The Homeswappers Mysteries series starts with the prequel Castelmezzano, The Witch is Dead, set in a “little village perched amongst fairy-tale rocky outcrops that look more like Cappadocia than Southern Italy”. In fact, we’re in the heart of Basilicata, the most mysterious region of the South, here’s a list of 13 things to do in Castelmezzano and Pietrapertosa.
Opposite Castelmezzano, across a range of strangely shaped mountain peaks called the Piccole Dolomiti (Small Dolomites), lies its twin village of Pietrapertosa. Both are included in the list of Most Beautiful Italian Villages, and it’s easy to see why: their extraordinary location; the way the local houses have attached themselves to the rocks, giving the villages the appearance of a real Presepe (Christmas Crib); not to mention the tasty local food.
But there’s more to the villages than just beauty and delicious food. Here are 13 things for you to do in and around Castelmezzano and Pietrapertosa.
LET CASTELMEZZANO AND PIETRAPERTOSA WORK THEIR MAGIC
1) Climb all the way to the Pietrapertosa Castle ruins and enjoy the view
The ancient castle, founded by the Saracens (IX century) and extended by the Normans during the XI century, was designed as a place to watch out for and repel the arrival of any enemy. Think how lucky we are when we visit nowadays: we can simply relax and take in the magnificent view.
2) Discover Pietrapertosa’s Rabatana
This is in the old part of town. In Castelmezzano, The Witch is Dead, one of my two sexagenarian sleuths goes into this intriguing area to look for Cassandra Sventura, the village’s witch:
“Dora climbed up through the narrow alleys and steps that made up the Rabatana, the old Arabian quarter of Pietrapertosa. There were no longer many people living there; in the labyrinth of passages, you couldn’t reach your home with either a car or a shopping trolley. And nowadays, people didn’t use mules to transport their goods. But a few brave souls of all ages felt they couldn’t live anywhere else.”
3) Walk in a forest of chestnuts (best done in Autumn)
PIC Autumn and leaves
The long (but easy) hike starts from the far side of the football pitch in Pietrapertosa. You will cross a mass of large flat boulders before immersing yourself in a forest, where the most likely living being you’ll encounter will be the local cows. At the end of the path, there’s a beautiful chestnut forest which positively explodes with colours during Autumn.
4) Visit Castelmezzano’s Main Square and indulge in the world’s most powerful information system ever…
Take a seat and linger in Piazza Emilio Caizzo, Castelmezzano’s main square. Sitting just below the stone church of Santa Maria dell’Olmo, this is an airy terrace with a view over the village perched on the mountains. Enjoy a drink and a well-earned rest after all the hiking I’ve just suggested while marvelling at the houses’ façades suspended above the void and the strangely shaped rocks.
When Etta and Dora – newly retired teachers and the heroines of the Homeswappers Mysteries – are hunting for information about the body they’ve found along the Seven Stones Path, they know exactly where to go.
“They knew they could wait for the TGR – the regional TV broadcast – or they could surf the web, but first-hand information could only be found in the main square around midday. That’s when the older women would be going to church for a little prayer and to offer flowers to the Madonna; housewives would visit the mini market for their daily shopping; farmers, bricklayers and other workers would take a break in the local bar. But there was a precise moment when all these folks would stop their errands, finish their coffees, kiss the Madonna’s feet, and congregate at the same time, as if called by an invisible horn, in the main square. There, terabits of information were available via the fastest and most ancient of wi-fi systems: gossip.
When Dora and Etta arrived, they could tell something odd was going on. Not only had the usual number of people in the square multiplied, but the buzz hovering over them was almost as loud as in the centre of a beehive…”
5) Climb all the way to Castelmezzano’s Castle
Of course, if Pietrapertosa had a castle, Castelmezzano could not go without one. But the truth is that there’s very little left of it, just a few stairs and a terrace with an incredible view over the valley.
As you climb all the way up to the ruins, have a look at the houses. Whether built with bricks or stones, they have become part of the rocks that form their inner walls. Enjoy the little streets, the many steps leading to the houses, the hidden passages. No wonder there are so many mysteries hidden around this area…
6) Adopt your own treasure
As with most Italian villages, Castelmezzano and Pietrapertosa have local treasures hidden in their many churches. Feel free to enter and search for your new favourite fresco, decoration or wooden statue – whatever strikes you the most.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
There are at least three ways to get from one village to the other: by car (16km – 40 minutes’ drive), on foot (2km) or launch yourself in the empty space (90 seconds).
