Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Italy, Matera, the Cave City

What look like conventional buildings line the canyon's edge at Matera. The facades we
see actually are mere fronts added to cave entrances. The caves have been carved from
the soft limestone and used as homes and even churches for centuries. Today,
some contain luxury hotels and restaurants.

Basilicata  can be thought of as the instep of Italy's boot. Its recorded history begins when the great city-states of Greece started colonies here that quickly amassed wealth and military power. That, however, was a peak, and by the 20th century, Basilicata was so poor that, according to Carlo Levi's book "Christ Stopped at Eboli," the region had "been bypassed by Christianity, by morality, by history itself -- that they have somehow been excluded from the full human experience."

Things are looking up a bit these days. Matera, the unique city at the northeast corner of the region, will be the European Cultural Capital for 2019, which brings infrastructure improvements, attention and, most of all, tourists and their euros, to this city of caves. The rest of Basilicata, parched hills and valleys along the Tyrrhenian Sea and bordering Puglia, Campania and Calabria, continues to look somewhat neglected.  The government hasn't even put in tollbooths on the highways, so here you drive free while in other parts of the country there are frequent tolls.

We stayed only two nights in Matera. We met other tourists at our cave hotel who were staying four and five nights, using it as a base for exploring along the Adriatic Coast of Puglia, just to the north.  As it was, we had the afternoon we arrived and the entire next day to explore the town's winding and steep streets and its most unusual churches. Basically, there is a "new" town on the edge of a ravine or canyon.  The caves, called Sassi, are essentially carved into the walls of the canyon and usually fronted with facades that resemble those of conventional buildings. The streets, which may have once been goat paths, are narrow and steep. You can drive into the old town, but a valet will whisk your car away once you've gotten your luggage out. Just turning around on these streets is an effort.

In the early part of the 20th century, the cave part of town fell into disrepute, with many of the houses abandoned or used as squats. The businesses still here were brothels and bars. Today, it's home to a range of more or less modern hotels and inns, restaurants and other businesses catering to tourists, and to people who are rehabbing the Sassi to use once again as homes.

Inside, other than the lack of windows, you might not know you're in a cave as they are often lined with stone work that keeps the native limestone from sending flakes raining down on you. Though some caves can be rustic, others are quite fantastic. It's hard to beat Dedalo (click HERE), an excellent fine-dining restaurant a few steps from our inn, Il Palazotto Residence and Winery. Its curving and interlocking rooms still show the stone they were carved from. Its website takes a moment to load, but it's well worth a look. Unfortunately, I didn't take a camera to dinner when we ate there.

Our room at Il Palazzotto was
in a cave lined with stonework.

Barrel vaults gave our hotel room something
like the feel of a cathedral's crypt.

Upon this Rock: Matera's Duomo or cathedral
is at the edge of the Matera canyon. The other side
overlooks much of the old town.

The cathedral's interior gives no hint that it's in Italy's poorest province or that Matera
for centuries was a backwater ignored by the rest of Italy.

San Pietro Caveoso is near the southern end
of the cave district, known as Sasso Caveoso.

At San Pietro Caveoso, parts of centuries-old
murals have survived centuries of neglect.

This rock contains two churches or chapels, Madonna de Idris and San Giovanni in Monterrone,
created in the 14th and 15th centuries. The latter resembles an anteroom to
the larger  (but still small) Madonna de Idris.

The remains of 17th-century paintings are visible in Madonna de Idris. 

Repairs to the floor and electric lights are the only modern touches at Madonna de Idris.
It was used on special religious feast days into the 1940s.

Matera cascades in a tangle of narrow, twisting streets.

Steps are essential on Matera's narrow, steeep streets.

A small child gets a lift going up one of Matera's many stairways toward the Duomo.

Unused caves on the other side of Matera's canyon
 give some idea of what Matera itself once looked like.

Hikers along the rim on the other side of Matera's
canyon. They had great views of the town.
A passerby in need must have
annotated this always-welcome
sign, which was on a street
at the edge of the Sassi district.

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