A Travellerspoint blog

Italy

Matera

Arrived here after roughly a three hour drive from Sorrento. We were met as scheduled by Mario, the son of the apartment owner, who then showed us where to park our car and brought us to our apartment in the Caveosa Sassi. There are two main sections of Sassi, or stone houses, and luckily, we are staying in the center of Caveoso on a main, but still narrow street. Opposite us, is a very recognizable church carved out of a high piece of rock overlooking the ravine. This makes our place relatively easy to find.

Main street near our apartment
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Rock church, top right, in front of our apartment with ravine in background
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Looking back over Caveoso Sassi from top of rock church
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Matera, at least the old parts, which date back some 7000 years, is built out of the stones and caves that surround a deep ravine which is literally just opposite our apartment. These cave and stone dwellings ascend to the top of the hill where there is a square towered church, the Duomo, now closed for renovation. The city of about 50,000 feels like medieval fantasy, as many of the stone buildings date from that period of time. No matter which way you look there are incredible vistas of the multi-textured stone, narrow, serpentine lanes with ascending cobblestone steps, ancient churches with ornate stone carvings, and longer views over the deep ravine with cave dwellings on the opposite side as well. Many of the nicest houses have been renovated, although there are still an equal number that have not.

Looking up at the Duomo
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Basilica at the edge of ravine
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Cobblestone alley at edge of ravine with cave dwellings on opposite side
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Alley's about town. Nanette on right
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There are workman everywhere, getting the town ready for 2019, when it will be the site of a European-wide cultural festival. To add to the fantasy, it has been used as the set for a number of movies, including Pasolini's Gospel According to Matthew, and more recently Mel Gibson's version of The Passion of Christ. Right now, practically just outside our glass front door, they are filming a new version of Ben Hur with Morgan Freeman. We have yet to see him, but we have seen many film extras standing around in Roman peasant garb, and a number of the film crew. Obviously Hollywood has discovered Matera, although there are few tourists here at this time of year. Temps are cool, upper 40's to around 50, and although we had some sun yesterday, today is drizzly and overcast.

Rock church opposite our apartment lit up at night for movie set
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Okay, it's not Morgan Freeman
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A number of the restaurants and trattorias are closed, though not all, and we had a great lunch in a renovated and beautiful cave restaurant located on a tiny alley, somewhere in Sassi Balsano. Not at all sure we could find it again.

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Yesterday, we wandered into a church San Angelino de Baptisti, and viewed the old frescoes, further inside the stone building. A kind of church within a church, as it were.

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We asked when or if there was any music being played on the organ, but when we returned at the appointed time, 8 PM, the place was shut tight. A woman in a pizzeria across the street told us to come back at 8 AM, which we did, but once again the placed was locked. Perhaps no one goes to church any more. We did find a small osteria/cum beer hall nearby, where we stopped for expresso and cake, and noticed that they had a jazz group performing there tonight. So we will try and make our way back here once again. There was also an asian looking,though Italian, young man there,who spoke relatively good English, a seeming rarity in these parts, where even our Spanish doesn't work very well. He told us that he was an opera singer, and apparently will be giving some kind of recital in a church near to our apartment in a few days. We will try to make it there was well.

At night, with the houses and cave dwellings lit up, the place has an eerie, other worldly feel, especially in the mist and fog.

A bit blurry, but you get the idea
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Matera is as unique a place, as I have seen. From the little I have read, its history is also quite unique, as it is possilby one of the oldest settlements in Europe. However in the 40's and 50's it was very poor, and overpopulated,and Malaria and sanitation problems were widespread. Sometime in the late 50's, early 60's, the government finally noticed, and new housing was constructed in nearby villages, and the worse sanitation issues were addressed. On the other hand, just as in Cuba, the poverty and neglect may be partly responsible for the magnificence that we see today. Otherwise, probably most of the sassi would simply have been torn down. Ironically, though it still feels somewhat off the beaten track, Matera is now the leading tourist destination in the province of Basilicata, in the boot of Italy.

Though I fondly remember my time wandering around the back alleys of Venice, this place is even more unusual, and unlike Venice, it is still a working city, and not solely a tourist destination. This could certainly change, especially after the cultural fiesta of 2019.

We have continued to dodge the raindrops as we discovered more parts of this mysterious and unique city.

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Though on a few days we had sun.