Let’s learn more.
7) Experience vertigo on the Old Road
(WARNING: the road is currently closed to the public as it’s been declared too dangerous because of rockfalls, but it’s so spectacular that I live in hope that some future project will make it safe and open it up again).
If you’re lucky and the road is open by the time you visit, prepare yourself for one of the most panoramic journeys in Europe. The road winds around many hairpin bends, climbing around a deep canyon surrounded by precariously balanced outcrops and rocks that seem frozen for just a moment before crashing down. Other rocks seem almost to have been shaped by a sculptor to resemble an owl; a noble eagle; the Holy Virgin. Then the road cuts through a forest whose contorted trees and thick musk could have come out of the pages of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. But do carry on, because at the end of a tunnel carved into the rock, you’ll be rewarded with your arrival in the mountain village of Castelmezzano.
8) Brave The Angel Flight (if you dare!)
Il Volo dell’Angelo, the zip line going from Pietrapertosa to Castelmezzano, is 1.5km long (about a mile) and 800–1,100 metres high (2,600–3,600 feet). It takes just over a minute to fly from one village to the other on what’s claimed to be the fastest zip line in the world. I’m not an expert; I was so alarmed by the speeds you can reach (120 km/h, or 70miles/hour) that I remain determined to use other methods of transportation.
If you’re braver than I am (and – spoiler – that doesn’t take much), here’s where you can find all info: https://www.volodellangelo.com/index_eng.asp
9) Sense magic and spells along The Seven Stones Path
Connecting the two villages of Castelmezzano and Pietrapertosa is an old mule track, known nowadays as “The Path of the Seven Stones”. This is a literary walk, telling the story of Vito, a poor farmer, who discovered his wife to be a witch.
The legend claims that on the nights of the full moon, witches undress and massage their bodies with a magic potion kept in a terracotta jar. Then, once they’ve pronounced the right spell, they fly to the Walnut Tree of Benevento for their Sabbath. The literary walk narrates the old legend and the tragic love story of the man and the witch along seven stops, each depicting a special moment of the story – the Enchantment; the Flight; the Sabbath – through exhibits, multimedia and landscape markers.
Witches are a part of Italian folklore, especially in the South. In times when doctors were mainly a luxury for the rich, ordinary people used to go to the local witches for all their troubles, without making any great distinction between health conditions and human emotions, hence the requests for medicines alongside love potions, the evil eye, protection for soldiers at war etc.
Of course nowadays, (almost) no one believes in witches. But one May morning, Etta and Dora, two newly retired teachers, one living in Castelmezzano, the other in Pietrapertosa, take a walk from their respective villages, grumbling above the paltry pensions they will receive. As they meet under the ancient oak tree, hidden amongst the grass, they recognise the naked corpse of a woman. And she’s not just an ordinary villager, she’s Castelmezzano’s witch.
Now, did she plummet from the sky during a Sabbath flight, as the superstitious locals soon start to whisper? Or was the far more worldly evil of a human hand involved?
I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book to find out.
EXPLORE THE SURROUNDING AREAS
10) Discover the Regional Park
Both Pietrapertosa and Castelmezzano fall in the territory of the Gallipoli Cognato Regional Park. I simply love it here; as soon as you arrive, the territory looks different to the rest of Basilicata. Maybe it’s because of the many cypresses, or the rocks that seem to have been scattered erratically on the ground by a furious Cyclops…
Start your visit at the Caserma Palazzo, the park’s visitor centre. With its fragrant garden and bar/restaurant, it’s the perfect base for numerous hikes in the area.
11) Become an archaeologist on Mount Croccia
I can’t think of many places more intriguing than an archaeological site in the middle of a thick forest. And here you have it: an ancient fortified city from the VI–IV centuries BC, 1,150 metres above sea level. It is an imposing defensive system, consisting of three boundary walls – you can still distinguish their perimeters and find the entry points.
Just outside the village, there are large blocks of stone wedged on top of each other, or modelled around one another like the joints of a giant. This is the mysterious megalithic complex of Petre de la Mola, which is supposed to be an astronomical calendar. At noon and sunset during the winter and summer solstices, the megaliths’ slits are perfectly aligned to the position of the sun. In short, it’s an alternative Stonehenge here in the heart of Basilicata.
