Come with me for an amazing story about Sassi
It is written that Basilicata Is remote and one of the poorest regions in Italy. For the most part it is underdeveloped and therefore not often visited. The consequence of that is that visitors neglect to see rural and unspoiled areas of Italy which have so much to offer. The vast coastline of Basilicata extends unspoiled beaches and throughout Basilicata are Greek ruins, medieval abbeys, Norman castles and sparsely populated but idyllic hill towns.
My husband and I visited there a few years ago just prior to covid and spent several days in Matera. Perched on the edge of a deep ravine, Matera consists of the busy upper section and the silent lower section known as Sassi which for obvious reasons means caves. The people of Matera once lived in these caves carved out of rocks.
Puglia in the heel of Italy is a composition of many things. It is sun-bleached landscapes, silver olive groves, seascapes, lush farming regions, and hilltop and coastal towns all skirted by a long coast that alternates between glittering limestone precipices and rocky and sandy beaches. It juts into the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. Because of its coastline, Puglia has been invaded by the Norman, Spanish, Turks, Swabians and Greeks. It is diverse in its influences but still very authentic. Several dialects can be detected but the foods which have evolved from Cucina Povera and customs are authentic. Such diversity.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
Fortunately, just before covid could disrupt our travels our vacation took us to Spoleto.
My husband had always wanted to spend 10 days in one area, settled in and living like true Italians while wandering around the neighboring countryside. So, after much discussion and planning we had decided on Spoleto, where we did very much enjoy our stay and which I will write more about at another time.
So, we left Spoleto very early in the morning. Laurie, the very cordial husband of Norma, both of whom we had rented the apartment from, loaded us into his car and drove us to the Stazione Ferroviaria for il treno which we would take to Ancona. Basically, a port town, it is known to most people as a place to pass thru or change trains. This was a local train and it passed through many small towns which were captivating though peacefully spread out. I noticed that one could always catch a glimpse of a pointed church steeple peeking out over the tops of houses and barns. In Ancona we transferred to the fast train which would take us to Bari. Traveling by train in Italy, as I have mentioned many times before, is efficient and comfortable. The trains are clean with ample room for seating comfort and conducting business. The bigletti is another situation and something to be reckoned with but we eventually figured it out. We were traveling light, each carting one small carryon size suitcase and one service bag for computers, etc. This was accomplished by two things: our apartment in Spoleto had a washing machine and most of our clothes were washable and drip dry. But for those traveling with larger pieces of luggage, getting on and off might be a problem at many stations, but once on there is ample room for storage.
So, this was the last leg of our trip. I was a little apprehensive to being away from home for more than a few weeks and, as much as I love Italy and the opportunity to visit my family in Tuscany, three is usually my comfort limit. However, Rotary International was having a Workshop in Matera concerning dementia and several members of Rotary Club of Dunwoody were invited to attend. We were going to be in Italy anyway and Charlie was interested because of some work he was doing with Rotary concerning dementia, so it was agreed that we would attend with a few other members. This will make it a total of 5 weeks! Hmmm. But we had work to do!
So on to Bari we went after changing trains in Ancona. Bari was once regarded as the Bronx of southern Italy. We didn’t spend enough time there for me to get to understand why. But what I saw was interesting and buzzing with activity. It is Puglia’s capital, and I was told, quite prosperous. When we disembarked in Bari, the difference in temperature and humidity was noticeably different from Spoleto and more like Georgia, but we were prepared with some lighter clothing. There we met up with the other Dunwoody Rotarians and in a hired aria condizionata macchina motored off to Matera for an hour’s drive leisurely enjoying the scenery.
Our accommodations in Matera were pre-arranged so we had no idea what to expect or be overwhelmed. Pleasantly surprised was my first reaction. After driving through miles of countryside and small towns we rolled into the busy little city of Matera and pulled up in front of a quite modern hotel which squelched my fear about air conditioning. It is the Palace Hotel and, yes, they do speak English. This helps because even though I can understand the language, to speak it takes a long time to formulate tenses and I am sometimes coming when I thought I was going and so on and so forth. But they always smile at me and happily encourage me because I try. Yes, there would be air-conditioned rooms here. We were unloaded and helped into the spacious lobby and greeted by members of various Rotary Clubs from all corners of the world. Checking in was easy and we were told that after settling into our room there would be a small lunch “Cena” available for us and after we would be given our Itinerary.
