Monday, October 17, 2016

A Christ-haunted Lanscape

     Thursday we made our first visit to one of the most unusual, evocative, and haunting towns we have seen in 21 years of travel in this endlessly fascinating country.  A place that can only be described as terrible in its beauty.

     Matera, Basilicata is one of the dozens of UNESCO World Heritage sites in Italy, the capital of the Province of Matera and one of the two major towns in Basilicata.  The town is splayed out along the top of a plateau above the Bassento River Valley, and is quite scenic in its own right, with its Byzantine basilicas, its palazzi, and its Medieval city scrambling up the side of a steep slope.  The town shows signs of Roman occupation, and some think the name, originally Mateola, is a deformation of the name of the Roman consul Lucius Metellus. It was dominated in turn by Byzantines, Lombards, Normans, and a half dozen other overlords.  But the part of the town which gives it its world heritage status is the Città Sotterranea, the subterranean city.  That part is governed by the geography of the site; the Gravina River has furrowed a deep ravine through the middle of the plateau before punching its way through the western side and debouching into the Bassento.  And all along the edges of the ravine are caverns and grottoes in the limestone layers.  And these and many others created by the hand of man have provided habitation for humans since the Paleolithic.

Perched on the lip of a ravine

The Gravina gorge

The Medieval city

     These rock-cut dwellings are known simply as Sassi, ‘Stones’, but that hardly tells the tale.  The Sassi of Matera housed a prehistoric troglodytic settlement thought to be among the first human settlements in all of Italy.  A community of cave men, in other words.  And there is a continuous pattern of settlement here, apparently for at least 35,000 years.  Many of the more recent houses are little more than caves as well, but many others have been laboriously hewn from the limestone into proper walls, ceilings, floors, and rooms.  In some areas, whole rock-cut streets and rows of dwellings can be visited.  This area takes its name, “La Gravina,” from the river.

    Elsewhere we clambered up to a knob detached from the main range of stone, one used by the Lombards to build a castle, half rock-hewn and half masonry.  On one side of the crag is the Chiesa di San Pietro Caveoso, “Cave-made Church of Saint Peter” one of no fewer than seven so-called rupestrian churches in the town, that is, churches wholly contained in or carved into a cavern.  These churches are a common feature of Paleo-Christianity in Basilicata, Puglia, and our Cilentan part of Campania.  For example, the cavern at Olevano sul Tusciano, about 30 km north of here, has no fewer than four little chapels, not excavated into, but constructed within, this huge cavern, complete with walls and even roofs!  San Pietro is almost totally natural, which for me adds to its evocative atmosphere, and on several plastered walls are the scant remains of once-beautiful Byzantine frescoes.

The Castle and Chiesa di San Pietro Caveoso

     We ambled down one of the main streets in La Gravina, ascending and descending stairways as the lanes zigged and zagged their way along the side of the cliff. Many of the chambers were long since abandoned, sad reminders of an even sadder past, but many have been refurbished as shops and art studios.  One large dwelling has been refurnished as a tourist site, one which we thoroughly enjoyed.  You enter a large living area, walls squared out and plastered so that, except for the absence of windows, you might well imagine yourself in a stone-built cottage.  At the far end is a sleeping area for Mama and Papa and a trundle crib for bebe.  Entering a second chamber, you find the bed of the children and, to one side, a simple kitchen with open hearth and a crude flue vented to the outside.  Passing through the living area, you enter the stables where the livestock was housed in winter and agricultural implements stored.  Descending a long flight of rock-cut stairs, you enter the cantina, with a pedestal to the south for ranges of the huge terra cotta ziri in which were stored wine and olive oil.  On the right is another pedestal, but this one constituting the treading vat and press bed for making the wine and oil to be stored in the ziri.
La Gravina

