By: Tony Traficante, ISDA Contributing Editor
As a kid, I knew nothing about Basilicata or that it was a Region of Italy. I only recognized the name as being the family dialect. The family often spoke of “Rionero,” their hometown, one small village of Basilicata, north of Potenza. They talked, also, of Monticchio, which I gather was an alpine park area with a natural lake. Not sure how they ever got there; no one had wheels, “neanche un ciucio,” not even a donkey.
Basilicata, also known by its Roman name, Lucania, was one of the smaller and poorer of Italy’s 20 regions. It has two provinces, Potenza and Matera, and a multitude of small, ancient villages. Geographically, it is Italy’s “in-step” stretching from the majestic mountains in the north, to beautiful and remote beaches in the southern border along the Ionian Sea.
The region is a diversity of harsh, but beautiful geographical and archeological sites. Deprived for years of commerce and industry, ignored by the central government, and slammed by an abundance of natural disasters, its economy was a disaster. Any wonder that many of its citizens emigrated to America.
Then, too, Basilicata was hindered by the lack of a major airport, port facility, and terrible railroad service. Mussolini found it a perfect haven for his political antagonists during WWII. Carlo Levi, an internationally recognized Italian writer, doctor and painter, was banished to Basilicata. In 1945, Levi wrote his controversial book “Christ Stopped at Eboli,” exposing the horrid living conditions and extreme poverty witnessed in parts of Basilicata.
My first visit to Basilicata in 1960, conditions, as described by Levi, hadn’t changed much. In particular, I was appalled by the living conditions of relatives and neighbors in Rionero In Vultura. My Uncle’s home was no more than a one-room efficiency, without the amenities, built of rock and concrete up against a hillside. Beds, kitchen, and a tiny sitting area occupied this space, as did a cabinet in a corner enclosing a commode. On the floor below were housed a couple of farm animals—a cow, a goat and a few chickens.
Since there were no bathing facilities, I used the public baths at the piazza. An old lady stood guard to hand out towels and collect the fees of about l00 lire (at that time around 20 cents).
Maybe it was because of their past, one of invaders and foreign domination, that caused the Rionero citizens to be suspicious of outsiders. I will explain an experience when I first arrived in the piazza of Rionero to locate my relatives. It took two hours in a coffee bar before I got any information! I got nowhere with the Barista, and he passed me off on his boss: a tall, stern-looking “signora.” What a tough cookie she was! She demanded to know who I was, why I was looking for these people, and what my business was with them. Huh!
After some tough negotiating, the Lady reluctantly acquiesced, then commanded, “stata qua,” stay put, and scurried off. About half an hour later, and another third espresso, “La donna,” returned and instructed, “venga con me,” come with me. Without further ado or words, we arrived at the home of my uncle.
But, 19 years later, in 1979, I returned to Basilicata and was impressed with the dramatic, up-to-date improvements made throughout the Region, especially in Rionero! Rionero had morphed from an impoverished agrarian village to an attractive modern community. Gone were the concrete and rock homes and the public bath. Construction of new homes and small businesses had exploded all over the countryside.
Basilicata, characteristically a mountainous region with two seas at its borders, the Ionian on one side, the Tyrrhenian on the other, was blessed with rich fertile lands. The cuisine remains fundamental, but somewhat spicy, with pasta, vegetables, cheese, and the occasional game meat, the mainstay at the Region’s table. Their wines and cheese are excellent and renowned.
It took years, but today Basilicata is a new land of beauty, with contemporary amenities, and friendly people enjoying the prosperity it was denied for years. There are many interesting geographical and archaeological ruins around the region, the better known are the Sassi and cave homes of Matera.
With help from UNESCO, the European and Italian governments, and some Hollywood film producers, Basilicata has made tremendous improvements for its people. And continues with the preservation and restoration of many of its classical, natural and historical habitats.