May 8th, Wednesday (Continued)
Once we arrived in Matera, we had to park at a garage and walk with our luggage to the hotel. We took a circuitous route through streets full of shops, people and cars, much like every other Italian city. But when we started down a steep street, and came out from between the buildings, I saw the famed Matera. Though I had a mental idea of what we might see, it was nothing like what I saw…And it took my breath away!
Our hotel in Matera is L’Hotel in Pietra, a boutique hotel created in the space where a church was once carved into the rock.
You need to know, for this to make any sense to you, that a large portion of the city of Matera is built on and into two giant hills of limestone (though locally you often see the word “tufo.”). The most fascinating parts of the city lie in the rift between the hills. These hills are called the sassi, (“rocks,” “hills” or “great stones” from the Latin sassum). Each is a neighborhood: One is called the Sasso Barisano and the other Sasso Caveoso. The dwellings here were not so much built, in the positive sense of putting something where there was nothing, but excavated, in the negative sense, as in burrowing out a cave in the rock.
Our hotel was once a church that had been dug out of the rock. But don’t stop at just imagining a round cave! Our church had vaults, arches and columns carved from the stone. It is really fascinating and unique to my experience. But it isn’t necessarily a happy story, and I will get to that tomorrow. About our room; It has four levels. The bedroom is on the main level, and then we go down a few steps and to our right to find a bathroom carved out of the stone. We also have a steep metal staircase that takes us down to two other levels, one with a large (at least four-person, hot tub and another with a hammock. I cannot imagine what part of the church this vertical chamber was.
For dinner tonight, we all ate together in Matera at a restaurant called Il Terrazzino. I never did see it again in all my exploring of the sassi.
May 9th, Thursday
I walked almost 20K steps today! Gerry and I went out early (before breakfast) on a mostly cloudy day. We got one ray of sunshine and I hope you agree I got a lucky shot of it in the main piazza. We walked along in the upper part of the town, the part I think of as the cleaned-up part. You see, Matera was like most other Italian cities, with large piazzas and great palazzi where the wealthy lived. Down in the sassi, the poor people lived, literally, in caves. Anyone who came to the city from the outside would hopefully never see the center of town.
We walked those fancy streets up top, meandered in the maze of streets in the sassi, and went out along the edge of the ravine. The huge ravine that separates modern Matera from the ancient Matera is dramatic and beautiful. The sound of rushing water will reach your ears faintly from the river far below, emphasizing how deep the ravine is. The opposite side of the ravine is green and stony, pitted with caves. These are the caves of the ancient people who lived in this area. Matera is one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world.
After breakfast in the hotel, we went out again. We got noon tickets to see the Palombaro Lungo cistern tour. With only 50 minutes to kill, we walk to the nearby Castle Tramontano. The castle is named for a particularly nasty count who, when he finally met his end, incited general rejoicing even among the clergy!
The cistern tour was eye-opening. (Logistically, be aware that there are timed tickets to enter the cistern and that not all the tours have English-speaking guides.) Our guide, who was excellent, and gave the tour in both Italian and flawless English, explained how the space, about 16 meters deep, was hollowed out of the rock. It was filled by rainwater from collection points all over the city. You can see the high water mark in the cistern – a space so artfully created that the water mark looks like a painted decoration. A huge public works project finally brought water to Puglia in the 1930s and the use of this cistern was abandoned, and the rainwater pipes were stopped up. It was rediscovered in the 1990s and is now open for tourists.
Following the tour, we walked toward cathedral, still in the cleaned-up part of Matera, but stopped for lunch in Annina 1937 (see Facebook or Tripadvisor), where we enjoyed the fixed price daily menu. We had good food and the service was very friendly.
I need to tell you another story here: This morning while we were out walking we saw this. (Are you thinking what I thought? Doesn’t that look an awful lot like my younger son???)
He assured me that he had not changed careers and still lives in Minnesota, but we got to see him all over Matera on these ads!
Back to my story, after lunch, we continued on our way to the cathedral, where we found some of our group and detoured again to find Casa Noha where there is supposed to be a documentary. It was closed. The group split up again, and we finally got to see the cathedral.
We wandered into the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture of Matera. It was not a collection of the most famous sculptors in the world, most I had never heard of, but the display venue was interesting. Part of the museum is in the (positive-built) palazzo of a major Matera family, while the rest was in the 7 caves that were the (negative-built) stables and cellars. It was dark and moody in the exhibits in the caves, and I found more to look at in the museum that was like a real building! Though using the caves as display and exhibition space may seem like an innovative idea, I found it ill-conceived. It is dark and the floor is uneven, making moving around a challenge since you can’t see where you are stepping. Though the drama of light on the sculptures, surround by black, is atmospheric, the uncertainty of moving around in the space takes away the pleasure.
