We’ve been to Pompeii before, but never previously heard of the UNESCO World Heritage site at Paestum a bit further south in Campania.
And it’s breathtaking. And the peaceful, beautiful setting – on this December day almost empty of tourists – made it a real highlight of our travels so far. We can’t do better than show you four of our pictures.
The Greeks were the first to press olives over 5,000 years ago. Their traditional way of pressing hasn’t changed much since then and still produces some of the finest olive oils in the world.
At Pisciotta – a beautiful coastal town in Campania, not even mentioned in our guide book – 81 year old Genaro, the father of our Airbnb host, Luigi, showed us round the ancient olive grinder and press in the basement of his house.
A donkey used to turn the huge grinding mills, to crush the olives to create the olive paste, which was then put into the olive press to create Extra Virgin (the first press), then Virgin (second press) and then ordinary olive oil (Subsequent pressings).
Luigi told us that the trees Around Pisciotta are amongst the largest olive trees in the world, but they produce the smallest olives. And 2016 has been a very bad harvest: no one knows why.
We really loved driving up the western coasts of Calabria and then Basilicata. Wonderful scenery, lovely coastal towns – we could see ourselves coming back to Praia a Mara – and then the hair-pin drive up to the Statue of Christ the Redeemer in Maratea.
Made of concrete with a Carrara marble covering, it’s slightly smaller than the one in Rio.
It was cold and damp in our AirBnB; we went out to the car to get our sleeping-bags to keep us warm in bed.
But this felt right – here in Papasidero – a bleak ancient hill-town 40 minutes from the sea up a dark forest valley.
We purposely wanted a stop that was different. And the unexpected funeral preocession through the steep alleyways set the tone. Everywhere was empty, derelict and grim. As we wandered around we only had two stray dogs for company.
In the poorest region of Italy this is life for many – a far cry from the fashion malls of Milan or the beaches of the Amalfi Coast.
Driving up the coast of Calabria we went off the guide book to walk around an ancient deserted town on a rocky outcrop.
Thankfully there were some battered information signs: its name is Ruderi di Cirella Vecchia. Built in 649 in the reign of Pope Martin 1, it was an early outpost of Magna Grecia but since the town’s hayday, it’s been the centre of a number of attacks; by the Turks in 1576, the French in 1806 and finally the British in 1808, which caused the inhabitants to pack up and move to an easier life on the coast.
In the UK these ruins would be a prime tourist attraction with a steep entry fee. In Italy they are just another neglected gem.
How many treasures of the ancient world are lying at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea?
At the Museo Nazionale della Magna Greciaare in Reggio di Calabria are possibly the finest examples of ancient Greek sculpture: the BronzidiRiace. It was a chemist from Rome who discovered them in 1972 whilst snorkelling near Riace, Calabria.
The two full-size Greek bronzes of naked bearded warriors, cast around 450 BC are displayed inside an earthquake-proof microclimate room. And we had to go through a decontamination room first, but how this actually worked was beyond us.
We’ve reached the toe of Italy and tomorrow take the ferry to Sicily.
The day started with an amazing sunrise over the Ionian Sea just outside our hotel and ended in Scilla – the central rock here is said to be the lair of the mythical six-headed sea monster who drowned sailers as they navigated the Strait of Messina.
Matera is a place that gets you to question what we want from historic towns; life and rejuvenation or preserved storytelling.
When we were born Matera was the byword for squalor in Italy – a national disgrace a bit like the Gorbals in Glasgow. Families lived in cave dwellings, malaria was common and infant mortality levels (44%) shocked Western Europe. Action followed of course – thousands were forcibly evicted and the slum areas – known as the Sassi – were closed down.
And it’s this recent, emotional history that attracted us. We went to the viewpoint on the other side of the gorge at first light to look across at the cave dwellings and felt transported to biblical times. We walked around the oldest and poorest of the Sassi – Sasso Caveoso – and were still able to enter many of the deserted cave dwellings.
Hilary on the other side of the gorge
Some of the deserted homes
Roger goes inside an abandoned cave dwelling
Roger explores the oldest Sassi
But elsewhere the Sassi are being rejuvenated; restaurants, wine bars and cool hotels are opening in time for the 2019 celebration of the European City of Culture. Of course, we applaud the rebirth of these areas but do we want the physical evidence of the 20th Century story of Matera to be completely erased and for Matera to become just like every other freshly preserved Italian tourist town.