Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Enchantment of Matera

Now with some appreciation for Otranto , as much as you can absorb in about twenty-four hours, we were once again on the road the following morning. The day had grown bright and clear since my early morning walk along the docks. The swallows in the campanile rising from the cathedral darted every which way as we pulled away from the Papaleo Hotel. Somehow, they had brought our car into the old-town from where I’d parked it the day before on the advice of the waiter at the Dal Baffo Ristorante. The trick would be finding our way out of this maze. With the aid of our GPS, Margaret, complemented by verbal directions from the hotel staff, we made it look easy.

With a country shaped so much like an appendage, everything concerned with direction and travel in Italy can easily be related to a leg … for instance, the calf, the heel, the toe. A podiatrist would do well driving here! This morning we struck out northwest as we exited Italy’s ‘heel’, this time headed into its ‘arch’. Our objective as we made our way home to Calitri was Matera, in the region of Basilicata.

Matera is a different place - odd, ancient, mysterious. It is like nothing else we have ever seen. Like the Colorado River of Grand Canyon fame, centuries of erosion by the Gravina River, today but a small stream, has cleaved a deep ravine into the terrain. This rift formed a narrow valley which since Stone Age times has been a home to man, so old in fact that it is thought to be one of the first human settlements in Italy. This ancient settlement lying on one side of this gorge, half-carved and half-built from tufo rock the color of milk, consists of a mosaic of cave homes, each a tidbit in time that gradually grew in height up from the river. This vast mountainside of what are called ‘grottos’ in Calitri is known as the "Sassi di Matera" (meaning "Stones of Matera"). These days it is enjoying a state of resurgence after lying dormant over 30 years following a history which for many Italians would best be forgotten. Today it blends the present with a past still very much alive aided by its designation as a World Heritage Site in addition to being one of 395 Wonders of the World. As I inferred, times were not always so rosy. In addition to conquests thought more or less normal in view of the tumultuous history of this leggy peninsula, be they Roman (3rd Century BC), Lombard (664 AD), Saracen, Byzantine, German (9th Century), Norman (1043AD), Aragonese (15th Century) or French (1806) in nature, it was not until 1945 that Matera gained world attention due to its plight. It was in that year that Carlo Levi, a physician and for many years a political prisoner of Italy’s Fascist government, published "Christ Stopped at Eboli". With a deep compassion for the poor, the ill and the disadvantaged, he described to the world the inhuman conditions in Matera, all the while denouncing the poverty and misery he found there and throughout southern Italy. The people were extremely poor, existing in complete destitution. Healthcare was atrocious. Disease, due to a lack of sanitation, as well as a high infant mortality rate in the Sassi soon became the source of national shame. These cave dwellers were a forgotten people, thought inferior, cut off from the world, its developments, its history. As Levi observed, even Christ had stopped short of this place. Political pressure steadily grew following publication such that during the 1950s the Italian government forcefully relocated most of the population of the Sassi from their burrows to areas on the opposite side of this hidden valley where a modern Matera rose above the ancient ravine. To have failed to act would have civilized suffering.

Being in a ravine, the very presence of the Sassi is deceiving. You would never know it was there until almost falling into it. For us, however, this pretext of deception had started much earlier in the day. We did well and made good time following our departure from Otranto. It was around the port city of Taranto that 'things went south' and we got lost. Though it took about an hour to resolve, I shouldn't say we were actually lost. Being a former pilot, it is better to admit to being only “momentarily disoriented”! So let me rephrase. This momentary disorientation, under the guise of sound direction from Margaret, our GPS, who had us one moment cutting through tall grass fields or returning to now familiar intersections over and over, was not resolved until I stopped to ask who else but a mailman for aiuto (help). Who better than a mailman would know best where things were? Maybe a taxi driver? Behind schedule and barring any available taxi drivers, we were soon oriented once again and on the correct road, which turned out to be the famous Via Appia. Passing first through Massafra, then skirting Castellaneta, we were on course to Matera.

