Sasso Caveoso

An abandoned part of Sasso Caveoso

Once known as the “The Shame of Italy,” Matera is now regarded very proudly by its inhabitants. It’s hard to imagine that in the first half of the 20th century, the cave houses of the Sassi were crammed full of people and animals, living together in malaria-ridden squalor.

Carlo Levi wrote about this area and the town in his book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, shining a spotlight on the horrid living conditions of this area. In 1950, the government could no longer ignore the extreme poverty and unhealthy state of the Sassi inhabitants, and over the next ten years forced the resistant families out of their cave homes. The Sassi dwellers were relocated into new government housing in the outlying areas, but were not happy about it.

Now, after years of abandon, the cave homes are slowly being renovated, and in 1993 the Sassi were declared a Unesco World Heritage site, drawing more and more tourists to this ancient land of the past…including us.

The side of Matera called Sasso Caveoso was still mostly abandoned and here I could more easily evoke the past. Although the entrances of several of the empty cave houses were barred, you could peer in. I was even able to slip inside a few and stand in the center of the darkened rooms. The caves were cool despite the heat outside. In most, small clumps of refuse were piled here and there.

I will let the images of this stony, silent world speak for themselves.

I slipped inside a couple of the abandoned caves

One of the inhabitants reclaiming a cave as home

I could have spent an entire day in Matera’s Sasso Caveoso. But our time had run out. We had to get back to check out of our hotel. As we did, the clerk noted where we were from and told me we were lucky to live in California. “We dream of California!” he exclaimed. I told him we dream of living in Italia! We all laughed.

The breakfast was still set out, and he urged us to pack some food for our drive. Thanking him for his thoughtfulness, we wrapped up some panini and fruit and waved goodbye.

Back in our car, I slowly drove up and out of the steep driveway, careful to avoid the stucco wall, and pointed the car in the general direction of the autostrada. We were headed to Ostuni, in Puglia.


Morning in Matera

Sunday, June 13, 2011

We were up early again, wanting to make the most of our remaining hours in Matera under the morning sun. The breakfast offered by l’hotel in pietra was a mind-boggling spread. Several tables lined the lobby, each with a sumptuous array of unexpected choices. Aside from the usual pastries and cornetti, there were several kinds of panini, cheeses, cereals, eggs, juices, breads, fruit, pizza slices. And cappuccini, just as we like them.

Having reached the Sassi again, we futilely tried to retrace the route Pasquale had taken the previous day. We quickly abandoned that idea and gave ourselves over to simply wandering.

Continuing our explorations from the day before, we plunged into Sasso Barisano

Every archway offered us a glimpse of something new

Cappuccini for two?

My dog Rocco and I would like to have this address

I have a weakness for photogenic laundry

And colorful doors

The Sasso Barisano, where our hotel was located, was definitely fascinating, but it was the other side — Sasso Caveoso — that held the magic for me.

Pasquale Guides Us Through Matera

At 4:00, we were back at the hotel waiting for our guide. Pasquale Ortenzio arrived promptly on the hour. So far for this trip, he was Pasquale number three.

Undaunted by the heat of late afternoon, Pasquale walked fast, but paused several times to point out important spots. He knew the history of this entire area inside and out and spoke English well.

Not all the churches were in caves

No matter how many times I saw this, I couldn’t believe it was real. We did run into other interesting things, though.

This was an unlikely find,
especially since my sons’ last name is Morgan

We walked to a point off Piazza Vittorio Veneto which overlooked the entire bowl of the Sasso Barisano. Also in the piazza was evidence of a developing archaeological site. Pasquale told us that if we return in a few years, we’ll see a great difference in the town. It will have been developed for tourism, he said, but will absolutely retain its original atmosphere and magic. I hope he’s right.

Passing through an obscure arch, we found ourselves entering a completely different valley, also peppered with caves. This was Sasso Caveoso. It felt different than the other side. I was immediately stricken with awe. As we wandered the tiny pathways peering into the cool, dark depths of the caves, it gave me chills, but only from utter wonder. (I will tell you about Sasso Caveoso a bit later.)

