A couple of weeks ago, I ticked another region off my list by visiting Matera, a famous town in Basilicata. I would have gone there with my family, but there’s only so much you can cram into a three-day holiday especially when you get lost all the time without a Sat Nav.
It was a bit of an impromptu day trip in a way: I met up with Katie and Anna in Bari on Friday night, and we only decided where we were going the next day at midnight over some fairly strong sangria. Katie had invited us to stay over at her flat in the city centre, so I didn’t have to take the last train back to Molfetta at the buzz kill time of quarter past ten, and Anna didn’t have to travel even further North towards Foggia where she works. We had a pizza and a wander along the seafront, which is very pretty at night with rows of lights along the water. You have to be careful in Bari Vecchia: it is well renowned to be a bit of a rough area, not to be ventured into alone. So we skirted around the dark alleyways and followed groups of people towards a bar called the Flying Circus. An old man who likes to walk around the square in glittery glasses and a hat scared the living daylights out of me, and we were asked if we were Russian. When we said we were English, we were asked if we were sure we weren’t Russian. Erm…
We woke up at a reasonable time the next day to decide how we were actually going to get to Matera. Public transport is a great thing, however Italian websites for buses are sometimes not up to standard. It takes some kind of instinctive knowledge to guess where you have to catch the train/bus you need and especially where you need to buy the tickets. We left the house after a bit of breakfast, which involved a long discussion about tea and the perfect mug to drink it from. Sadly, as a dissenter from the mainstay of British lifestyle, I could have no part in this and sipped my espresso instead.
With a little help from Katie’s flatmate, we sort of figured out where to go next. After asking in a bar and two newsagents, we were sent to the other side of the station to ask for train tickets. We went into a tiny little station that looks a bit like an art gallery: this housed the Ferrovie Appulo Lucane train line, with trains directed towards places like Corato, Altamura, Gravina and (yay) Matera. Tickets bought, we chilled in the sunshine by the fountain drinking orange juice that was pure E numbers, until we were attacked by a pigeon and decided to move. It’s a good thing we enjoyed the sun while we could, because we were stuck inside that little train for a long, long time. It reminded me of that seemingly interminable journey to Alberobello with Mum and Izzy back in October. The trains stopped in towns that I’d never heard of, or sounded confusingly like ones I had been to before (there is a Bitetto, Binetto and a Bitritto within a short distance of each other…). We shared a whole pack of Mediterranean flavour taralli as a sort of ‘lunch’ before arriving in this weird underground station. At the last minute, we found out it was Matera Centrale and had to bolt off the train, almost leaving our crackers behind.
It was only a short walk from the station to the central part of Matera, the so-called ‘Subterranean city’. We came across a square with a cute little market, with books, antiques, records and jewellery. We also met a Labrador puppy to top it all off. After a browse and even a bit of accidental haggling, we walked into the most impressive streets of the old town. Matera is built of “sassi”, houses carved out of stone, rippling into the distance, stacked on top and beside each other in a way that you can’t quite comprehend. The views are really stunning and a walk around it only served to show that it well deserves its forthcoming title of ‘City of Culture’, due in 2019.
We walked quite a bit, up winding stairs and through stone archways, without a map and only following our sense of direction. Fortunately we didn’t get lost, and even ended up near the Duomo where we could look out at the whole historical centre and even some of the countryside in the distance. We all stared for a bit, quite speechless in a way. The town has been used for several films, as a setting for Ancient Jerusalem. Ever seen ‘The Passion of the Christ’ with Mel Gibson? Me neither, but it was filmed in Matera.
After fulfilling our touristic curiosity, we did what we do best: went for another trip round the market and then a hot chocolate in a bar at the top of a building, looking out over the Sassi. We also met a course mate from Leeds University, who had travelled down that weekend from Tuscany. It’s very eerie how that happens.
The trip back to Bari was as slow as the arrival really, but it was a rewarding day out to see another hidden wonder of Italy. Some of the places tucked away down here in the South of Italy are so mesmerising: I’m glad that this year I’ve had the opportunity to see all these peculiar towns and traditions that I’d never even heard of before my year abroad. I’ll save this enthusiasm for the report I have to hand in at the end of April; but I feel like I’ve ticked a good few places off my list of places ‘to see’ and cannot wait to do more as summer approaches. Roll on the Easter holidays!