A trip as interesting as the one we took a few weeks ago has to go through the great food processor in my mind before it can be discussed properly. And amidst regular life and work and Halloween and my daughter ending her soccer season after 17 years and my son’s 25th birthday, it’s been up there in my brain on “chop,” just waiting to be gratitudized.
It’s so hard not to post all my pictures from all our amazing adventures, but if I did, you wouldn’t have time to Christmas shop (and neither would I).
I could drone on about all the insanely adorable small Italian towns we visited, and the Nona who taught us how to make the most exquisite focaccia from scratch and the color of the green, not blue, not gray, but green, water, and being in just the perfect place where the Ionian sea was on one side and the Adriatic on the other, and all the other I-think-I-might-be-trapped-in-a-postcard sights we saw, but one place, stood above the rest and so you don’t fall sleep in your meatballs, I’ll just tell you about that place.
As I wrote about here, the first place we stayed at was the unique and totally one-of-a-kind (or, as I like to call it, one-of-a-find) Il Convento. Our next destination was called Matera. Again, let me just say (and who does this–not really know where they”re going–I do and you would if you were busy and booked a trip with the Queen of curated travel, Linda Plazonja of Morso Soggiorno because you were confident that wherever you were going was going to be as fabulous as she is) that I went in blind, which was actually spectacularly fun, because when we rounded the corner from regular life, life in 2019 Basilicata, and I saw the town of Matera, I literally screamed, like Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween. There in the distance was a mountain of houses that shone with the patina of antiquity. I had simply never seen anything like it and it took my breath away. It was a serious CPR moment.
We arrived at Sextantio Le Grotte Della Civita and I was still not breathing. The hotel was located inside Sassi (translated as “the stones”) di Matera, a landmark complex of ancient cave dwellings carved into a mountain. What I’m saying here is we stayed in a cave. A high-end cave to be sure, but still, WE STAYED IN A CAVE. Just call me Toni, the troglodyte. Our room was cavernous and lit by only candles, with two or three dull bulbs hidden inside of little cave holes in the wall. (I noted the soft lighting, as I thought I looked rather good in it and must reconsider home lighting asap)! Things were clearly updated and luxury-ized, but just to say, our sink used to be a horse trough.
So, the very abridged story goes (although read this for a more complete story of Matera’s fascinating history) that Matera dates back to the Paleolithic Age, when about 1,500 caves burrowed deep into a steep ravine, gradually becoming living spaces for peasants and artisans throughout the classical and medieval eras. By the 1940’s Matera’s population of mainly peasants and farmers were living in the Sassi, with up to 10 children, as well as their animals (for fear they’d be stolen). I love my dog, but we’re not using the same space we cuddle in to go to the bathroom in. But I digress.The infant mortality rate was 50%. People were starving. There was natural light, no running water, electricity or ventilation (which I guess means no blow drying your hair, either). Malaria, Cholera and Typhoid ravaged the population. This only became widely known when Carlo Levi published the book, Christ Stopped at Eboli. In the book, Levi says, “I have never seen in all my life such a picture of poverty.”
Considered “the shame of Italy, in 1950, the Italian prime minister Alcide De Gasperi, called the Sassi “a national disgrace”, which made the government take drastic steps to change the lives of those living in such dire and inhumane conditions. Financed through the postwar Marshall Plan, the population was evacuated and moved to new homes on the outskirts of town. This was a difficult transition for the people, most of who were used to living with one another and had never even seen running water. For 16 years the caves lay empty, ravaged by thieves and the environment. Unesco named it a World Heritage Site, and in 1993 called it “the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem.” The town had a competition to decide what to do with the site and the winning idea was to bring the caves back to life. The government-subsidized restoration work. Film productions began to take notice, like The Passion of the Christ. And the rest, as they say, is history (or rather, all of it, is in fact, history) In 2019, Matera was named the European Capital of Culture. Talk about a Cinderella story.
My visit to this amazing place was comprised of doing yoga up numerous steep flights of stairs, in a convent, touring the city with a native Materian, eating and drinking. A lot. In restaurants with no windows, which were lit up on the inside like the Vegas strip (we soon realized the impact of a cave not having windows). And of course, we did a lot of laughing.
The astounding and unusual beauty of this city that is the third-longest continually inhabited city in the world never got old (no pun intended!). Every day I looked forward to seeing more of it, or just staring at it like a good hair day. The “you’re not getting older, you’re getting better” adage was clearly written about Matera. I had never even heard of this place before and now I have a crush like a schoolgirl.
So, if you want to go somewhere steeped in the past, where you literally feel like you could see Jesus walking down the street on his way to dinner, (the last supper?) where every corner you turn is another you’ve-got-to-be-kidding moment, go to Matera, before the rest of the world catches on (apparently, you’re already late, as 25% of Matera’s housing is on Airb&b). This is next level off-the-beaten-path and I have a suitcase full of gratitude for having been lucky enough to go there with traveling companions who were just as grateful as I was.