Pasquale took us to Casa Grotta di vico Solitario, a cave home, now a living museum, that has been set up with furniture and tools exactly as it had been when this area was still inhabited. Everyone, including animals, lived together in one large cave room with an alcove or two for a cooking area.

Here's the bathroom

And the baby's bed and chair

Churches, too, were hewn from the stones. Pasquale showed us how to differentiate between the Greek and Byzantine religious artwork covering the walls. The clue was how the raised fingers of Jesus were depicted. If there were two, it was Byzantine; if there were three, it was Greek. We saw frescoes with both.

He brought us into the large cave church of S. Lucia alle Malve, dating from the 8th century. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take photos inside. After admiring the interior, we scrabbled up to the roof of the church where he pointed out pebble-covered tombs. This rock slab was also an ancient cemetery, circa 8th century B.C.E., existing on the top of the church!

After our tour with Pasquale, Gino and I wandered alone awhile, but the light was beginning to fade. We’d return the next day with the morning light.

Before leaving us, Pasquale had suggested a couple of places where we could enjoy authentic traditional food. Later that night, we found one of them: Osteria La Stalla.

Several tables were sprinkled on a cobbled outdoor patio and we sank into chairs at one of them, grateful to have finally arrived after a frustrating search.

It was here that I had my first taste of Fave e Cicorie, a bowl of savory pureed fava beans adorned with a mound of boiled wild chicory, drizzled with some flavorful, local olive oil. It may sound odd, but believe me this Puglian “peasant” dish was fit for a queen (me!).

The night view from our hotel window

Ristorante Le Botteghe

With help, we found our way through Sasso Barisano

Armed with directions provided by our helpful hotel clerk, we veered downwards into the bottom of Sasso Barisano in search of Ristorante Le Botteghe. As we plodded along, keeping our eyes out for the restaurant, we fell in step with a boy about twelve coming home from school. I asked him in Italian if he happened to know the location of the place. He responded that he did and motioned us to follow him.

As we wound around what appeared to be a main street, I asked if he lived here in the Sasso Barisano. “Sí,” he responded.  I fell silent, trying to imagine what it must be like growing up in this unique environment. As we rounded a curve, he pointed to the right. There was the restaurant.

Ristorante Le Botteghe

After thanking him, we entered. Two large rooms had been carved out of the rock, long ago serving as separate workshops, but now connected to form a single restaurant. Le botteghe means “the workshops,” hence the restaurant’s historical name.

A hungry Gino. He ate half my Bomba di Bufala...

Lunch was amazing. I remember most the Bomba di Bufala, the restaurant’s version of a specialty of this region: burrata. Imagine a baseball sized globe of cheese: buffalo mozzarella surrounding a soft and delicate center of both mozzarella and cream. Oh heaven!

As we waited for our food, I wandered around a bit inside, snapping pictures. We were amused by a table with three adults and a handful of unruly children. One of the women was wearing an outfit that was completely see-through. She seemed oblivious or uncaring that her underwear, top and bottom, was in clear view.

Our waiter caught me taking photos (no, not of the woman!) and gave me a postcard he thought I would like. It was of Matera dusted with snow. It looked like a sugar-coated nativity scene.

Matera’s Sassi

If you have never been to Matera, I urge you to go. It is nothing like you have ever seen, or can imagine. The movies “Passion of the Christ” and “The Nativity Story” were both filmed here. That may give you an inkling of the ancient feel this unique town evokes.

I am not religious, so my fascination was not connected with that. It was, instead, because I felt as if I had stepped back several centuries into the past. I could taste the oldness. I could smell the ancient air. Despite the heat, I had goosebumps.

Matera’s history lies in layers as thick as the dust on its paths. One of the oldest continually-inhabited settlements in the world, this city of cave and stone formations reveals evidence of ancient dwellers dating from the Paleolithic Age through the Bronze and Iron Ages. Archaeologists have unearthed Greek and Roman artifacts, and inside the rock-hewn churches, fading Byzantine frescoes still adorn the walls.

