Thanks to its seven hills and two volcanic lakes, Mount Vulture is undoubtedly one of Basilicata’s most beautiful corners.
Standing at 1326m (4350 feet) in the north of the Basilicata region, it is also very near the borders with the Apulia and Campania regions.
Mount Vulture is also the only existing volcano on the Adriatic coast of Italy’s Central-Southern Apennines mountain range. It was last active about 130,000 years and the two craters now hold two beautiful lakes.
The once active volcano has shaped both the physical landscape of the area and its vegetation.
Lava, ashes and stones have made the soil very fertile. The volcano’s slopes are surrounded by lush forests of oaks, beeches and chestnut trees that capture the moisture and regulate the micro-climate of the surrounding area.
It is this volcanic soil that makes the Vulture area the cradle of one of Italy’s finest vine varieties, Aglianico, which, in this specific area (spongier soil than elsewhere) becomes a true excellence of the Italian wine industry. The volcanic soil has also had a profound effect on the groundwater, creating several mineral springs that are also popular tourist attractions. The water from such springs is also bottled and sold throughout the rest of Italy.
A walk through the woods – sometimes impenetrable – and along the various paths is enough to be catapulted into the past, with its Norman Swabians and Angevin knights. This was also the land where, in the late 19th century, “General Crocco” and his many brigands found shelter while being hunted down by the army of the newly united Italian Kingdom.
The Monticchio lakes
The volcanic activity of Mount Vulture ceased 130,000 years ago, however, it left behind two spectacular lakes, Lago Piccolo and Lago Grande (respectively “Little and “Great” Lake), two authentic havens of tranquility and peace.
Lago Piccolo (national reserve since 1984), Lago Grande and the surrounding forests are truly unique places, especially their wildlife and vegetation.
The water lily, for example, which has an essential role in maintaining the lake’s ecosystem, can only be found in this part of Southern Italy.
Both lakes act as thermo regulators, creating unique micro-climates on the inner slopes of Mount Vulture. This phenomenon, known as inversion of climatic zones, allows, for example, oaks to grow at greater altitudes that beeches and the coexistence beeches and holm oaks.
Both lakes are oval, however, their depths differ. Lago Grande has a funnel-shaped cavity with plenty of shallow waters, on the contrary, Lago Piccolo has smaller banks but mostly deep waters.
The waters of Lago Piccolo, fed by underwater springs, flow first into Lago Grande thanks to a small creek and then into the Ofanto river, through a fascinating and beautiful journey that features also a few small waterfalls.
The Oriented Nature Reserve of Grotticelle and Hartig’s Bramea
The Oriented Nature Reserve of Grotticelle is Mount Vulture’s second protected area. It was established in 1971 to protect the natural habitat of the Bramea (European Acanthhobrahmea), a very rare and large butterfly never found before in Europe.
The Reserve is located on the slopes of Mount Vulture and covers 209 hectares, rising from 250 to 800 meters (from 800 to 2600 feet) above sea level. The higher grounds are also home to the ruins of the “Monticulus” medieval fortress, also known as the “Monticchio Castle“.
San Fele Waterfalls
Last but not least in our nature tour, the San Fele Waterfalls – locally known as “U Uatteniere”.
Their name comes from the “gualcheria”, a dialect word indicating a machine used in old factories (situated close to waterfalls and powered by water) to beat the wool, a process that made the fabric less rough and more durable.
The falls are part of the Bradano river, which flows down rough and descending terrain to reach the Adriatic Sea. One of the best ways to fully experience the spectacular landscape of the area is to walk the local trails, which differ both in length and difficulty level. Finally, in summer, bathing is allowed in some of the waterfalls.
Basilians, Benedictines, Augustinians and Capuchins have all played a role in the history of Saint Michael Abbey.
The imposing white structure – built next to the existing caves and inhabited by Byzantine monks in the 18th century – projects its image over Lago Piccolo, dominating the surrounding landscape. In 1608, it was the Capuchins who carried out the last works on the building.
The Cave of the Angel is probably the most decorated, with frescoes dating back to the mid-eleventh century.
The rooms, which were once part of the convent, are home to the Museum of Vulture’s Natural History, the ideal place for wildlife, plant and biodiversity lovers.
Saint Hippolytus Abbey
The strip of land that separates the two Monticchio lakes is home to the ruins of the Benedictine Abbey – dedicated to Saint Hippolytus – an ancient place of worship that dates back to the early days of Christianity.
