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!


Joan Garcia said...

That place looks gorgeous. Is that really your hotel room? It's enormous! Will need to add Matera to my growing list of must-see places in Italy!

Valerie said...

Joan, yes that was our hotel, which is actually a "residenza" so it was a fully equipped apartment, which a little kitchen, even. Really well done and the owner was very nice. Definitely add Matera to your list! It's so worth it.