#15 Basilicata Region of Southern Italy: October 19 - November 4, 2007
A Retro Rock Tour of a Different Kind
Had we been on a group tour of southern Italy, I could imagine it being called: "Retro Lodging from the Middle Ages to Modern Times." Unexpected themes sometimes emerge from Bill's route plans and a survey of strange, stone Homo sapiens habitats became just such a theme in southern Italy.
The splashy, crowd-pleasing first stop on the "Retro Rock Lodging Tour" was in the Alberobello area not far from the international seaport of Bari. Here we saw the Puglia region's trulli, the single-roomed, cylindrical stone homes with cone-shaped, stone roofs, all originally made without the benefit of mortar. They were concentrated in the old town of Alberobello, but we saw them scattered through the region for days before and after arriving in the unofficial trulli capital. These little cottages were all that were permitted in the region until almost 1800 and were the mainstay of housing in the town into the 20th century.
The next stop on what could have been an educational tour of
stone housing was the "warren"
homes of Locorotondo and Martina Franca. In these old towns, as I suspect has
been true in much of old Italy, the ground floor quarters were all but
windowless with barrel vaulted and domed ceilings. The 2 such places we stayed
felt like warrens, as in a rabbit burrows, and these tunnel-like rooms were
clustered in a twisted labyrinth of a town-sized warren. It was as though they
were responding to a need to deeply burrow and hide in a maze for safety. In
contrast, the humble trulli seemed to reflect a greater confidence with their
fully-exposed and out-there positioning (though it may have been driven entirely
by necessity, not choice).
Farther south along the coast we encountered more homes made of loosely piled stone, though these were trapezoidal instead of circular and had flat roofs. No information was at hand to tell us their story. We were left to guess as to how, why, and how long ago they were built.
Inland again and just across the border into the Basilicata region, we moved back the technology clock tens of thousands of years, back to dwelling in caves. The jolt in Matera was that these caves were carved into the ravine faces from the 8th to 13th centuries as monastic dwellings and churches, like in Turkey--primitive technology in relatively modern times. They later evolved into the dwellings for the local population until the government initiated mass evictions in the 1950's. Not that caves all are that bad, especially if you have the easily carved volcanic tufa for your living rock.
|What Matera looks like today with familiar facades..||The look of Matera caves in the earlier days.|
If these "sassi" caves at Matera look vaguely
familiar to you, you likely saw Mel
Gibson's film The Passion of Christ. I can imagine that they made a
powerful backdrop for the story. But for all its uniqueness acknowledged by being a UNESCO
site and a film set, it was hard to experience the caves. The vast majority
of the cave homes are now fronted with ordinary looking buildings and almost all were closed to
the public. The glimpses of the 'pay to view' interiors looked like other
Mediterranean dwellings we'd seen.
For us, the story of the sassi was one we had to read about and accept that it was true, rather than having it be more palpable. We walked for hours over several days above and among the sassi and still felt outside the experience. The first look at them from the main panorama viewpoint on our first day was the most potent of our experiences of the community.
The small town of Irsina was a little gem and in its humble way, I suspect would represent the more typical Italian town construction in a study of late Homo sapiens stone dwellings. Not mentioned in our guide book and discounted as insignificant by the tourist info folks in Matera, we were there only to solve a lodging scarcity problem.
Our circuitous, hours-long approach to Irsina lead us through beautiful rolling hills of deep, deep soil. The odd convolutions in the hills, the play of the autumn light on the array of agricultural brown tones, and the few abandoned estates had us reveling at the varied sights under the warming sun. The steep climb from the valley floor to the town at the top of the plain at the end of the day was moderated by generous switch-backs, giving us more time to enjoy the panoramas.
The penetrating chill that precedes sunset by
about 2 hours in the late fall set-in just as we arrived at the edge of Irsina. We
quickly lightened our load at the 1 B&B that was open, bundled up, and headed
out on foot for groceries and to explore the village.
By chance, the stairway that lead us to the business district had us strolling in the new town where the elderly men in heavy coats and winter hats were clustered on the street corners for their lively evening chats. Presumably this was a traditional town, as women were scarcer than the stray cats. The lack of women instantly registered on my habitual "Is it safe?" surveillance system, though a second look of the affect of the men signaled the "All clear." On our way home after securing our groceries, we spotted signs to the "Centro Storico" or Old Town.
