Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Matera, Basilicata and Carlo Levi

Continuing stories of travel in Puglia and Basilicata
Daybreak in the Sasso Barisano, Matera, Basilicata,
Matera was easily the most fascinating stop on my travels this year. Another UNESCO World Heritage site, this old village is famous for its sassi. According to Wikipedia:

"Matera has gained international fame for its ancient town, the "Sassi di Matera" (meaning "stones of Matera"). The Sassi originate from a prehistoric (troglodyte) settlement, and are suspected to be some of the first human settlements in Italy. The Sassi are houses dug into the rock itself. Many of these "houses" are really only caverns, and the streets in some parts of the Sassi often are located on the rooftops of other houses. In the 1950s, the government of Italy forcefully relocated most of the population of the Sassi to areas of the developing modern city. However, people continued to live in the Sassi, and according to the English Fodor's guide: 'Matera is the only place in the world where people can boast to be still living in the same houses of their ancestors of 9,000 years ago.'"

Matera
the landscape around Matera
The plight of people living in the Sassi caves was recorded by Carlo Levi, who was a writer, painter and physician. Because of his anti-fascist activism, he was exiled to live in a remote area of Basilicata in 1935-36. In 1941, he wrote Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli),  a memoir of his experiences living among the poor in Basilicata. Levi's writing brought attention to the living conditions in Matera, often referred to as la vergogna d’Italia (the shame of Italy), leading to sweeping changes in the 50's. The book was then made into a movie, which I have seen several times, and it inspired me to travel to Matera.

An idealized version of life inside a Sassi home, where ten people might live. Beds were made in and on top of cupboards.
recreation of life inside a Sassi home
Getting to Matera was somewhat complicated, as I had to travel north from Alberobello to Bari on one train, then transfer to another train system in Bari, going south and west. There are four different train stations in Bari: they are near each other but not well designated, so I spent time inquiring about the location of the Ferrovie Appulo Lucane after arriving from Alberobello on the Ferrovie Sud-Est. I also learned that it was important to sit in a specific section of the train to get to Matera, as one section of the train would turn off to reach Gravina from the town of Altamura. A woman had warned me about this, but failed to let me know which section would be the one going to Matera. Just before we got to Altamura, I asked if the train was going to Matera, and learned that I would need to get off at the next stop and hop on the coach ahead of the one I was on. 

a view of the Sasso Caveoso and several churches.
Okay, so I arrived in Matera and walked to the centro storico, about 10 minutes from the train station. My hotel was located in the heart of the sassi, and I had an incredible view of  the area from a balcony in my room. But it was a steep winding walk down an ancient cobblestone path to reach the hotel, and I had to carry my suitcase part of the way, due to the uneven cobblestones. I would hate to walk these streets in icy weather!

Path down to the hotel
I spent several days walking up and down, over and through the streets of the Sassi. During March, it was quiet in the Sassi, and it often seemed as if I had the place to myself.

In contrast: a view of the modern piazza
Besides the Sassi, I was also interested in learning more about Carlo Levi, via the exhibits on display in the local museum about his life, writings and art. While viewing an exhibit of his paintings, and discussing them with a museum guide, it was obvious how his emotional state changed after living in exile in Basilicata. Levi had come from a privileged, well-educated family in Torino, and was profoundly moved by the poverty and hardship he encountered. As a young man, his paintings showed clear skill, but they were bland in comparison to the intensity and power of the paintings crafted while in exile. While I was in Matera, I bought an English translation of his book and am savoring it in small doses, as I find his writing not only eloquent but deeply moving. 

If you saw the movie The Passion of the Christ, this street might look familiar.
Coincidentally, when I returned to Zagarolo, Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of the Christ, was on television over the Easter weekend. Since it was filmed in Matera, and I had just been there, I was curious to see if I could recognize the scenery. Sure enough, I was able to identify some of the same streets that I had trod down only a  few weeks previously!

Even though it was a challenge to get to Matera, it was well worth the effort to witness this unique and ancient village. Like the trulli of Alberobello, it was interesting to get a glimpse of what life might have been like living in these unusual structures that served as homes for many.

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