April-May 2005 in Italy and Malta
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April 24-27 Capri
May 6-7 Sicily, Scilla and Charybdis
May 7-8 Tropea (Capo Vaticano)
May 10-12 Abruzzi National Park
May 12 Tivoli, Villa Adriana
The drive to Matera
Next morning we left on one of the longest drives of the trip, through Calabria nearly up to Maratea, and then down through Basilicata along the arch of the boot of Italy to Matera. The first part of the trip, some 40 or 50 km to the autostrada, past Tropea and its associated towns, was quite attractive — a kind of demure variation on the coast around Maratea. The sea was white with spray in a rather beautiful way, but the weather was mainly sunny near the coast.
There seems to be no convenient direct way to get through the Calabrian mountains to the southern Basilicata coast. Most of the route was on main highways, but the first part was on the autostrada through the forests and mountains of a National Park in Calabria. The scenery was quite wild, and it seemed as though the area was almost uninhabited. There were no towns perched on mountain shoulders, few side roads, and little sign of humanity other than the autostrada itself.
After 100 km of autostrada driving, we turned off toward the south coast town of Sibari, which is where we get the word "sybarite". In the Greek colonial time, it was rich and the people lived a life of luxury, until the jealous neighbours from Cortone destroyed it completely in the 5th century BC.
Before we had been too long on the road to Sibari, we came to a town called Terranuova di Sibari, where we were detoured through narrow back alleys between the houses, because there was some kind of s street festival going on. If we hadn't had such a long way to go, we would have stopped to watch, as obviously things were just getting going. Lots of people, young and old, were converging on the town centre. But we didn't stop, and continued to the coast, and then along it.
The coast road early on was along a low plain, long and straight, but later the mountains came closer to the coast, and we had some views of particularly beautifully coloured seas, white-flecked by the wind along the golden beaches, yellow-green near shore, blue-green further out, and deep blue in the distance. Unfortunately, there didn't seem to be any suitable place to stop and take pictures. Looking away from the sea, the mountains were quite lovely, and a couple of them sported snow caps. As we had seen elsewhere, occasionally we passed over what obviously was the outflow of substantial floods out of the mountains, wide, stony, dry streambeds.
The drive may have been one of the longest of the trip, but it was certainly not boring. Earlier than we had anticipated, we left the coast road and turned up to Matera.
Matera is situated on the edge of a deep narrow gorge with a small river at the bottom. To cut such a gorge, the river must have been a lot more substantial, and for a long time. On the other side of the gorge is a kind of natural reserve, and on the facing slope above the cliff, there are many caves linked by footpaths. I believe that the early inhabitants of the area lived there, and dug themselves into the hillside, as the later ones did in the town of Matera.
The modern town of Matera surrounds the old town on three sides (the fourth being the gorge). The old town consists largely of houses dug into two hills with a steep valley between them. The fronts of the caves have been built up to look like normal houses on the hillside. The hills covered with cave houses are called the Sassi.
We walked up and down the Sassi on both sides of the valley for a couple of hours. Finding one's way there is not easy even with a walking map. Paths climb up sttep staircases over houses to get to other houses. Sometimes the path goes somewhere further up, sometimes it's a dead end. On the south side of the valley, tourist signposts guide one to the Cathedral area, at the top, but one can't always rely on finding a signpost at every choice point. If one really wanted to get somewhere fast, and didn't know the town, it might be frustrating, but when one is exploring, as we were, one path is as good as another, and all are interesting.
Some paths were barred off as unsafe, and the house one could see along those paths were derelict, but for the most part the town was in good condition. Some years ago, the place was designated a national heritage site, and everyone was moved out. Mostly they were poor, and they were not well compensated. Later, rich people bought up properties in the area and moved back in, and now some parts are quite elegant, while others are a bit broken down. The scrawny dog in the picture popped up in one of the more run-down areas, stopped and considered matters (such as us) for a minute or two, and then ran on somewhere else.
We visited the Sassi museum in the valley. It is a typical house (or so they said) cut into the rock several rooms deep.The rooms are finished as in a normal house except for the lack of windows in the inner rooms. The rock walls are smooth and painted, with some carved ornamentation. It actually looks as if living there could be quite comfortable.
Our hotel in Matera was in what the Web site suggested was an old monastery, but it turned out to be a modern building next to a monastery. The Web pictures are indeed of the hotel, but they show what looks like cloisters around a central open square, which makes it look as if it is itself the monastery. It's not a bad hotel, but had none of the old romantic atmosphere we had anticipated. At breakfast, they served the most minimalist fare of the entire trip — a croissant and coffee. On our last day, at breakfast there was a young man who served it, and an older man at a table. The older man asked where I was from. I said "Canada" and he said "America". I said "No, Canada, and he again said "America". The younger man who was serving, seemed able to get him to understand that Canada was not the same as America. He said, emphatically "America, No; Canada, Si. America, No; Canada, Yes.", and everything suddenly became much friendlier. I even got a second croissant!
The new town of Matera is like any other modern town that has a modicum of tourists. There are souvenir shops along the main drag, and in the evening there were huge crowds promenading along that street. We looked for a modestly priced real restaurant, but didn't find one (at around 8:00 on a Sunday evening).There were several jam-packed fast-food places, but we didn't feel like joining the pack. A short block off that street, we did find a nearly empty pizza place, where we ordered. Before we finished, that place, too, was jammed solid, by people who seemed all to know each other. Apparently, we were just a bit early in looking for dinner.