Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Asleep in a Grotto

                It has been about a year since I wrote of our brief visit to ancient Matera while returning to Calitri from Otranto on the coast of Puglia.  At that time I described how Maria Elena and I had stopped-off for a brief visit, which turned into a lunch only to unfold into a surprise visit to the hotel room once used by Mel Gibson during the filming of "The Passion of the Christ”.  We had heard the story of Matera - not to be confused with Maratea located farther to the west on the Tyrrhenian seacoast.  We knew of the death-like existence of its inhabitants in the 30’s and wanted to see for ourselves this grand rift in the earth where man had lived for millennia.  After this brief exposure to Matera, we knew we had to someday return.

            On a recent stay in Calitri, about a month into our time there, we decided to return to Matera but this time we'd stay overnight in the Sassi di Matera (Stones of Matera) to experience it more fully.  A few minutes online was all it took to obtain a reservation at L’Hotel in Pietra (The Hotel in Stone).  This boutique hotel, a converted 13th century monastery itself gouged from the mountainside, is located near the rim of this natural pit and adjacent to modern Matera situated on the plateau above.  It was our hope that a stay there would give us a feel for what it was like living in a cave, albeit a deluxe one in this case.

            It was an easy two hour ride from Calitri in Campania to Matera in the adjacent province of Basilicata.  We skirted Mt. Vultura, an extinct volcano visible from our balcony, by way of a modern road that for the most part shadows the old Roman Appian Way southeast until it joined with the highway to Potenza.  Nearing Potenza, we then broke off toward the east across the beautiful countryside of the Basento river valley.  Approaching Matera, as requested, I made a call to the hotel to coordinate on parking our vehicle.  Part of our reservation included the use of a local parking garage.  My call triggered Giovanni, who would meet us at the garage.  This garage, located in modern Matera, was some distance away from the hotel.  Giovanni would coordinate our parking with the garage attendant and, in addition to being our guide to our accommodations, help with our luggage.  We found the garage without any problem and shortly afterwards Giovanni arrived.  We waited sometime as he disappeared into the garage only to return to explain that he needed to return to the hotel for some sort of pass.  There’s coordination and then there is coordination!  More time passed while we waited, enough time that I was tempted, at the urging of a local resident, to park in an available spot on the street.  I actually tried to fit into the space but decided against it, preferring instead to wait for the security of the garage.  All told it took some time to get our vehicle settled in the garage before following Giovanni off to the hotel.  

            Through town traffic then past a park we followed our leader who, knowing the code of the labyrinth of streets that wiggled away in every direction, soon brought us to L’Hotel in Pietra.  Passing through a small courtyard we entered a combined lobby, reception and breakfast area.  This space had once been the nave of an early church.  Its large common area with soaring yellowy-beige ceilings and lofty vertical looping arches was bright, comfortable and utterly stunning.  The reception area was set off in a cavity, possibly where a side altar had once stood.  On the counter my eye caught sight of an old radio, still operating, that transported me years into the past to a style in time we now call art-deco.  Here time travel can happen and it had already begun.
            Although we had reserved a standard room, we were upgraded to a multi-room suite.  The confusion and delay at the garage may have had something to do with this extended courtesy.  In any case, it was appreciated for our room was spectacular.  Like all the other rooms, it too had been carved from the soft tufa stone so commonplace in this area.  The soft and indirect lighting, earth tone coloring, unassuming furniture and soothing music that filled the spaces created an intimate atmosphere.  Around the foot and sides of our bed a simple wooden frame about two planks wide reminded me of a narrow credenza while our headboard was literally that, a board, one each, angled up against the wall behind the pillows (see photo album).  A few steps down through an arched portal leading from the main bedroom area brought us to a cantilevered landing.  This suspended platform was bordered by glass panels and overlooked additional hollowed-out rooms below us, one of which contained the bare platform of a bed, it too made from what else but stone.  An adjoining bathroom cavity outfitted with modern fixtures completed the imaginative conversion of our space in the side of the historic Matera ravine.  Its sunflower showerhead, bigger than a serving platter, in a hollowed-out alcove of its own together with a long trough-like stone sink certainly marked it as one of a kind.

Now with an appreciation for our room we were soon outside eager to begin exploring the unique environment we found all about us.  Like a marble spun around the inside of a bowl seeking the stability of the bottom we walked the perimeter of the Sassi gradually descending along worn steps, found here and there, until we eventually reached the bottom.  We were at this for hours, taking time to investigate every curiosity and shop we chanced upon in addition to a few 'hydration stops' at several cafes to sample the wine and stuzzichini (Italian bar snacks).