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We found a small lane immediately behind the church in front of us, that runs directly adjacent to the ravine. Along this path there were vegetable gardens and even a very local outdoor shop selling figs and dates and other veggies. We walked along and stepped into a few abandoned cave dwellings. Some of the others were still in use as storage places, or had been renovated for cave dwelling B and B's. Eventually we found ourselves in the newer part of town and stopped in a local place for cappuccino and croissants. It seemed like an Italian version of Stewart's, a coffee and convenience store near our house, where old retired guys hang out to chat, but it was also a bar, as are many of the coffee places in Italy. Walking further down the street we discovered a couple of excellent fruit and veggie shops with very fresh produce. We purchased stuff for a lunch time salad.

Another day we hiked down into the ravine on a steep, albeit short trail not far from the rock church. It was a wild place, but the river was too deep and too fast for us to cross over to the other side. We did get some great views looking back towards town.

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We decided to try our luck driving to the other side of the ravine to check out other caves and the very large park on that side of the river. However, moving the car and finding the route to the other side was an adventure unto itself. No doubt we would never have found the way, were it not for a nice young man, who happened to be standing around in a restaurant when I went in to ask for directions. At first he tried to explain how to get there,but given the number of turns, as well as his halting English, he realized that we would never make it. Instead, he got into his car, and told us to follow him, and took us to a point where we could get there on our own.

The far side of the ravine had a network of dirt roads that led up to the edge of the ravine, but we stopped before that point and walked. There were many caves here, and it had a wild and windswept feeling. It also offered views of the Sassi on the other side.

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Selfie from across the ravine
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After a nice walk, the rain moved in once again, and incredibly, we managed to find our way back to town, with some help from Google Maps, to a point very near our old parking spot. This was taken, but we did manage to park nearby, and then it was about a ten minute walk back to the Sassi Caveosa ,and our apartment. We are now safely ensconced in our little duplex of stone and wood.

Posted by jonshapiro 08:49 Archived in Italy Tagged churches photography tourist_sites living_abroad buildings_postcards cities_postcards Comments (4)

Sorrento and Pompeii

Sorrento 2/24/15

The drive from Rome was easy, but we got bad advice about the route and went first to Salerno, which is on the southern end of the Amalfi coast. This was 60 or 70K out of the way, and then we had to drive back the 50k up the narrow coast road just as it was getting dark. Though not quite as scary as some of the Himalayan roads I have been on, it was nonetheless extremely narrow, with many curves and steep drop offs to the sea, hundreds of feet below.

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Unlike in India I was driving, but we made it, and then struggled to find our Airbnb apartment in the narrow lanes of Sorrento. Our host's English was poor, she couldn't understand our Spanish, and she didn't seem to recognize any of the landmarks we mentioned. Also, our phone GPS was useless, a harbinger of things to come while driving in Italy. Exhausted we were glad to arrive.

Yesterday we made the pilgrimage to Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the sun was out for part of the day. Pompeii was especially impressive as it goes on for what seems like miles, and gives you a real feel for what a Roman town of some 20,000 must have been like. However, having seen Angkor Wat and its vast ruins, we are a bit jaded.

Pompeii with Vesuvius in background
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Long avenue in Pompeii
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House details in Pompeii
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Sport complex
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Street Scene Herculenium
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Today was spent wandering the postcard pretty streets of Sorrento in the rain, which lasted for the entire day. At one end of the Amalfi coast, the town still had it's share of tourists even at this time of year. The narrow lanes did not lend themselves to driving, and I was only too glad to leave the car at our little apartment. Even walking was difficult, what with the other traffic and the rain. Nanette went to a museum of wood inlay objects and purchased a couple of music boxes from the factory, and then we spent the remainder of the afternoon reading before I ran out just before dark to get more pasta and arugula for dinner.

Tomorrow we drive to Matera, and luckily will not have to repeat the coast road again.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:52 Archived in Italy Tagged tourist_sites buildings_postcards Comments (3)

Roma

Alpi Hotel-Rome 2/21/15

Ah Roma. We have spent four days here after our fly by night no name budget airline, Blue Panorama, got us here in one piece, albeit 3 hours late. It seems that many Italians visit Cuba, and so there is a direct Havana-Rome connection. We found our hotel near Termini Train Station without too much difficulty, and it has been a convenient place to stay. We have spent our days walking, and then walking some more in order to see the sights of this easy to live with city. I expected more buzzing scooters, but many parts of the city, and nearly all of the major piazzas, are blessedly car and cycle free, making for a much more enjoyable walking experience. Things have apparently changed in this regard since Nanette was here with our daughter 16 years ago. We have also been lucky with the weather, which up until today was generally sunny with temps in the upper 50's, warm enough to be comfortable outside.

