History, Art & Landscapes
A Day Trip Through Vulture

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Ripalimosani The ancient Romans and the Normans knew the province of Potenza as an important way station along the route from East to West. Both these cultures left countless reminders of their presence, but sadly, Potenza is today most commonly associated with the devastating earthquake that changed it forever in 1980. Then as in past centuries, entire towns were leveled, never to be built again. This is a very poor region, so still today you can see the signs of the natural disaster that so cruelly penalized the area's kind and friendly inhabitants. The other thing you can see, however, is the spectacular landscape that often accompanies earthquakes. The Vulture mountain range is the most memorable example, with its seven peaks strung out in a semi-circle around two sparkling volcanic lakes. Traveling north on the Potenza-Candela superstrada, the first time you will see this breathtaking site is just after you pass the turnoff for Castellagopesole. Stretched in front of you as far as the eye can see will be vast cultivated fields, vineyards, olive groves, lava formations, tiny ancient towns, Emperor Frederick II's massive Swabian castle, and the densely wooded slopes of the Vulture itself.

Continuing along the superstrada, you'll come to Rionero, a major fueling stop for the Roman legions. In the first century AD, local civil wars plummeted the town into an obscurity that it would not crawl out of until the 12th century. This second flourish was abruptly extinguished in 1316, when the feudal owner of Atella declared it a duty-free municipality. It might not surprise you that virtually to the man, Rionero's inhabitants moved their families to the nearby tax haven. Their former home remained a ghost town until the 16th century, when it was discovered by Albanian immigrants, who eventually brought its population back to 9000 souls. Today it is only slightly larger, and like its neighbors Ripascandida, Machito and Barile, it is heavily influenced by the Albanian traditions that brought it back from the grave.

Rionero is a fine place to examine the effects of the massive earthquakes that slammed through here in 1694, 1731, 1783, 1805, 1837 and of course, 1980. Everywhere you look you will see buildings with different "layers" of restoration. For example, the SS. Sacramento church has two naves today, but for all the centuries that it was an important local center of the Greek Orthodox rites, it had only one. The Chiesa Madre was rebuilt in 1695, when the diocese "asked" all the affluent local families to underwrite the expense of the project. Naturally, you'll see a chapel dedicated to each of them. The façade was redone in 1763. The churches of Annunziata and S. Nicola date from the same era. If it's open, peek into the Casa di Giustino Fortunato, a gracious 19th-century home that now houses the town library.

As you leave on SS93, you'll come immediately to the turnoff for S. Antonio Abate. Some excellent gothic features have survived in this Benedictine abbey. Continuing on SS93, you'll soon spot a cluster of salmon-and-white houses clinging to a grassy hillside. This is the town of Barile, home to 3000 people. The best time to be here is on Good Friday, when they re-enact the Albanian Easter rituals. The town boasts a small polygonal church and a lovely fountain, but its most unique attractions are undoubtedly the caves that line the countryside, visible as soon as you continue along SS93 towards Rapolla. Reached by a network of hand-carved steps, these grottos were excavated by the Albanians and served as their first homes. Eventually many of the primitive caves were enlarged to have several fairly well-furnished rooms. Luckily their inhabitants finally managed to move out into the light of day, and modern Barilesi use them as first-class wine cellars.

Coming up on the righthand side of the road is the 15th-century church of the Madonna of Constantinople, which houses an interesting painting of the Virgin Mary. Also a creation of the industrious Albanians, it is visited by thousands of pilgrims every August 15.

If you're here in the fall, the next stretch of the trip is truly memorable. To your left are the mountains, whose dense woods form a tapestry of gold, wine red, amber and vermilion; to your right, fruit-laden olive groves alternate with rows of harvested vineyards. By the way, even these panoramas are the work of the Albanians: the ancient Greek aglianico grapes they brought with them produce a well-known red wine that has been DOC since 1971. Try to taste it at a neighborhood restaurant, or stop in at the wine shops of Rionero and Barile and purchase some for future picnics. Stock up on the local Ogliarola olive oil too; it is so light and pure that the region is trying to establish a DOC rating for it.