Small meal is an oxymoron in Italy. There are no light eaters in Italy. They might just have a small cafe and a dolci for prima colazione around 8am but that would be followed around 10:00am for spuntino to enjoy a small panini. Get the idea! You can see small cafes that open to the outdoors where people buddy up to the bar, so to speak, to enjoy their nourishment to sustain them until pranzo, usually around 1:00pm. Pranzo is usually followed by a rest period for a few hours before returning to work. However sometime around 5:00pm there is another small snack time, merende, to hold you off until the supper hour around 8:00 or 9:00pm, Cena! The trick is to pace yourself because everything is enticingly presented and always delicious even in its simplicity. One look at the vast array of salumi, cheeses, breads, salads, fruits and pastries assuredly a feast for the eyes of hungry travelers. We had been up since 4am with only coffee and a roll before beginning our travels. Yes, we were hungry. I only chose a small plate to be sure that I would not overload. However, I could not pass up a “dolci”. Not while here in Italy anyway. I chose what resembled a small tart. The crust was flavorful, light and flaky. A delicate sweet cream filled the inside and it was topped with a syrup glazed fresh apricot. How could I go wrong? I quickly moved away from the table lest I be tempted to try another.
We reconvened in the lobby where Illeana, a representative from Altieri Viaggi, assisted us with check-in problems (of which we had none) and answered questions. We were free to relax or wander around the city until the dinner hour as people were still arriving. Cena was a fixed menu at a typical local restaurant La Pignata on Via Emanuele Duni. As suspected, we were served, antipasti, primi piatti, secondo and finalmente, dolci. All delicious but way too much to consume and all deliciously typical of the area’s cuisine. But, I’m fairly certain that our plates were clean!
Paola, the delightful wife of Leonardo, de Angelis, Rotary Foundation Chair and with Rotary Club of Ravenna, Italy, (neither of whom are sadly no longer with us) suggested, after dinner, that we take a stroll around the city and we would be treated to a glorious nighttime view. And indeed, it was. Neither Charlie nor I were prepared for what we saw. There, spread out before us was the famous Sassi, (ancient stone houses carved out of caves and cliffs). In this nighttime view, with small lights twinkling out of various doors and windows, it appeared to me to be a giant nativity scene. I’m hesitant to leave this unbelievable sight but tomorrow would be devoted to touring this “City of Stones”. Imagine visiting an authentic Italian town so steeped in the architecture of thousands of years ago that you are able to wander around without seeing any vestige of modern times.
Located in the Basilicata region of southeastern Italy, Matera’s beginnings in the Neolithic age are still visible as caves carved out of a rocky ravine. Homes were carved out one above the other in what appears to be a haphazard fashion; a road becomes a stairway…becomes a roof…becomes a garden. These caves are suspected to be some of the first human settlements in Italy.
Our room at the Palace Hotel Matera was quite spacious with a king size bed and a generous bathroom with a shower you could actually move around in and not the skinny tube size we usually found. We were tired, it was air conditioned, so we slept the welcomed sleep of weary travelers.
We awoke totally refreshed and in plenty of time to have a leisurely breakfast. Everything was delightfully arranged on long tables. Choices from fresh fruit, yogurt, cereals, eggs, juices, breads, salumi, cheeses and, of course, my favorite, the breakfast sweets, muffins, croissants, etc. Coffee was excellent and was a pour it yourself deal from a large machine where you had a choice of espresso, macchiato, moka, cappuccino, café con latte and even tea, hot water and hot chocolate. Decisions, decisions. But I went with my favorite macchiato. Insert cup on tray, push button and viola a perfectly delicious cup of Italian coffee is presented with an appealing crema. Rotarians arrived, hugging and greeting one another, the sun was shining. We were off to a good start.
