Magical Matera

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Matera is a place that not many casual tourists to Italy visit. It isn’t on the train line and even a bus takes a while to get there from any major city. But when I was researching this leg, Matera shot to the top of my list of places I wanted to stop with its geology, architecture, and cave churches. Matera has exactly the kind of geology and architecture that is up my alley, similar though not quite as impressive as some of my other favorite places: Cappadocia, Meteora, Bryce Canyon, Sedona. And we’d already decided to rent a car for this middle part of our journey, so getting there wouldn’t be an issue. Since the drive from Sorrento was only going to be about four hours, we took a brief detour.

The Freidrichs Stopped at Aliano

During our Italian travels, Chad has been reading books set in Italy. He started with Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley then read some of Dante’s Inferno (which obviously takes place in hell rather than Italy but it has lots of references to Italian people and places) and finally Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli

Levi’s famous memoir takes place near Matera in the town of Aliano (Galiano in the book) and so we decided to make a stop there on our way to Matera. There’s a gallery with his paintings and other sites from the book to see. 

We drove a winding road up a big hill (or maybe a small mountain) and arrived to find Aliano is basically a ghost town. The Levi Gallery was closed (despite being within its opening hours on Google) and there were hardly any people around or open businesses beyond a café and a market and the church. However, there were plenty of signs denoting different locations from Levi’s book and it was interesting to take in the landscape and overall vibe of Aliano. We’d brought some cheese and crackers and fruit for a picnic lunch in the square (which Chad shared with a stray dog and two cats) and headed onward to Matera.

Arrival in Matera

Treats from our host

Our Airbnb host, Maria Rosaria, met us in the parking area behind the building and showed us where we could park the rental car, then took us upstairs to the apartment. It was one of our best Airbnb arrivals – she’d prepared numerous breakfast treats for us plus a ton of fresh fruit and a fridge stocked with yogurt, milk, juice, and white wine. She showed us around the apartment, how to use the espresso maker, and had a laminated map of Matera to tell us how to get to the various Matera attractions. We overcame the language barrier since Maria Rosaria didn’t speak much English and we still speak no Italian beyond buongiorno, per fervore, grazie, prego, and ciao (good day, please, thank you, you’re welcome, and bye).

The baked treats that Maria Rosaria provided are worth describing. There was a Bari style focaccia (with olive and tomato) that we ate every bite of within two days, plum bread I ate for breakfast almost every day, and a  delicious fig tart she made herself that was our dessert for our dinners throughout our stay. We picked up the few groceries we needed for dinner and settled in. 

After dinner that night, we made our first trip out into the Sassi. Sassi is the collective term for the ancient neighborhoods (singular: Sasso) built into the ravine or grotto. The area of Matera has been inhabited for at least 10,000 years (seriously) and the town itself was founded in 251 BC by Romans. From Wikipedia, “The Sassi originated in a prehistoric troglodyte settlement, and these dwellings are thought to be among the first ever human settlements in what is now Italy.” In the mid-20th century, they had to be abandoned due to deteriorating conditions and lack of sanitation, but in the last 30 or 40 years, they’ve been revitalized with restaurants, museums, and hotels to become a famous tourist attraction. We wandered around for quite a while on our first evening and took far more photos than I can share here.

Of course, after our England trip, multiple days of travel, and two full tourist days in Sorrento/Pompeii, we were both feeling behind on work (and Chad had all this great new footage from our England interviews). So we had to spend a few days playing catch up. And unfortunately the rain had followed us again and October in Matera is a bit chilly with highs only in the upper 50s.

Matera Sights and Attractions

Saturday, two days after we arrived, we got a solid dry spell in the late afternoon to go out and explore Parco della Murgia Materana, which is adjacent to the town. We walked over through the Sassi and then down the hill and across a suspension bridge, then climbed up past numerous caves to see the ruprestian or rock churches. There are apparently 150 rock churches built into caves within the park, but we only saw two: Chiesa Sant’Agnese and Chiesa Madonna delle Tre Porte (three arches). There is debate about their age, but the frescoes apparently date from the Byzantine period, so likely at least 1000 years old. However old they are, they are super-cool to see and imagine the faith of early Christians.