By nightfall from our hotel vantage point the Sassi valley and on up along the opposite side wall of the canyon glimmered and blinked with lights like a living crèche.  As old as it is, here where history is so long, it continues to invent itself even today.  Renovated homes, modern apartments and small hotels abound throughout this World Heritage Site.  Here and there across this pre-history community, evidence that change is afoot is also apparent from the satellite dishes, shaded verandas and colorful flowered terraces, cafes, autos and restaurants that pepper the settlement.  Today, Matera lives in the limelight of its past enjoying a burst in economic development - nowhere near what it was like throughout the majority of its distressing history.  Now just short of neon signs, I wonder how long it will hold to its past.

            There were many places to choose from for dinner that perfect evening.  Since this would be our one dinner in this historic community, to make it special, we wanted to indulge in its equally historic flavors.  Making our way to the bottom of the trench we walked along Via Fiorentini and Via San Rocco reading menus and peeking inside restaurants to help us decide.  We opted for La Talpa (The Mole).  Indeed, it would have helped whoever had made it to have been mole-like.  Typical of us, we were early.  It was only 8pm.  Still on the empty side we could have chosen to sit anywhere.  We decided on a table off the main room in a cozy side cove of an adjacent hollowed out chamber.  The talpa had indeed been a busy excavator!

            We began by sharing a bottle of "Pervini Primitivo di Manduria Archidamo", an inky tannic regional wine similar to what many of us might be more familiar with as Zinfandel.  Our waiter, in addition to a basket of pane, brought us a complimentary disk of something similar to a thin, oiled, toasty-hot pizza crust all too easy to fill up on.  Maria Elena ate sparingly that evening beginning with a classic Caprese Salad of the real thing, juicy buffalo mozzarella, in addition to fresh tomatoes, basil leaves, all of it drizzled with that mainstay, extra virgin olive oil.  Later she enjoyed a cheese plate of lightly seasoned pecorino cheese made from ewe's milk presented with a side of honey.  According to the menu the honey came from the Pollino National Park, the largest national park in the country.  I wondered whether the bees were aware of that fact and why it was significant enough to warrant mentioning on the menu, but that's just me.  After all that walking around I was far more ambitious.  I began with orecchiette con straccetti di cinghiale al surgo (pasta shaped like little ears in a regional sauce of wild boar chunks) and then as 'secondi' enjoyed tagliate di filetto con rucola e grana (cut strips of beef fillet with arugula, called 'rocket' in Italia, and parmesan).  Our dinner there in this cavernous grotto was delightful - the only drawback being the climb once again back up all those stone steps, bottom to top, following our meal!  Now more like a possum than a mole I climbed from the breach.  With each step upward, the restricted vanishing point of jagged silhouetted buildings along the rim when seen from the bottom gradually gave way to an expanding star-streaked sky.  Rising through this portal from pre-history to modernity, we retreated to the comforts of our cave suspended in the ecliptic, somewhere between the two.

During our stay, we had opportunity to visit what are called ‘rupestrian’ churches.  We learned that rupestrian, a word that doesn't usually appear in a dictionary, meant "composed of rock" and indeed like everything in Matera, they were.  There in Matera where stone is the story, these churches were not simply constructed of rocks piled or mortared one atop another but instead painstakingly chiseled and gouged from the rocky mountainsides themselves.  As Michelangelo was said to have believed, he was simply releasing the subject of his sculpture already encased in each block of stone.  I wondered if the stone masons of Matera could have likewise believed that a church or monastery was hidden inside their tufa.  

These are not like churches we are familiar with today.  They were relatively small, low-ceilinged, candle-lit hollowed out spaces without pews where a congregation might be seated.  With the purchase of a combination ticket, we visited three of these deconsecrated ‘cave churches’, the first being Santa Lucia Alle Malve.

      Santa Lucia Alle Malve is partially named after a plant that grows in the area, which was eaten in periods of austerity.  To me this implied often.  Santa Lucia was first used by female Benedictine monks in the 9th century and thereafter inhabited until 1960.  A low or bas-relief of Saint Lucia can be seen outside by the entrance.  The church’s namesake, a young Sicilian martyr, holds a chalice containing her eyes which were removed prior to her death during the persecutions of 304 AD.  The presence of both Roman Catholic frescos and the remains of a Greek-orthodox iconostasis (a wall of icons and religious paintings separating the nave from the sanctuary in Greek churches) in the same church is evidence of the once close coupling in both Greek and Roman Catholic religiosity.

