Basilicata – Matera and Potenza, Italy
I was fascinated when I read about Matera and its abandoned cave homes but I never dreamed that I’d ever get to go there and see them!
But, to my surprise and delight, , soon after I’d finished reading A Traveller in Southern Italy, I was offered a four-day trip to the Basilicata region. How’s that for a coincidence?
We landed at Naples Airport and travelled to Potenza for our first night.
HV Morton wrote:
Worn out with mountain roads, I spent the night at Potenza in a bedroom upon the fifth floor of an admirable new hotel, the cool air coming in from a horizon of slopes and summits. The town, which is nearly three thousand feet above the sea, has been so repeatedly destroyed by earthquakes since the thirteenth century that most of it is modern. A medieval fragment has been granted immunity and in this, after darkness had fallen, I witnessed the finest Paseggio outside Spain. The young men and women of Potenza, attired in their best, passed and repassed, eyeing each other for two hours in decorum and gravity; occasionally there was giggling and a backward glance as decreed by the spirit of natural selection.
In the morning I was away early and was held up several times by roadmakers blasting rock for new roads and viaducts, all leading to the south.
Potenza is modern, but retaining the old Italian mountain town appearance. The earthquakes seem to have stopped.
The views are – clichéd word, but so true – stunning!
It’s an excellent town for shopping, eating and watching the world go by.
They have what must be one of the longest escalators in the world. Actually it’s nine escalators, going down the side of the mountain.
The rock blasting has finished and the roads are an engineering triumph, with long tunnels going straight through the mountains.
In the morning we travelled on to Matera.
Despite Italian protocol (they’ve been renovating the cathedral on and off for 11 years, so far!) HV Morton’s Matera has been transformed from the terrible slum that it used to be. But if it rains heavily, the water pours off the rooftops and down the roads, so it’s sometimes impossible to go outside.
In the suburb of Matera, known as Sassi, around 15,000 people lived in small caves with their animals.
The baby death rate was around 70%, but most families had six-seven surviving children. I’m sure that a lot of the deaths were caused by children falling over the edge into the ravine, plus someone suffocating them in their sleep as everyone slept in one bed. And malaria was rife. Children would beg for quinine, not just money.
It is misleading to describe the Sassi as cave-dwellings. They are houses built above caves, at all angles, all sizes, all periods and of many styles. They rise in terraces and there is no attempt to make roads; there are only passages and steps leading up or down. It is scarcely conceivable that any plan should exist of the Sassi, which resemble the work of termites rather than of man. I asked why some of the caves had been blocked up with cement; it was to prevent the Sassini from finding their way back to their insanitary old homes from the rectitude of the new flats.
After the caves were emptied, the hippies moved in. They obviously didn’t object to the squalor and smells.
When they were finally evicted, a new programme of renovation began, including installing sewers, electricity, etc.
Today, there is still an area which is impossible to renovate as it’s too steep, but the rest of the Sassi has been tastefully modernised, with houses, restaurants, and some very interesting and unique hotels.
The Paseggio still happens there, with families out on the streets, eating good food, drinking, and walking around.
Matera is probably the only place in the world where McDonalds closed down because no-one used it!
My friend and I went out in the evening, walking through the twisting, winding alleyways. We often had to back-track due to barricades for building work, but there was always another turning between the buildings and soon we were hopelessly lost.
We heard voices and followed the sound. It was a family celebration in a restaurant. Thinking we could cut through, we went into the restaurant and walked around. But there was no exit as it was built into the side of the mountain. Coming out the way we’d gone in, we were greeted as guests and we were tempted to pretend that we were friends of Giovanni, or Antonio or someone. But we decided to continue on our way, trying to find the main road.
‘Listen!’ said my friend. It was the sound of a car down below, so we gingerly threaded our way through the steep, narrow cobbled paths, and emerged lower down the mountain on a road.
Four girls stared at us in amazement. I asked them in basic Italian where the main square was. We knew that we had a lot of uphill walking to do!
One girl stepped forward and spoke to us in English. She started to tell us the shortest way, then she realised that we’d never find it. So they all pointed up the road.
We started walking up the steep hill. It was hard going in the warm evening temperature.
Suddenly the girls popped out of a side street and asked us questions in English about where we were from, etc. After that, they stayed with us and we all exchanged information.
We told them that we’d been in Potenza the day before and they pulled faces. Apparently, Potenza and Matera have been enemies for centuries; ‘Like One Direction and The Wanted, ‘ said one of the girls.
‘Which group do you support?’ we asked them.
‘One Direction!’ they chorused.
Apparently One Direction has been to Italy, but nowhere near the Basilicata region.
The main square was heaving. The whole town must have been out for the evening, dressed in their best clothes. The girls waved to their parents as we squeezed through the crowds. They weren’t bothered about their daughters walking around with two strangers.
Every restaurant was full, but we managed to get a table outside a pizza restaurant, and our new friends said goodbye, hurrying off to join a group of youngsters.
You know how some meals are memorable, even though they’re not the best? This was one of them. We had freshly-baked pizza with a carafe of local wine, sitting watching the locals enjoying themselves.
The cathedral was silhouetted against the star-filled sky, the temperature was perfect, and we were surrounded by happiness.
Around midnight we paid and made our way back to the hotel. The square was still packed, and another group of people sat down at our empty table to eat.
In the morning I visited a cave dwelling museum, complete with the bed, furniture, and even the bedside loo!
There must have been wall-to-wall people and animals in there, and some of the things that went on are best not thought about. But it was clever how they utilised the space, walls, etc.
A fairly new tourist attraction is Il Volo dell’angelo, The Flight of the Angel, a 1550m zipwire flight between two mountains in Castelmezzano.
I did it and I ‘d love to do it again. It really is like flying above the trees!
Basilicata is completely unspoilt, and still hardly discovered by tourists. I loved it and I really want to return there in the near future.