A trip to Puglia and Matera, the city of caves

Thanks to a novel coronavirus that I’m sure many of you have heard of, we haven’t been able to make our annual pilgrimage to Italy for two years now. Obviously, other people have had much bigger problems, so I don’t want anyone to cry me a river because I haven’t been able to go to Italy (which is like a duke complaining that the Black Plague has made it difficult to go stag hunting). But I have definitely missed it a lot. So this year, we decided to throw caution to the winds and head to Perugia for the journalism conference we’ve been going to since about 2012. We’ll take N95 masks and be really cautious, we thought. 🙂 We wound up getting COVID, of course, but luckily it was relatively mild (click the photos for a larger version).

A big part of the reason we wanted to go — apart from seeing all of our international friends again, and enjoying Perugia’s ancient Etruscan architecture and amazing food — was to take a break after the conference and head south to Puglia, to stay at a BnB run by the daughter of our Italian friend Anna, a trip that we had all booked in 2020 before the conference was cancelled and everyone went into lockdown. So we dusted off our passports and luggage and flew off to Italy — after getting a COVID test first, since we had to connect in Washington, and the US still required a negative test to enter.

Being back in Perugia was such a blast we hardly even noticed the jet lag, which we fought by drinking huge amounts of espresso and eating gelato at my office (which is what Becky calls the gelateria near the Brufani hotel), and walking around the Etruscan ruins — including a visit to one of my favourite places in Perugia, a circular church that was once a pagan temple, built in the year 500 or so. We piggy-backed on a tour that Craig Newmark and his wife Eileen went on, where we learned a lot about the history of the ancient Etruscan city by walking around inside the catacombs that you can enter right across from the Brufani.

Soon, it was time to head to Rome, where we picked up a tiny rental car, and I suddenly remembered that you need an international driver’s certificate in Italy, and I had forgotten to get one (I’ve heard that you can be fined if you don’t have it, but I’ve driven in Italy twice now for several days at a time and never been stopped or fined). Anna said the main reason Italy wants it is that they don’t believe non-Italians can drive properly 🙂 Anyway, we had fun driving through the heart of Rome during rush hour, and then stayed in our favourite little hotel near the train station, and visited the Trevi fountain (to throw coins in, which superstition says will guarantee you come back). We also walked around the lovely park and gardens near the Villa Borghese.

The next day, we picked up Anna from the train station and headed south to Puglia, which is right at the heel of the boot (since Italy is sort of shaped like a boot). It was a beautiful day for a drive, and I was reminded of several things about Italy, including a) the lane markings on the road are just a rough guideline, which people ignore at will, and b) food and coffee from Italian gas stations, even in the middle of nowhere, often taste better than food and coffee you get in restaurants in North America — I would take a prosciutto and cheese sandwich from a gas station in Italy over a sandwich from almost anywhere else. Along the way, we stopped for a seaside lunch in Trani, which has a lovely cathedral.

We arrived in Puglia at the BnB, which is called At The Aia (I think “aia” translates roughly as “farm”) not far from Lecce. In the evening, we drove into the nearby town of Nardo and had a lovely dinner at a small family restaurant near the old town square — a dinner that featured several examples of a common meal in the south of Italy: namely, horse — or “cavallo.” I tried not to think about it as we ate it, and I have to say it was actually very tasty. The next day, Anna took us to a nearby park by the Ionian sea, where we sat on the rocks and then dared each other to swim in the somewhat frigid water. After swimming back and forth a few times, it didn’t seem that bad, although that could be because our skin went numb 🙂 And off in the distance was an ancient Saracen fort.

For lunch, we drove a little ways away and had another great seaside lunch — this time with sea urchins, something I didn’t even know you could eat. They were delicious. In the evening, we drove into Lecce, which has some of the finest examples of Baroque architecture in Europe, and had a lovely dinner at small family restaurant down an alley (I’ve found the best restaurants are often just little holes in the wall down an alley). The following day, we walked around two lovely seaside towns — Santa Catarina and Santa Maria al Bagno — and then just to prove how manly I am, I dove off one of the cliffs of volcanic rock that ring the small beach (I say cliff, but it was maybe ten feet high). I swam through into a kind of grotto that had a set of ancient steps cut into the cliff, but time had eroded most of the bottom stairs, and so I couldn’t get up.

After that, we drove to nearby Gallipoli (not the site of a famous First World War battle involving Australians and Kiwis — that’s a peninsula of the same name in Turkey). We had another fabulous seafood lunch at the fish market near the old city (more sea urchins, as well as some clam-like things that I don’t know the name of, and some great mussels), then we walked around the sea wall that rings the old city. It was a perfect day, not too hot, with a light breeze and a few wispy clouds in a deep blue sky. For dinner, we drove into Nardo and found a lovely restaurant that looked like an ancient wine cellar with a paint job, and I had a meal of sea bass that was to die for. We also walked around the old town square, where they were moving cannons around because Netflix was filming some sort of period drama.

The next day we headed off to Matera, a fascinating ancient town built into the side of a mountain, in a region called Basilicata. Anna had found us an amazing BnB right beside the Duomo, the main cathedral in Matera, right at the top of the hill overlooking the old city, with an incredible view from our bedroom balcony. The only downside was that because it was in the historic part of Matera, we couldn’t drive our giant suitcases there, so we had to drag them across the cobblestones and up and down hills to get there, and then haul them down a tiny alley and an even tinier twisting stone staircase into the cave our BnB was built into (mental note: bring smaller suitcases next time). After dumping our stuff, we headed off to do the main thing we had come for — namely, climbing down a giant cliff to the valley below, across a swing bridge, then up another giant cliff to some of the prehistoric caves that Matera has become famous for.

The cave dwellings reportedly date back to the end of the Paleolithic era, about 10,000 years before Christ, and they make Matera not just the oldest city in Italy and possibly the oldest in Europe, but one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world. Until about the 1950s, more than 16,000 people — whole families, along with their livestock in many cases — lived in the caves, in abject poverty, until Carl Levi wrote about them. The Italian government relocated the people living there (many of whom made their way back and now run hotels and restaurants in the city) and eventually Matera became a UNESCO historic site with a reputation for cultural events — Salvador Dali lived there for a number of years, and several of his sculptures are on display in the town.

A dig in 1906, near the Duomo, in the town center, went thirty-five feet below the surface and found Christian coffins and the remains of a Saracen invasion from around 800 A.D. The scientists kept going, and below that they discovered statues, broken columns, and money from the Byzantine occupation, of around 400 A.D. Farther down, they uncovered ancient Greek and Roman coins and, under that layer, bits of ceramics from three thousand years ago. 

The New Yorker, 2015

Matera was one location for the latest Bond movie (Daniel Craig drives his Austin Martin around the town’s streets) and has also appeared in a number of movies about the life of Christ, including The Passion of Christ and Mary Magdalene, as well as Ben Hur. It literally looks like a Stone Age town, except that where there were once cave dwellings, there are now cafes and restaurants. We ate in one, called La Lopa, that was basically carved out of the rock, with a tiny movie theatre on the lowest level, large enough for maybe thirty people, where they showed clips from all the movies that have been made in the town. One thing is for sure: Matera will give your thighs and calves a workout — everywhere you want to go is either up or down (or more likely, both) from where you are.

We only had two days in Matera, which was not nearly enough to see and experience everything we wanted to. And we also barely scratched the surface of the places we wanted to see in Puglia (like this place for example), so we will definitely have to go back. If you get a chance to go I would highly recommend it.

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