Located on opposite sides of Lago Piccolo, Saint Hippolytus Abbey (Benedictine) and the Basilian Hermitage (Saint Michael Abbey) experienced the religious tensions between the East and West of around year 1000: the Roman Latin Church against the Orthodox Church of Constantinople.
The Abbey, whose history is still being debated and researched, was destroyed by an earthquake in 1456 and finally abandoned.
Abbey of the Most Holy Trinity and Unfinished
Our journey through Vulture’s many fascinating places of worship also includes the Most Holy Trinity Complex, one of Basilicata’s holiest places, with more than 1000 years of history.
Several styles – Roman, Longobard and Norman – in one structure, resulting in a unique architectural symphony.
In the 11th century, more precisely before the arrival of the Normans, the Benedictines built the Abbey, also known as “The Old Church”, on the existing structure (dating 5th century). In the 12th century, the Benedictines decided to expand the Church with a very ambitious project that was never finalized. This is how the “Incompiuta” (Italian for “Unfinished”) came to be, a striking monument that evokes peace and solemnity.
It is easy to be fascinated by the strength of this construction, which, aside from having to withstand earthquakes, changes of ownership and neglect, was also built on a very asymmetric existing structure and with makeshift materials.
Splendid columns with beautiful capitals, the grass floor and the sky above that looks just like a ceiling: a unique spiritual experience and a great way to honour those who, many centuries ago, designed it.
This stately and elegant castle, which overlooks the surrounding valley can be seen from a distance.
The Byzantines choose this extraordinary position within the valley to build a fortress. In the 13th century, it was the Normans who extended it and turned it into the retreat of Frederick II, who used to hunt with falcons in the surrounding area. It also became the main residence of Manfred, the illegitimate son of Frederick II and the last Swabian King of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies. Finally, the castle became a refuge for brigands, more precisely in 1861, when Crocco Carmine occupied it with his men.
Located on top of a hill, it can be accessed only through a steep and curvy road, especially the last part, which was ideal to slow down any attacking force. Despite having an irregular rectangular shape – typical of all Federician buildings – the hexagon shape adopted by most similar constructions of the time is here replaced by two separate courtyards.
The castle also features other various interesting exhibitions, such as The Archaeological Museum, The Narrante Museum and The Museum of Basilicata’s Emigration.
Melfi Castle appears to have been built on the ruins of a Norman castle which was built by Robert Guiscard in order to strengthen the fortified walls.
To meet the needs of the various owners that ensued (Normans, Swabians, Angevins and Aragonese), the castle was subsequently modified and extended several times.
The castle, home to several key historical events, was also the chosen venue for five ecumenical councils, moreover, it was here that the First Crusade to the Holy Land was approved – during the Third Council, summoned by Pope Urban II in 1089.
In 1231, Frederick II of Swabia officialized the Constitutiones Augustales, the first comprehensive code of laws written in the Middle Ages, a major landmark in the history of law.
The castle also hosts the National Archaeological Museum of Vulture Melfese, boasting several armours, helmets and jewelry from the local area.
Our discovery of the Vulture Castles continues in Venosa, one of the most beautiful villages of Italy.
Founded by the Romans in 291 BC, it is famous for being the birthplace of one of the greatest Latin poets, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, who spent his entire adolescence here, establishing a deep bond with the slopes of Mount Vulture.
Built in 1470 by Pirro del Balzo, Venosa Castle had a deep moat and was therefore originally designed as a defensive fortress, however, it was later transformed into a residence and, more recently, into the Library and the National Archaeological Museum.
Brigands had a profound effect on the history of the Vulture area and the rest of Southern Italy, especially in the post-Italian unification period.
Carmine Crocco, one of Italy’s most famous and active brigands, was born in 1830 in Rionero del Vulture.
Some say he was a revolutionary, a kind of romantic figure and a patriot, in other words, Basilicata’s very own “Robin Hood”. Others firmly believe he was nothing more than an outlaw. Thanks to his wits and confidence, he was able to gather and lead about 2000 men, a feat that earned him the “Generalissimo” (Italian for “Great General”) and “General of Brigands” nicknames.
The lakes and forests of Monticchio were his headquarters. Visitors can still walk the same trails used by the brigands, starting near the Abbey of Saint Michael, all the way to some of the most spectacular viewpoints of the area and the caves used by the brigands: a truly authentic and unconventional tour with plenty of nature and history.
Finally, a proper brigand tour must include a visit to the Museum of Brigandage of Rionero, located in within the former Bourbon Prison – recently restored and revamped.
Casa vinicola D’Angelo
Via Padre Pio, 8
Rionero in Vulture 85028 (PZ) Italy