com
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Ramblers Walking Holidays