By early afternoon we'd arrived and started following signs for the Sassi through modern Matera. Our search led us to what I could call a parking lot though I'm still not sure whether it really was. Farther ahead the road began to drop off so we decided to park while we still could and explore on foot. By this point we were actually in the Sassi, at least to one side of it, though we didn't realize it until much later when we caught a glimpse of the wall of caves from the opposite side. We were just beginning the circling trek farther down into what appeared to be an ever narrowing pit when a very trim woman passed us going in the opposite direction. Her blue baseball cap cradling goggle-size sunglasses got me thinking but it was her red sweater and coordinated scarf that hinted she wasn't Italian. She hadn’t gotten far past me when I turned and asked her if she was an American. Startled into stopping, her almost immediate response confirmed it. She seemed to know where she was headed and where she had come from so we asked her for a recommendation for lunch, which seemed as effective as Ali Baba saying "Open Sesame". She apparently had been on a similar quest and had a restaurant in mind but at the moment she also had a slight problem with the owner. She wanted to eat outside but it seemed the owner had refused to open the large square cantilevered umbrella on the terrazzo. Now with three of us for lunch, alfresco, she was sure he would not refuse. She made a deliberate about face and now confident of the outcome joined us in our descent to Ristorante Baccus, located we soon discovered at the very bottom of the ravine.

We soon learned that Joan was a retired teacher retracing her European steps from decades before. Sadly it seemed, she was alone then as she was now. Together we arrived at the family run Baccus. The interior was simple yet striking with a light blue colored domed ceiling over a dining room of finely appointed cloth covered tables and bottled wine selections filling wall niches. Toward the back we discovered a cavern cut into the hillside in true Matera style. The tables there were at the moment occupied by Italian families spanning in range from nonne (grandmothers) to bombini (babies) in diapers, which to me was definitely a good sign. No way this could be a bad choice. Back in the main dining room a glass wall separated us from the kitchen staff but in truth it really didn't because the chef, Carlo Pozzuoli, along with his hostess wife, Magyar, were soon out on the dining room floor, or in our case, out on the terrace with us. This time Carlo hadn't a problem with the sun canopy. Three seemed to be the magic number (it would soon swell) and our new companion was delighted. In no time we were seated beneath its welcomed shade. There was no fixed menu per se. We simply relied on the expert guidance of master chef Carlo. The offerings that day included lasagna as well as a pasta with beans and dried peppers, both local Matera favorites. For starters, as we sipped an exceptional house red while waiting for our pasta to be prepared, we snacked on mushroom coated toasted bread with slices of roasted peppers. Sometime afterwards, along with the pasta, dishes of roasted vegetables were served and later still, a dessert tray arrived featuring various cheeses and jam. These did not arrive at the table, however, until another surprise had arrived, this one not of the chef’s making.

As we were sitting there looking off at primal Matera rising starkly white higher and higher until it reached a blue sky horizon, comfortably pacified by then by the untamed spirit of the wine and chatting with our tablemate, there was a moment of awkward hesitation. We were not sure at first just what we were seeing moving toward us. Could it have been some phenomenon of playfully refracted light or some phantom apparition afoot in the Sassi? It took only a fraction of a second to resolve itself into none other than our Canadian friends once again, Ken and Lynda. These were the same two we had first met in Gallipoli, had stayed in the hotel room they had occupied in Otranto and now, as if on cue, were following in our footsteps here on the streets of Matera. Their inclination to take a walk from their hotel had them passing the Baccus just as we were finishing our antipasti. They were as surprised to see us as we them. After much hugging, greetings and introductions, they joined us for lunch under the umbrella, in the shade of Matera. Events, like roads, have a tendency to wind around themselves like a Möbius strip, paths curiously crossing as though from different directions though not. Before either of us could return to our respective coasts (theirs the Pacific Northwest and ours the North Eastern Atlantic), fate had us meet once again. The last we knew, days earlier, they had been off in the direction of Bari. We caught up - each telling tales from the intervening days as luncheon was served. Joan was quiet and not long after the last piece of cheese disappeared, she seemed keen on leaving. Maybe our conversation was too exclusive as we spoke of things unfamiliar to her. Being the odd one out may have added to making her feel awkward, then again she impressed me as a person used to being alone and may have felt a need to exit back to a familiar world. In any case, she excused herself and was off, up the incline we had met on for the first and I sensed the last time.

