We have come to Apulia in search of a simpler Italy; a world away from the hustle and bustle of the more touristy areas further north; honest, uncomplicated cuisine, fine local wines and head-turning architecture. Having been here for only a day and a half, we can say that we have already experienced all of these things and much more.
Some things, of course, never change. Driving here can be a nightmare – keep to the speed limit and there’ll always be someone pressing you from behind, horns will toot and, as far as we can see, the normal rules of the road will be completely disregarded.
Landing in Bari, we drove our scratched, battered and bumped Fiat Panda west to Matera through a flat and, frankly, uninteresting landscape. But it was easy to see how important olive oil is to this region of Italy as we passed one olive grove after another for miles and miles.
Matera is this year’s European Capital of Culture. On entering the outer reaches of the city, its urban sprawl delivered the feeling of disappointment we have encountered on entering most Italian cities – bleak concrete apartment blocks, cracked and damaged roads, litter strewn verges and, of course, the ubiquitous graffiti. We’ve seen it all before in so many cities and so we were undaunted – Matera’s historical centre would give up its wonderful, hidden treasures soon enough.
We find it best to stay in the suburbs rather that take the car into the centre of an Italian city. Parking and driving a car is unpredictable and it’s easy to see why so many locals’ cars are so damaged. We try to avoid that fate at all costs. So we walked a few miles from our hotel following signs for ‘Centro’.
New and neglected turned to old and cherished and we entered the heart of the city. There were clearly fewer people here than we have been used to in cities further north. Throughout the day we encountered neither queuing nor waiting, and tables at the many bars and restaurants were always readily available. If you are visiting this part of Italy, it’s advisable to brush up on your Italian phrases as English speaking is much less common here than in other places in the country. If, like me, you are limited to “Hello”, “Goodbye” and “Nice Cakes”, you may be in for some fun as man cannot live on cake alone!
When you come to Matera, you come for the Sassi. The Sassi di Matera are made up of two districts: Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano and they provide a unique experience of the city’s ancient cave dwellings, which are shown to have been inhabited since the Paleolithic era- the Old Stone Age.
We spent most of our first day in the Sasso Barisano. The dwellings here, cut into the rock, have the appearance of being piled one on top of another and, walking the little roads that wind up and down the hillside, you can find yourself standing on top of someone’s house. Despite the tightly packed nature of the buildings and the tiny streets, we found this place to be unhurried and uncluttered.
We found a little restaurant called La Ptej d’ Nadi and sat outside on the uneven, rocky street enjoying fish cooked in tomatoes and olives with local bread and wine, and soaked up the atmosphere of the Sassi laid out before us.
Our meal was surprisingly inexpensive – it’s as if the locals haven’t yet realised that tourists will expect to pay far more in such a uniquely wonderful place.
Continuing our walk through the Sasso, we headed for the Cathedral, which stands on the highest point of the city and divides the two Sassi. On the way, we enjoyed the quiet streets, passing a number of little shops selling pottery and trinkets as if from someone’s front room.
On reaching the 13th Century cathedral, the views are wonderful and it’s good to just stand and stare, especially for us as the sun was beginning to set and the lights of the Sassi were beginning to twinkle far below.
In the little square outside the cathedral, we relaxed outside a little coffee shop only to find it was cash only and, since we had no cash, we expected to be hauled off to a police cell. Instead, they let us off with a free, luke-warm Americano and a Cafe Latte.
We set off back into town to find the nearest ATM. On reaching the main square we could see that the city had now come out to play and the place had come alive. The bars were filling up and families were out walking together and children ran around shouting and laughing.
We stopped at a bar advertising cocktails only to find that no English was spoken there and they actually had no cocktail menu – you had to tell them exactly what you wanted, ingredient for ingredient. I tried “Hello”, “Goodbye” and “Nice Cake”, which had served me well up until now but I realised that my Italian had better improve and quickly. We settled for Rum and Coke – no cake!
Next morning, we headed back into the Sassi -this time the Sasso Caveoso, which felt even more ancient than the Sasso Barisano. It felt less structured, its streets more uneven and the dwellings more basic. On the hill we could see the church of Santa Maria de Idris literally cut into the rock face – a mysterious and imposing sight.
You have to pay to see inside the church but the crypt alone is worth the money. The frescos, some dating back to the 12th century are a sight to behold. No photos were allowed.
We visited a couple of early dwellings, where people lived with their families and animals, and also a place of worship. The commentaries were in Italian and we had to ask especially for them to play an English version. Visitors appeared to be mostly Italian.
Once back in the main part of the city, we visited other churches and wandered the streets until our legs could take no more.
It was only later that we noticed some of the strange looks Rachel was getting from one or two people inside the churches. We should have known – entering a Catholic church with shoulders uncovered and wearing shorts can be frowned upon. No offence was intended, of course, and she didn’t start a fight or anything but it was almost 30 degrees outside. On leaving one of the churches, we saw a sculpture, right outside the main door, of a completely naked woman with her arms and legs splayed in ecstatic dance. Woman, fearfully and wonderfully made. The irony was not lost on us.
The day ended with pasta and wine on the street, watching the world go by before a hair raising one-handed taxi ride back to our hotel. I love the economy of effort shown by our driver. Why use two hands on the wheel when you can make do with one. This leaves the other hand available for fiddling with the radio, changing gear (with the wrong hand), phoning your friends or gesticulating wildly out of the open car window at other equally crazy drivers, or all of the above at the same time. We actually stopped at a red traffic light, wedged tightly between a couple of other cars. Our windows were open and I was sat side by side with the driver of another car. I swear, I could feel his breath on my face! We fell into bed, glad to be alive and happy to be back in Italy.