This old town was in the sweet middle ground in the array of traditional European urban construction: it was between the high-art facades of places like Lecce and Martina Franca and the intimidating but intriguingly tattered Taranto. And unlike Matera's old town that developed in caves along the faces of the ravines, this old town was, in my mind, properly placed by being on the top of the hill, out on a point.
Multi-storied, steep stone walls extended the sides of the ravine upwards to form the outside walls of a huge church and the peripheral buildings. The small town inside the walls was only a couple of blocks wide at its narrowest point, and seemingly flared out in response to the pressures of the inner city labyrinth.
The soft street lights gave the weathered old stonework walls
and pavers a warm,
enchanting glow despite the light drizzle that began following us. Two
ancient women sat just inside glass doors in an unlit room, chatting as they
hoped for customers for the 2 boxes of fresh-picked produce. Two other women
visited in the open door way of the butcher shop, one whose tinged apron linked
her with the store. Only a few others were out on the old town streets after the
sudden darkness fell, yet we were compelled to turn down another alley rather
than rush back to prepare out dinner.
Our visit to Irsina exemplified both the middle-ground of traditional European stone communities and the joy of touring in southern Italy: riding for hours in the countryside with little traffic; savoring the colors, the shapes, the views, and the unfamiliar; and then, at the end of the day, slipping back in time for a glimpse at another world, another era. No matter that we were a little chilled--that we should have our dinner eaten and laundry done--this was the hoped for but illusive magical moment in the streets of a traditional village.
At Last, The Greek Presence Was
Meandering out of the mountains from Matera and back to the eastern coast was like changing tour groups as the sightseeing theme shifted from the sometimes rough and crude dwellings of the previous millennium to the elegance of Greece 2700 years ago. "Magna Graecia" began unfolding before us.
The story of the Greeks that was muffled in Puglia because of multiple museum closures came at us with both barrels in Basilicata. Soon we were understanding how provocatively southern-most Italy projects into the northern waters of the Mediterranean Sea--temptingly close land that the early mariners didn't resist. Unlike the images I have of 15th century navigators that boldly sailed the vast open spaces of the many seas, the more ancient mariners cautiously hugged the coastlines, preferring to make their long voyages constantly within sight of land.
The dangling peninsula of Italy and the Sea's many little islands together provided miles of reassuring land to increase the safety of their journeys. Consequently, the history of southern Italy reads like the history of the seafarers of the Mediterranean, with Mycenaean and Phoenician traders and Greek colonists being the early players. And early merchants of the 13th century bce left evidence of their visits long before any attempted to compete for a permanent place on the land itself.
reintroduction to the history of the early Greek colonists, I must remind
myself that colonizing was their destiny. The Phoenicians traveled widely for
the sake of trade; the Roman's empire-building began not as expansionism but as
the result of unexpectedly successful defensive wars; but the Greeks roamed
because their homeland could not support the population. Like trees scattering
seeds to the wind, Greek cities scattered boat-loads of colonists into the
Mediterranean because of chronic overpopulation.
The Greeks began settling what became known as the Magna Graecia region of Italy's boot in the early 700's bce, with colonists initially coming from about a half dozen major regions in greater Greece. Intriguingly, Greek colonists from the far eastern end of the Mediterranean, on Anatolia in modern Turkey at Colophon, were in the early waves of immigrants. After hundreds of years on the Ionian coast of Anatolia, the overpowering force of the Lydian's drove them to the water again and they founded Siris at modern Policoro on the boot. There was no mention of them popping in for a visit in their homeland along the way, though the Greek colonist's typically maintained strong trading links with their motherland.
a half dozen museums of the Basilicata region on
the boot was a study in this Greek colonization of the region. The lock-step
repetition of the story at each museum hammered in the history and aided in our
mastery of a number of Italian words, such as those in the now familiar phrase:
"He/she was found buried on his/her back/side in a stone/earth grave in a
supine/huddled-up position with the following funerary items:...."
So far from Greece, it was surprising to see those decidedly Grecian vases among the grave goods. Yet that retold the story of what the colonists did: they kept the links with the homeland, both in tradition and in trade.