The old town is divided into two parts: Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso. Since sasso means stone, you might imagine the nature of these two districts. The two quarters hang above two large canyons, spilling down the hillsides of tufa rock. The soft limestone surfaces are riddled with caves, some natural and some carved out by resourceful residents, creating houses and churches.

The natural caves across the canyon served as dwellings since the Paleolithic Age

Today, restaurants and hotels have taken over some of the abandoned caves making it possible for tourists like us to eat and sleep in a cave.  We were headed to one such restaurant: Ristorante Le Botteghe.

L’Hotel In Pietra

Pulling our bags behind us (thank goodness for those roll-a-bags!), we followed the directions to our hotel. It wasn’t far, we knew, but we began to scratch our heads when the sidewalk started getting very rubbly, then gave out altogether. We were now hoisting our bags over an uneven dirt path littered with chunks of cement.

Gino rolled his eyes. What was I getting him into this time? He stood by the bags while I ran ahead a ways to see if I could spot the hotel. Just a few feet along, I came to an opening in the stone wall we had been following. I peered over and gasped.


Speechless, I stared out onto a surreal scene, appearing before me like an image from Biblical days. It was so unbelievable, I felt tingly. Racing back towards Gino, I called out to him, “Just wait until you see THIS!” Still skeptical and most likely grumbling under his breath, he trudged on. I was gleeful, anticipating his reaction.

Then the scene appeared for him, and I laughed as I watched his face. We had now had our first glimpse of Matera’s Sassi. But before I show you more of this incredible place, I will take you a few steps farther to our hotel: l’hotel in pietra. We stepped into the lobby, a cool cavernous room. Indeed, it was actually a cave!

l'hotel in pietra, Matera

Touted as a boutique hotel, this jewel was converted a few years ago from a 12th century cave church to the six rooms and two suites it now offers to modern guests. And we were two of those lucky guests.

You can still recognize the original church structure, but now transformed into a welcome desk, an airy reading room with comfy couches and subdued lighting, and a breakfast area.

One part of the floor was covered with a clear square of tempered glass, allowing one to peer down into a subterranean cave below the lobby floor.

Gino peers into the subterranean cave, visible in the lobby

The breakfast area

Our room, too, was carved into natural rock. As we entered, we stepped into a smallish space but with a ceiling that reached up to the second floor. A wooden armadio stood against one of the uneven stone walls. Along the opposite side a small mini-fridge roosted on a rocky ledge. This was not your typical hotel!

A bathroom was off to the right. The sink was a smooth stone trough of sorts with a contemporary faucet. The shower sported a rain showerhead that I would later have to force myself out from under.

Leave your suitcase down below!

Against the back wall a narrow, twisty staircase spiraled upwards to the sleeping loft. There, a comfy double bed took most of the space, with just enough room leftover for a couple of small stands on which to place our effects. However, there was no way you could, or would even want to, drag your suitcase up there.

The cozy sleeping loft was worth the climb

A TV hung from the wall, and a window looked out onto the Sassi. With that view, who would even think of turning on a television? Except when we left the room to go exploring, we kept the shutters flung wide open.

TV cannot compete with this

We set out a few things, just to feel settled in. I hung up my jacket in the armadio, pushing it to the back to get it out of the way. “Don’t forget it,” I said to myself, since there was no way I would ever need it here.

Gino points out our room

We asked the desk clerk if she could recommend a guide. We had read that to fully understand the history of this town and navigate its odd geography, it is best to get oriented with a guide for a couple of hours.

The clerk was more than happy to call and arrange for someone to come a bit later in the afternoon. This was perfect, since we needed lunch before tackling anything else.

With a restaurant recommendation in hand, we stepped back out into the southern Italian sun and headed down into the Sassi.

Motoring to Matera

June 12, 2011

We left the villa early, leaving the key on the terrace table, as instructed, and pulled the green door tightly behind us. After a nervous wait at the bus stop, a blue SITA bus finally came rumbling through the tunnel and stopped right where we stood.

