Matera and other interesting places - Thursday, May 9
Today my sister Elvira and I were off to explore an area south of Avellino that none of us had ever visited before - the region of Basilicata. One can think of it as the chunk of land in the 'instep' of Italy's boot. Although it is the next region south of Campania - the region where most of my relatives live - I (nor my sister) had ever been to visit it.
When doing my research pre-trip, it came to my attention that there's a very interesting city in the region: Matera. Matera seemed to be a weird combination of super old paleolithic habitation followed by intermittent rule from many different powers and -- more recently -- a relative obscurity and neglect. That is, until very recently, where the unique aspects of the city have started to become celebrated. In fact, unknown to me, Matera had been designated a "European Capital of Culture" for 2019.
Headed to Matera
It took us about two hours to drive from Avellino to a suitable carpark near the old center of Matera. From there, we walked a short distance to the Piazza Vittorio Veneto, where a bit of subterranean excavations and then a nearby overlook got us our first real gimpse of Matera's essence.
Ok, so what is the essence of Matera? The shortest answer is "pale white" and "caves". Draped over steeply undulating terrain are cascades of pale, colorless, faded stone buildings separated by narrow ramping laneways and steps. It's got a very middle-eastern feel - so much so, that Matera has been the filming location for many a biblical-themed movie (e.g. Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ). Here at our first good lookout, a broad panorama of this ancient cityscape lay before us.
Elvira and I had no particular visit plan for Matera - we just began wandering around, seeing where the twisting laneways would lead us. The old city seems to have been laid out over multiple basins and ridges, and we crossed down into the bottom of one such basin and climbed back up to the other side. This of course led to several more excellent viewpoints over the cityscape.
Interior, Chiesa S. Giovanni Battista
Sleepy streets... and cats
We kept pushing generally eastward, and eventually came to an abrupt edge - to both the city, and the ground. We were standing looking down into a steep ravine with a small river running along its bottom - a little canyon, really. On the other side were layers of pale limestone cliffs interspersed with grassy slopes. In those cliffs were many large holes and caves. And these were not just naturally forming caves (which do occur in this sort of geology) - they were indications of past habitation and activity, apparently back to 10,000 years BC. This is the "caves" part in the "pale white and caves" description I gave a few paragraphs ago.
Matera has a very interesting history of cave habitation, with houses and entire communities having lived in them. In Italian, the city is sometimes known as la citta` sotterranea. And, amazingly, up until the mid 1960s, there were actually still some families actively living in certain cave dwellings near and in the city. Matera has the dubious (but interesting) distinction of being the most "outstanding example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region". Who wants to be known as having had a "troglodyte" settlement?? Sounds brutish.
One of the interesting aspects of Matera's history was the emergence of so-called rupestrian churches - "rock-hewn" churches. In fact, Italy has created a national park out of the dwellings and old rock churches on the far side of that ravine I was describing: The "Parco della Murgia Materana " or "park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera". We didn't get to go over to that side today, but it would probably be a worthwhile visit.
Rock Church of Santa Maria
Although we didn't go over to the national park side of things, there was plenty of interesting stuff in Matera. Many examples of rock churches and family cave dwellings, for example. We visited a fairly popular one - now converted into a curated tourist attraction, called "Casa Grotta". They've preserved the interior, furnishings and all, as it was in the mid 1960s, when the last family to live in this cave finally moved out (by the Italian government, to an above-ground building not too far away).
I've read a bit about the history of mid twentieth century Matera, and it was quite a depressed place, economically. People had long before ceased wanting to actually want to live in the cave dwellings, but circumstance and calamity had caused many families to move back into them. Then the Italian government embarked on a social improvement program and eventually all of the cave-resident families were given new accommodations. Many of the caves became state-controlled, but many of them are still actually privately-owned. And with the resurgance of the city and the historical interest of the area (not to mention the gig-economy opportunities of AirBnB and the like), I bet a lot of these ancient habitats will get revitalized and become very chic spots.
Elvira and I wandered around for another hour or so. Apart from the main travelways, the place was nicely empty, which always adds to the appeal and enjoyment of visiting. It's one of those paradoxical things: you don't want others to ruin your solitary, intimate experience, but of course you yourselves are ruining it in the exact same way for others. Anyway, for the moment we weren't seeing other people, which meant they weren't seeing us. So, all good.
By 2pm we had completed our tour of Matera. On the way back, we took a lazy, nature-seeking course through the back-ways of the region of Basilicata - trying to find the most interesting towns and landscapes. And we found many interesting places!
As we drove through the hilly, semi-arid countryside - on nearly deserted roads that were at times straight across flats and at other times winding and hugging across every small drainage, we spotted some crazy interesting looking towns - often perched on ridges or hilltops. One such dramatic place - a cluster of stone buildings and towers at the top of a ravine, I just happened to notice by chance while driving by. I'm glad I stopped to take a picture of this place, because it turns out to be extremely interesting. The town's name was Craco, and it is a genuine honest-to-goodness Italian ghost town.
Ghost Town of Craco
We didn't stop to do more than take our spooky picture of the town on its hilltop, but a bit of post-trip investigation reveals that the town was abandoned in the 20th century due to repeated natural disasters that forced the hand of officials and residents to leave. Today, it is a tourist attraction and apparently a popular filiming location. Will have to check this spot out again at some point.
Backroads of Basilicata
Continuing northwest on our scenic tourist way back northwest towards Avellino, we drove up into one of the mountain ranges of Basilicata: the Dolomiti Lucane - the Lucane Dolomites, so named because of the geologic similarities to the famous Dolomites of Northeastern Italy. Although a fairly low range, there are many interesting crags and spires that poke up out of the mostly forest-covered topography. We chose interesting looking backroads that wound back and forth in the uplands of this range, through quiet and solitary oak forests with the occasional open field or viewpoint.
We then came upon our first of many viewpoints of two very special hamlets, nestled in the upper reaches of this mountain range: Pietrapertosa and neighboring Castelmezzano.
Apart from being quaint, perfect red-roofed Italian country towns, these two villages were set in amazing locations: they were both nestled right up against dramatic dolomitic spires. Cascades and crests of solid bedrock shot up from behind the houses at the edge of town, reaching for the sky. I'd never seen town settings that were quite so dramatic. Fabulous!
Both of these towns - Pietrapertosa and Castelmezzano - are on the list of Italy's so-called borghi piu belli d'Italia
-- the most beautiful villages of Italy (apparently a takeoff on the older but similar french Les Plus Beaux Villages del la Terre
). The designations are absolutely deserved - I can't imagine these visually fascinating towns not
being on the list. These two places deserve some more attention on a future trip - and they are not at all far from my mother's hometown! There's even an interesting Via Ferrata over the amazing rock crests.
After our visit to the Dolomiti Lucane, we decide to get on the Autostrada and make better time back to Avellino, in order to get back at a reasonable hour. Tonight is a simple take-out food dinner, graciously arranged by Filomena, and hosted in zia Rosetta's house.