My first impression of Potenza several years ago was not a favorable one. Viewed from the valley as we exited the autostrada to find our way up into the mountains toward my ancestral villages, all I noticed was the industrial gloom and railway tracks. Looking up toward the city didn't improve my impression much; modern, concrete, glass. Not much charm, I thought. I was relieved to get into the placid heights and sheep-strewn hills.
I admit that my second and third encounters with the city that is the capital of the Basilicata region as well as of the Potenza province didn't do much to raise my opinion, either. While spending several weeks in the area last year, Bryan and I made some forays into town only to find ourselves perpetually lost in the swirling maze of a nonsensical street pattern. Impatient, horn-blowing drivers and misguided signage prevented us from reaching the centro storico. We gave up in frustration and fled back to the tranquil agriturismo, cursing the obviously sadistic engineer who laid out the current streets and wondering why anyone would want to live in the tenement-like housing blocks we had seen.
It ought to be beautiful. Potenza is Italy's highest regional capital at 819 meters (nearly 2700 feet) and is nearly encircled by the Appenine Mountains. Originally inhabited by the ancient Lucani people, it came under Roman control and dubbed Potentia. The famed via Appia which connected Rome to Brindisi crosses Potenza.
The area saw nearly constant invasions: the Samnites, the Goths, Lombards, Saracens, Normans, French and Spanish. It was heavily bombed by the Allies during WWII. When the poor place wasn't being sacked, pillaged, invaded, raided, dominated or bombed, it was rattled by earthquakes, the most recent a devastingly strong one in 1980 that left much of Potenza in rubble. The subsequent antiseismic reconstruction measures sacrificed charm for security, giving the city its current, unattractive aspect.
But, as I discovered with Napoli, there is more than meets the eye on an initial encounter. Once I procured a decent map of the town and consulted with some locals, I found that Potenza isn't as dreary and disorderly as originally perceived. There is history hidden behind its modern, ungainly facade. In fact, the lofty centro storico is downright delightful.
Potenza wraps itself around the hill that it occupies. Stretched along the ridgetop is the long and narrow historical center which is most easily reached by a series of escalators, a less frustrating arrival than the twisty streets. (There are escalators on both the north and south sides of the city.)
Once on top of the hill we found medieval city gates, narrow pedestrial lanes, attractive stone buildings and pretty palazzi. There is a snazzy shopping street boasting cute cafes, and in the main piazza we found a compact but elegantly-outfitted opera theatre complete with velvet-trimmed boxes encircling the interior. there is an impressive archeological museum.
The charming, narrow via Pretoria wends across the crest, giving way to piazzas and pedestrian alleys along the route. We peeked into the courtyards of centuries-old palaces while browsing shop windows. This is the site of the impressive evening passeggiata, that daily ritual of roaming the streets to meet friends and be seen. Potenza's is vibrant and vociferous. The city is also home to a large university as well as a prestigious music conservatory, which lend a youthful air to the place.
I was glad to find such a friendly and lively heart. It is the closest city of substance to Lucanella, and we'll no doubt find ourselves there frequently for services that our village lacks. While much of the town's commercial activity is in the lower, sprawled-out industrial area, it is nice to know there is still history and a sense of community and a gathering spot for the Potentini despite the glass and concrete cloak.
Potenza will never have the eternal appeal of Matera; it can't, given its spine-shattering past. But it is growing on me. After a few visits the roads that seemed so confusing started to make sense to me, and I came to appreciate how quickly we could get out of the city and into the countryside. In just minutes the residents can leave the asphalt jungle for high, forested mountains with tranquil trails, pristine air and ethereal views. Potenza is not so bad after all.
Photos of Potenza by a local