Named the world’s “most desirable” vacation destination this year, Italy has also been known as one of the most resilient on the continent, rising as it were from the rubble of World War II (as did other nations) and transforming itself into one of the world’s most industrialized nations.
Italy was the most-searched holiday destination among people in 97 countries, including the U.S., Canada, Ireland, Russia, China, and most European countries, according to a study by travel website TravelSupermarket. This year, Italy beat out Spain (which was once in the top spot), followed by Australia, Greece, and France.
What has really advanced in Italy are not the marquee destinations of Rome, Venice and Florence, which will always top the first-time visitor’s list, but Italy’s seven southern regions: Abruzzo, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Molise, Puglia, and Sicily.
The city of Matera is reigning as one of the chosen two European Capitals of Culture for 2019 (along with Plovdiv, Bulgaria), and from a look at the cultural schedule for 2020, the city will continue basking in its royal position for some time to come. Not unlike other destinations in Southern Italy, Matera was once the scourge of the country.
Less than 70 years ago, some 20,000 people, mostly farmers, were still living in grottoes or caves carved out of limestone that dated back to Matera’s prehistoric era: Dank dwellings with no natural light, ventilation, running water, or electricity.
Artist, author and anti-fascist Carlo Levi was confined to exile in Aliano, Basilicata. His non-fiction account in “Christ Stopped at Eboli” changed all that for Basilicata (also known as Lucania in the 1930s). It was his sister Luisa, also a trained doctor, who stopped in Matera on her way to visit him and ultimately called attention to the plight of the residents.
When the book was published in English, it was an instant bestseller; the film named for it, “Christ Stopped at Eboli,” has had a resurgence in screenings in the U.S., although it was created in 1978 and is no less than four hours long.
Is this any way to open a travel story on what has become not only a UNESCO World Heritage site, but has been reigning as one of two European Capitals of Culture this year? Well, yes and no.
Custom-made for FITs and special interest groups
While people crave “vintage and shabby chic,” they often do not link it to history. Visitors pack their backpacks with pint-sized limestone depictions of caves, but it is good to remind them that real people once lived in them.
Since then, Matera’s miraculous rise has inched up with each generation. Those who are only a few steps away from that grinding poverty their grandparents may have recollected, are embracing the town with pride, knowledge, and a commitment to preserve the sassi (or caves) and the integrity of the town.
Because it is a small city, Matera has kept its growth spurt under control: the largest hotel within its confines has no more than 31 rooms, and therefore, is deliberately discouraging mass tourism.
Custom-made for FITs and special interest groups, big operators such as Perillo Tours Avanti, Collette, and Globus do offer daytrips to Matera.
A word to travel advisors who may not be familiar with Matera, it would be a challenge for disabled travelers, not impossible but would require advance planning, as the city’s hills, cobble-stoned streets, jagged layout, and stairs throughout are less than friendly for wheelchair-bound clients.
For FIT travelers, Puglia’s city of Bari is the most convenient air gateway to Matera, an hour’s drive away, and an hour-and-a-half from Potenza; alternatively, Salerno, Campania, is convenient to Matera.
If starting in Bari, consider the well-located, four-star Oriente on the Corso Cavour, next door to the Teatro Petruzzelli. Rooms are comfortable, modest and the dining room features an elaborate breakfast that is included in the nightly price.
Historical art, refurbished cave dwellings, and local cuisine
Today, Matera is bright with new prosperity developed with the knowledge of sustainability. Small shops and restaurants occupy many of the sassi equipped with all the trappings of the modern world – from WiFi to splendidly refurbished walls of the sassi that enhance the interiors, lending them romantic curves and shadows.
Essential is the Archaeological Museum of Domenico Ridola, displaying artifacts from the Neolithic era to the Middle Ages, including objects dating back centuries when the region was a Greek colony. Most spectacular and housed in the 16th-century Palazzo Pomarici is the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture, where works of art share the space with atmospherically illuminated caves. Contemporary also and scattered around public plazas, are fancifully sculpted works by Salvador Dali, which is part of one of many art happenings on tap during Matera’s cultural-capital year.