Waiting for the SITA bus in Praiano

The passengers at this hour were mostly locals, possibly heading to work or shop in the larger towns south of Praiano. I know that cars despise these lumbering behemoths that take more than their share of this already constricted road, but I always admire the deftness with which the drivers maneuver them along, navigating the ubiquitous hairpin turns with ease. Their signature horns that warn oncoming drivers rounding the bend always make me laugh, sounding more like clowns trying yodel than a bus honk.

I sat back to enjoy the ride, gulping in our last glimpses of La Costiera Amalfitana. I craned my neck to keep sight of a moped in front us — there was a dog perched on the back, looking quite content as his owner leaned right and leaned left.

Salerno, a large city compared to the villages along the coast, shortly loomed into view and the bus pulled up to a bustling transportation hub at the edge of the water. Our car rental office turned out to be just a couple of streets away.

The clerk took us outside to inspect our pristine silvery-blue Toyota — some unfamiliar European model — and handed us our keys. Saying goodbye to the Mediterranean, we headed due east, in the direction of the Adriatic. We zipped across Basilicata, skirting Eboli (where “Christ stopped”) and through Potenza. The autostrada was a breeze.

Frankly, I don’t know what all the crying is about regarding driving in Italy being so frightening. If you stay on the main roads and out of the big cities, it is truly “nothing to the problem.” It is something to the problem if you are crazy enough to take your car into Firenze or Roma. You’d have to be nuts to do that.

But generally, the rules are much the same as ours here in the U.S.A., and the drivers often less dangerous than the idiots I see zooming along the freeway from Sacramento to San Francisco. It is not the act of driving in Italy that can make you crazy once you get into a town, small or otherwise. The problem is getting lost.

Our road map was impeccable. After about two and a half hours of easy driving, the signs announced Matera just ahead. Gliding effortlessly along, we consulted our Google Maps printout, ostensibly stating the way to the parking garage in Matera where we had already reserved a space. But, as you might guess, the map — or more likely the town’s miserable signage — failed us.

We got close, recognizing a few of the street names, but never the one where our elusive garage was hiding. Twice I pulled over to ask someone on the street. We were driving in circles, getting frustrated. Finally, there it was. It was not well marked; we were just glad to find it.

I pulled into the opening that led steeply down into the covered garage. Coming from the street, I had to swing around a stucco wall that curved precipitously towards the space below. I miscalculated and the passenger side was dangerously close to the wall. Gino yelled, “STOP!”  I pressed the brakes and noticed that his door was inches from the rough wall.

I drive a five-speed sportscar at home. I learned how to drive on a stick-shift 42 years ago. I detest automatics. I know how to drive. But this entrance was straight down, rivaling the steepest San Francisco street, and I was teetering on the crest. I put the car into reverse, but at that angle, only succeeded in squealing the tires.

With every attempt, I came closer and closer to the wall, not making any headway and actually making things worse. In my haste, I didn’t think to put on the emergency brake and ease it off as I tried to reverse.

Finally, I muttered, “Screw it,” and gently let the car roll forward, wincing as the door scraped the stucco, a sickening, gagging sound. So much for the pristine paint job. The attendant below waved us into our designated spot and we hopped out to inspect the damage.

“No dent,” I said. “And the scrapes just look like surface damage.” I licked my finger to wipe off the dust. But the scratches were deep and it would take more than buffing to get these out. For a fleeting moment I wished I had purchased the extra insurance. But I shook it off, accepting the mishap as just one of those things. I’d deal with any ensuing problems from home. We were in Matera now and we had things to do and places to see.

[Note: I recently read a TripAdvisor review of our hotel which was posted a month or so after we had been there. I cackled, calling Gino over to see it. Feeling much redeemed, I read aloud to him: “If arriving by car, the parking (which is underground) is also quite hard to find and has a very bendy, steep and narrow entrance (a lot of car paint on the wall)…beware!]