Italy v France: Round Two

France is nice, I guess. Lavender fields and a vast wine country surely hold a certain appeal. But it’s Italy that captures the heart and feels like home. My cousin bought a house in a lovely little village in southern France, but when she comes to Basilicata, Italy she feels a pang of regret. How could she not, with so much home-spun seduction enveloping anyone who sets foot in the region?

Basilicata is a hidden gem tucked into the ankle of “the boot,” speckled with verdant valleys, deep forests, rolling hills, and alpine peaks. Yes, I know; the Dordogne can boast some similar natural splendors, too. And I’ll give you the beauty of castles and chateaux that litter the landscape there. Our peasant roots can’t really compete with that, though we do have a few impressive castles of our own; in fact, two of them were designed and built by Frederick II himself.

But, no. There’s no real parallel for Basilicata and the Dordogne—or even any other region of Italy for that matter. It’s like trying to compare mele and arancie. They’re two different frutte. But speaking of fruit, Basilicata has apples and oranges aplenty, as well as vibrant orchards of lemons, peaches, figs and apricots, along with miles of strawberries, melons, and tomatoes. Just as good (if not better) is the fact that we can take a walk in the nearby woods and find porcini mushrooms, black truffles and wild asparagus, free for the taking. Pretty nice basic ingredients for a delectable meal, I’d say.

Even my cousin admits that Basilicata’s cuisine is far more appealing than the duck liver and crepes that mark her region’s so-called culinary heights. As a vegetarian, she’s thrilled when she comes and partakes of the bounty that is produced here—plump eggplant, hearty legumes, and hand-formed pastas like cavatelli make her taste buds very happy. For the meat eaters, we have fresh lamb raised right down the road, along with mouth-watering pecorino cheese—both fresh and aged, made from the sheep’s milk.

There is also a long tradition of cured meats like capocollo, soppressata, and guanciale to be enjoyed. Our bread is what those slender French baguettes would like to grow up to be. Forget any notion you might have from that tasteless Tuscan “bread”—ours is a big round loaf with a crunchy crust and a wholesome soft interior baked in wood-fired ovens. Delicieux! Then there’s the wine. I’m not about to diss the famous wines of France. Au contraire! I’m just saying that our Aglianico is superb. It has to be, what with a few millennia of perfection on its side, having been brought here by the Greeks.

But the pleasures of Basilicata aren’t all gastronomic. There is a history of hospitality here that will make you happy you came. In fact, they have a saying that “l’ospitalita’ e’ sacra” – hospitality is sacred. The Lucani, as the people here are called, exude genuine warm welcomes and a pride of place that is contagious.

It’s the kind of place where people leave their car doors unlocked and keys dangling from their front doors. There is no haughtiness or pretentiousness here; just normal, neighborly folks.

If the sunny piazzas, lack of polluting industry, cute hill towns and charming traditions and festivals aren’t enough to lure you, perhaps the low cost of living will. I dare you to find even a bouge in the Dordogne that costs just €10,000 (about $13,000)—a real, habitable apartment in a lovely, inhabited town, not an abandoned village. There are plenty of properties for sale that cost less than $80,000 all around the region. You can even find affordable seaside living in the glittery resort town of Maratea; with its rugged cliffs tumbling down to the Mediterranean, it has all the beauty of the Amalfi Coast without the high prices or crushing crowds.

Yes, my cousin loves her house in France, but her visits to Basilicata leave her a little wistful. And that’s about all the testimony you should need to convince you that it’s a bellissima region, even when compared to the south of France. Come to Basilicata, where the prices are low and the lifestyle is dolce.

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