After all that hiking, we felt we’d earned a drink so stopped at an outdoor café in the Sassi for a cocktail. Then we visited the Museo Laboratorio della Cilvilta Contadina, a small private museum built into one of the cave houses that shows the life and tools of the people of Matera when they lived in the Sassi. It was very interesting, especially all the old photos of Matera from the early 20th century.

We’d thought we’d go out to dinner that night, but it was a bit challenging on a Saturday so we picked up some fresh pasta and a local liquor to try at the downtown supermarket. The liquor is called Amaro Lucano and it is especially recommended to mix it with a fizzy dark citrus drink called chinnoto, which we were able to find later at the store. It tastes like the best rum and coke you’ve ever had and it was a fun way to enjoy the local flavor on our many days in Matera when it was too chilly and/or rainy to sit outdoors at a bar (we’re still not doing indoor establishments much yet). 

Traditional Matera bread

Sunday and Monday we were back to work again with brief excursions into the Sassi for exercise and to pick up some of the famous traditional Materan bread from a bakery. Then Tuesday we had another nice day that we decided to use to drive to the town of Alberobello, which is located a little over an hour from and known for its numerous trulli houses. Unfortunately, the road to the little town was pretty rough and a pothole gave us a flat tire before we got there. It took a couple hours to get roadside assistance to help change it and then we had to drive to Bari for a new vehicle. We never made it to Alberobello but we did see a few trulli houses before the flat tire (though we didn’t get any photos) and in Bari got to see the sea. And it was a good reminder that even when things go wrong, Chad and I are pretty resilient.

That Tuesday wasn’t a total loss because we had a dinner reservation at a highly-rated restaurant specializing in Materan food. We went out ahead of time to tour one of the underground cisterns that used to provide water for the town, which was very cool and enjoy the Sassi a bit before dinner.

Our restaurant experience was great. We haven’t really done much indoor dining yet, but I really wanted to eat in the cave house and with COVID cases down in Italy and everyone required to show a green pass to eat indoors, it felt safe enough. And we chose a table as isolated as possible by some unused stairs. The meal was well worth it, as was the ambiance, and we over-ate because I had us each order two full courses so we could try all the traditional Materan dishes, which are considered peasant food, but this restaurant gives them an upscale twist and we enjoyed the experience. We ordered fava bean puree with chicory, orecchiette pasta with anchovies and peppers, Murgiano beef with Cardoncelli mushrooms, and a local stuffed pork special of the day. 

Wednesday was our last day in Matera and we made time to walk around the town again, circumnavigating the sassi and seeing a few new sites. That night we went out again after dinner to get Chad his first gelato since returning to Italy from the UK.

The next morning our rental car wouldn’t start – there was some sort of battery issue. Luckily, our very kind Airbnb host was able to call a service to come with a jumper box and we managed to get on our way only half an hour late for our drive to Naples. 

Summary

Despite the rain and the chill and the multiple instances of car trouble, we had a great week in Matera. I’m really glad we chose it, though a week would have been a little long if we hadn’t had so much work to occupy us. Our Airbnb was very comfortable with a host who is one of the kindest people we’ve met on our travels and it is a truly beautiful and magical place with its Sassi. I don’t think a lot of Americans make time for Matera since there are so many other amazing places to see in Italy, but I am really glad we did.

Matera Airbnb Review

Maria Rosaria may be the kindest and most helpful host we’ve had for an Airbnb (which is saying a lot because we’ve stayed in dozens of Airbnbs with truly incredible hosts!). First, when we arrived, she had the apartment stocked with breakfast treats for us to enjoy. Everything was delicious and it definitely saved us a bit of grocery shopping. Communication was great throughout our stay and check in was very well organized with lots of maps and tips for the town. The apartment is very comfortable and larger than it looks in the photos. The wifi worked really well – consistent and fast. The kitchen is well-stocked and great for light cooking. There is an inexpensive self-service laundromat a short walk from the apartment, across from the castle. It was really nice to have a designated parking spot and be able to walk easily to the sassi and grocery stores and everywhere in town. And, when our rental car wouldn’t start on our check out day, Maria Rosaria was able to call someone to give us a jump start for a very reasonable cost and was very kind about it causing us to run a little late with our departure. I highly recommend this Airbnb.

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