We arrived late afternoon, tired from the heat, bickering about directions, and driving fast on tiny roads with maniacal Italian tailgaters constantly attached to the bumper. The historic hill town of Matera, in the southern Italian region of Basilicata, is remote but worthy of travel. Houses, restaurants, businesses, and churches are situated in caves carved into the chalkstone hills, built on top of each other and connected by a labyrinth of chiseled stone staircases and alleyways.
I eyed the climb up the hundred steps to the hillside cave hotel with dread; the teensy box of a rental car was packed to the gills with suitcases, electronics, food and bottles of local Amaro.
Traveling like a gypsy = tipping the porter generously.
The cave room was dark, lit only by candles and a single window, which looked out over an enormous canyon dotted with stone crucifixes and grazing cows. The large bed had wooden steps to compensate for its height and was made up with aged Italian linen sheets. A rustic table was set with ripe fruit and a water pitcher and there was a glass jar with bath oil next to the tub.
Matera has been settled since the Paleolithic; the city itself founded by the Romans in the 3rd century B.C. Since then, various peoples have laid claim to this small city, reshaping it in their own image. The cave dwellings were fully inhabited without water, electricity or plumbing. In the early 1950’s, the Italian President visited Matera’s historical center, the Sassi (literally meaning from stones), witnessed its pervasive poverty and had its 20,000 inhabitants evacuated to other neighborhoods. The abandoned area became state property and rapidly deteriorated. Churches carved from rock and decorated with medieval frescoes soon crumbled away.
In the late 1980’s the Italian government devoted dollars to modernize the Sassi with a network of water and gas systems; electricity and telecommunications cables were buried in underground trenches, not disturbing the architecture or landscape.
So my hotel room, once quite literally a hole in the wall, is now ‘primitive-fancy’, created by an hotelier with a vision.
As Matera is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I envisioned busloads of tourists descending on its timeworn hills, but we moved mostly among its 3,000 inhabitants. The complex network of caves, churches, tiny streets and arduous stairways made for grueling ascensions but interesting exploration. A large cave dwelling housed a music conservatory, the clatter of practicing piano, trumpet and violin wafting from its primitive windows to the Sassi below. Church incense (remarkably different from sticks we burned to cover the smell of skunky college dope) emanated from each door of the dozens of Duomos, inviting us to linger in their dark, cool interior; our eyes adjusting to ogle colorful frescoes and ancient paintings of the long dead.
Come breakfast, we drizzled mountain honey over mounds of fluffy ricotta made by gnarled old ladies in black housedresses. Late suppers of hand-cut pasta with wild artichokes and platters of grilled vegetables drizzled with good, green oil from the hills were paired with bottles of inexpensive Aglianico, a local wine perfectly suited to the rustic foods of Basilicata.