Caspar Institute logoitinerary   < 11 October Trani, Puglie   17 October Pizzo, Calabria >

Matera, Basilicata - 14 October 2011


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Cave Country

It rained hard in the night, as predicted. Expecting unsettled weather, we set out to the west and south, across the Murgian plain through the brand new Alta Murgia National Park, a rocky and wind-swept highland where, we read, recent hominid finds are most likely the oldest ever made. 

Crossing the rocky back of the Alta Murgia's rise, seeing abandoned farmhouses and agricultural infrastructure,I am reminded that Italy, more than any other European country, has experienced a huge flight from the land to the city. For the most part, this has resulted in larger holdings and more mechanized agriculture -- just the opposite of what we have come to think of as "sustainable." We got gas this morning: $9.19 a gallon. Italy in particular and Europe in general bears the heaviest burden of the global oil shortage. But looked at another way: that's how much we pay in hidden ways for our gas too. Defense budget, anyone? 

Fired with curiosity about the hominid finds, we decided to take the time needed to visit the Museo Statale di Anthropologia in Altamura. More easily planned than executed. We conclude after several weeks off the beaten touristic path in Italy that if you aren't born somewhere, you will not be likely to find anything you're looking for. Alta Mura turned out to be a puzzle that completely defeated us. At one point, we had even lost our car. After looking for two hours, all we had found were two contradictory signs pointing toward a mythical museum. Did the people of Altamura know where it was? Not a chance. Was the map of the town helpful? In no way. 

In fairness to Altamura, it is a vibrant modern city containing an interesting, high-walled old town at its center. It just has zero interest in being invaded by tourists.


mouse over for context

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So we gave up and followed the signs on to our next stay, Matera, expecting more of same. But Matera, and particularly its sassi, are on the beaten touristic path, and we got help from a sweet young woman at a TI -- she didn't know the place where we had reservations, nor did she know which were the one way streets, but she had a map, and with that, I could seek out Tra i Sassi, where we were expected.

Of course there was no one there when we arrived, but a helpful fellow in a nearby gift shop took pity on Rochelle, who was pretty freaked out by this time. As rain threatened, our host drove up, welcomed us, brewed us a coffee, photocopied our passports, and then showed us our rooms. Or, I should say, our cave.

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Our Sasso

<p>After a peaceful night, I can...

After a peaceful night, I can assure you that troglodytic sleep is profound.

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A little explanation. Matera, in the state of Basilicata, is one of Italy's poorest areas, and has been for a long time. As can be seen above, the land is more rock than soil. Beneath the surface, the porous rock drains water from the surface before it can hydrate anything growing. I think this is the place that the word "hardscrabble" was invented for.

But people have lived here forever -- just possibly, longer than anywhere else on the planet. Poor in many qualities, it is rich in the primary requirement of cave people: caves. So the people have been living a troglodytic life for hundreds of millennia ... and THAT is a long time. 


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<p>The arrow points to our door</p>

The arrow points to our door

Somewhere along the line, the urge to build came upon them, and the rock here -- a fine-grained form of compressed volcanic ash called tufa -- is easy to quarry. I imagine that they quickly noticed that when they quarried out a goodly block for a church, a similarly sized hole was created. Why not quarry in an orderly manner and create more caves?

In Rio, this neighborhood, in its heydey, would have been called a favela -- a slum tucked into a steep little north-facing canyon no rich people wanted. Matera "proper" starts at the brink of the defile -- you can recognize it by the forest of television antennae. But down here in the steep sided canyon, a sort of ad hoc coop housing development was creating itself. Our deck is the house below's roof. Our bedroom is cut deep into the tufa. 

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In summer, the northern exposure is likely a benefit, but it snows here, and even today the wind is bitterly cold. Tucking the house into the ground helps, and today we see several chimneys smoking. (We have electrically generated steam heat in our upscale digs ... more on that to come.) 