Lynda had something to show us and soon we were off to Hotel Albergo Italia, where they were staying (right click here for a hotel video presentation). This hotel dated to the XVII century when it was a family palace. We climbed and turned our way through alleyways and lanes up from the antique neighborhood onto the rim overlooking the historic center. Along our way we passed some inviting places, all worth a return visit, like the Sax Cafe, La Cola Cola Osteria, the four-star Albergo del Sedile and a music conservatory in Piazza del Sedile, (see photo album). A few more turns after the piazza we arrived at Albergo Italia. Inside, the friendly proprietress, installed behind a reception desk watched over by oversized brass cats, their heads shiny from many a touch, handed over a ringlet of room keys. Some rooms offered breathtaking views of the Sassi and Ken and Lynda’s was one of them. For a three-star Italian hotel everything appeared normal in their room ... small, very clean, high ceilinged, comfortable furnishings ... It wasn't until Lynda directed Maria Elena to the shuttered window that things got special fast. Drawing in the shutters, the view was breathtaking and awash in detail. Down below and across the entire panorama the Sassi spread out in stony splendor. In dramatic execution, this human warren filled the vista, course over terraced course. Only then did we appreciate its grandeur. Smatterings of red door fronts, arched passageways, crumbling ruins, flowered patios, church towers, grand and lesser stairways leading every which way intermingled, none alone but all together, the sacred and profane, on a moonscape devoid of time. It was as though we had teleported into some vast Colorado Pueblo or were walking in a Jordanian ravine and had just rounded a corner to first glimpse mysterious impenetrable Petra. Better yet, it was like looking back in time, like we had channeled into some massive biblical scene. This was not too far off the mark for Matera's unique architecture is commonly thought reminiscent of ancient Jerusalem.

On occasion, this special semblance to Jerusalem's ancient architecture has served as backdrop for a movie. This was the case in 2004 with the filming of scenes of Mel Gibson's controversial “The Passion of the Christ”. Oscar winning director Mel Gibson and actresses Maia Morgenstern (who played Mary) and Monica Bellucci (Mary Magdalene) chose Albergo Italia for their stay while shooting this intense saga. This by the way would be the nature of our next adventure … the name of the game being ‘Find Mel’s Room’ and thus the keys! Heading off we soon realized that this once house now hotel, like the Sassi itself, was a complex network of corridors stretching deep into a dark network of hallways, silent door after silent door, ceiling lights coming to life only with our approach. Many of the open areas, especially where hallways came together to create large intersections, were stylishly decorated with furnishings and accessories. Many we learned were from the original owners ... wrought iron beds, chests of drawers, mirrors, lamps and art-deco pieces, too big to pocket. Though we had the room number, we lacked a map through this labyrinth. We eventually found Mel’s former room. Its vestibule outside expanded to create a large foyer big enough for the grand piano and grandfather clock located there to not appear confined. Many fine appointments throughout this area hinted at something special. Telling from the great care taken with the foyer, his may well have been the finest room in the house.

Like jailors, we fumbled with the keys until by trial and error we happened on the right one. The centerpiece of the room was a golden colored brass bed accented in lacy metal filigree. It was what Italians call a matrimoniale bed, on the order of what we’d refer to as queen size. Over the head of the bed a classic Madonna and child, draped with yards of flowing cloth, like you might see about a throne, kept watch over its occupants. Other religious scenes accented the walls throughout the room in addition to a photo of the former owner, Pietro Longo. Cushioned chairs positioned in the direction facing the pillows rose from either side of the corner-posts by the foot of the bed. Outwardly each served for undressing if not simply as a place to drape your robe over before getting into bed. At the very foot of the bed a settee as wide as the bed itself completed the space. Additional fine accents included an art-deco style lamp, an obvious mate to one outside. On the bedside table Ken discovered a small metal box containing hatpins. Hopefully one will not be missed. It became a souvenir of my visit to Mel’s room and today resides on my office wall above the printer stuck through a card advertising Carlo’s Baccus in true hatpin fashion!

We weren’t quite finished yet, for there was one more prize to seek. In filming “The Passion of the Christ” a scene had been performed on the terrace-sized balcony of one of the rooms. Now familiar with the layout, we found it and entered without difficulty. Thinking back on it now, we'd been lucky no one was staying in either room when we'd barged in! It’s happened to us before when the front desk had lost track of things. Can you imagine everyone's surprise, shock or embarrassment likely only compounded by a language barrier? Ouch! We quickly understood why this room had been chosen. The view down and across the Sassi from this open terrace excited a kind of awe. I felt the Sassi's unorthodox beauty, seen from this vantage, was ever so much more dramatic than from the window framed confines of Lynda’s room. Here we were a part of it. A metal railing filled in spaces along the perimeter not already filled by various low pediments and half walls. At the far corners of this terracotta clad deck two busts looking intently off into the Sassi only added to its character. A table with an umbrella and just the right number of chairs invited us to stay. Unfortunately we couldn't. Given a choice, I’d easily trade Mel’s room for this room with its physical view. It would be the room we would request when we returned.

With our hunt successfully completed we said goodbye to Lynda and Ken for a second time since Gallipoli and reluctantly departed Hotel Albergo Italia. No telling where we will meet them again someday. Who knows, it might possibly be right there in Matera, a once very unpleasant and painful place, now-a-days a burgeoning resort perfect to breathe in the stones and relish in the ruins of former ages. Our story continues …

From That Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled “Matera”.