Also stunning among the burial finds were the many pounds of rock-sized amber used in the jewelry of the wealthier women, along with their elaborate bronze adornments. Recovered amber looks no more intriguing than gravel but with a little effort one's mind can give the finery the brilliance and glimmer seen behind a modern jewelry's window.
Over and over again the museums documented the burial practices of the indigenous people and how they were slowly displaced by those that the Greeks brought from the homeland. The indigenous populations buried their dead on their sides; the Greeks always used the supine (on the back) position--apparently the source for our culture's current rigid burial tradition. What we enjoyed the most at the exhibits however were the pre-Greek pots, the ones sporting free-flowing curves and dangling brushstrokes. We always imagine that in those pieces we are seeing the early, highly creative artists before there was "a right way" to decorate ceramics.
Our understanding of history was challenged by
reading of Hannibal traipsing through the boot on a destructive binge in the 3rd century bce
and learning that Magna Graecia was the home of the Greek mathematician, Pythagoras,
in the 6th century bce. In these museums, other points also became clear, like why the land south of
Taranto around the old Greek city of Metaponto was so distressing ugly--it was reclaimed swamp land let go by the Romans in 3rd ce until
the land projects of the 1950's
again reclaimed it. Slowly the stories of 3,000 years
unfolded, mostly through our ragged translation of Italian text.
Who would have thought, but the ancient history of southern Italy is the history of the Greeks, not the Romans. The Romans did show up and overpower the Greeks, but many of the well-established cities like Taranto and Metaponto became backwaters with the arrival of the Romans--some declining never to recover again. Bill guessed that other Roman cities and settlements already formed more important trade links, so there was little motivation to maintain these Grecian cities.
The only significant Roman site that appeared on our itinerary was "Grumentum" near the modern town of Grumento Nova on the western edge of Basilicata. The site was briefly occupied by the Greeks, though the local folks in the area had served as a link between the Etruscans in the north and the Greeks to the south for centuries. It was established early in the 3rd century bce by the Romans but the archeological site didn't offer anything new to us and the associated museum was short on finds to display. We however lamented the encroaching sunset that forced us to rush through what would have been a wonderful language exercise--a large poster board series describing Roman technologies. We did get a consolation prize from the staff however, which was a free copy of an Italian archeology magazine that would keep our museum vocabulary well exercised between exhibits.
Maratea -- The Other "M" Town
Our last stop in Basilicata wouldn't have qualified as a tour for the intellectually curious: there were no odd stone structures, no modern cave dwellings, nor any labyrinths of urban homes; and there were no significant Greek or Roman finds. Our stop in Maratea would be on the hedonist's tour, the "for the pleasure of it" package.
Our Lonely Planet guide book described Maratea as a gem, one that was being discovered by the chic Italian vacationers. And it was charming, even in off season. Here the steep, dramatic mountains came crashing down to the sea and the several village centers of the Maratea area carved out spots for themselves on the lower slopes. Dense, lush vegetation and 2 storied buildings hugged the hillsides. We couldn't find lodging right in town, so headed a few miles south to Marina di Maratea on a hunch of Bill's.
His reading between the lines of the tourist office brochures was right-on and we instantly extended our 1 night stay to 4 nights. The gloomy forecast made it compelling to layover and the hotel that had slashed its prices to about 1/3 of their high season rate was soooo lovely. The room was spotlessly clean, the tile floors and white furniture in the common area gleamed, and the generous use of glass panels on the deck fencing showed no signs of the salt air. Their high-end attitude about maintenance standards got both our attention and our money.
Our hosts assigned us to 1 of their oversized rooms with a fine covered balcony and a mesmerizing sea view. The only downside for us was being so far out of town that we were isolated from the village services. The grounds were lovely but we always enjoy being close-in so as to stroll the village streets and have easy access to a grocery store. Instead, we had a challenging ride into to town to shop for food. But the midweek holiday had meant that we'd arrived with extra provisions, so the 1 additional market run to support our stay wasn't a deterrent. We'll definitely drop-in for an extended stay if we are in the area again--in off season.
And after a few days in the next region, Calabria, we were doubly pleased to have lingered so long at Maratea: what a shame it would have been to have rushed past that pleasing ambiance to the repelling strip-city scene that awaited us.