The pantry of the troglodytic house

Bedroom for children
Bedroom for Mama and Papa

The kitchen

The pantry

Rock-cut stairway

The cantina

    We retraced our steps and entered to the north the household pantry, where other foodstuffs would have been stored.  No sign of a latrine or running water.  Waste disposal will have been in chamber pots and then the old heave-ho, and waste will have washed slowly down the slope into the river,  Meanwhile, water was laboriously brought from that same river, some 1 1/2 kilometers down a simple footpath.  Electricity, even in the middle of the twentieth century, was a distant dream. Obviously, we are speaking of some very primitive living conditions.  In fact, when Carlo Levi wrote his famous book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, detailing the desperately poor, superstition-riddled lives of backward peasants in the Basilicata, and with its intimations that this region was so forlorn it was beyond redemption even by Christ, he tells us he used La Gravina as inspiration for his fictional town.  And, cynic though I am, it’s hard not to feel the disconcerting echoes of human suffering that the site evokes.  In the 1950s, remaining inhabitants were forcibly removed by the State to more modern buildings farther up the slope, and the town gradually began to grow upwards along the slope and the old town abandoned.  But in the late 1980s, tourism began, and today there are B & Bs, hotels, wine bars, and dozens of vacation homes in La Gravina, and more and more people are digging out the old deeds and either selling or developing the old dwellings.

A B&B in the Gravina

      From beneath the ridge, looking up and along the ravine and shielding your eyes from the modern part of the city above, you can easily imagine you are looking at a primitive village from Biblical times if not before, and numerous Biblical films have in fact been made here, most famously Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ.”  That story of human ignorance, cruelty and misery, and the distant hope of redemption, perfectly embodies the undeniable fascination of this haunted landscape.

A scene out of Biblical times

Sunday, October 16, 2016

I Love you Trulli, Trulli I do!


    Why yes, I think I have heard that a pun is the lowest form of humor.

     Last week we headed out for a giro grande, an overnighter.  Fabio has insisted for years that we need to see the town of Matera, over in Basilicata, about 2 hours southwest of here.  This is a town where the dwellings were originally carved into the limestone walls of a deep ravine along the Gravina River, one of the most evocative sites in the country and the setting for numerous movies.  More about that later.  Meanwhile, back in the U.S., Sandy had stumbled across a web site for a restaurant over on the Adriatic coast, also excavated into limestone cliffs, but in this case with vistas out over the sea.  It was only another hour or so east from Matera, so we decided to trek over and spend the night in a B&B and have dinner at this fancy place.  More about that later as well.

     Our trip over was on Thursday, and Friday morning we decided to take a more southerly route back home and stop by the little village of Alberobello, ‘Beautiful Tree,’ and then head on down to the Ionian Sea to stop by a famous archaeological site at Metaponto before heading back up the Bassento River valley and back across the mountains to home.  Now, don’t get me wrong, Matera was a knockout, as I hope Sandy’s pictures will soon convince you, but I have to say that it was awe-inspiring in its austerity, almost a moonscape.  Alberobello, on the other hand, was completely enchanting.  Just imagine you’ve stumbled into a Hobbit metropolis.  I expected to bump into Frodo or Bilbo around every corner.  And as it happened, we did indeed meet a Hobbit, every bit as cute and charming as you might imagine.  But his name was Giuseppe.

     Alberobello and the area in which it is located, called the Murgia, is famous for its houses as well, but in this case a special type of dwelling called a trulloTrulli are circular, dry-stone huts with conical roofs topped by a cute little finial.  And they dot the landscape everywhere in this area.  It’s like stepping into an alternate world.

    As at Matera, necessity was the mother of invention.  The Murgia is almost entirely karstic geologically, that is, layers of limestone riddled with fissures and caves.  And Puglia is in the rain shadow of the Apennines, so rainfall is not plentiful.  What little rainfall they get seeps right through those fissures, such that there’s really very little surface water:  no ponds, no lakes, no rivers, nada.  But the soil is fertile and the hills gentle, so perfect land for wheat and olive trees.  The solution was to dig large cisterns to store the seasonal rainfall and then use it for irrigation in the summer.  But of course digging cisterns involved excavating large amounts of stone at considerable cost in effort.  What to do with all that rock?  Use it!  Everywhere along the roads you see fields girded by beautiful, dry-stone walls.  But even then, there was rock to spare, and not much forest land in the area to provide wood, so these ingenious Pugliesi used the stone to make their typical, evocative little huts and named them trulli, from Greek τρούλος, ‘cupola’.  Originally these were temporary shelters for farm workers or storerooms for tools and crops, but they were so effective that eventually they became the standard form of housing, often a series of circular rooms, all connected and each with one of those whimsical little cones on top.

