Matera 18-21 Nov ’19
With Arlberbello in the rear-view mirror, off we went in search of our next apartment, and whatever awaited us in the Sassi, the old town of Matera. Apparently, Matera, too, is a hillside town with its own ‘old town’ section nestled away in the crags and crannies. I’m not sure why this is a site to visit, but Ursula had heard much of it. So, off we went. It’s about an hour+ drive from Arlberbello through more winding provincial stradas.
Our ever handy Smartphone GPS and Map system brought us to the front door of an aging, early 20th-century mid modern, cinder-block building. This apartment fairly consistently rated at a 9.9 on booking.com’s reviews. So we gave it a try, and, discovered it’s rated high for good reasons.
The owners found us a place to park the car (essential in a busy city where everybody competes for parking spots) and helped carry the Body Bags and us up the 44 stairs to the second floor apartment. It, too, is an old converted apartment into a rental B&B; the new Apartment Uber thing is strong in Italy! It was large and was nice to have a little space to stretch out and be able to wash clothes in a real washing machine – scrubbing and rinsing in the sink gets old real quick. The excellent aspect of this apartment is that it’s two blocks from the ‘old town,’ which really isn’t visible until you walk right up to it.
Walking the Town
Our typical city exploration pattern is relatively simple. We newly arrive in town in the afternoon, check-in, rest, then head out. In this initial ‘site visit,’ we’re exploring what’s to be seen, the restaurants, stores, and then make mental notes of what we want to see in greater detail in the upcoming days. If we’re there for three days, the day after we arrive, we’ll split up and go our separate ways; Ursula with her credit card and empty bag and I, with my camera.
Our first foray into the ‘old town’ ( called the ‘Sassi’) surprised us. We’ve seen lots of impressive old towns, but did not expect uniqueness of this one. This village was initially built into the caves within the mountain, which lay protected above by steep cliffs and below by a deep ravine and river. In time the occupants errected homes on top of the cave dwellings as construction materials improved. Tourist handouts suggest that the village has was continuously occupied from prehistoric days up until 1980 when the government ushered everybody out and into safer structures nearby. For 20+ years, the village lie abandoned and fell derelict. Most of the buildings are elementary small box-like structures stacked on top of each other and the rising hillside behind.
Some of the buildings have a little ornamentation, they look like a they prioritized function over form or appearance. Although the higher you go up the mountain there are few places, to include the many churches and villas, that have a bit more decoration, but not much. In its former neglected state, many were dilapidated and unsightly. However, with the current modernization investment in the Sassi, quite a few are under construction, and few are occupied by restaurants, a few tourist shops, fewer B&Bs. Assisted with EU Heritage Site investments there is a definite trend to reinvigorate this village to resemble its former glory. In 2019 Matera was selected as a European Commission capital of the year (along with one in Belgrade or somewhere) and since 1993 has been on the World Heritage List.
The village rests within a three-sided canyon, with a second smaller village on the opposing side of a ridge line bisecting the two. Along the crest of the canyon, which is now bespectacled with cobblestoned streets, shops, and hotels, there are a few viewing areas that give one a bird-like view below. The picture below is mesmerizing; it looks like an empty Iron Age or Roman Age village, except you can see cars, power lines, and a few TV antennas.
Movie Set Backdrop
One of the reasons it strikes us as being an ancient village is because it’s been featured in dozens of movies as the village backdrop (Wonder Woman, Ben Hur, The Passion of Christ…). So our imagining of what an ancient village might have looked may have been formed from from these movies. The picture is complete. With every new viewing position, one is presented with a unique perspective as it could be a different town, a different country, and a different era.
It occurs to me that the town looks like it came straight out of an MC Escher illustration of an impossible village. Or, did Escher’s illustrations come from Matera? There are seemingly stairs that lead nowhere, and streets started where they seem to end. It’s fascinating just to view the town and try to unravel it.
The evening we closed out the night with another frantic walk about town looking for a place to eat before 2000. Out of frustration from not finding anything open this early, we purchased raw spaghetti and cooked dinner for a change. How very nice. As alluring as it seems to eat out at a different restaurant every night, it isn’t. Both of us are ‘home-bodies,’ and there’s not much better than a home-cooked meal.
A Day Further Afield
Following through with our’ city exploration pattern’, we usually spend the second full day in a city exploring together. On this visit, Ursula discovered an old Paleolithic, rock, homelike structure next to a modern-day quarry. It was on the the outskirts of the town and gave us a wonderful opportunity to hiked out. It was a short jaunt with fresh views from the pinnacle of the rocky outcrop. On the way up, we visited an old quarry to check out a few of the modern-day metal, art secures, some as tall as 50 feet, and more. Within the confines of the enormous rock quarry, they almost looked diminutive. Fifteen minutes into this visit, we were done (it was Paleolithic boring after all).
To make the hike out of town worth the exertion, we also visited an old monetary on the cliff then headed back to town by way of one of the local morning markets. Visiting the local markets and enjoying the local fruits, veggies, and nuts is always a joy. You never know what you’re going to find or what they’re going to charge you… it’s an adventure! After this visit, we were set for days and days for olives, cashew nuts, hazelnuts, almond nuts, carrots, oranges, tomatoes….. you get the picture. We were bound for another night of eating in!
Later in the afternoon, I visited the Salvador Dali museum, which is enclosed in an old church that was carved out of the mountainside within the Sassi. Both his art (mostly his whimsical statues) and the church were quite impressive. The effort alone, to dig out the large, vaulted rooms, must have taken a herculean effort over several years. And, Dali’s bronze, copper, and brass statues are clearly the work of an unhinged genius.
At night, Matera is filled with roving bands of old men with creased pants, subdued coats, and soft caps. They’re all conspiratorially reminiscing about their former glory days. They stroll up and down the streets in small groups, chatting away like old-time friends and laughing and drinking cocktails. It’s a beautiful life for a retiree. But, that begs the question, where are all the old women? Ursula’s theory is that they are all at home preparing dinner for their men. Very old, very traditional. I’ve tried to convince her that that’s the way it should be, and she should be back in our kitchen. That conversation did not go very well.
Our visit to Matera was captivating, absorbing, and beguiling. Unlike the Tulli Villiage, which satiates the imagination in about 90 minutes, one could spend months exploring and disentangling the stray-ends of Matera and never get tired. Regrettably, it was time to move further West and South and into the toe of the Italy Boot. We found a hotel in the famed beach resort town of Tropea for $32 a night. This should be interesting.