Five miles down the road lies Rapolla, a charming medieval village whose narrow alleys climb straight up to the cathedral overlooking the entire valley. Built in the 13th century by Melchiorre da Montalbano (an art patron whom we might dub the Lorenzo il Magnifico di Vulture), the cathedral has been rebuilt countless times, but it still has its lovely Romanesque façade and its belltower, erected in 1209 by Sarolo da Muro Lucano, who also designed the bas reliefs of the Original Sin and the Annunciation inside. Also visit the nearby Norman church of S. Lucia.

From Rapolla we take SS303 towards Melfi. Before you reach the town, take a brief detour to see the church of S. Margherita, a fine example of the grotto churches excavated by the Basilian hermits who populated this entire region from 1100 to 1300.

It's barely two miles from here to Melfi, certainly the artistic highlight of our 30-mile journey. The whole town is a delightful treasure trove of beautiful details such as the medieval staircase and doorways in Largo La Norma or the wellheads in Via della Gioia. But these small jewels are overshadowed by the massive 11th-century castle. A polygon surmounted by seven storybook turrets, it houses a National Museum full of prehistoric and Roman artifacts. From one side of the castle you can walk along a little lane that hugs the inside of the 13th-century town walls, many of which are still intact. Four ancient gates adorn the walls; the most beautiful is probably the Venosian door. Make sure to see the cathedral. Built in the 12th century, it has a Baroque façade dating from 1735. Inside, several of the original arches have survived, as has the delightful belltower, built in 1153 and considered one of the finest examples of Norman art in southern Italy.

Ofanto Valley From Melfi we take SS401 towards Monticchio Bagni. Look off to the right here and you might imagine you are in Umbria: this is the beautiful Ofanto Valley. To get the very best vantage point, take a short detour to Foggiano. Here you'll be able to see the Ofanto River where it marks the border of Basilicata and Campania. Heading back to SS401, you'll pass through minuscule S. Giorgio, named after its equally tiny and picturesque church. About two miles farther down the road is the not very attractive factory where Gaudianello mineral water is bottled. Keep an eye out for the public fountain, which is the only spot where you can fill a few bottles with the excellent mineral water that flows beneath the entire Vulture region.

Continue on to the inappropriately named Monticchio Bagni, where there are no longer any thermal baths. Here we turn onto SS167 and suddenly the landscape changes dramatically as the woods, olive groves and vineyards give way to vast cultivated fields dominated by solitary stone farmhouses. You might think you were in southern Tuscany! Even more amazing is that this startling change of topography can actually be attributed to one family, who purchased all this land from the state in the early 1800s. Determined to bring industrial agriculture to Basilicata, these "foreigners" (they were from the Marches) leveled the forests and towns, planted the resulting fields and imported their own farmers to live in the large houses that are so totally out of place here. Many of these homes are now abandoned, but the locals still call them le case marchigiane (houses from the Marches).

The last leg of our drive takes us to beautiful Lago Grande and Lago Piccolo, the adjacent lakes that fill a pair of dead volcano craters about 2000 feet above sea level. If you left Potenza in the morning, this would be a great place to have a picnic lunch. Afterwards, take a stroll across the narrow isthmus that separates the two lakes, past the ruins of the Benedictine abbey established here in the 1100s in an attempt to halt the advance of the Greek Basilians who built those cave churches like S. Margherita. From here we strongly suggest you continue onward to visit St. Michael's Abbey, the large white building set at the bottom of the hill. It was originally built by the Benedictines, who lived here side-by-side but not quite peacefully with the Basilians they had been sent to vanquish. It seems faith alone could not do the job, and it was not until the Norman conquest that the Basilians retreated. After that the abbey passed to the Capuchins, who built the present structure in the 17th century. When the state of Italy was founded and most of the monastic orders in the south were abolished, the abbey became a public building. During this century it has been restored to a much closer resemblance of its original form. You can visit the original chapel, and as you wander through the rest of the complex, you'll glimpse breathtaking views of the two lakes below.

For wine and local produce, try:

Azienda Vinicola Armando Martino, Via L. La Vista, Rionero
Casa Vinicola D'Angelo, Via Provinciale 8, Rionero
Cantina Sociale del Vulture, C. da S. Francesco, Rionero
Azienda Vinicola Paternoster, Via Nazionale 1, Barile
Consorzio Viticoltori Associati del Vulture, SS93, Barile
Soc. Coop Agricoltura Biologica (for organic products), Largo Stazione 4, Barile

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