Southern Italy So Far
With our extended stay at Maratea, we were closing our visit to the first 2 of the 3 mainland provinces of southern-most Italy and we were quite pleased with the overall experience, though there had been unwelcome surprises. Off-season lodging shortages abruptly curtailed Map Man's planned tour along the instep of the boot of Italy after Metaponto, south of Taranto, driving us inland over the low mountains. Luckily, we were in the lower hills of Potenza when the snow was falling on the higher roads we'd ride a few days later. And Bill had us doing odd loops both to pick-up essential historical sites and to solve lodging problems in the interior. There was just barely enough off-season lodging to support us as low-mileage cyclotourists, but Bill was able to piece together a plan and we enjoyed the resulting circuitous route immensely.
We were also surprised at how enjoyable the riding
itself was. We
had expected the dry, parched land of southern Spain, Croatia, and Greece.
Instead, we were treated to a constantly shifting scenery that had enough
vegetation to satisfy our visual foliage requirements--a need that is seemingly
a byproduct of growing up in a very green region of the world. And there were enough
low-traffic roads for Map Man to connect the dots of our itinerary with a
minimum of white-knuckle riding.
Reading that Mussolini targeted high agricultural production in these southern provinces in his post-WWI self-sufficiency program, "The Battle for Wheat," had us going "Uh-hum, uh-hum" as the miles and miles of land dedicated to grains and groves is still evident. Apparently even today 80% of Europe's pasta is produced in the Puglia region and together Puglia and the next province on our tour, Calabria, produce 80% of the country's olive oil. Farming can make for delightful color and texture changes on convoluted terrain and it was indeed an enchanting study in shades of brown and soft greens in the fall light.
We were surprised at the economic prosperity in the south as we had thought it was a real backwater. We'd braced ourselves for signs of blatant poverty and saw none. Our satisfaction as consumers did diminish some as we got farther south, but it wasn't severe and we've certainly experienced worse. Apparently the economic development projects of the 1950's, the influx of EU infrastructure funds, and the discovery in 1996 of Western Europe's largest oil field near Potenza in central Basilicata have all given this historically most desperate region of Italy a welcome boost. That boost was certainly well anchored by the time we showed up.
Little of our southern Italy sightseeing was A-List material, but it is an area we'd happily cycle again. It was a good late-fall venue for us, being far south enough to have a chance at good weather and having generally pleasant riding conditions and enough sightseeing destinations to keep us interested.
Where Are We Again?
There are compelling similarities in the general Mediterranean look of southern Spain, southern Italy, and Greece that forced me to periodically remind myself as to where we were when first riding in southern Italy this year. The parched dry look, even with standing water after recent rains, is as stereotypic a look in these areas as is the garbage on the roadsides and the beautiful seas on a sunny day. The boxy, white houses in southern Italy looked more like those in Greece than elsewhere in Italy, adding to the blurring of the regional identity in my mind.
The stray dogs were
reminiscent of both Greece and other parts of Italy, though here they were the more were contented looking urban
dogs instead of the scared, barky rural dogs. (Most of the urban strays we saw looked
fed and slept deeply on doorsteps of banks and other commercial buildings.) And
here too as in other Mediterranean areas, there was
that nasty habit of filling whole valleys with smoky backyard burning where no
attempt seems to be made to minimize the impact, such as waiting for the fresh
cut greens to dry a bit.
But the "Where are we?" confusion in southern Italy didn't last long. Even before leaving the first region, Puglia, we were riding through consistently greener land with low forests. Apparently parts of southern Italy get hit with the first wave of the Mediterranean storms, which drop a lot of water in some places. The other southern Mediterranean qualities that reminded us of other countries, like the smoky burning, the litter, and the stray cats and dogs, did however persist.
Encounters With The People In Southern Italy
Generally, we found the folks in southern Italy to be easier to interact with than the central Italians. They, for the most part, had the "get it done" approach that we prefer, rather than the more involved dance that inserts a lot of "No's" before the "Yes's" appear. Elsewhere in Italy, it sometimes seemed that clerks were obstructionists just out of habit or as some petty power trip, but that wasn't the case in the far south.