There are some problems with building with tufa. The quality that makes it so easy to build with is its greatest limitation: it's soft. One can carve fanciful gratings, screens, architectural elaborations -- the structures have a naive vigor that bespeaks a great deal of love in their making. And then, within a lifetime, one sees the rain and wind first soften their lines, and then take them away entirely.


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In 1952, Italians decided that troglodytism was beneath them, and evacuated the sassi. This part of the story is told dispassionately, but I have to guess that there was more than a little ill feeling, and it makes me sad to see that this once vivid community was expropriated. Because, in a couple of decades, the Italians decided there'd been a mistake, that the sassi are a cultural treasure and should be preserved ... as a tourist attraction, of course. And so, where once families excavated fanciful bedrooms, store rooms, workrooms, there are now four star hotels, restaurants, and B&Bs like ours. Offering us a wonderful opportunity to live in such a strange and wonderful place, but I can't help thinking, at what cost.

Only about half of the sassi have been renovated, and it is hard to imagine a neighborhood made up entirely of visitor serving facilities. Well, not really: take Waikiki Beach ... please! But here, where the facilities are the attraction, and today, Saturday, we see many Italians have been attracted, it seems that at least some echoes of legitimacy will be required. 

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The restaurants serve "local delicacies" and the peasant food on which all Italian cusine is based. We had a wonderful meal our first night made up of just such foods. Dinner, a short walk from our cave, wasn't sufficiently gorgeous to warrant photographs, except the wonderful frozen lemon slice cup for the dolci. But it was delicious: cavatelli di semoline, pomodora, basilico, e cacioricotta, a lovely local style of ricotta, agnello nostrano alla brace ("our lamb" roasted on a spit), and cippolo rossa (red onions) also roasted on a spit. We drank a half liter of wine and followed dinner with grappa, and were having a very good time when we were done.

Our second night's dinner was much the same: delicious, but simply presented ...and we were so hungry we didn't even think to make photographs until we'd half-way eaten each dish. Delicious local pasta again, this time with sausage and gorgeous local mushrooms -- that dish on the sidebard as we entered I should have taken a picture of! -- and a magnificent slab of delicious local veal steak. Biggest and best meat of the trip so far.

<p>Lemon sorbet in a cup made of lemon slices</p>

Lemon sorbet in a cup made of lemon slices

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<p>Carved with simple carpentry tools,...

Carved with simple carpentry tools, tufa lends itself to wonderfully fanciful and inventive shapes. Exposed to the weather, however, it loses its crispness quickly, and by its nature becomes lumpy.

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Our morning walk looped us twice around our neighborhood, discovering it and its interface with the "real" town just above, from different angles. TV antennae, satellite dishes, laundry on the line, many evidences that the sassi is still lived in and lively. The remarkable part of it, the "feel," is of a sort of cross between cave dwelling and medieval that is completely new to us. Not a walled town, but the densest possible collection of habitations that a place will support. This density had profound effects on the inhabitants back when this was a authentic neighborhood.

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For example, domestic animals, including the burro, chickens, and pig, lived in the sasso with the family, because they were valuable, and outdoor public space was scarce and shared with multiple families. This was one of the principal reasons why the Italian government made the effort to "evacuate" sassi dwellers from their "domestic squalor" in the 1950s ...but the lifestyle continued until 1957. The photo here is a representation offered by an artist family who apparently "came from sassi" and have a great deal of affection for the lifestyle. Now, of course, they are able to make a living showing the lifestyle to the tourists, including us, for 1.50€ a pop.

In another "cave house" (another 1.50€ each) we learn that the "matrimoniale" bed is as high as possible "to avoid the moisture of the floor, and so a hen and her chicks can live underneath."


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In the middle, up in the city square on top where a Saturday flea market was in session, we enjoyed our cappuccini and watched the people go by. On the second round, we stopped at a pasticiera, a salumeria, and a supermercato for lunch fixings, and ended up with two kinds of marinated onions ("local" with an interesting bitter taste and classically sweet), roasted eggplant and zucchini, olives, cacciocavalo cheese, the local fine grained cow's milk cheese, a wonderfully piggy little soppresata salami, and the juice of "five red fruits, the color of health!" The shopping is an adventure, because shopkeepers here usually don't encounter English-speaking foreigners, so I stumble along in Italian ...and get what I want!