      We next visited Santa Maria de Idris, named for jugs and other similar containers used in eons past to collect a precious commodity, water.  It was actually two churches in one.  By way of a small opening in the wall to the left of the main altar, so low that I needed to duck, we found ourselves inside the much older and far more primitive San Giovanni in Monterrone.  Itself a labor of timeless hands it was full of hollows and niches.  Void of plaster saints only ancient frescos of saints and deteriorated fragments of frescos, some over a thousand years old, remained.

            Our final church stop was at Matera’s largest rupestrian church, San Pietro Barisano.  This place of worship, since its inception in the 12th century and like the others we'd visited, had undergone numerous interventions in the form of enlargements, modifications and additions.  Unlike the others, in 1755 this church had a facelift of sorts when a new facade and a bell tower were added giving it its present day, more conventional look.  The inside took up the rupestrian theme, nonetheless, especially in the hollowed out spaces of the basement.  Here once again, as we had experienced inside Castello Aragonese on the island of Ischia (refer to blog archive, Meditations on Mortality, Mar '10), we came upon hollowed out spaces used for the ritual of the 'draining corpses'.  Inside a chamber of chiseled, stone, seat-like niches, we too easily recognized where the bodies of deceased priests would sit to be removed only when their decomposition was complete.  Unsettling as it was, we moved quickly through this macabre chamber and surprisingly surfaced behind the main alter.  It was evident from the numerous empty frames and missing altar pieces that at some point this church had been vandalized.  Whether named for a plant eaten to survive, one remindful of precious water or one disfigured by scavengers, each church had been a reminder of an inhospitable world, something the fleeting visitor like ourselves is incapable of comprehending no matter the number of times we might visit.  Captured, not as an insect in amber but in stone, stark yet beautiful Matera is a testimony to survival.

            On the morning of the following day we walked through Piazza Veneto on our way to the Carlo Levi museum located on the rim of the Sassi inside Palazzo Lanfranchi.  We were there to see Carlo Levi's Vulcania '61 - an extraordinary fresco portrayal of the painful dehumanizing peasant world once the life-norm around Matera.  This stirring painting, a picture of poverty depicting the hardship of an entire region was massive - 61 foot long by 10.5 foot high - taking up the length of the entire room.  Interestingly, on the opposite wall were photos of many of the scenes and individuals depicted in this wall of canvas.  With exceptional skill Levi had woven them into his masterpiece in a continuous storyboard fashion.  As a graphic metaphor for a people brutalized by poverty, their faces illustrated their grief and plight from the very first scene - a funeral and its mourners.  Continuing to walk its length, we observed the forlorn looks of women bearing ragged child in their arms, lumbering peasants returning from work-fields they could never own along with groups of dejected, jobless men.  With such an illustration, in addition to his published works (e.g. Christ Stopped at Eboli), Carlo made palpable to an uninformed world the plight of peasant society caught in a dissolving culture of gentry over peasant that he'd uncovered in southern Italy.  Pictures they say speak a thousand words; this mural would make a politician speechless and demand resolution, which it had!

Leaving the Levi Museum we had lunch at La Grotto di Bacco, a small, easy to miss wine pub on Vico Commercio.  We stumbled upon it.  Actually, a sign on a storefront on one street directed us around back to the entrance on another street.  We settled on the menu turistico (tourist menu) offer of the day, a fairly-priced, three course meal that included wine.  We enjoyed fresh Apulian pasta with cacioricotta cheese, salads and beef chops in garlic, parsley and more cheese!

By this time, certainly by then certifiable members of some troglodyte rupestrian order (if there ever was or will be one), it was, unfortunately, time to depart Matera.  We took with us the memory of a place, which for all that is now wonderful and pleasing about it, was formerly a terrible place, the embodiment of despair - its economy founded on survival.  There is a word, "wabi-sabi".  It is not Italian, has nothing to do with interior design or some sort of spicy condiment.  Instead, it has everything to do with the beauty of imperfection, of the primitive; a beauty in things marred and humble.  As we discovered in Matera, it is a beauty appreciated in its tarnished unconventionality.  It is of beauty, however, only if it remains unchanged in the patina of its history.

Maybe just as another line from a frown or a smile finds a home on our faces, Matera will fittingly occupy some hollowed-out fold in our brains.  A memory of hospitality, certainly, of starlight on whitish stone, certainly, and certainly of a people who in their hollowed-out churches and homes scratched for a living and telling from the number of churches clung to hope for a better life after death.  Certainly these and many other impressions floated in my head as I fell asleep in that modern grotto itself a comfortable contradiction from how life had always been in Matera.

From the Rogue Tourist,

For related photos (as well as those from other adventures ), click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled “Asleep in a Grotto”.