In the lobby, we were greeted by two guides, Antonio Pizzulli and Cosimo Rondinone, one of whom spoke English, and we started on a walking tour thru the streets of Matera and on to the “City of Stones” to view natural dwellings hewn out of rock. Imagine visiting an authentic Italian town so steeped in the architecture of thousands of years ago and where you are able to wander around without seeing any vestige of modern times. Located in the Basilicata region of southeastern Italy, Matera’s beginnings in the Neolithic age are still visible as caves carved out of a rocky ravine. Homes were carved out one above the other in what appears to be a haphazard fashion; a road becomes a stairway…becomes a roof…becomes a garden. These caves are suspected to be some of the first human settlements in Italy.
By walking thru the streets, lanes, and paths of Matera one can trace back to the origins of mankind from the Prehistoric day to the present time. An architechture protected and handed down over the years, recounts centuries of history, visible today because of careful preservation. The first signs of human occupation in this area date back to Palaecolithic times. This has been confirmed by archaeological remains found during digs in the grounds of Grotta dei Pipistrelli and also in Altramura. Early on the entrenched villages mastered the technique of collecting rainwater using bell-shaped cisterns. Over the years the city was inhabited by Byzantines, Londobards, Normans, Arabs, Slavs and Aragonese as they fought to dominate the city. However, after the Fall of the Roman Empire, area natives returned to reclaim the area and built dwellings on top of the existing ones. During the Medieval Age came those from Cappadocia , Syria, Armenia and Asia Minor who were fleeing persecution for their religious beliefs. With them came the development of rock-hewn Byzantine churches with their magnificent frescoes. This period witnessed the formation of two urban areas: Sassi Caveoso and Sassi Barisano with the Civita in the centre. During that period it was being enriched with churches, noble places and monuments. However, during the 18th and 19th centuries as new religious buildings were constructed they, unfortunately, were built on top and covered and obstructed those buildings and the water cisterns.
At some point the population grew to 16,000 and hygienic conditions were unsafe. Dwellers were dying at record rates because of typhoid. People were moved out by the government and so began the redevelopment of Sassi Matera. Most of the area has been brought up to acceptable standards and people have moved back, restoring and reinforcing. In 1993 Sassi of Matera became a UNESCO world heritage. None of its charm and mystique has been lost.
Lest we be hungry, after spending several hours navigating the Sassi streets and paths, we had a quick stop at Sano Sano (healthy healthy) for a refreshing snack, yogurt, fruit, panini. That was at 12:30pm. At 1:30pm we were having a typical “light” pranzo at Osteria Morgan on Via Buozzi Bruno which consisted of soup, salad and pasta. After lunch we visited the Cathedral of Matera, Maria SS. Della e S. Eustachio an Apulian Romanesque style Cathedral built in the 13th century. The Cathedral has a “Latin Cross” plan and contains three naves. The interior houses a Byzantine-style fresco depicting the Madonna della Bruna and Child, the relics of St. John of Matera and an unbelievable huge sculptural grouping of a Priebe (Nativity scene) sculpted in early 15th century. The front of the Cathedral is dominated by a rose or circular window which projects 16 rays. Later on we go to Palombaro Lungo which is a giant cistern lying under the city’s main square with arches carved out of the existing rock. It was a source of water supply for many years. Quite mind-boggling in scale and ingenuity and concept.
Feeling quite holy, blessed with all the holy water we sprinkled on ourselves and tired, we returned to the hotel. You guessed it….to refresh for Pranzo.
Dinner that evening was at Pico al Piano on via XX Septembre where the much revered chef, Enza Leone told us he was born in the heart of Sassi Matera. My main course was a memorable Ferricelli con Pistacchi Crema e Porcini Fungi.
We ended the night with a night panoramical tour in an open-top bus. Then happily and wearily back to Palace Hotel for what we knew would be another great sleep while all the amazing things we saw that day danced in our heads.
And tomorrow is another day!