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October 31, 2008

Matera and its environs

Filed under: Italy Rome-Sicily 2008, Travel — anotherheader @ 11:11 pm

Matera in the morning light
Matera in the morning light

We woke near dawn for a morning stroll and picture taking. Somehow, this would start a trend for the rest of the trip—we’d get up, walk about, comeback for breakfast, think about taking that mid-morning nap that we no longer had time for, and then pack up and head out. I’m not a morning person, but somehow it worked out this way. This morning, at least, we did not need to pack up as we were staying another night. And getting out early this day was made easy when Becky spied a scorpion in the room. We were pretty sure that it was still there when we left. Well, at least as long as it didn’t end up in the luggage.

In the light morning, it was a good time to stroll the Sassi. With the warm light reflecting of the buildings and hills, we wandered without a plan in the still cool air just experiencing what appeared before us. The town was quiet with only the occasional resident feeding the cats or the worker preparing to resume the day’s construction project appearing on the thoroughfares.

Matera panorama
Matera panorama

Matera is a very unique place. It is unlike any other city that we have ever been to. In the Sassi District of Matera, the location of the cobbled roads and alleys was determined by where the caves were built. The caves are everywhere and vary from the refurbished and upscale (like our hotel) to the primitive and abandoned. If you look into a primitive cave, you see well worn rock steps and walk ways that give a sense of what life was like long ago in the town.

Chiesa di Santa Maria d'Idris
Chiesa di Santa Maria d’Idris

The most intriguing sight for me was Chiesa di Santa Maria d’Idris. This church was carved into rock hill with only small sections of stonework to finish the façade and to form parts of the sides of the structure. From the distance, the church appears Dali-esque, with the rock of the hill seemingly melting over the stonework portions of the church. On the inside, the interior is simple and cave-like, with frescos dating from the 12th century on the walls.

The colors of the Sassi are monochromatic with gray and off-white being the dominant colors. Stone and brick work intertwines with exposed rock outcroppings of nearly the same color. The result is a stark beauty which has been used as a back drop for 36 movies, counting from 1950 to 2007, including Mel Gibson’s “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Matera has a striking and memorable visual appeal.

Chiesa di Santa Maria d'Idris
Chiesa di Santa Maria d’Idris

Everywhere we went there were signs of reconstruction and rehabilitation in progress. In October, during our visit, there were no crowds and the town was quiet. It’s hard to imagine that Matera would be packed with visitors in the heat of the tourist season in July and August. Nonetheless, we’d guess that tourism will grow in the coming years. It’s certainly a place worth a tourist’s visit. The Sassi was not yet overwhelmed with boutiques and tourist shops, like so many places. We just hope that with all the construction, it remains that way.

We traveled to the nearby town of Miglionico to see the Castello del Malconsiglio or the Castle of Bad Advice. Castello del Malconsiglio was named as a result of an ill fated plot that was hatched there in 1481 by a band of rebellious barons. We felt right at home at the Castle of Bad Advice, almost as if we had been there before, frequently. It was our kind of place.

In the back streets of Miglionico, the smells of wine making were in the air. We happened upon a rosy cheeked man wrestling a 100 liter fermentation bottle into a small truck.

“Molto bene,” he said to us, pausing, and continuing, “…Vino.”

He clearly had some extensive first hand knowledge of the wine that they were making, so we had to trust his judgment that it was good.

We also visited the hill town Montescaglioso where we met the Maytag Repairman of tourist office officials. The official spoke minimal English,

The Castle of Bad Advice (Castello del Malconsiglio)
The Castle of Bad Advice (Castello del Malconsiglio)

but gave us every English language pamphlet in the office he could find. We kept trying to leave, but he’d stop us and search and dig further in his piles and cabinets and five minutes later turn up still more English language pamphlets covering far distant attractions to give to us. Eventually, we pried ourselves away. Becky signed the guestbook. The previous entry was made two weeks prior.

Leaving the tourist office schlepping our newly acquired massive collection of all possible Basilicata English language tourist attraction pamphlets, we had a chance to see a bit of the town. Not atypically, the town’s primary attractions were its numerous churches. Our whirlwind tour occurred during the siesta when the streets were quiet and abandoned. The main street in town was interesting with pale colored buildings lining a road constructed of hewn white rock. It would have been interesting backdrop for a colorful festival with the streets full of people.

Back in Matera, we headed out in the chill breeze of the evening for a dinner at Biccanti Ristorante. The restaurant was stylishly constructed in a cave. The food was good, though we preferred our more rustic meal from the prior night.



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