Sleeping in the Sassi is an essential experience, first at the very well-located Locanda di San Martino & Thermae Romanae. Its 28 unique rooms and suites — with vaulted ceilings and balconies with Old Town views — are set carefully and cozily into restored cave dwellings. Rates here include WiFi and excellent breakfasts daily; charges are extra for use of the spa’s indoor pool with hydromassage, sauna, and Turkish bath.
Antonio Panetta is the proprietor of the Locanda di San Martino, a hotel and spa that is embedded in the Sasso Barisano, on Via Fiorentini. He is part of a clutch of hoteliers whose property has grown organically over the years. The Locanda began with 18 rooms. Through a government program to encourage locals to buy portions of the sassi and develop tourism, Panetta did so and relished it, as he is from the region.
“I have respect for the sassi and wanted to help preserve them while keeping a sense of harmony, so the design is integrated and organic,” he said.
Across the street is the affordable Osteria Pico that features traditional local cuisine and, it, too, has blended its modern amenities within the sassi.
Around the corner from The Locanda on Via S. Giovanni Vecchio is the Museo Laboratorio della Civilta Contadina, a privately-owned museum. As residents moved out of the sassi from 1950-1969, Donato Cascione collected objects and stories from his neighbors. Many of Matera’s residents have stories of their own, as their grandparents may have been lived in the sassi, that appear in the bilingual, “Tales from the Museum.”
More high-styled — if slightly less traditional — is the Aquatio Cave Luxury Hotel & Spa. It offers 35 white-everything, cave guestrooms with all modern amenities, plus a nice restaurant serving traditional dishes, and a spa and pool set into a ninth-century subterranean chamber.
Cave churches and more culture
For a realistic orientation to the region and its history, visit the Casa Noha for a look back at documentaries of the 1930s Matera. It includes the inimitable photos of children with old faces in conditions not unlike those depicted in James Agee’s photos of Appalachia and Tennessee in roughly the same timeframe.
The city is rife with museums and churches, some of which are on the outskirts of town and are plastered with ancient frescoes in the rupestri (cave or rock churches).
In town, the Palazzo Lanfranchi, located in Piazzetta Pascoli in the historic district that features the Carlo Levi Center, includes a large collection of his work depicting his stay in Lucania during his exile, including the Lucania 1961 panel.
Beyond the attractions within the town are more than 150 rupestri. Murgia National Park was established in 1990 and is included in the UNESCO World Heritage list, along with the Sassi di Matera, and is a spectacular rocky landscape on the edge of town that gives access to the rock churches, some of which still have discernible frescoes and date back to the Byzantine era.
Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola traced his origins to Bernalda, which is closer to Potenza, the capital of Basilicata. There stands the eight-room Palazzo Margherita that he purchased and refurbished, with its carefully cultivated botanical garden and excellent restaurant.
Small towns around Matera have also taken center stage for a day or two on their own, such as Picerno, where the U.S. Congressman from East Harlem, New York, Vito Marcantonio’s family originated and where a street is named for him and the Vito Marcantonio Forum members from New York commemorated him. Famous educator Leonard Covello’s family had its roots in Avigliano in the same region.
Every year, new cities are named as the European Capitals of Culture, and the initiative is an opportunity to discover the cultural richness of the continent. The ambitious year-long itinerary is carefully designed by field experts and local residents, so the event is a platform for regional creativity. While Malta and Plovdiv took the honors this year, in 2020, they will be Rijeka (Croatia) and Galway (Ireland). In 2021, they will be Timisoara (Romania), Elefsina (Greece), and Novi Sad (Serbia, candidate country). In 2022, Esch (Luxembourg) and Kaunas (Lithuania) have been named. For 2023, Veszprém (Hungary) has been recommended.