Stone walls and trulli in the countryside

Street scenes in the Zona delli Trulli

     All the stonework in the trulli is dry-laid, that is, without mortar.  Plenty of limestone here, obviously, but turning limestone into mortar requires intense heat, and, again, there’s not enough forest here to make that practicable.  So the walls are dry-laid, based on bedrock and varying in thickness from 2-7’, depending on the diameter of the room, and all slightly battered, that is, sloped inward at about a 5% angle to provide more stability.  Walls are 6-7’ in height and circular or square, though circles are the norm.  Domes are typically formed in two layers, an inner vault with voussoirs, the standard Roman form, that is, with wedge-shaped stones laid on end and capped with a keystone to lock the whole system and make it self-supporting, and then an outer ‘skin’ of limestone slabs, corbelled—with upper stones overlapping lower ones— to create the conical shape.  These are tilted down at a slight angle to shed rain.

     Inside the trulli used as homes there will be a kitchen with a flue and chimney and often a bread oven built into a niche in the stone wall, one or more bedrooms, a large stall for the animals (Yep, inside the house.  Animals provide body heat in the winter), a pantry, and a cantina for the wine and olive oil.

The conical roofs are capped by a little finial called a pinnacolo, in various shapes such as disks, balls, cones, bowls, even a table in one case, all to identify the stonemason. Inner and outer walls are whitewashed and, additionally, whitewash is also often used for a large symbol on the roof such as a cross, a cross with a heart pierced by an arrow, symbol of the local patron saint, or a large circle divided into quadrants, each bearing the letters S,D,S, or C for Sanctus Christus Sanctus Dominus, Latin for ‘Holy Christ, Holy Lord’.


Artist's shop

The mother church with its domes

    In the town of Alberobello there is a whole district full of trulli, along both sides of meandering lanes and courtyards.  A corso runs through the center, quite touristy, even in this off season, but duck into a side lane and you’re right back in Hobbit Land.  The little cottages are cool and comfy in the blistering Puglia summer, but they were murder to heat back in the day with nothing but an open fire; those stone walls and the conical ceiling just suck the heat right up.  The upshot was that the trulli, most constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were practically derelict as housing in Alberobello by the 1980s.  And then a very clever gent named Guido Antonietta bought up several dozen, fitted them out with modern kitchenettes and baths and some period furniture and began renting them out as a cheap alternative to the town’s hotels.  And made a killing.  You can predict the rest.  But the town has done a wonderful job of catering for the tourist crowd without ruining the charm of the district.  Today many trulli are shops for artisans, wine bars, restaurants, retail shops—at the top of the corso there is even a beautiful stone church with the conical domes all over the roof.


Deserted trulli

    We had a ball strolling the Zona delli Trulli, but I have to tell you, my favorite experience with them occurred before we even reached Alberobello.  When we were about 2 km north of the town and scooting down the provincial highway, we noticed on a little country lane over to the right, out among the olive groves, a little settlement of trulli.  Too cute to pass up.  Azura did a little giro and we ducked down that little lane so that Sandy could get a photo.  I pulled to the side of the road and as Sandy popped out of the car to get her shot, a cute little farmer in his 80s, decked out in his work clothes and gloves, opened a door and motioned us inside one of his trulli which he uses to house his equipment.  Yes, gentle reader, I’m going to abuse you with yet another wonderful, genial Italian who went far out his way to be hospitable to strangers.  Meet Giuseppe Argese, who lives in a four-trullo house across the lane and still works his olive groves at a right old age.  And who kindly demonstrated for us the various parts of the little trullo where farm hands used to set up house during the vintage and olive harvest, about this time of the year.  He showed us their kitchen with its chimney and flue and the place where the bread oven was originally, the bedroom area, the living area and the storeroom.  And provided us with 30 minutes of delightful conversation with one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet.  
Giussepe's storage trullo

The hearth

And sleeping quarters

With our new friend Giuseppe

     As we were leaving, Giuseppe insisted we have a picture made with him and provided his address and left strict instructions to send him copies of the photos.  You may be sure we will honor that request.  And I will have a copy of my own framed, just to remind me of my only meeting with a Hobbit.  Strictly speaking, I didn’t get a look at those hairy feet, but I know in my heart they were there.