All good things must come to an end and it was our time to leave Rome. Hopefully, those coins in the Trevi Fountain will work out for us and we will return in the not too distant future.
After our late night researching the inner workings of the Rome metropolitan bus service, our start for the day was on the late side. We left the room and rolled and lugged our imposing array of luggage the short distance to Stazione Termini. For the next leg of our journey, we needed a car. We hadn’t rented a car when we arrived in Rome as we felt it would have limited value in Rome and it would be an inconvenience to park. Besides, driving into Rome did not seem like a great way to ease into our Roman holiday. In retrospect, all three concerns were valid. It was best to not have the car in Rome.
Rather than picking up a rental car in downtown Rome, we took the convenient train to the airport and picked our car up there. After several minutes to squeeze our luggage into the small Fiat Punta parked in a spot lined to comfortably accommodate Matchbox Cars and to configure our vast array of electronics, we were off to brave the roads of Italy.
The Fiat was not our favorite rental car. It was powered by a diesel engine, which is OK and gave us decent mileage, but the car had almost no low rev torque. To get the car moving, you needed to press the clutch in, push the gas (fuel?) pedal down, wait a second or so, and then pop the clutch hoping to hit the engine revs at the optimal point before they quickly hit the red line. More often than not, we’d miss the ideal engine rev point and either stall out or start moving in a cloud of tire smoke with the startled looks and shaking fingers from the onlookers.
The brakes were the opposite of the engine/clutch combination. Seemingly, 50% of the braking force was generated when you first touched the brakes. In the end, the brakes weren’t all that powerful, but you wouldn’t guess that with the first touch.
We lunged and sputtered out of the tightly packed parking garage, three point turning along the way. With the TomTom guiding us while the BeckBeck system scrambled to load its maps, we were finally on the Autostrada and heading on our way to Matera in Basilicata.
Freeway driving in Italy is pretty straightforward. The number one thing you need to remember is that the left lane is for passing only and, no matter how fast you think you are going in the left lane, a faster car with lights ablaze will soon be on your bumper. The traffic eased as we headed past the turn off for Naples. Navigation was also going smoothly with the BeckBeck and TomTom systems integrating their efforts seamlessly, fortunately without the painful installation of the dreaded interface cable.
I did notice one bug in the BeckBeck Navigational system, however. When the BeckBeck is brought quickly out of sleep mode, it can exhibit a truly nasty attitude with the ability to utter deeply personal negative comments about the driver that have nothing to do with providing navigational directions. Looking through the menu options on the BeckBeck, I did not see the “Swear like a marine drill sergeant” language option checked, so I don’t know what’s up with the system. I know for a fact that we did not pay extra for the “Tourette Syndrome” language option but it sure as hell sounded like that had become engaged. I tried switching the language to “Sweet and nice” but that setting seemed to be locked out and trying to make the change only reinforced the idea that Tourettes Syndrome had somehow become activated. I’m considering sending the unit back to its maker. That worked for the TomTom, maybe it will also work for the BeckBeck.
The road south took us through Campagna in a fertile valley below the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius. We stopped for lunch at a typical autostrada rest stop that did not have any fast food restaurants and, of course, no Starbucks. They did offer hand made paninis made from ingredients that I would die to have readily available at the local grocery store.
As we entered Basilicata, the TomTom and the now fully awake BeckBeck systems were doing a fine job with the navigation. The “pronounce road names” function on the TomTom was pretty humorous. For that matter, the “pronounce road names” function on the BeckBeck system could be funny at times, too, but I won’t get into that. With the TomTom, the road names generally sounded something like “Via mumble mumble” or “Mumble mumble strada.” It pretty much sounded like a non-native Italian speaker with a mouth full of marbles was trying to pronounce the road names. And, for some reason, it seemed to have to get every road name, no matter the length, and there are some long road names in Italy, finished by a set period of time. The TomTom pronounced road names were useless for navigation. We’d have turned this function off on the TomTom, if they weren’t so funny. At times we were laughing so hard that it was impacting the driving. And, at least our Italian pronunciations were better.
