Matera is a place that gets you to question what we want from historic towns; life and rejuvenation or preserved storytelling.
When we were born Matera was the byword for squalor in Italy – a national disgrace a bit like the Gorbals in Glasgow. Families lived in cave dwellings, malaria was common and infant mortality levels (44%) shocked Western Europe. Action followed of course – thousands were forcibly evicted and the slum areas – known as the Sassi – were closed down.
And it’s this recent, emotional history that attracted us. We went to the viewpoint on the other side of the gorge at first light to look across at the cave dwellings and felt transported to biblical times. We walked around the oldest and poorest of the Sassi – Sasso Caveoso – and were still able to enter many of the deserted cave dwellings.
Hilary on the other side of the gorge
Some of the deserted homes
Roger goes inside an abandoned cave dwelling
Roger explores the oldest Sassi
But elsewhere the Sassi are being rejuvenated; restaurants, wine bars and cool hotels are opening in time for the 2019 celebration of the European City of Culture. Of course, we applaud the rebirth of these areas but do we want the physical evidence of the 20th Century story of Matera to be completely erased and for Matera to become just like every other freshly preserved Italian tourist town.
We slept in a Trullo last night – it was surrounded by beautiful countryside half way between Alberobello and Locorotondo. In fact our advice is don’t stay too long in these touristy towns; get out into the countryside and explore the dilapidated Trulli in the fields.
It’s a scene of autumnal trees, bright green grass and iron-tinged soil. And the beautiful unique conical roofings of the Trulli.
And soon you have a fantasy of buying one, engaging your friendly local builder and spending evenings watching the sun set whilst drinking a bottle of Rosso del Salento. We’ve just been idly flicking through Rightmove… who knows.
She was pregnant. She died. She was discovered on 24th October 1991.
She is Delia, over 25,000 years old – the most “famous” exhibit at the museum in Ostuni.
There’s a slightly tacky model of what she looked like and how she was buried, but the real lump-in-the-throat moment came from seeing the laid out skeleton of Delia’s unborn baby. Preserved in a glass container, photographed by people like us, this baby never breathed, never cried, never laughed.
We took a pic of Hilary lying down next to Delia. Interesting how tall she was; we always thought our ancestors were fairly short.
Looking around the centrostorico ofOstuniwe spotted two brightly clad cyclists heavily laden with panniers back and front and got into conversation with them.
What an amazing story: Hanna and Harald are spending six months cycling from Belgium to Iran. Having left on 10th October, and travelling some 50 km a day so far without punctures, they will soon catch a ferry to Albania, then on across the northern coast of Turkey and into Iran.
We were so impressed. They told us they had cycled over the Alps and the Apennines. They always camp at night – despite the cold – to save money and buy and cook their own food using a small camping stove which is also carried on their bikes.
Hanna and Harald have relatives in Iran, whom they will spend some time with before flying home. In due course they may continue the cycle onto Asia and longer-term plan to set up their own eco-farm.
From Lecce we drove for about 30 minutes through early morning mist to the coast.
First a walk around the old part of Gallipoli – built on a limestone island linked to the mainland by a 16th century bridge. The cathedral bells were calling in the congregation and the fishing market was bustling.
Then 20km up the coast to Porto Selvaggio – a nature reserve – where we hiked down through the forest to crystal clear waters.
Lecce is a superlative city. It is famed for its baroque architecture sculpted out of ochre sandstone with a unique hue. The facades of the many churches portray gargoyles, asparagus tips and all sorts of flora and fauna both living, extinct and imaginary.
Of course you can’t always get to see these buildings at their best. The Basilicia di Santa Croce was covered in scaffolding and grey skies and downpours of rain stopped us getting many good shots of other buildings.
We are living right in the centre of Lecce in a rooftop terrace flat above an ancient and crumbling palazzo. Impossible to get the car here, so it involved a long lug of our bags from a remote car park beyond the city walls. But worth the experience to eat breakfast on the terrace with terracotta rooftops and dreaming spires all around.
The photo of the female statue below is made of papier-mâché, one of the industries for which Lecce is famed.
