Matera – Italy’s Resurrection Town (16.04.14)
Firmly lodged into the instep of Italy’s boot, Matera is a classic example of how a poor, previously forgotten European town can become a new-found destination. In the heart of Basilicata, Matera offers visitors an insight into a fascinating history, dominated by extraordinarily deep canyons and a maze of caves (inhabited until quite recently) which are Italy’s oldest continually-lived-in dwellings.
These dwellings came to the fore of Italian consciousness when the writer Carlo Levi (banished to Basilicata by the Fascists in 1935) wrote the book ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’. His description of the “dark holes” where “wizened faces of old men, yellow and worn with malaria, their bodies reduced by starvation to skeletons” lived with their malnourished families and animals brought not only the cave dwellers, but also the surrounding settlement that is Matera, into the public eye.
Today the whole Basilicata region (also known as Lucania) appears to be enjoying a boom in international interest. With the impressive mountain scenery of the southern Apennines, the coastline of the Ionian Sea, its rich history and oh-so gentle and welcoming local culture. It has much to recommend it.
Whereas Italy has always been a favourite of ours at Nomadic Thoughts, I do believe it is a shame that this southern area has often been bypassed for the more traditional classic Italian destinations. My first memory of the region, when I visited in 1990, involves high summer temperatures, lazy evenings and a yearning for the coast. When my Nomadic Thoughts’ colleague Claire Bayoudhi returned from the area after a visit this week, I was particularly excited to hear how much she enjoyed exploring the locality during the present springtime temperatures.
Based at the delightful, newly renovated Hotel Palazzo Margherita in Bernalda (which is perfectly situated to maximise on so many local attractions), Claire’s visit to Matera was timely in the week before Easter because, aside from being the backdrop to Mel Gibson’s controversial 2004 film ‘The Passion of Christ’, this UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 1993) has always had great significance during Lent and Holy Week.
As a place of pilgrimage, worshippers particularly focus on the Good Friday procession during which the statue of Our Lady of Sorrows is carried, with Jesus on the Cross, through the town’s streets. Starting and finishing at San Rocco Church, local men carry the statue of Christ, while the ladies carry the statue of Our Lady of Sorrows. Furthermore, on every Friday during Lent the Church of Christ at Grevinella, with its famous cave frescoes, is open to pilgrim worshippers.
The combination of Matera’s stunning ancient historical centre “Sassi”, and Park of Rupestrian Churches (carved from the local soft rock) – along with recently discovered (1963) Crypt of the Original Sin (also known as ‘Sistine Chapel of Rupestrian Art’) – make a visit to this very special southern European destination a great cultural treat.
Claire, in addition to reflecting on the utter charm of the region (so off the mainstream tourist track) also delightfully described the ambiance of sipping Aperol Spritzer cocktails at Francis Ford Coppola’s Hotel Palazzo Margherita. Whilst wondering if the palazzo, as birth place pf his grandfather Agostino Coppola, gave Francis some of the inspiration for his 1972 ‘The Godfather’ trilogy.
For my part, Matera reminds me on the one hand of Malta’s stone dominated Valletta, and on the other, the cliff-top Churches in northern Ethiopia with frescos and similar narrative of the Easter passion.
So if you are looking for a classic southern Italian soiree – particularly during spring or autumn – we highly recommend Basilicata, and in particular Matera.
In addition to an exciting cultural blast, foodies will also love it, as the local gastronomy is also terrific. Claire, for example, discovered first-hand how enjoyable it was to attend the Palazzo Margherita cooking school (see below), as much as many of the other local culinary establishments.