After that, Gerry and I split up and spent the afternoon on our own. I was following the signs for a tourist route (it matches the route on the map provided by the tourist information center). The city, in the sassi, is like a maze. I really had to pay attention to find my way around, memorizing landmarks and concentrating. I was in the area called Sasso Caveoso. I came upon a reconstructed house in a cave, a casa grotto, but the line was way too long. I continued to wander in and out of the streets along the sasso and finally found myself at the Lanfranchi Palace. I went in to see the Carlo Levi Room.
You may have read or heard me mention that I read Carlo Levi’s Cristo Si e fermato a Eboli (in Italian – part of my practicing Italian for this trip. The book, and movie, in English are called Christ Stopped at Eboli.) I really love that book. Levi’s prose is so pictorial, I could see the people, places and events that he describes. If you are unfamiliar with him, he was arrested for his anti-fascist views during the mid-1930s and sentenced to an internal exile and spent over a year in Grassano and Aliano in Basilicata, as a confinato (confined person). The book was written about 10 years after his experience but the descriptions are fresh and compelling. After reading the book, I had searched the internet for more information and discovered that the Lanfranchi Palace in Matera has a room dedicated to his paintings. Though he was educated as a medical doctor, he was a painter and a writer in practice. Seeing the museum with his paintings almost took on the aspect of a pilgrimage!
The museum housed in this old and beautiful palazzo is called the Museo Nazionale d’Arte Medievale e Moderna della Basilicata. There is a large room dedicated to Carlo Levi. The room needs to be large because this is the home of a monumental painting Lucania ’61 that Levi painted and gave to his hometown, Turin, on the 100th anniversary of the unification of Italy. Also displayed around the room are paintings of the people and views from his stay in Aliano. The faces and places seemed like old friends to me from the descriptions in the book, where the town is called Gagliano.
Looking at modern Matera, it stretches the imagination to see the sassi as Levi and his sister found them in 1936, “a child’s idea of Dante’s Inferno”… Today, it is bustling with construction activity as the old cave dwellings are converted to vacation rentals and fancy boutique hotels. Now, there are no farm animals housed in the grotto homes together with scores of malaria-stricken children and hopeless adults, aged and demoralized by poverty. But in the painting Lucani ’61 you can see what Levi found on his own trip to Matera – and be thankful that he called national attention to the problem of poverty in the Mezzogiorno (southern Italy).
Friday, May 10th
This morning we headed out early because we wanted to see the documentary film “The Invisible Sassi” at the Casa Noha. Our hurry was that the film was something to see BEFORE you see the sassi, and we were already a day and a half into our visit of Matera. Even leaving our hotel at 9:15 did not get us there early enough to see the first showing, so we had to kill time until 10:30. No matter. It was all worth it!
The documentary is a multi-media presentation. About 40 people see it at a time. The presentation is in Italian, but English speakers are given a little radio transmitter that provides an English version. I got to hear both, and they are well done – as is the presentation! Divided into 4 portions, the first is about the ancient history of the area. Matera is one of the oldest, continuously inhabited places on the earth, about 9000 years. Section One covers pre-history to the early 20th century. Section 2 is made up of images from Carlo Levi’s painting Lucani ’61 with passages from the book Cristo si e Fermato a Eboli. (The world is truly circular!) The third is about life in the sassi, starting from how, thanks to Levi’s book, the Italian government decided to do something about the “shame of the Italy.” This is a story of politics and posturing by politicians. The film tells of the efforts to remove the people from the caves and relocate them to standard housing with running water and sanitation, providing them with places to work or plots to tend. Well-meaning and well-thought out, the execution of the plans was neither complete nor followed up upon. They were deemed a failure. Most of the families that were “evacuated” from the sassi in the 1950s ended up emigrating. For them, life in the sassi was not just about their poverty and sub-standard living conditions: They had a culture and a community, two things they could not recapture when they were evacuated.