Imagine buying a house to open a restaurant. There’s a plumbing problem and you open up the floor to investigate.
That’s what Lecce’s Luciano Faggiano did but then it gets incredible. “We found underground corridors and other rooms, so kept digging” said Mr Faggiano to the NewYorkTimes.
Seven years later, and all self-funded, his house is now the “Museo Faggiano”. We were intrigued to climb down to a subterranean world stretching back before the birth of Jesus – a Messapian tomb, a Roman granary and a Franciscan chapel. There was even a room where decomposing bodies were left to drip dry.
Of course we loved seeing all the Baroque buildings in Lecce’s historic centre, but it is the story behind this museum that made the day. Luciano roped in his three sons to help with the excavations without letting on to his wife who thought they were simply building the trattoria. His wife Anna though soon became suspicious. “We had all these dirty clothes every day,” she said. “I didn’t understand what was going on.”
Over three weeks into our two month road-trip from England to Sicily and back, here are some thoughts on what we’ve learnt so far:
We’ve limited the driving each day to no more than three hours
We haven’t planned our tour in advance. We respond to how we feel each day, looking at the guide book and fitting around the weather. Moving on every day gets too tiring, so we’re doing one, two and three night stopovers
Autostradas make the kilometres disappear fast but some of our best driving moments have been along the quieter roads. One thing about the autostradas – be sure not to drive into the telepass gate unless you want some irate Italians behind you
Our mapping apps are working brilliantly. Time and time again they are steering us in the right directions particularly in the middle of historic towns with complex one way systems. It’s good to try both Apple Maps and Google Maps because sometimes one works better than the other in city centres
Parking out-of-season has been fairly easy but over the weeks we have got better at saving money. If you are happy to walk for just a few minutes you easily save six or so euros each sight-seeing stop.
Petrol is more expensive than in the UK – its taking us 100 euros to fill up our tank rather than 80 euros at home. And it’s interesting that diesel is cheaper than normal petrol here – by about cents per litre – opposite to back at home
It’s not a big problem driving a right-hand drive car except at certain road junctions. But it’s definitely handy having that second pair of eyes in the car and also for paying autostrada tickets
We’ve stayed in a mix of 3 star hotels and AirBnB apartments. AirBnb definitely has the edge as it is cheaper and we get to enjoy a unique space; tonight we have a rooftop apartment in an ancient palace right in the centre of Lecce. At this time of year booking the night before via the brilliant AirBnB app is fine.
We’ve really enjoyed our picnic lunches in olive groves, up mountain tracks and sitting in quiet alleyways. We’ve been buying in town supermarkets (think small-scale Tesco Metro) rather than alimentaris which have been fairly expensive
It’s taken us a bit of time to get attuned to the rhythm of the day – everything is closed in the afternoon, schooldays end at 1pm, and the town centres only come alive at 7pm.
Even out of season the harbour at Trani is mesmerising. Minutes after leaving the autostrada we were walking past fishermen selling their catch and people drinking afternoon espressos in the sun.
The cathedral looked sublime against the Adriatic backdrop – its stone work so clean after an EU funded programme. Around it pedestrianised piazzas were inviting and laid-back, with the large Castello just 500m further along the bay.
We both thought this is the sort of place we could live in. Maybe we will be back.
We’ve done a lot of our own cooking at our Airbnb apartments but sometimes, of course, we go out for meals; trying to avoid tourist restaurants and eat where the locals go.
Tonight we are in a non-touristy town called Corato, on the south eastern coast of Italy in Puglia and our Airbnb hostess Lara recommended that we eat at “Le Stageoni de Puglia”. And no wonder it’s the number 1 (of 88) restaurants here on TripAdvisor. It’s a small family-run restaurant and our hosts include two sisters aged 15 and 16 who are practising their English.
We’ve had a lovely antipasti with local mushrooms, cheeses and local sweet olives followed by a seafood risotto for Roger and mushroom and asparagus pasta for Hilary. We tried to avoid puddings but were persuaded to try their local cakes: lemon and cheesecake.