My friend Kate McKenna and I traveled to Puglia (Apulia) and Basilicata for eight days the first week of February. Although Matera is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world and Puglia has so much to recommend it, including delicious and interesting food, tour books generally ignore the area (one of my tour books covers Matera in only one short paragraph and another with the title Italy ignores everything south of Naples except the Amalfi Coast!). How sad, because we had a wonderful trip to the heel of the boot, and we went in winter!
We were lucky to find Experience Puglia and owner Angelo Collucia, because he arranged two fascinating days for us in Matera and Basilicata and showed us his home region for the following four days. He’s a popular and passionate guide and is already booked for the high season in 2014. If you want a great travel experience, choose Angelo. You will have a wonderful time and eat extremely well.
Kate and I took the train to Bari (in Puglia) on Sunday and were driven to Matera (in Basilicata), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Inhabitants began digging cave dwellings in the calcareous soil in Matera and throughout Basilicata about 10,000 (!) years ago. The ancient area of Matera consists of two sections, Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano, jointly called the Sassi (stones). The ancient cave dwellings are used today as houses, hotels, restaurants, businesses, churches, and anything else you can think of.
Some cave houses are built on the roofs of others, and streets and stairways are built atop cave dwellings as well. Some cave houses have freestanding rooms built in front of the cave, so some parts of the Sassi look almost like a normal town. On the top of the hill above the Sassi is the main square, and the buildings that line the nearby street—including museums, several churches, and stores selling anything you want, for example—are freestanding. Matera sits above a ravine (the Gravina), which was dug by a river. In the steep slopes across the Gravina from Matera, we could see many rudimentary caves. I don’t know whether they were manmade or natural. You may have seen Matera, because Mel Gibson filmed The Passion of the Christ there.
In early times, people built rooms in their caves for their animals, and in the early 19th century because of overcrowding, people began to occupy these rooms, which lacked natural light, ventilation, and running water. Not surprisingly, that created a terrible health hazard. Because of these conditions and because of the extreme poverty of the inhabitants of Matera, the Italian government finally stepped in and evicted most of the Sassi inhabitants in the 1950s, moving them into modern housing surrounding the Sassi. Slowly people have been allowed to return to the Sassi, but residents and tenants must abide by strict rules if they wish to improve the caves. I asked Giovanni, our guide who lives in Matera, if the people who lived in the Sassi before 1950 wanted to move back into the caves, and he said that most of them didn’t, so the new residents are mainly young people and businesspeople.
We ate in caves, we slept in a cave, and we visited sights in caves, and for the record, cave life, albeit fascinating, is not for me. Our cave B&B was very nice, with modern furniture and fixtures, a thermostat in each room, and a delicious breakfast each morning, and we enjoyed delicious meals in two cave restaurants, but I need to live in a dwelling with windows and natural light.
Some tour companies suggest that visitors spend two hours in Matera. We were there for two days, and I still didn’t have my fill of that amazing place. We visited two cave churches (rupesti) and one “new” church (not in a cave) from the 13th century. We climbed down, down, down into a the five-story-high ancient waterworks (Il Palombaro Lungo—one of my favorite places) that was dug out of the rock by hand beginning about 3,000 years ago. We visited the fascinating archeological museum (Museo Nazionale Ridola) and an art museum. We explored a typical cave dwelling (Casa Grotta del Casalnuovo) with furnishings from a century or so ago. We saw an ancient wine press, where barefoot wine treaders—usually women and children—pressed the grapes while holding onto a dangling rope to avoid sliding into the juice. We wandered through the twisting rocky streets, peeking into people’s patios, doors, and windows. We peered into the Gravina from both sides. I took a wrong turn going home Monday evening, but I never felt lost, and a van driver even stopped to ask me for directions.
Late Tuesday morning, we left Matera and drove into the brilliant green countryside of Basilicata. We visited an 11th-century Norman castle in Miglionico. The mist was so thick there that we could barely see the outer castle walls. In the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Miglionico, Giovanni showed us a beautiful wooden crucifix carved by Padre Umile da Petralia in 1529. The crucifix was taken to the Duomo in Matera for a visit by Pope John Paul II, and on a wall near the crucifix is a photo of the pope gazing at the crucifix with a huge smile of reverence and utter joy on his face. I almost took a photo of the photo because it was so touching!
One of my favorite things of the whole trip happened in Miglionico. I was taking a photo of one of the several groups of men dressed in black and hanging around the main square (we saw that a lot in Puglia, too). Two older men came up to me and asked if I wanted them to take a picture of me in front of the town hall. I declined, and they said, “Are you Chinese?” I got a big kick out of that, but I tried not to laugh, saying, “Sono americana.” Then they launched into a series of questions, speaking at a rapid clip and sometimes yelling over the top of each other. I was saved only by the return of Kate and Giovanni!
Here’s my advice for Matera. GO! Do not miss it! Do not go for two hours—stay two nights or three, and soak up the atmosphere. Eat wonderful food (we ate at Ristorante Francesca near our B&B and at Ristorante San Biagio just off of the main square—both in caves). What a wondrous, unique place!
P.S., If you’re claustrophobic and the thought of staying in a cave overnight makes your skin crawl, Matera does have hotels that are not in caves.