The documentary takes you right up to “today.” And where are we today? Matera is one of the 2019 European Capitals of Culture, an important designation that brings with it an infusion of tourists and their money. Not a bad thing … but, already, there is a debate going on: Should Matera become an open-air museum or should it return to be a living and breathing city of residents? MY suggestion to YOU? See it soon, before it is completely sanitized. The boutique hotels that are cleaning up the hovels and caves are wonderful, but already I had trouble seeing this as Levi’s sister saw it and described it to him. That isn’t bad. Who wants to dwell on the misery of that poverty and disease? But without that background, the drama of the sassi and, for me, the real marvel of Matera is lost. The pain goes hand in hand with its rebirth.
Definitely include this documentary/multimedia presentation among your “must dos” in Matera. It will change completely your conception of this unusual and unique World Heritage Site.
The rest of my morning, I spent trying to check off another of my bucket list items for this trip: To see at least one grotto church! This is an ironic story: Yesterday, Gerry and I split up after a difference of opinion on how fast one should walk (Yes! I know! Type A personality problem…). He headed away along the road that overlooks the ravine. Later, (as in “when I was writing this post”), I discovered it is called Via Madonna delle Virtu.) and I went in the opposite direction. I have already told you about my wanderings, but upon returning to the hotel Gerry told me he stopped to see the Dali exhibit. (Ahem!)
So this morning, when I tell him I am going to see the grotto churches along the same road, he says nothing, and I am thinking “Ok, while I am there, maybe I can squeeze in Dali, but if not, no sweat, Dali is forever…”
I follow the signs for my grotto church – Madonna delle Virtu, and I cannot find it…though it seems to be in the same position on the map as the Dali exhibit. Have you guessed it? The Dali exhibit was IN the Madonna delle Virtu grotto church! (And no, Gerry wasn’t aware of it…)
So, I got to see them both! The Dali exhibit was great! No connection between Dali and Matera; the docent told me that Matera 2019 needed a major, international art exhibit to offer visitors and this one was available… But it was really good. It left me with an appreciation for Dali that I will continue to follow.
Like yesterday’s Museum of Contemporary Sculpture, the grottoes and caves are very suggestive display venues, but not all that practical. Sometimes it was so dark, that I could not read the explanatory material about the pieces (all written in both Italian and English). I even tried to get out the flashlight on my phone to illuminate it. Each of the Dali pieces was explained, but also on the walls in each grotto church, the convent spaces and the residences were also explained. It was wonderful, and I was very satisfied. (What a bargain! Two for one!)
In Matera, you can go and see the grottoes made up like dwellings, but I needed the horror of my imagination to supply images to appreciate the world of the sassi fully. I wasn’t looking for a tourist version of the history. (I hope you aren’t either.)
Lunch today was fabulous! Kate, one of our fellow photographers, took us to a special place she found on her earlier stay in Matera. The place was called Dimora Ulmo and served a tasting menu (food and wine). All very elegant, but above all, delicious! Staff was outstanding. Please put this on your list of exceptionally worthwhile experiences. You have to make a reservation. There is a tasting menu that the whole table follows (or no one follows – no in between). MY advice? Try the tasting menu! Portions are small enough to enjoy everything without feeling stuffed to the gills. The food is outstanding. The wine pairings are optional, depending on how you like your meals. We went for them, because we also like to try the local wines. Warning: It is expensive: Treat yourself!
We were physically able to walk back to the hotel… but a nap was definitely in order (and it was after 4).
That evening we went out about sunset to take pictures. We headed out to the left of of the hotel and explored that area – down to the monastery, back to the main square, up the high end shopping streets, back into the non-tourist areas. When it started to rain, we went into Materia Prima Bistrot, a small place near the San Giovanni Vecchio Church (steps from where we are staying). Gerry had a burger and I had a vegan “burger.” Good. Repeatable. Nice atmosphere: Hip décor, with oldster diners like us.
The following day we would leave Matera right after breakfast. We have an almost 6 hour drive to Abruzzo. I left Matera unwillingly. This is really a fascinating place. There was still so much to explore and discover. We did not get over to the ravine where a national park protects the cave dwellings used for centuries. I did not sample all the restaurants I wanted to try nor did I have time to look in shop windows. I wanted to purchase a piece of carved limestone as a memento – and there were lots of sellers – just didn’t have the time to carefully consider what I would like best.
I will go back to Matera again. I won’t stay in the same hotel, but not because it wasn’t good! I would like to experience other places in the sassi. I am sure that by the time I get back, there will be lots and lots of new boutique hotels for me to try.
As my parting gift, here is a slide show of images from Matera. The sheer number of photos tells you how much I loved this place!
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And now, it is time to go to Abruzzo for the next part of the trip. Click here to continue reading the blog.