In a central city hotel in Taranto, the 2 clerks and bellman received us well with our bikes, inviting us to roll them in the front door and through the grand lobby, panniers and all. We unloaded at the desk and Bill and the bellman carried the bikes downstairs. Each of the 3 staff members separately explained to us that we must take the bikes out the back way in the morning. Bill finally understood from the Italian-only speaking bellman that it was the problem with the Director. They were happy to involve us in the collusion needed to have us be guests while avoiding the Director in the morning with our apparently unwelcome bikes.
At a supermarket on the outskirts of Taranto, I was pleasantly surprised that the staff let customers in the door past the time for the mid-day closing. Much of the crew was busy restocking shelves, but the latecomers were happy to be there at all. Usually the routine is to have everyone out the door at closing time, but the more relaxed and seemingly pragmatic approach here was a treat.
But the southerners did have their pesky side. Why in the world the hotel owners at Matera quibbled so over a roll of toilet paper was hard to imagine. At European campgrounds and Croatian apartments we expect to provide our own, but it was always abundantly included at our 2 and 3 star Italian hotels. A nearby market was selling 10 rolls of TP for just over $2, so it wasn't the money that was the issue. Oh my, and the owner flipped when I asked for a replacement light bulb on top of the TP. And when we departed, the owner lacked the 2€ in change we were due, so he told Bill he was charging us 2€ for stashing the bikes in the unused back room. Bill shrugged it off--apparently the wrong thing to do with this guy--as the man came back a few minutes later demanding another 5€ for the bikes. He did however back down when Bill protested. And then there was the bakery where we started out in the middle of the line and yet were the last ones served.
I began to dread that more "personal" service from the brusque fruit
vendors at the "Don't touch the fruit" places where visitors seem to get more
than their share of rotten produce. Ah, those experiences made me long for the
regions which have big anonymous supermarkets, places I can avoid the sometimes
unpleasant interpersonal experiences and pay the same price as everyone else for
the quality I expect and the quantity I asked for.
Best Not To Be Coin-less
Our previous "tourist training" served us well in southern Italy. As regular grocery-buying travelers, we learned early to hoard small bills and change. Coming up with close to exact change is appreciated most places, but not doing so in Italy can practically cost you your first born.
In Rome early this year, a careless local shopper was publicly punished for needing too much change. It became clear that the clerk had the change, she just wouldn't give it to the customer. The customer had to wait until 3 or 4 of us in the line at the big market were served. Then after much fuss and deriding that was unmistakable even without translation, the clerk coughed up the change and the exasperated customer could leave the store. It looked like the modern version of the pillory.
So, when in Italy, if Bill and I split up to shop separately, we always split the change between us. Better to offer up a meager amount than shop without any coins at all. Bill understands the issue and helps me hoard 5€ and 10€ bills so I'll have some for each shop that day, as we may have to visit a bakery, a fruit stand, and a neighborhood market for our day's provisions.
We'd come to expect this coinage ritual when buying food but were surprised when it repeatedly arose at the national museums in southern Italy, where our combined entrance fee was usually a modest 5€. Both times that Bill presented a 10€ bill, it was an insurmountable problem. It was beyond us that they couldn't make that kind of change at a ticket window--a request that would be allowed even at a grocery store since it didn't involve coins. At one museum, I don't think they would have let us in if we hadn't been able to come up with the exact change by shaking down our pockets. At the other, it took 10-15 minutes for them to produce our change. It sounded like from the happy noises that the next visitors got in for free, presumably because they too lacked the proper funds.
In addition to the change and coins issue, our other "You've got to be kidding," recurrent episode in southern Italy was a little game the staff at several city tourist info offices played. Once we understood it, it was easy to spot: the staff person comes it, leaves a book open on the desk like someone has just stepped away, and then leaves--for hours. The outer of the 2 sets of doors is unlocked and a light is on, but there is no one there.
We went to 1 office at 11:30--no one was there. We waited a few minutes, banged on the glass, and still no response. I when back and waited from 12:15 to 12:30, and there was no one in sight. I left a note requesting them to leave a map at our hotel a block away. Then Bill went back just when it was time to lock-up at 1:30 and suddenly the staffer was there. Very annoying.
