Home > 2011 Posts, About Dave > The Road to Matera

The Road to Matera

She looked like Isabella Rossellini’s daughter. Her date looked upset, and she was doing all the beautiful-woman-with-a-plain-guy things to reassure and calm him. I couldn’t see them, but my bride could and has a PhD in People Watching, with extensive international Post-Doctoral work. She was discretely fascinated and quietly let me know what was going on.

Sassi Homes Now Abandoned or Useed for Storage

We were in a lovely, beachfront restaurant in Il Castello, a pleasant little place on the Gulf of Taranto, famous for its Norman castle right on the water. ‘Isabella’ and her beau were sitting a couple tables away. Dessert was just about to arrive when I saw a sympathetic, supportive expression flicker across my wife’s face. Apparently, the dark-haired Italian beauty had looked up from her thus far thankless efforts and was herself reassured.

Sensing a way to improve her evening, she called over to us in a low, alto voice, “You are American?”

The Heart of Old Matera with Many Rock-Hewn Churches

I turned in my seat to finally see the couple that had so held my bride’s interest as she replied, “Si.”

That started us on the road to Matera and a delightful adventure.

Within a few minutes, ‘Isabella’s’ date had cheered up considerably and they’d invited us to sit with them. Then, amidst happy conversation, we all had dessert followed by a small glass of Limoncello. And another. And … another.

‘Isabella’s’ real name turned out to be Annamaria  And her English was halting, but still far better than my even more tentative Italian. Somehow, though, we managed a convivial, animated two hours of back and forth that left us the only patrons remaining and the wait staff patiently standing by to close up.

Looking Out From Inside an Abandoned Sassi Dwelling

During our talk, we’d discovered that Annamaria lived in Matera, about 60 miles northeast and inland, while Alberto had a jewelry business in Taranto. She worked for the police department and he was a proud member of the Italian Communist Party who lived his life as a thoroughgoing capitalist with never a moment of reflection on the profound irony in that.

We must have been adequate company, or Annamaria was desperate not to fall back into another night of endless reassurances for a jealous, morose Alberto, because they invited us to have dinner with them in Matera at a restaurant owned by a friend. The town was already on our Must See list, so the pleasant coincidence in Il Castello was unfolding perfectly for us.

Looking Uphill Toward the Modern Town That Starts at the Top

Two nights later, we had dinner as planned with our new friends after an amazing day spent exploring Matera. The place was originally a city of cave-dwellings, called Sassi (I sassi means ‘the stones’), cut into the soft, tufa rock in the steep banks of an ancient river that is now a small stream. Monks flocked there in the middle ages to escape the near-constant state of war on the coast and  built more than a hundred rock-hewn churches and chapels. This part of the city is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Wandering through the zig-zag stairs and narrow, winding streets of this fascinating place, we saw that the above-ground parts were like tips of hollow stone icebergs.

Families lived for centuries in these very humid, rock-hewn caves together with all their livestock. After WWII though, the Italian government built above-ground homes for the 15-20,000 people who remained in the Sassi, and the old city fell rapidly to ruin.

But now, tourism and technology have combined to make it a booming area with new businesses and residents restoring and refurbishing everywhere. A smart café can stand next to a true ruin, but that won’t be for long, I suspect. Even so, the place still looks and feels ancient. Enough so that Mel Gibson used the streets and buildings as Jerusalem in his 2004 film, The Passion of Christ.   

Part of the Interior of a Restored Sassi Home, Minus the Livestock

After a day on our feet exploring every part of town, we were ravenously hungry by the agreed time for dinner. Annamaria’s school chum greeted us warmly and his lovely wife and daughter joined us for our meal. But, our meager reciprocal language skills were soon exhausted as we advanced to less basic topics.

Then, the Travel Gods smiled. An American physician who’d gone to school in Bologna was at the next table and overheard our ever-greater struggle to understand and be understood. He had met his wife 40 years before in that town and they had been on a long leisurely driving vacation down the Adriatic coast, arriving in Matera just in time to save our evening.

The Tufa Stone Wears Fast -- This Pigeon Exercises His Delusions of Grandure as an Eagle's Head

Each time one of us needed a word, we’d look over and he or his wife would graciously provide it. With deep gratitude for saving us from countless errors, I surreptitiously paid for their dessert and after-dinner beverages.

As people often do in similar situations, we exchanged email addresses with Annamaria and Alberto and invited them to visit us in the High Desert for some skiing and hiking or golf and tennis or just plain relaxing. I even emailed a few of our better dinner photos, but never heard back.

Our two evenings together were great fun and an unexpected treat. But, on reflection, I think my bride and I were mostly just a serendipitous troop of cavalry riding over the hill near Il Castello just in the nick of time to rescue Annamaria that first night.

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