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Rochelle got up on one elbow this morning, looked around, and said, "We could live here."

It is sweet. With the dehumidifier turned off, it's silent as a tomb. We have neighbors, possibly above and below, but we don't hear them. There is a problem with light: there are two little windows, one in the bathroom and one in the "Nanny's room," and the double front door is half glass, but compared to the amount of window area we are used to, this is claustrophobic.

The walls have even more character than plaster, but you can tell from hard-to-reach surfaces that they are constantly flaking. Tile floor, cold to the feet ...but how hard would it be to integrate hydronic tubing into it? The breakfast room has wood tile floor. The lighting and wiring are very thoughtfully done, so a few flicks of switches and moods change from daytime working to nighttime.


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The sleeping area has a lovely three-layered arch leading into it, and then the shape is purely organic, where the rock was softest or the diggers most enthusiastic. There are abundant divots and ledges where logs fitted to create storage space or objects were kept. We really like rounded spaces, and so this space feel very natural to us. In contrast, the inexorable straightness of most of our walls feels oppressive and overly regimented. In the one place here where straight is necessary -- where the kitchen is fitted -- the area is so small it's hardly noticeable.

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Would you be surprised to hear me say that the sculpture we saw is mostly crap? As someone who has spent most of his life crafting things -- jewelry, furniture, houses, graphics -- I expect art to presume a high standard of craftsmanship. For me, it doesn't matter how exciting or valid an artistic vision is, if the execution sucks ...and mostly, this stuff's did. The so-called sculptors should learn their craft before pretending to art. Moreover, the presentation here was careless -- dirty "art" needing fresh paint; "kinetic" pieces not working, etc. A rip-off at €5 each.

Of course, it must be remembered that "art" in recent centuries, particularly in Europe, hasn't been defined  by inherent quality, but by the ability of the "artist" to get the "art world" -- translation: rich, pretentious, but generally ignorant collectors -- to buy your crap. Dali, it may be remembered, made my father's blood boil because he was such a good self promoter. Visiting Dali's museum and home in 2001, I formed a different opinion: if the artist is as good as he says he is, it's okay with me for him to be a great salesman too.

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By contrast, here's a fused bronze horse from somewhere between the 9th and 5th Centuries BCE. This at a time when casting or fusing bronze, indeed, simply creating bronze plates to be incised and fused, pushed the technology to the limit. And there is enough life in this little fibula -- the pin used to hold a cape together -- to carry right out of its case and across the interwebs to you. This fibula was found as part of a funerary arrangement in a dig just outside Matera in 1950.

From a Magna Graeca era dig, also outside Matera, and dated in the 4th to 3rd Centuries BCE, this "erotic Loutrophoros" was most likely a wedding present. Here Atalanta has slain a pard -- a critter as mythical as Atalanta herself -- while a naked Calidonio leans on his lance. Found in a cache underneath a nunnery apparently when they were trying to make a walkway more level, it was part of an amazing trove demonstrating that Matera was an important center of Magna Graeca's commerce.

This piece too, and a couple dozen others like it, reside in a much stuffier museum, the Matera Museum of Anthropology. Because we're elders, we got into this one for free!

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We're nearly sassied out, but we have one more place we must visit, the four churches that make up Saint Anthony's neighborhood, on the far end of the sassi district from our house. The a piercing cold wind is blowing fiercely, but the stalwart Italian day-trippers are still laughing so we soldier on. Tony's nabe is a little disappointing, poorly maintained with strange modern for-sale art pieces nailed into the ancient walls below the peeling frescoes. With that off our punch list, we have one more dinner here before we head south toward Calabria in the morning.

itinerary   < previous 11 October Trani, Puglie         next 17 October Pizzo, Calabria >

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