The first day, and in some ways the best, we spent at the Colosseum and Palatine Hill viewing the oldest parts of the city.

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We walked around the Colosseum and took in all the ruins on the hill and then made our way to the Roman Forum. Those Romans certainly knew how to build on a massive scale.

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Day two was spent on an excursion to the burbs to see the new Maxxi Museum of Modern Art, which had an exhibition of architecture inspired by WW 2, but also some Iranian paintings and photographs, before and after the revolution. We then walked near some beautiful streets and piazzas near the Spanish steps,and climbed up a few of the other hills. Dinner that night was in a trattoria, Mamma Angela's near Termini. Good, but not quite as good as my own home-made pasta.

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The following days we viewed the Trevi Fountain, now under renovation, Piazza Navona, and the not to be missed Pantheon, which seemed in amazingly good shape.

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We went to Galleria Borghese, which turned out to be a much longer walk then we thought. The whole area is called Borghese, and we did not specifically ask for the Galleria. It is in the park above the Spanish Steps, but not right above them as the area is quite large. We got there too late for them to honor our reservation, and had to return at 5 PM to see the Bellini.

In between mad dashes across the park, we picked up Nanette's glasses, ordered the day before, and ate home made pasta at a tiny standing room only place that was recommended by the sales woman. Standing eating, or drinking coffee, seems to be a Roman, possibly an Italian thing. If you want to eat cheaply, this is the only way to do it. She also told us about a Jewish/Roman restaurant where we will go one evening for dinner. Should be interesting, but I doubt they will have Jewish Pepper Chicken, a la the Kochi, Kerala specialty. We shall see.

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The Bellini statues were indeed beautiful, but by the time we got back to hotel that evening our feet were hurting.

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Today we ventured further afield to Appian Antica to the San Sebastian Catacombs. Before we arrived, I didn't make the connection, but San Sebastian is the saint who was shot up with arrows by the Roman pagans, and hence became a Christian martyr some time around the 3rd century. This San Sebastian is the very same one whose picture adorns 3/4ths of the paintings in Venice, and drove me crazy because there were so many them when we visited many years ago.

The catacombs were twisting and narrow,easy to get lost in without a guide, and although full of Christians, there were Romans cremated and buried there even earlier.

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We also stopped to see the Carracola, Roman baths, built by the emperor of the same name. Taking up several city blocks with walls at least 50 feet high, the place could accommodate 6000 bathers at a time. Although much of it is in ruins today, many of the walls remain, and a few sections of the old tiled floors as well. Supersize me was obviously a Roman concept. Speaking of which, Mickey D's are scattered all over the city, but they have located them in buildings hundreds of years old instead of in something new, so they fit right in the current Roman scene

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It has been an interesting form of time travel to go from the decrepit old buildings of Habana Vieja, to even older buildings, in many cases much older but in better repair, here in Rome. Of course, they don't have American cars from the 40's and 50's, but the architecture more than makes up for that.

People have been friendly, though not quite as much as the Cubans, many of whom seemed eager to talk with us and find out what was going on. Of course, they are much more cut off than the Romans, who have the internet and other modern accoutrements.

Even at this time of year, there are many European tourists here. They come over for a short holiday from Britain, Germany, etc., which are only a short and cheap flight away. For this reason, as well as its ancient history, Rome feels very cosmopolitan. The pace is much slower then New York, for example, and the city is obviously very walkable. It is hard not to ooh and ahh at every new vista and ancient building. Somehow I expected a greater hodge podge of old and new, but it has not seemed liked that. New in Rome, seems to mean something from the 15 or 1600's. There are some exceptions, but the character of the city seems to be all of a piece, old, and older for the most part.

We are lucky to be here at a time when the Euro is down. While things are far from cheap, they are more or less on par with major US cities. Our last meal, at the aforementioned Jewish restaurant, turned out to be a disappointment. The place was stuffy and the food not particularly good, but it didn't dampen our enthusiasm for Rome.

Tomorrow we leave for Sorrento in a rental car. That should be an adventure.

Posted by jonshapiro 12:45 Archived in Italy Comments (2)

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