It is common knowledge that in the South of Italy, the richness, variety and intensity of the landscapes are combined with an equally rich and unique gastronomic heritage. That stretch of land overlooking the Ionian Sea, between the tip and the heel of the boot, with the Murge Plateau in the north and the Sila National Park in the south, is an area that spans Puglia, Basilicata and Calabria. It offers an excellent itinerary through the countryside, ancient villages, agricultural and food museums and the archaeological sites of Magna Graecia, ending with a dip in the blue Mediterranean.
A route of about 600 km that runs from the Adriatic to the Ionian Sea passes through stretches of lunar-like landscape. These are the endless undulating yellow and brown tracts of the Murge Plateau in the Alta Murgia National Park of Puglia. Here, mile upon mile of unobstructed views that convey a sense of bewilderment and loneliness, not unlike the immense expanses of central Asia. After all, if you think of the steppe, that is what comes to mind. Believe or not, we also have something very similar mirrored in these wide, open spaces in Italy. To tell the truth, there is only one exception: Castel del Monte, a UNESCO heritage site since 1996. It rises up on a hill in the middle of the Murge Plain, an unexpected vision in this vast expanse. Continuing south, we enter the windswept Parco della Murgia Materana in Basilicata, where the wind blows over the rocks unchecked by trees and plants and whirling up to the Stones of Matera, howling as it whistles through the city’s natural caves, undisputed masterpieces of spontaneous architecture and urban planning. Here, the land is hard and arid. It is a land of shepherds and flocks of sheep reminiscent of a scene from old western movies, with a canyon carved out by the Gravina river as a backdrop. From here, you descend along the fertile plain of Metapontino that leads to the sea. The barren landscapes give way to the green Mediterranean scrubland with pine forests that extend up to the golden sands of the Ionian coast. The beaches of Marina di Ginosa, Metaponto, a city of Magna Graecia with ancient ruins, and Policoro, with its archaeological museum stretch along the coastline.
A detour to the inland area of Basilicata on the border with Calabria is ideal for exploring beautiful villages such as Aliano and Valsinni, awarded the Touring Club’s Orange Flag – a certification that rewards the excellence of small villages in terms of tourist services and the environment. Both are literary places to visit and browse: Aliano, high above the ravines, is described in the novel, Christ Stopped at Eboli, by the author, Carlo Levi, who chose it as his final resting place. It is also home to the Carlo Levi Literary Park. Valsinni, perched on the very end of the Pollino Natural Park, is home to the Castello di Morra, medieval alleys and the Isabella Morra Literary Park, one of the most original female exponents of 16th century lyricism.
Going back to the coast and passing through the ancient city of Sybaris with its archaeological park, is Rossano, which overlooks the Ionian Sea, with its pristine waters and beautiful, deserted beaches. Behind it are the majestic mountains of the Sila National Park, a landscape rather more “Nordic” features. Sila, in fact, is not unlike southern Scandinavia. Its environment is very different from the rest of the region, with a slightly undulating granite plateau and wooded mountains which, in summer – were it not for the lack of purple heather – could be mistaken for Scotland, and are ideal for skiing in winter.
Against this magnificent backdrop are four towns, Andria overlooking the Adriatic Sea, Altamura, in the inland area close to the Alta Murgia, Pisticci Scalo near Matera, and Rossano. They are united by the presence of food museums – each celebrating the uniqueness and authenticity of local products – which are a testament to the link between people and landscape in a world where land and ancient history merge.
The Mucci Giovanni Confetto Museum in Andria
In the ancient town of Andria, in Puglia, just a short distance from the Norman cathedral, is the Museo del Confetto, opened in 2004 in the rooms beneath the old confectionery which tells the story of the family, the sugared almonds and the Mucci company. The award-winning sugared almond factory was inaugurated in 1894, realizing the dream of Nicola Mucci. In the 1930s, the inimitable Tenerelli Mucci sugared almonds were created, made with almonds from Toritto and PGI Piedmont hazelnuts, coated in dark and white chocolate, and a thin layer of colored jam. In 1945, Nicola’s son, Giovanni, inherited the factory and determined its success. The sugared almonds became famous and demand soared across first regional and, later, national borders. Today, the company is run by Giovanni’s children and grandchildren, who have moved the production plant to Trani. Here they produce over 200 types of sugared almonds and dragées following ancient artisan recipes and using the best raw materials and exclusively natural colorings and flavorings. In the museum, while browsing among the old machinery, tools and molds of all shapes and sizes, objects and family mementos, visitors walk through a welcoming space that is like a cabinet of curiosities. The inebriating aroma of sugar, chocolate and cinnamon lingers in the air, and visitors can get caught up in imagining what lies behind such a tiny sweet. Here, curiosity, a passion for all things sweet and knowledge and taste can lead to the discovery of something unexpected: how sugared almonds are made, how they remain so soft both inside and out, how they retain their hazelnut and almond fragrance. And once this sweet experience is over, all that is left to do is head further south, to visit Castel del Monte. One of the most spectacular castles in Puglia. Majestic and solitary, it was built by Frederick II of Swabia as a testament to his power.
