Monday, October 17, 2016

Lesser known gems of Alberobello and Matera high spots of our Italy tour

Friday/Saturday, October 14 & 15
We may have experienced our favorite 36 travel hours ever. We left the seaside town of Vieste early for a scenic drive along the Gargano coastline before arriving around noon at Alberobello, a city famous for its conically covered houses, called trulli, and then we enjoyed a wine and antipasto tasting at the enoteca Tholos.

Inside a trullo
Gino, the owner, served us three types of his wine and a huge array of snacks, many of them specialties of the region. He also had a large supply of digestivi such as grappa, limoncello and other liquors. We ate and drank as much as we could; I had four glasses of wine, more than I usually drink in a month in Italy and a year in the United States. With my head buzzing slightly, we walked across the street and took a look inside the trullo of Gino’s dad. Trulli are small, so the visit didn’t take long, but it gave us a glipse of family life in bygone days. The city has more than 1,000 trulli; most are occupied and now finished with modern interiors and appliances, but this one had been preserved from an earlier era.

Next, we strolled through Alberobello and admired the construction of the conical roofs that are found only in the Murgia, a karst plateau in the Itria Valley of Apulia, near Bari. Exactly why this construction style developed is not known for certain. It could have been imported from eastern European immigrants. A popular explanation is that since both the walls and roofs were built without mortar, the houses could be easily disassembled to avoid paying taxes to whichever invaders were currently ruling. Historians also note that prehistoric tribes in Italy built small conical structures to bury their dead, so the construction techniques could have developed locally. Certainly the limestone and tuffa common in the region makes ideal building materials for this type of home.

From Alberobello, we continued on the road to Matera, where we checked into our hotel and enjoyed a fantastic dinner at the nearby restaurant Il Buongustaio. All the portions were small, but there were too many courses to count; in this way, we developed a full appreciation for a large variety of local specialties.
Some ot the cave houses of Matera, with a few more modern buildings at the top.

After a sound sleep in the Locanda San Martino, we started the morning taking a walk with local guide Emelia. Matera has fascinated me from afar ever since I read Carlo Levi’s famous book Christ Stopped at Eboli (Cristo si รจ Fermato a Eboli), in which his sister described the deplorable conditions of the cave dwellers in the poorer section of the city during the 1940s. The caves date from a prehistoric troglodyte settlement, and they are thought to be among the first ever human settlements in Italy. After the end of World War 2 and the publication of Levi’s book, the caves became known as the “national shame” of Italy, and the government built new housing for the impoverished residents and ordered the caves to be abandoned. They remained empty until the 1990s, and in recent years they have become a tourist attraction—as well as a setting for more than 25 movies, including Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2005).

Inside that huge rock, center, two ancient cave churches have been
hollowed out. At the bottom left is the Chiesa di San Pietro.
Although I had read about Matera and the relocation of the residents, it took me some time to truly understand the situation. I had assumed that the cave dwellers had lived in their accustomed lifestyles for centuries and that it may have been somewhat presumptuous for the government to displace them without asking for their consent. However, after touring the town with a knowledgeable guide, visiting caves (in fact, even our hotel was a cave) and watching a multimedia presentation at the Casa Noha, I came to a better
Lucy the cave woman.
understanding of the complex dynamics. Ultimately, the story of Matera, at least for the present, has a happy conclusion. It is now once again a thriving city and a tourist destination that is still somewhat unknown and not yet overcrowded.

Paul & Lucy in Matera.
The latter situation is bound to change, though, as Matera has been named the European Capital of Culture for 2019, beating out Venezia, Roma, Paris and other famous destinations. My advice: Read Levi’s book and get to Matera before the crowds arrive. However, it will still be a fascinating visit in the years to follow. Italians have done an excellent job of combining tourism with a sensitivity for cultural presentation, especially in recent years. After all, they’ve had a lot of practice and years of trial and error at this skill.

We took an afternoon siesta before going out for dinner and then taking in a movie at the local cinema—and it wasn’t just any movie. It was the 2016 remake of Ben Hur, not exactly a box office sensation, but about 75 percent of it was filmed in Matera because the oldest parts of the city still look like Israel in the time of Christ. It was a kick to see the same streets we had just walked through to get to the theater and to know that they were just outside the doors.
A group of teens practice their social skills during the passeggiata.

After the movie, we walked around the Piazza Venezia for a half an hour, people-watching as the locals enjoyed their passeggiata. It’s always a pleasure to view this Italian social ritual, and the vibrancy of the Matera passeggiata showed how much this city has recovered from the abject poverty of the war years, a condition that still existed to a lesser extent as early as the 1980s. As we went back to our cave hotel, we marveled at the mixture of the ancient and the modern that we had seen in the period of a day and half. Alberobello and Matera certainly deserve to be listed among the jewels of Italy.
These fashionable ragazze were exchanging gossip on the steps. I wasn't able to get a candid photo, but I asked if I could take a group photo anyway.

1 comment:

  1. Best 36 hours travel hours ever! That is saying something considering your travel history. How fun to see Ben Hur and relate to the surroundings you had just explored. That is timing. After reading about Alberobella and Matera it would seem a place that Patty and I would enjoy seein. C.L.


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