Ma Ma Ma My Matera

From Amalfi, we were on the road towards Puglia.  Puglia is on the opposite coast of Italy along the Adriatic.  It’s the heel of the boot!  Our trusty driver Chiro, was taking us to our next destination in Savalletri, but first we were scheduled to make a stop in the town of Matera.  These arrangements were made by our Travel Agent, so we didn’t really think much about it until it was happening.  Sure, we’ll stop in this town called Matera for lunch and take a tour.  Why not?  We didn’t do any research and had no idea what was in store for us.

Our first stop in Matera is a little restaurant.  Now its Sunday, and in Europe most towns outside of the touristic areas are pretty much shut down, so arriving at the restaurant we felt like Chiro was dropping us off in some random place.  We were pretty tired of eating restaurant food and even talked about trying to find a small take out place for pizza or something instead.  Nope.  Not today.  Our lunch came with a reservation and the owner was already excitedly meeting and greeting us and showing us to our table.  If you recall back in Rome we accidentally crashed our first First Communion, well now we were about to crash our second.

We were taken to the back room where a large U shaped table had been set for a big family lunch to celebrate the First Communion Kid.  We felt a bit sheepish as we were sat in the party room.  “Let’s just eat and go.” says Monsieur.  No problem here.  We open the menus and recognize that the restaurant serves only local delicacies.  There is only one thing that anyone in our family will eat and it wasn’t the horse steak.  We ordered four orichiette pastas with pomodoro sauce and a tomato salad and crossed our fingers.

The Little Kid with a view of the party action

Pretty soon after the First Communion partiers were staring to arrive and we were most definitely under-dressed.  The invitation must have indicated semi-formal because there were suits and sequins and we were in shorts and sundresses.  Eat quick my family, eat quick.  As the guests arrived to claim seats at the fancy table they all took one look at us with sheer bewilderment and tried to figure out who we were related to.  Guess who?  NO ONE!  We need to get out of here.

Set up in the corner was a chef hard at work.  We learned that as a special event for the party he was making fresh made mozzerella.  When our tomato salad arrived, I stepped in it and asked if the mozzerella was made by the hard at work chef.  The owner swooned, OH NO it wasn’t and now I was going to impose myself further on this poor kid’s First Communion and have to steal some of his fresh made mozza.  Who were these Canadian asses!  To make matters EVEN worse, the owner made us sit and wait for the mozzarella to be ready further ingratiating ourselves to this family.  Finally he came over with a very large braid of this fresh made cheese, which we now all had to eat so as not to further offend.  It was A LOT of cheese.  Wowzers.  We Canadians know how to make an impression.

FINALLY, we were fed.  Bill paid.  And we were free to depart leaving the lovely family to celebrate in peace.  Outside we met our guide, who also was welcomed by the family with a glass of Prosecco.  To be fair though, he is from Matera and he went to school with a guy who was related to the woman who was the mother of the friend of the kid who was having their First Communion (or something like that).

Our Guide was a sweet Materan (Materite?  Materian?  Guy from Matera?) and we had to break it to him gently that we were all a bit tired and maybe not up for the full three hour tour he had planned.  Expecting to see yet another old town and some Basilicas, we thought it might be good to end a little early so we could get to Puglia sooner.  Well, the Guide looked a bit sheepish.  “I’ll try.” he said.  Great, we’re really on a roll today.

On we walked with our guide as he explained that Matera is one of the oldest continually habited settlements in the world with people living in this place since about 10,000 BC. Wait, what?  And just a minute later, we had crossed the square in front of the Church and came to a viewpoint above The Sassi. It took our breath away.

The Sassi is a massive settlement of cave dwellings that is now spread 180 degrees in front of us.  Beyond it is a gorge and on the far side of the gorge more ancient caves.  It’s breathtaking in its scale and historical significance.  The Sassi caves have been built up in the front to create more space and a modern facade/ entryway.  They are stacked above one another, a maze of Escher-like lanes and staircases winding through the settlement.  We were stunned and realized that we were asses for telling our guide to rush us through this.

Explaining that in the early 1950’s, The Sassi was considered an embarrassment to the Italian government in this relatively poor part of Italy due to the poor living conditions.  So they moved all the inhabitants out into new and modern apartment buildings, destroying the vibrant and collaborative communities that existed here.  Now, many people are moving back to the Sassi.  Modernizing the caves and opening restaurants and hotels among the neighbourhoods.

The Sassi in Matera is a living film set.  It was featured in the most recent James Bond film No Time to Die.  It also stood in for ancient Jerusalem in the Passion of the Christ.  

The caves are amazing dwellings.  We toured an historical museum in a cave which showed the stable and manger that sat inside next to the family’s kitchen and bedroom.  Because of the density here, the animals lived in the caves with their families. Talk about family closeness, we get uptight when we have to share a single hotel room with only one bathroom.  This was a whole other level of compact living.

Inside a Sassi cave that was home to a family, their livestock and their milling business

We visited Santa Lucia alle Maeve, an ancient cave church with some of the frescoes dating back over 800 years, still intact even though the church was converted to a home so the previous owners remodeled a bit and did some damage (no photos allowed).  This is the medieval version of laying shag carpet over original hardwood I guess.

After about 2 hours, our guide felt satisfied that we had seen and learned enough and sent us on our way.  Not before we picked up some gelato for the road.  We were grateful for his persistence and for sharing his amazing city with us.  We were thankful for our travel agents for booking this stop for us.  We were happy with ourselves that we didn’t bail on the whole thing after the whole lunch fiasco.  We learned a lot today and we have nothing but appreciation for all the kindness we faced.  We were square pegs today but after a while, it all fit together quite nicely.

Back in the van we climbed.  Chiro ready to take us on the last leg of our journey.  Pretty soon we would discover beautiful Puglia.

Four much more culturally aware Canadians after a tour of Matera and The Sassi

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