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Published: December 2nd 2009
Waking up early seemed like a reoccurring theme during our journey through Italy - today was no exception - we were up early and packed heading to the Naples train station. Even though it was the early morning, the humidity was probably 100%, but Grace and I have adjusted to (read learned to deal with) the weather in the South. We were headed further south: catching a five hour-long train to Bari and a transfer to a local train to get to Matera, another 2 hours. If you've never heard of Matera, it is probably because the town is small and not easily accessible. Grace and I could have chosen an even smaller town or the large touristy city of Palermo in Sicily, but we opted for Matera.
The country of Italy is shaped like a boot and Matera is located near the arch of the boot. There are around 50,000 inhabitants of Matera and it is considered one of the world's oldest towns. Built upon two ravines, Matera is famous for its sassi, stone houses carved out of the caves and cliffs, and once an area of extreme poverty with overcrowded caves home to livestock and their owners. Additionally,
some caves were used as churches with detailed paintings of Christ and other Biblical figures. During the 1950s, over half of Matera's population lived in the sassi and had an infant mortality of over 50%! (MISSING)These situations gained wide publicity and forced the government to take action by forcibly relocating 15,000 inhabitants to new government housing schemes - one of modern Italy's great scandals. More recently, scenes from The Passion of the Christ
were filmed in Matera's sassi district.
Now, on our second train of the day, we passed by rolling fields and through olive tree farms. We finally arrived at Matera in the late afternoon and oriented ourselves to search for our hostel. The problem with small cities like Matera is that the guide book doesn't provided a detailed map and it took some time before we finally reached our destination. I was struck by the beauty of all the buildings and public spaces. Grace and I ooh-ed and aah-ed as we passed the Cathedral of Matera. But it wasn't until we looked in the opposite direction of the Cathedral that we saw the Sassi - BREATHTAKING! Primarily a hotel, Le Monacelle
also has two, 16-bed hostel-like
rooms, one of only two hostels in Matera. The hotel/hostel was a former monastery used by the Cathedral of Matera, the city's main church. Now, it is a fancy bed and breakfast with room rates anywhere between 70-120€ per room per night - we were paying only 18€ per bed per night for staying in their hostel! And to top it all off, we had the entire room to ourselves the first night, and the hostel room had its own terrace balcony which overlooked the ancient sasso!
It was going to get dark soon; therefore, we dropped off our bags and explored the city for a bit. Not only is Matera comprised of the old historical sassi district, but it also has modern buildings with extremely expensive boutique stores - stores that budget travelers like us could not afford. To reward ourselves for the long day of travel we downed large cups of granita, Italy's version of the slurpee (or something American's turned into a slurpee). We first discovered granita in Naples, thanks to the suggestion of our friend Cat who lives in Florence. This was better than any 7-eleven slurpee you have ever tasted; not too sweet and
There was very little activity when we first arrived to town. Piazza Vittorio Veneto, the city's main square, seemed to be shut down as we passed through to get to our hostel. However, as the sun set and day turned into night, more and more people came out, stores began to open up and the piazza became a place to see and be seen. You could notice families on leisurely walks, children chasing each other, elderly men-sitting and having fierce arguments in Italian, teenagers hanging out and others having dinner with friends. Grace and I were obvious outsiders (the only other tourists we found in Matera were Italian), but the locals were very helpful whenever we were looking for a place or got lost - even though most only knew how to speak Italian. After only a couple hours, I had already fallen in love with this place, but there was still more to see the next day!
The following day we woke up and and had breakfast which was included in our nightly rate. Being deprived of good quality lattes and cappuccinos in Cairo, I almost teared up at how delicious the latte I was
having out on the terrace with Grace. After breakfast, we explored the sassi, the cave churches, and a replicated cave house. There have been very few times when I resorted to the saying of "...words cannot describe..." but exploring the sassi left me speechless and in awe of its beauty.
For dinner we decided that we would splurge and eat at one of the nice, authentic restaurants in town. We researched several before deciding to go with one located off the main piazza in a narrow passageway. We arrived at the restaurant at 6:30pm and the owner/waitress/chef, a small Italian woman, seated us at one of the four tables located outside - the temperature was perfect. We were a bit early, for Italian standards and therefore the only ones dinning. But soon enough, all the tables, inside and out were filled. The menu was in Italian and we tried to use previous knowledge, my Italian phrasebook, and hand signals with the owner to decipher the items. We started off with a spinach and cheese keish appetizer, followed by our antipasta selection of pasta with chickpeas and bacon (delicious) and a juicy, tender rabbit fillet. Dinner was accompanied by a
carafe of the red house wine. This was Grace's and my first time trying Italian wine since arriving - seven days overdue, believe it or not. This dinner definitely makes the top 10 best dinner list.
After dinner, we wondered around the piazza for some good people watching. We came upon an Irish pub with outdoor seating and decided to have a couple drinks. Again, after months of not-so-tasty Egyptian beer I was treated to a great tasting stout. The alarm at one of the museums went off while we were at the pub and didn't shut off until after 30 minutes. We thought our night was over, but as we headed towards our hostel, we heard music reverberating through the streets. We followed the sound and were welcomed by a crowd of people, a DJ, and free mojitos in front of a Illy cafe. The DJ looked exactly like Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) in the Pirates of the Caribbean. The night was concluded by two Italians signing karaoke - unlike American karaoke where most people embarrass themselves, Italian karaoke is serious and only for those with the ability to carry a tune.
As Grace and I
walked to the hostel, we took in the sassi, illuminated in the dark, for one last time. The cathedral's tower jetted out in the black sky, and the rest of the sassi glimmered in hues of yellow and orange. I thought to myself of the wonderful time I had in Matera and if my exploration of Italy were to end that night, I would be completely satisfied.
For more information on planning a trip consult a Lonely Planet or check out this website
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