Lovers of antiquity should make a point of visiting Basilicata's scant 19-mile coastline, for it harbors what remains of Herecleia and Metapontum, two illustrious centers of Magna Graecia.
Probably at some point in the 7th century BC, Greek settlers began to wash up on the shores of southern Italy, establishing primitive outposts of which there is virtually no trace today. Not until a century later do we have recorded information about these traders, farmers and craftsmen, who went on to found Sybaris, Poseidonia (now known as Paestum), Crotone and eventually, Naples. It is fascinating to study the artifacts they have left behind, because they are clearly Hellenic yet marked with their own "provincial" themes and shapes. You can familiarize yourself with the culture at the Museo Nazionale della Sirtide, reached from Calabria by traveling east on SS106 to Policoro and then following the signs.
After visiting the museum, take a short walk behind the building and visit the remains of Herecleia, a settlement founded in the 5th century BC. There is not a lot to see in the excavations, but you will make up for that by driving 15 miles farther east along SS106, to Metaponto. A full three centuries older than Herecleia, this was one of the most important towns in Magna Graecia. Today it is spread out across a vast expanse of fields, where flowers sparkle amongst the marble temples, walls, columns, capitals and a partially-restored theatre.
The people who built and used these buildings were prevalently farmers, rendered fairly prosperous thanks to the five major rivers that empty into the Ionian Sea here. Archeologists have found signs of no less than 700 property boundaries, many on either side of SS106, which you should continue on for another mile to the Antiquarium. Here, following the footpath along the museum's right flank, you'll reach the most impressive site of Metapontum, the 6th century BC Tavole Palatine temple.
Just outside Policoro, SS106 intersects SS598, which you can take inland for about 45 miles, following the Agri River to the site of ancient Grumentum. Lovers of Roman mosaics will find some beautiful examples at this site, which is one of the few in Italy to have survived all these years with absolutely no later additions or alterations. Its theatre, forum, baths and amphitheatre glow in their peaceful green meadow, across the valley from the medieval "new" town.
In Molise, a place well worth visiting is Sepino, easily reachable on SS17 from Benevento (25 m.) or Isernia (30 m.). In an hour or two, you can stroll through the ruins of ancient Saepinum and Saipins, and see all four ancient city gates as well as a basilica, temple, shopping center, two thermal baths, a theatre, forum, mill, a mausoleum and several monuments. Like Ostia Antica (although not as extensive), it offers a fascinating glimpse into everyday ancient life.
Last on our short list is beautiful Venosa, the ancient Venusia. The poet Horace was born here, in a house whose scanty remains you can visit in the "new" town. But don't stop there: continue beyond the modern town to the Imperial Roman settlement, whose many attractions include a museum, baths, amphitheatre, Hebrew and Christian catacombs, and a paleolithic park. [Click Here to See a Virtual Tour]
After an exciting day of tracing ancient footsteps, head for the provincial capital of Taranto. Click here for a selection of overnight lodgings.
Museo Nazionale della Sirtide (Via Colombo, Policoro) is open daily 9-1 in winter; daily 9-1 and 3:30-6 in summer.
Antiquarium di Metaponto is open Tues-Sun 9-12 and 2-5 in winter; Tues-Sun 9-1 and 3:30-6:30 in summer.