We moved closer to Matera and the road took us up into the hills. The road construction in Italy is truly amazing to see. In the States, the roads tend follow the line of the hill with deep road cuts and fill areas to smooth out the terrain wrinkles. In Italy, the road was kept relatively level by a collection of viaducts and tunnels. The viaducts were remarkable. Some were close to the ground. Others rose to great heights and extended for 2 to 3 miles. Almost all the viaducts were signed with a name and their length. The frequent tunnels were no less impressive and were also signed with their lengths. The Italian road system is an impressive feat of construction. I would have taken pictures, but stopping on the viaducts to capture the scene with the camera did not seem to be advised.
With so many viaducts, maintenance would seem to be a challenge. In fact, there were a number viaduct related of road closures that forced complicated detours and reroutes. The on board navigational systems often struggled with these road outages, but eventually we made it to through.
By the time we made it to Matera, it was near sunset. The scenery had changed from fertile farmland to dry, sandy hills with scraggly vegetation and rock outcroppings. The state road winds its way climbing up the hill to the town, which has an older and a newer section. We were heading to the old section of Matera to stay in a Sassi District. The Sassi Districts in Matera are the oldest surviving and most complete examples of rock-cut settlements in the Mediterranean region. At least that’s what the guide book says.
When we started planning this trip, I had never heard of Matera. We needed a place between Rome and Sicily either in Basilicata or Calabria to break up the drive. Looking through guide books, we found Matera, which had been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Soon after we turned into the Sassi District, the TomTom guided us down a dead end street. We were not sure what the TomTom was thinking nor did we have a good idea of how to get to our hotel from where we are at, but we reversed our course out on to the street and drove around until we found a descending street and the TomTom came to its senses. As we dropped away from the ridge, the buildings changed as they were now façade fronts to caves. Soon we found our hotel. The sun was glowing orange off the buildings as we parked and moved our luggage up an alley way to our room.
At first glance, our hotel, La Casa di Lucio looked pretty normal. After checking in, we went to our room. The room we stayed in was created from an historic cave dwelling. The front wall, some interior walls, and the floor were new construction, but the basic shell for the room was whitewashed cave. No doubt, this is the most unique place we have stayed. Being a cave, the room was extremely quiet and relatively dark. Appointed in the boutique hotel style, it was also a luxurious accommodation.
Until this time we had not had TV or internet in any room. We find it amusing to try to learn a bit of the native language watching repetitive, cheesy local TV ads. Here, the channels on the TV were unusual. The TV had more Arabic channels (including Al Jezeera) than those in Italian. The number of sex ad channels significantly exceeded the number of channels in English. Most of the sex channels were in Arabic. All except three of the English channels were Christian, typically American evangelical. The few remaining English channels included the Pentagon Channel (who knew that existed!) and, thankfully, BBC and Bloomberg where we could watch in horror the unraveling of the global financial system. Maybe sex channels in Arabic aren’t that bad, after all! There were so many channels that it took a half hour to change through them all!
For dinner, we took the recommendation from the front desk of our hotel and went to Trattoria del Caveoso, just up the road. This turned out to be one of the best meals of the trip. The cavatelli pasta, a local hand made pasta with a horse ear-like shape, with porcini mushrooms was our favorite. This dish showed an intensity of earthy and aromatic flavors from the porcini that was unlike anything we had ever experienced. For us, the flavors of this dish by itself explained why porcini mushrooms are so sought after. We also had pungent, dark greens that were coated with an amazing olive oil. All this and a fine bottle of a varietal wine from Basilicata, Aglianico del Vulture, and we were happy.
Post dinner we had a short chance to wander the nearly vacant town under the lights. The monochromatic fronts of the cave dwellings tumble down the side of the hill with the look of unplanned disorder that reflects the cave interiors. Across the canyon at the edge of the town, you could see the lights of a tour in unimproved ancient cave dwellings. Tired, we headed back to the room looking forward to what the morning light would show of this unique place.
La Casa di Lucio, Via S. Pietro Caveso, 66; 75100 Matera-Italia; www.lacasadilucio.com
Trattoria del Caveoso, Via B. Buozzi, 21-75100 Matera