The Bread Museum of Vito Forte, Altamura
Altamura is inextricably linked to bread, although the town, with its understated buildings and ancient ovens, also has other claims to fame, such as the Altamura quarry, a fossil site where dinosaur footprints have been found, along with Norman and Aragonese artifacts. The remains of a human skeleton known as the Man of Altamura from the Paleolithic age (around 200,000 years ago) were found around 20 years ago, in the cave of Lamalunga. Then, there is its marvelous Romanesque Cathedral, also home to the Diocesan Museum. It is the only church in Puglia expressly commissioned by Frederick II, built in during the rebuilding of the city in 1232. The numerous renovations have not dramatically changed the original lines of the Apulian Romanesque style, defined by some as “Frederician” because of how strongly it was influenced by the emperor’s personality. Nevertheless, the best-known product of Altamura is what Horace called “the best bread in the world”: the big loaf of bread that comes in two typical shapes: “cappello del prete” (priest’s hat) or “crocavallato” (crossed), thick and crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Here, in the Murge area, there are pastures, meadows and rocks that tell stories of farmers who work the land and grow ancient grains. It is the conjunction of environmental and landscape factors of this area that creates the ground durum wheat semolina used to prepare this special bread, together with a sourdough starter, water and salt, strictly following the five phases of bread making. This is secret behind the unmistakable toasted flavor that comes from baking this bread in oak wood and which keeps its fragrance for a week.
And that is exactly what Vito Forte did, an 11-year-old boy who rode his bicycle to collect the bread kneaded by housewives and take it to one of the oldest medieval ovens in Altamura.
A notarial deed provides evidence of the oven’s long history, stating that, in 1300, a baker named Giovanni and his wife, Barisana, donated half of the ownership of the oven to the church of Santa Maria Assunta, the Cathedral of Altamura. This donation earned the oven the moniker of “U’ furn d’ la chjisa ranne” (the oven of the big church). The Bread Museum of Altamura is dedicated to Vito Forte, who went from being a hard-working child with a dream, to an ambassador of bread all over the world. The ancient oven has been restored to tell the magical story of his entrepreneurial success, which is also one of the many stories of Italian passion, skill and culture.
Amaro Lucano and Essenza Lucano in Pisticci
The story of Essenza could seem a fairy tale set in a faraway country, but everything that happened in Pisticci, a village perched above hills marked by ravines around 50 km from Matera, is true. It was here, in 1894, that Amaro Lucano, the famous digestif, was born and later became a brand exported all over the world. Essenza is the home of Lucano, a place created as an extension of the production plant built in the 1960s. This unique exhibition space succeeds in bringing to life over 125 years of the Vena family and their product’s history using innovation and tradition, multimedia and ancient flavors. And it does so right from the start, with its herb garden located right at the entrance where by touching and smelling the 30 herbs of Amaro Lucano visitors have the chance to walk in the footsteps of the founder, great-grandfather Pasquale. It is because of his innate passion for the art of confectionery, so closely linked to the art of liquor making, that at the end of the nineteenth century Pasquale Vena learned all about medicinal herbs and natural ingredients while working in a well-known confectionery shop in Naples and attending the Salerno School. When he returned to Pisticci with his newly-acquired knowledge, he invented the recipe – which is still a secret today – in the back of the family’s biscuit factory, creating the perfect blend of a balanced yet strong taste, with unmistakable citrus and floral notes. He worked until he obtained a digestif that could conjure up the bouquet of flavors of his land. The digestif became popular and was enjoyed throughout Italy, and the company became the official supplier of the House of Savoy and the King. The King’s appreciation was such that he knighted Pasquale Vena. Today, thanks to the same determination and passion of its founder, the fourth generation of the Vena family has successfully expanded the business on a large scale. Initially, exporting the product around the world was not easy. It was the passion of the people of Matera and Basilicata in general, who took great pride in a product that was a symbol of their land and their traditions, that allowed Amaro Lucano to spread quickly. Today, it is proudly present in all 5 continents, with the greatest concentration in the United States, China and Germany. So, as the brand’s famous slogan says, what more do you want from life? A Lucano!
The Giorgio Amarelli Museum of Licorice in Rossano
Here is another story about the indissoluble bond between a man and his land, because it is right here along the Ionian coast that wild licorice plants grow. And licorice is forever linked to the saga and name of the Amarelli family. In fact, it was Baron Nicola Amarelli who had the brilliant idea of extracting the juice from the root, which led him to found Concio, the small factory conceived to carry out this process, in 1713. In 1907, Amarelli introduced a series of technological innovations aimed at increasing production while safeguarding its artisan character, which is preserved to this day thanks to the supervision of a master licorice-maker over the manufacturing processes, which is totally free of chemicals. In addition to raw sticks and pure licorice, the company started producing licorice sugared almonds (with or without aniseed and mint), liqueur, chocolate and cookies. At the same time, the production process was modernized and the company was internationalized, while opening it up to top-level catering thanks to its constant focus on environmentally-friendly packaging with retro images. The advent of electronics shifted Amarelli’s focus towards an increasingly sophisticated and technological future. The company’s efforts in this sphere were recognized with the Guggenheim Enterprise and Culture Prize in 2001, and, in 2004, the Italian Postal Service issued a stamp to celebrate the Giorgio Amarelli Licorice Museum. Today, the Amarelli family is also committed to promoting the local area through a joint agreement between the Amarelli Museum of Licorice, the Diocesan Museum and the Codex Purpureus Rossanensis in Rossano (an illuminated codex recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site), and the Ducal Castle of Corigliano Calabro.