BY Gerard Gough | July 12 | comments icon 1 COMMENT     print icon print


BASILICATA: home to triumph and tragedy

GERARD GOUGH brings us the second part of his report from the Basilicata region of southern Italy, an area that has historically had its equal share of prosperity and pathos

WHILE the town of Matera is rich enough in Italian history and culture to satisfy the keenest of visitors to the Basilicata region, if you take to the road and travel even a short distance, then the holiday experience can be intensified and given a greater authenticity.

Just over an hour away, I found myself in the forest that surrounds the town of Accettura, which was rather apt given that I was about to witness two very lucky trees get married. Yes the Feast of the Marriage of the Trees or Il Maggio di San Giuliano—to give it its native moniker—is one of the oldest festivals in Italy, having taken place for thousands of years.

An unusual marriage

Originally a pagan festival—deriving from the belief that trees are living beings and therefore able to come together in an act of love—it now forms part of the wider celebrations in honour of San Giuliano (St Julian), who is Accettura’s patron saint. The annual festival begins on the Feast of the Ascension whereby a procession of woodsmen head up to the nearby Montepiano forest to cut down the tall oak tree known as the maggio, (groom), before removing the bark and smoothing the trunk. Then, on Pentecost Sunday, another group of townsfolk go to the Gallipoli-Cognato forest on the other side of town to cut down the smaller holly tree, known as the cima (bride). On that day, the maggio is secured to pairs of oxen who drag it to the centre of the town, while, at the same time; the cima is carried on the shoulders of men towards Accettura.

As the cima processes down from the hills, the visitor is greeted by a lively and enthusiastic group of—mainly youthful—Accentturese people, who follow the men carrying the tree, providing colour, music, food and perhaps most importantly liquid refreshment, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. Unsurprisingly it is the former libation that is favoured by most of the young festival participants, whose decision to imbibe it in such vast quantities at such an early hour, came back to haunt them later on when they trudged their way up another hill towards Accettura.

The maggio procession, while containing less youthful followers, is no less colourful, with the oxen bedecked with flowers and San Giulano prayer cards, being guided along the procession route by local farmers who shout incomprehensible instructions to the animals, whose bells clatter and clang as they go. Along the way, the oxen stop at various points, which allows the farmers and the crowds to celebrate Mass in the forest and enjoy a picnic, with homemade food and wine, which the people are happy to share with anyone and everyone and is as good as you would taste in the region’s many excellent restaurants. Spiritual and physical hunger satisfied, both groups make their way towards the town, which is sadly where my participation in the festival ended.

On the Monday after Pentecost, both the maggio and cima—having already arrived in the town—are then cleaned and ready to be grafted together, or ‘married’ to put it less perfunctory. The following day, the two trees are joined together, with paper fliers tied to the top. A pulley system erects the newlyweds, who despite having only just celebrated their nuptials are shot at—by marksmen trying to hit the fliers—and climbed upon by a few brave souls trying to reach the top. The ‘marriage of the trees’ is one thing, but witnessing this annual loving relationship between man and nature at first hand is perhaps the true cause for celebration.

A town torn apart

Not far from Accettura, however, is the ghost town of Craco, where the harmonious relationship between man and nature has been, quite literally, destroyed. Lying some 25 miles inland from the Gulf of Taranto—the instep of the boot of Italy—the eerie sight of one of Italy’s many citta morta (dead cities) is a powerful sight to behold. From afar the town, which sits atop a hill 400m above the Cavone valley, looks like a once wonderful sculpture pockmarked with holes that is slowly being reclaimed by the countryside. However, it is only when you arrive at its once well-trodden cobbled streets though that the sense of mystery and abandonment begins to really seep through.

The former medieval settlement was not without its troubles, prior to a series of earthquakes and landslides forcing the majority of its residents to leave the town for good in 1963. In 1656 a plague struck the town, killing hundreds of its inhabitants. This was followed by centuries of civil strife, foreign occupation and poor agricultural conditions—sparking an exodus of its people to the US in 1922—a not to mention the geographical threat that continually hung over Craco.

As you are led through the gates, where signs warn of the danger of unauthorised access, the peculiarity and emptiness of Craco cloak you like the soft, warm Italian breeze. The sight of once grandiose buildings that have now fallen into disrepair, greets visitors to the town. Every now and then you will be given an indication as to the life of the person who once occupied a certain building, for example the tour guide informed us that the large discarded stove evident in crumbling edifices belonged to the local baker. What was even more startling was the site of the guide himself posing outside his former family home. It was a powerful image highlight of just how destructive nature had been here. The town’s Chiesa Madre di San Nicola Vescovo church is a similarly impressive sight. Although remaining relatively intact, its loose-tiled dome, crumbling brickwork and broken wooden doors hint at the religious life that no doubt permeated throughout Craco’s winding streets and alleyways. In stark contrast to the vivacity of Accettura and its vibrant festivities, Craco, even while bathed in the afternoon sunshine, displays a palpable sense of loss. Perhaps fittingly then, director Mel Gibson, in his 2004 film The Passion of the Christ chose the town as the setting for the scene where Judas Escariot brought his own life to an end after his betrayal of Jesus.

Scholars, slaves and sun worshippers

From Craco, heading towards the coast, another set of ruins—albeit many centuries older—begin to come into view, that of the ancient Greek settlement of Metaponto. Founded in the seventh century BC, the former rich and flourishing outpost is associated with the Greek intellectual Pythagoras, who arrived at there in 520BC. He founded a school, undertook some of his greatest work here and has made Metaponto famous for more than two centuries.

He is not the only famous name associated with the settlement however as the Punic Carthaginian military commander Hannibal is also heavily linked to the colony, which gave itself up to the Carthaginians in 207BC, before the Romans took it back a short time later. The slave-rebel Spartacus is also mentioned when talking about Metaponto as he sacked it in 72BC during the Servile War, after which it was abandoned and became submerged under alluvial sediments and was largely forgotten about until recently.

Excavation work at the site unearthed the remains of two temples, both dating from 570-480BC. Of the first, said to be dedicated to Apollo Lyceius, only the foundations remain. The second however, known as the Temple of Hera or Tavole Palatine (Palatine Tables) still has 15 columns standing and breathe life into this once historic settlement.

If you have had your fill of history, Metaponto also boasts a beautiful, long sandy beach where visitors can simply relax and watch the world go by. Or if you’d rather mix a little relaxation with some fine dining, then head to the town of Bernalda—famous for being the ancestral homeland of The Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola—where the excellent Giardino Giamperduto country house run by the Montemurro family will cater to your every need. Surely at the end of a day’s sightseeing, that is an offer you cannot refuse?


—Bari Airport can be reached from London Stansted with Ryanair ( and from London Gatwick with EasyJet ( and British Airways ( and provides a good base for visiting the many sites of interest in the Basilicata region.





Comments - One Response

  1. Antonio Salvatore says:

    As a resident of the Basilicata region, and a world traveller, I am astonished when I discover that a foreigner can write about my homeland with such an insight which betrays an inner love for lost memories, places and things, not to be easily found in locals.
    Great job, Mr Gough! Thank you on behalf of all ‘Lucans’.

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