12) Witness the Wedding of the Trees
Following ancient rites symbolising fertility and prosperity, each year in May, pagans celebrate the wedding of a large oak tree (called il Maggio) with a holly tree. Man and ox work together to bring the largest and tallest trunk from the forests to the village of Accettura and crown it with holly.
After the wedding, local acrobats try to climb the tree trunk to fetch the rich prizes hanging from the branches. I can grant you, it’s quite an effort getting up there.
If you want to read more about this ancient ritual, check out this article from National Geographic: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/europe/italy/maggio-di-accettura-pagan-festival-canceled-coronavirus/
13) Have your lunch or dinner in Accettura
There are quite a few restaurants in both Castelmezzano and Pietrapertosa, but my favourite place is in Accettura. It’s called Locanda Pezzolla. Here, the chefs still cook simple food the traditional way, using only fresh local ingredients. Don’t miss out on their pasta di casa (handmade pasta), the ricotta cheese ravioli in particular, and the meat from animals that spend their lives wandering free in the forests all around.
If it is too early for lunch or dinner, go to a bar and ask a for a panzerotto. This small calzone is made with the same dough as pizza, stuffed with fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil leaves, and deep fried. Yummy!
INFORMATION ON THINGS TO DO IN CASTELMEZZANO
For more information to organise your visit, try the tourist board website:
Your best bet for transport is to hire a car at the airport (Napoli and Bari being the closest ones).
For accommodation, there’s plenty of choice of bed and breakfast in both villages, but agriturismo (farms) are well worth considering as you can include your meals, too.
For an instant no-fuss journey, armchair travel with my book, Castelmezzano, the Witch is Dead.
Books about Basilicata
Lonely Planet’s Guide to Basilicata
A guide to all the places to visit during your stay, from Maratea to Matera to some of the more unfamiliar destinations.
Seasons in Basilicata by David Yeadon
The story of a travel writer and illustrator who lived in Aliano (one hour’s drive from Castelmezzano) for a year with his wife, this book records their funny experiences and encounters with the locals and their traditions, with plenty of room given to food and cuisine of the region.
Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi
A classic written by a doctor and painter who was exiled in Aliano (yes, same place as the previous book) by the Fascist regime in 1935, this is an ethnographic study of the local culture, traditions and history of what was one of the poorest areas of Italy.
An Italian Village Mystery series
If you’re a fan of Cozy Mysteries this series is set in Maratea, a quaint sea town of Basilicata, with plenty quirky characters, delicious food and of course murder and mayhem.
Castelmezzano, The Witch is Dead
Some people dream of a gentle retirement enjoying crochet or cricket, but for two sexagenarians, a more cadaverous future awaits…
Newly retired teachers, Etta and Dora, take a walk along an old mule track connecting their mountain-top villages, each hoping to soothe the distress she feels at the paltry pension she will receive. Meeting at the fabled Witches’ Cave, they put aside their woes – the naked body of Sibilla, Castelmezzano’s beautiful witch, lies dead at the foot of the old oak tree. Did she plummet from the sky during a Sabbath flight as the superstitious locals are whispering? Or was the far more worldly evil of a human hand involved?
When suspicions fall on Cassandra, Sibilla’s sister in the Art of Witchcraft, Dora and Etta fear the carabinieri have fallen prey to prejudice and local folklore. While Dora remains convinced of Cassandra’s innocence, Etta’s hunch takes her to a completely different conclusion, but could the truth really be so devious? And can she stop the killer before she becomes the next victim?
Fans of cosy mysteries won’t want to miss this intriguing tale of deceit and betrayal, new from the author of the thrilling An Italian Village Mystery series.
Castelmezzano, The Witch is Dead is the prequel to the The Homeswappers Mysteries a humorous cosy series from Italian author Adriana Licio exploring the most delightfully murderous European travel destinations on and off the beaten track.
Each book can be read as a standalone or you can enjoy the whole series:
0. Castelmezzano, The Witch is Dead – An Italian Cosy Mystery (A Prequel Novella)
1. The Watchman of Rothenburg Dies – A German Cosy Mystery
2. A Wedding and a Funeral in Mecklenburg – A German Travel Mystery
3. An Aero Island Christmas Mystery – A Danish Cosy Mystery
4. Prague, Secrets from the Past – A Czech Travel Mystery (to be released in Spring 2021)
(More books and more adventures to come!)