Welcome to the waterfalls of San Fele, located in the Province of Potenza (PZ) in northwest Basilicata! The sign announcing the cascate begs for a photo with San Fele’s historic center nestled between the mountains in the distance. A lovely woodlands trail leads to numerous waterfalls, natural cascades in the hilly zone surrounding Mount Vulture, Basilicata’s extinct volcano.
SAN FELE, BASILICATA: A LITTLE HISTORY
For orientation, San Fele is located about 40 miles east of Salerno as the crow flies, but due to the region’s mountainous nature and the layout of the road system, a drive would take a little less than two hours. Although people have been living in the area from ancient times, the historic center goes back to the year 969 and the construction of a castle by Holy Roman Emperor Otto I to protect an important mountain pass in an effort to ward off possible Byzantine encroachments. The town’s nucleus developed from there.
Today, the castle, which was modified over the years, stands in ruins as a memory to both the area’s rulers as well as those they imprisoned, such as the royals Henry VII of Germany and Joanna of Naples. The agricultural economy was in the hands of feudal lords for over 500 years, with the last being the famous Doria family from Genova. This heritage is reflected in the mix of simple and noble homes in the historic center.
Curiously, there’s even the birthplace of a saint, Giustino de Jacobis (1800-60), whose relics are in San Fele’s Mother Church Santa Maria della Quercia. At the foot of Mount Pierno in a wooded area ten kilometers from the old town lies the 12th-century Santuario della Madonna di Pierno, an important sanctuary for Basilicata’s devout, particularly during the heartfelt procession that takes place on August 15th.
SAN FELE, BASILICATA: EMIGRATION
Between the historic center and the numerous outlying neighborhoods of San Fele, the population is just under 3,000. Interestingly, statistics from the 1800s show that before mass emigration, the town boasted well over 10,000 inhabitants. The drastic exodus occurred in the difficult period following Italian unification, and it’s not surprising that San Fele was involved with the brigand movement to combat the new Italian regime.
Mother Nature has also taken its toll on the community. Wedged between Mounts Castello and Torretta at 872 meters or 2,860 feet, San Fele is at significant seismic risk, and the town has suffered greatly, particularly with the earthquakes of 1456 and 1980, as well as with devastating landslides in 1968.
The first big emigration, from the second half of the 19th century to just after the First World War, was to the Americas, predominantly to the United States, Canada, Brazil and Argentina. In the U.S., a significant number emigrated to New Jersey, including actor Danny DeVito’s grandparents, and the Buffalo area in upstate New York. Following the Second World War through today, the movement was towards Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, Northern Italy, and all the way to Australia, where the community of immigrants from Basilicata is so large that a bronze monument was erected in Sydney (specifically Canada Bay). And in 2016, a replica of the “La Famiglia” sculpture by Antonio Masini was unveiled in San Fele. Dedicated to all the “Lucani” (people from Basilicata) migrants in the world, the sculpture represents a mother and father sending their child off into the world.
SAN FELE, BASILICATA: WATERFALLS
San Fele’s rural territory is lovely, and its numerous waterfalls are a destination for nature lovers. Flowing out of the Lucanian Apennines, the Bradano Creek traverses several altitude changes in San Fele, creating a series of waterfalls before it continues on to the Ofanto River. In the local dialect, the Cascate di San Fele are called U Uattënnièrë, a word which refers to the historic fulling machine that was powered by the waterfalls in mills along the river. Fulling, by the way, is the process of beating and cleansing wool for textile use, and in San Fele the antique machine was in use into the 1940s. Stone remains of an old fulling mill can be seen alongside the falls.
The waterfalls can be viewed along routes of varying difficulties and lengths, from tourist level for good walkers on marked paths and old mule trails to more challenging terrain for experienced hikers. Two of the most popular falls are La cascata degli innamorati and U Uattënnièrë, corresponding to numbers 5 and 4 on the map, the latter, clearly named for the fulling machine described above. U Uattënnièrë drops from a rocky cliff to the pool below, immersing the visitor in that classic, comforting sound of falling water. The forest welcomes with birdcalls and fresh mountain air.
La cascata degli innamorati, or Lovers’ Waterfall, garnered national spotlight as a film location for RAI’s TV miniseries Il generale dei briganti about Basilicata’s famous brigand general Carmine Crocco. The romantic forest setting is timeless, a place enjoyed throughout history, by ancients and not so ancients, brigands and today’s visitors, exploring San Fele and Basilicata from near and far, further than anyone’s ancestors would ever have imagined.
Basilicata is full of hidden beauty. My new book, Basilicata: Authentic Italy explores this lesser-known land in the instep of the Italian boot, with “striking depth and curiosity” bringing “the reader a sense of familiarity that immerses you in Basilicata, without losing the wonder of a newcomer” (from National Italian American Foundation magazine). Link to more reviews and where to buy: my Basilicata and Calabria books.
Follow me on social media: Basilicata Facebook page, Calabria: The Other Italy’s Facebook page, Karen’s Instagram and Karen’s Twitter for beautiful pictures and information.
Sign up below to receive the next blog post directly to your email for free.