1950s, Matera, a town carved from the earth in the southern Italian region of
Basilicata, was declared la vergogna
nazionale: the shame of Italy. At the time, some 16,000 residents lived in Matera’s
sassi, districts distinguished by
their ancient, rock-cut dwellings, some of which were accessible only by a
trapdoor and ladder. Whole families shared the cramped, unlit spaces with
sheep, pigs and goats; starvation was rampant. Declared unsafe and unsanitary,
the sassi were evacuated in 1952.
few locals – and even fewer tourists – wanted to visit the sassi. But in the
1960s and 1970s, hippies moved into the derelict caves and began to lobby for restoration.
In the 1980s, the government passed laws preserving the sassi; Unesco dubbed the area a World Heritage site in 1993; and in 2003,
Mel Gibson filmed The Passion of the Christ here. Today, the sassi buzz with B&Bs, boutiques and
restaurants in the same rock-cut homes that were once symbols of shame and
unlike anywhere else. Virtually no other settlement in the world has been
occupied continuously for 9,000 years, and the city’s more than 150 rupestrian churches
and Neolithic caves are artistic and archaeological gems. Even so, the
challenges faced by Matera have been shared by other cities across the Italian
south. Perhaps its success in tourism could be, too.
In Italy, mezzogiorno means midday. It also refers
to the region that sprawls across southern Italy, as well as the islands of
Sicily and Sardinia. The name came about because the sun here shines so
brightly at noon. But for the past few centuries, metaphorical rays of sunshine
have been few: from the Middle Ages up until the unification of Italy in the
1860s, the area’s economy was based on feudal agriculture – even though the
wild, rocky Apennines make much of the land too difficult to cultivate. Things
got even worse after unification, when heavy-handed taxation and a lack of land
reform combined with a surge in corruption and organised crime to leave the
region far behind.
Italy’s continued popularity as a tourist destination – the country is currently
ranked fifth in the world, with 47.7 million
international visitors arriving in 2012 – the country’s southern part takes
only a small slice of that pie. In 2013, for example, revenues from tourism in
the Mezzogiorno added up to less than half of what was generated by Italy’s
central or northern regions. Yet as international travel booms, tourists are
starting to look further than Rome, Venice and Florence. “They want to see
something different, something new,” said Andrea Barsotti, owner of boutique
tour operator Kiss from
Italy. After all, the region’s offerings are vast and varied: ancient Greek
temples and medieval Norman castles, rolling vineyards and white sand beaches,
fresh produce and underrated wines. It just doesn’t have the name recognition
of its northern neighbours – yet.
Losito, the owner of tourism company Southern Visions Travel,
agreed. Five years ago, he said, few people had heard of Puglia, the region in
the heel of Italy’s boot – despite its many draws, including 800km of coastline
(more than any other region on Italy’s mainland) and 60 million olive trees (making
it Italy’s largest producer of olive oil). “But then, their second time or
third time into the country, they’re asking, ‘What can I find that is more
authentic than Tuscany or the Veneto?’” he said.
also benefiting from that change. The city offers far more than proximity to
Pompeii or the Amalfi Coast: attractions include what may be the finest archaeological museum in Italy, if not all Europe; three
medieval castles; jaw-droppingly delicious pizza and pastries; catacombs
far creepier than those in Rome; views of sparkling blue sea and striking Mount
Vesuvius; and an art museum where the collection of works by
greats such as Raphael, Michelangelo, Botticelli and Caravaggio are unrivalled
by any but Florence’s Uffizi. Even so, for
years, travellers associated Naples mostly with the tales of organised crime
and garbage strikes that they read about in the international media. If they
passed through at all, it was en route elsewhere, clutching their wallets
now venues for not just me, but everyone – Neapolitans included – to show their
city in a more positive light,” said Bonnie Alberts, a city transplant who
writes the popular blog Napoli
Unplugged. And this can be seen in rising visitor numbers: this Easter, for
bookings were some 5% higher than they were for Easter 2013, with 84% of
the city’s hotel rooms booked.
industry experts say that not all is rosy. The economic crisis has hit the
south particularly hard, and poor infrastructure – everything from badly paved
roads to a lack of rail connections – make transport difficult. This, however,
is slowly changing. In 2013, a new international airport opened in Comiso, in
southeastern Sicily, while carriers like Alitalia, Ryanair and Vueling are
expanding their routes to southern airports every year.
importantly, Italy itself may be awakening to the tourism opportunities that
exist in the south. In 2013, Italy’s Ministry for Regional Affairs, Tourism and
Sport published a strategic plan for tourism in Italy – the first one ever compiled. These
recommendations are expected to create the backbone for tourism policy going
One of the study’s
overarching suggestions? Focus on southern Italy. “Italy has in fact an
enormous untapped potential, mainly in the south,” the report stated. Specific
recommendations include taking on public-private sponsorships to manage and
develop cultural sites such as the Unesco-inscribed Royal Palace of Caserta – the largest 18th-century palace in Europe – and to
establish new tourist destinations in the region.
isn’t yet as competitive in the Mezzogiorno as it could be – or should be. But for
now, one thing is sure: for the first time since the Grand Tour of the 18th Century, the region is,
once again, on savvy travellers’ radars – and cities like Matera are no longer
the shame of Italy.
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