The tourist info office hours in Italy are challenging at best, often being entirely closed on weekends and for hours in the afternoon when we are looking for lodging. The worst we saw was an office that was only open 2 hours, 1 day a week. To then have this extra little game of 'hide and seek' added to the unaccommodating hours was too, too difficult.
"Do It the European Way"
We learned in our first days in Europe in 2001, even before we began pedaling, that the European approach to problem solving is different than our approach. We were both brought up to solve problems ourselves. Utilizing resources like the Yellow Pages, books, and your own ingenuity is the habitual way to solve problems for us. But Europeans rely less on anonymous resources and more on asking others for help.
We constantly run into that stylistic difference, though more
often in some countries than in others. Our first days in Frankfurt in 2001 we
needed to buy a cycling computer as mine was damaged in transit. We asked our
hostess for the Yellow Pages, but it was futile--they are a newer novelty rather
than a well-developed resource in Europe. We needed to ask the locals for the
nearest bike shop.
But we still tear our hair despite our best efforts to "do it the Euro way" by asking. In Frankfurt, none of the bike shops knew what brands their competitors carried, so we never did find the brand we needed to simplify the repair.
Recently in southern Italy, we were told by tourist info to take the city bus #15 that ran every 30 minutes to our destination. At the bus station there was no schedule, so we didn't know how often the bus really ran. After nearly an hour's wait, we learned it was bus #7 we needed, but there had been little posted information to help us figure that out. It took asking a series of bus drivers to get it right. That situation gets to the core of our problem with the "Euro approach" which is: when we ask, we often get wrong information.
A few nights after the intra-city bus glitch in southern Italy, we were out on an unlit truck route looking for our hotel too long after dark. We'd waited an hour, until 5 pm for the grocery store to open before heading for the hotel. There were no posted hours and two different people told us it would open at 5 pm. When it didn't open at 5, 2 more people told us 5:30 was the opening time. By then, it was almost dark. We headed out for our hotel, having been told by the host on the phone in the morning that the hotel was 3 km or about 2 miles from the center of town. Once in the center, the hotel advertisement signs indicated it was 5 km away. We rode uphill in increasing darkness and found no sign of the hotel.
Bill tried calling on his cell phone from the shoulder of the road, but there was a glitch and the call wasn't going through properly. We rode some more until it was pitch black and tried calling again. Desperate, Bill called a hotel we passed earlier in the town with the grocery store. He'd called them in the morning too and had been told they had a room. But minutes later when he had asked our current hotel clerk to speak with them for better directions, we were told they were booked. Standing on the roadside in the dark, he was once again told they had a room available.
Now in a mild state of panic and with few options, we ever so carefully descended the steep road in the dark, making our way back to the hotel on the edge of town. At the desk, Bill was told the hotel was full.
More than a little frustrated, Bill managed to enlist the help of an English-speaking Italian behind him in line and what do you know, they had a room available. And apparently lots of them as they asked if he wanted 2 beds or 1 and assigned us a room on the second floor, then switched us to the third.
Sometimes asking for help instead of finding it or figuring it out yourself is the only way to solve a problem, but it would sure help if the accuracy of the information received was better than 50-50 odds.
A Trivia Question:
A question for those of you who are better read than we are: Is the expression "a parting shot" a corruption of "a Parthian shot" which refers to the capacity of Parthian cavalry to swivel in their saddles and take 1 more shot with their bows as they rode off? That was the implication from our DVD on the history of Mesopotamia, but those DVD professors don't answer questions. Our other electronic resources came up short in answering that question so we'd love to hear from you if you know.
Where We Are Now: December 4, 2007
We are in Frankfurt, Germany, poised to fly back to Portland on December 5th. We flew from Sicily to Dusseldorf on the first, then took a train to Frankfurt. Leaving the sun and 70° temperatures in Sicily for the wind, rain, and highs in the 40's was harsh, though the online forecast had prepared us for the weather shift. What caught us off guard was the significantly shorter day length associated with the move north.
The civility of being back in Germany is always a joy, with people-friendly infrastructure like broad pedestrian, running, and cycling tracks adjacent to the river saying much about the culture. And we always welcome the ease of being consumers in Germany, whether shopping for food or transportation services. Italy is more interesting, more intriguing; Germany is an easier place to be but quickly shifting from 1 country to the other reminded us that we deeply enjoy both.