My trip through Basilicata goes on. While the first part was dedicated to Potenza region famous for its mountains, forests and impetuous nature, the second part takes place in Matera region where the landscape completely changes: the land turns into a dry, broken, impervious ground where man has to create, invent, a space for him.
The first stop of our trip is Matera. We parked our car near Castello Tramontano where parking is free and left the car there, you can visit Matera only on foot. It was August, noon, and temperature was around 40ºC, we started walking looking for the famous image we had of Matera and its “Sassi” but we couldn’t see anything… we decided to stop in a shade near a fountain in Vittorio Veneto square, just next to an amazing bakery shop “Amici del Pane” where we ate some delicious slices of focaccia and tried the unique bread of Matera, crunchy outside and with that unique smell of toasted wood on the surface which hides the soft and tasty crumb inside. With enough energy we started walking, looking for our bed and breakfast in the Sasso Barisano. We just followed one of the many signs indicating “Ai Sassi”, we reached the lively Piazza del Sedile, and yet no traces of the Sassi, we started thinking that maybe the old Matera was further and we were in the wrong place. But Matera was “just” under our feet, it’s a moment, a glimpse from the cathedral square, a town of yellow, orange stones that shows itself in all its beauty. Matera was under our feet, carved inside the hills that fell into the valley.
It seems either a nativity scene or the funnel-shaped hell described by Dante as Carlo Levi in his autobiography “Cristo si è fermato a Eboli” writes:
Arrivai a Matera verso le undici del mattino. Avevo letto nella guida che è una città pittoresca, che merita di essere visitata, che c’è un museo di arte antica e delle curiose abitazioni trogloditiche. Allontanatami un poco dalla stazione, arrivai a una strada, che da un solo lato era fiancheggiata da vecchie case, e dall’altro costeggiava un precipizio. In quel precipizio è Matera. La forma di quel burrone era strana; come quella di due mezzi imbuti affiancati, separati da un piccolo sperone e riuniti in basso in un apice comune, dove si vedeva, di lassù, una chiesa bianca, Santa Maria de Idris, che pareva ficcata nella terra. Questi coni rovesciati, questi imbuti, si chiamano Sassi. Hanno la forma con cui, a scuola, immaginavamo l’inferno di Dante, in quello stretto spazio tra le facciate e il declivio passano le strade, e sono insieme pavimenti per chi esce dalle abitazioni di sopra e tetti per quelle di sotto. Alzando gli occhi vidi finalmente apparire, come un muro obliquo, tutta Matera. È davvero una città bellissima, pittoresca e impressionante.
Matera is not just beautiful and unique for its shape, for its landscape, for its amazing architecture of its houses that carve the stones of the hills and the floors become roofs and roofs become floors. But it’s incredibly stunning for its history and its past. Considered by former Italian Prime Minister De Gasperi, during a visit in the 50s, the shame of Italy.
The living conditions of thousands of farmers living in Matera were considered inappropriate in a time during which Italy was rising after the WWII thanks to the economical boom. So such conditions were not acceptable anymore for a country that wanted to enter in the modern era. To ban life inside the Sassi was the quickest solution for the Italian government which started a campaign of urban reform that had a strong impact on the population: inhabitants were forced to leave their house inside the Sassi and go to live in the new buildings with all the services and hygienic conditions for a respectable life. The area was abandoned and the access was forbidden, the Sassi were left in ruins and people tried to forget, feeling shameful for their past lives. After 30 years of abandon and decadence started a long process of restoration that still goes on. In 1993 they were declared UNESCO World Heritage, also thanks to Mel Gibson, who after making here the Passion of Christ, gave the site an international fame. Nowadays sleeping in a b&b or small hotel inside the Sassi is an unforgettable experience that let you feel part of this nativity scene but at the same time push your imagination back to the last century where life here was hard and difficult.
If you go to Matera in summer I recommend you to visit the Sassi in the evening (6, 7 pm), before the hot temperature will make your walk up and down the hill impossible and unpleasant.
You’ll certainly discover after few hours in the town that there is not an official tourist office in Matera, but there’s a plenty of private agencies that work as if they were. I highly recommend you ask the agencies for visits lead by official and professional tour guides (they’ll wear an official card sealed by the municipality). I went to Karma Viaggi http://www.stoneincoming.it/index.html and our guide Luca (in case I can give you his mobile number) was amazing. Visiting the Sassi with a guide is the best way to discover and understand completely this area.
Moreover, my friend Sergio, a member of Viaggi il Vagabondo http://www.ilvagabondo.org/index.php a travel agency based on responsible travel principles, was my travel guide who helped me in finding an amazing guest house in the Sassi. You can contact with him while planning your trip to Matera, he will be very helpful.
Before dinner take an aperitivo in Piazza del Sedile. We went to eat at la Coca Cola, a nice and cheap restaurant with a beautiful view of Matera by night. http://www.lacolacola.it/?lang=en After dinner you have to try the gelato of I Vizi degli Angeli – Via Ridiola, 36.
The day 2 of Matera can be spent by visiting the Park of the Chiese Rupestri (Parco della Murgia Materana), just in front of Matera where you get a complete and amazing view of the town. We also went to visit the Cripta del Peccato Originale, it can be visited only through a guided visit organized by http://www.artezeta.it/ It contains frescos that date back to the IX cent A.D., and it’s defined the Sistine Chapel of cave art.
Our trip goes on. We left Matera full of emotions and we certainly want to go back during the Christmas time where they reproduce the Nativity Scene.
Since we wanted to spend some time near the coast we went to Montalbano Jonico in a nice and cozy bed and breakfast: Soprattutto http://bbsoprattutto.beepworld.it/ run by a kind family. The town is not touristic but it’s situated in a key position: 20 minutes from the beach and near other touristic sites where you can go for a daily excursion (like the archeological sites of Metaponto or Eracleia). Moreover I think I ate the best pizza of my trip here (Il Gatto e la Volpe).
Well, here comes the bad note of our trip: the beach and sea on the Jonic Sea are not particularly attractive, if you are looking for crystalline water and white beaches this is not your place and you’d better go to the other side on the Tyrrhenian Sea (Maratea). The positive aspect of this area is that is not crowded and you can find quiet and empty beaches: we used to go to Policoro, next to the WWF area (we saw a turtle here!) and to Nova Siri (a nice and lively town on the coast).
I’d like to point out some towns we visited during our stay in this area:
CRACO: an abandoned town but a cinema set used for many films. They are trying to restore the old Arabic part of the town and for now they just organize short visit inside it, otherwise the entrance is now forbidden.
Take a look on this movie scene of “Cristo si è fermato a Eboli”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8JqoYPHqsMI
TURSI: a town with Arabic origins. Lose yourself in the Rabatana (on the top of the hill) enter the church of Santa Maria Maggiore (it’s pink easily to see!) to see the nativity scene made of stone. Before leaving Tursi take the street to go and see the Sanctuary of Santa Maria di Anglona , a medieval church, very well preserved.
BERNALDA: before being famous for being the home town of Francis Ford Coppola Bernalda is famous for its gastronomy! Come here in the evening planning to have dinner here, especially if you are a horse meat lover. Here the butcher’s use to open in the night and turn into restaurant, it works like that: you buy the meat, and then they’ll grill it for you in a wood stove, moreover they’ll serve some salad, vegetables and wine. We went to the butcher’s Il Cavallino, the specialty here is horsemeat but if you don’t like this meat there’s a plenty of butcher’s that offer beef.