Sunday, October 21, 2007

After the Sisterness

My sister, Cara, is here for a visit! That's why I've been incomunicado for a while. We're spending as much time as we can chatting, laughing, drinking caffe, talking, griping, eating, talking, walking, sightseeing, talking and...oh yes, eating! We'll return to the regularly scheduled blog post after her departure.

Cara in the narrowest street in Italy in the pretty town of Ripatransone.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

A Little Misguided

My cousin, Celia, arrived with a Cadogan Guide, which purportedly covers Southern Italy along with the Bay of Naples. Twelve entire pages out of 300 are devoted to Basilicata. Two paragraphs are dedicated to the important Greek ruins of Metaponto. Such a slighting is common among so-called guide books, so we’re pretty much used to not relying on them in our travels to points south.

But when I read the opening line of their section on Basilicata I quickly decided that Cadogan doesn’t know what the hell they are talking about. “The Basilicata has never been one of the more welcoming regions of Italy.” (Hold that thought until the next post.) The authors must think that the entire region has remained completely unchanged since Levi wrote about it in his famous novel, Christ Stopped at Eboli, by calling it “the poorest and most backward corner of all Italy.” Matera, they concede, has a sense of style but say it is subtle and one must stay around a while in order to see it.


Matera, as I already told you, is, in fact, stylish and dramatically beautifully. The lively shopping district, packed with designer wear and must-have gear for the hippest of Italians, speaks clearly of a level of prosperity and panache that you would expect to find in any other provincial city across the peninsula. If they’re looking for the likes of Milan or Rome, you won’t find it here, but nor will you find it in Perugia, Siena, or Ascoli Piceno. Got my hackles up a little bit, can’t you tell?

Moving on. “Most backward”. Whenever I see statements like this I have to wonder, based on whose idea of advancement? Because they maintain a largely-agrarian economy and employment base and hold tightly to traditional crafts, they are considered the country bumpkins down there. I always cringe when an area is considered “backwards” for not polluting their air, ripping out their forests, or encouraging complete consumer consumption. A lack of soul-sapping centro commerciale (malls) must be deemed undeveloped and poverty-stricken. These are, you may have already guessed, the exact reasons we love Basilicata.

There is a deep sense of serenity and timelessness when I enter the Lucanian countryside. Even now when I see it in my mind’s eye I feel the sensation and emotion that the beauty of wide panoramas instills, and I can smell the fragrance of the high-mountain air. There is something tangible in the emotion. It is a rare feeling but I experience it there, like I experience it in the New Mexico autumn when the aroma of pi┼łon fires and roasting green chile fill the air. It is a wondrous sense of place that brings calm and touches my soul. I feel jealous for this area and proud to have roots here.

As for Cadogan, that book lies on the shelf to collect dust until we ever decide to visit Naples. That fair city occupies more than half its pages. I am sure the authors are just echoing what they’ve read elsewhere and have never visited the gorgeous mountain country that we now know well. Perhaps it is just as well. A few more trips and I’ll be able to write a guidebook of my own.

Read the second part of my rant:
...and Misinformed

c. 2007 Valerie Schneider

Friday, October 05, 2007

City of Stone

When the sun shines on Matera, the city absolutely gleams. The nearly-white stone which makes up the bulk of the buildings looks magical in the light. In the rain, the glossy limestone streets turn slick and dangerous and the buildings turn fantastically ghostly in the muted streetlamp glow. We were fortunate to see the city in both of her moods and were captivated by them equally.

This is a city of surprises. Every turn in the winding streets brings something to be awed by…a view of the opposing cliff, a glimpse of a church built out of the rock face, a hidden garden, or tempting smells wafting from kitchens.

Ancient Matera below with medieval castle, Baroque church, and modern housing above

Bryan already wrote about the basics of Matera so I won’t repeat that. But I will say that there is much more to Matera than the Sassi. The centro of the city resting on the level plain above the famous rocky portion of town is a contrast: historic blending with modern; bustling and busy while overlooking the silent caves; trendy yet ancient. It is quiet upscale, a far cry from the imagined city of squalor documented by Carlo Levi in his infamous book. We were taken with Matera…not just the uniqueness of the Sassi but by the upper town, as well. We liked the variations.

In the company of my cousin, Celia, and her partner, Rhonda, we spent three wonderful days laughing, exploring, walking (and groaning) up and down the steep pathways, discovering more pieces of our heritage and reveling in the sights and flavors of Basilicata. These girls are fun travel companions; running jokes were quickly established, nicknames bestowed, and lots of rosy glows imparted by good wine and good company.

Our lodging was a fine example of recuperation of the Sassi. Slowly the old, neglected dwellings are being reclaimed and re-inhabited. The owner of the residenza, GianLuca, a born and bred Materano, designed the renovations and carried out much of the work on the restorations himself, creating beautiful apartments that infuse modern touches while retaining ancient elements. He also carved out (literally!) an art gallery in one of the caves that had in many years gone by formerly housed a church. He designed it to host special exhibitions, like the sculpture exhibit being held during our stay. It is a fabulous exhibition in itself; when filled with artwork it is stupendous.

Lucanian food is noteworthy…it is “down home” Italian cuisine, infusing pure flavors into simple recipes to create perfect taste combinations. Winter brings hearty fare; summer offers an explosion of fresh vegetables grown in the nearby plains. The wine, too, is hearty and explosive with subtle flavors. I’ve written about the peperoni cruschi on my food blog and will be posting more recipes as I continue to recreate the delectable dishes we enjoyed in Basilicata.

Next up…the Motherland!