Paul's Travel Pics

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Renting a Cave House in Matera

Day 21 of 23 on our journey down Italy’s Adriatic Coast, and it all culminated in this highly anticipated climax at one of the world’s most ancient cities.

It is a commune of prehistoric cave dwellings continuously inhabited for tens of thousands of years, desolate and forbidding to outsiders only a generation ago, now slowly rediscovered by independent travelers as one of Southern Italy’s many hidden gems.

The very last of 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites on our 1000 km journey, mysterious Matera made a fitting finale as we traveled from the Austrian border to the heel of Italy. Despite lacking the international prominence of glorious Venice, one could argue that it is equally inimitable in its own down-to-earth way.

From the surface -- and I mean in a literal sense, arriving at the beautifully crumbling town situated above the caves -- Matera seemed prototypical of this traditionally impoverished region of Southeastern Italy, dotted with dilapidated church facades and the occasional broken and bolted window of vacant homes.

A few steps towards the cliff and it revealed easily the most primitive city we had ever witnessed, a claustrophobic cluster of caverns burrowed into calcareous rocks along the edge of a steep ravine, partially disguised as something less prehistoric by concealing the caves with square entrances.

For years various filmmakers have casted this stunningly archaic townscape as exotic locales from 1st Century Jerusalem to King Arthur’s Camelot, which speaks to Matera’s uniqueness as possibly the most convincingly ancient city, at least in the Western world.

As spectacular as Matera would appear to any first time visitor, attracting the average foreign tourist remains challenging for this distant region of Basilicata, situated roughly at the ankle of the Italian boot, far away from the convenience of the Milan-Rome-Naples corridor of highways and high speed rail lines.

As of 2016 Matera remains cut off from the national rail network, turning away most would-be visitors who perhaps don’t realize the convenience of a narrow guage private rail which connects the town to the regional transportation hub of Bari.

Coming from our previous stop of Ostuni we took the national rail to Bari Centrale, then transferred to a surprisingly brand new, state-of-the-art commuter train on the privately operated Ferrovie Appulo Lucane and arrived at Matera’s underground train station in the early afternoon.

For independent travelers like us, Matera’s geographical isolation could just be its greatest asset in restricting the number of day-tripping tourists. While we did encounter the occasional multinational tour group upon our afternoon arrival, the first evening stroll was an absolutely magical experience of time traveling back 2000 years.

And that’s exactly why we rented a cave house at the heart of the Sassi, two neighborhoods carved out of stones in local terms, to fully immerse into this hauntingly ancient town and enjoy those early morning and evening walks with barely anyone else sharing those millennium-old cobblestone paths.

With dozens of old grottos now converted into anything from private rooms to extravagant designer hotels, booking a well-equipped cave house in Matera turned out relatively easy and cheap enough even for our modest accommodation budget.

Our main problem was in locating our apartment amongst the labyrinth of alleyways zigzagging down the steep terrain, all without calling the landlord (our Tre Italia SIM Card was data only)! After passing by our eventual apartment several times without finding the address, we finally resorted to an antiquated payphone.

Within 10 minutes our friendly landlord arrived, two umbrellas in hand to save us from the drizzly weather, and guided us through the bewildering maze to what would turn out to be the most spacious apartment of our 23-day trip.

Our grotto was actually the bottom level of a multi-storey cavern, a prehistoric palazzo so to speak, with the upper level occupied by the landlord. Just this level alone featured a ginormous 100 square meters of indoor living space, not to mention a crude outdoor patio.

Burrowed at an angle at the far end of the cave was essentially a master bedroom, though with no walls to separate itself from the rest of the house. The only two doors in the entire apartment belonged to the front entrance and the bathroom.

On the west side the cavern opens up into a split level design, with the bottom level serving as a small single room and the top level featuring a large walk-in closet.

Most essential during our stay was this functional kitchen equipped with a new induction stovetop and oven, a refrigerator and all the necessary pots and utensils. To our surprise there was even a small washing machine which we never tried out.

These were two very memorable nights in one of the most unique -- and quite possibly the oldest -- houses we’ve ever rented. And the lack of a TV (apparently the signal reception was very poor at the bottom of the Sassi) obliged us to immerse into this extraordinary hole-in-the-wall and enjoy our stint as modern troglodytes.

While our cave house was located near the bottom of Sasso Barisano, it was only a 3 minute hike up to Piazza del Sedile for groceries and possibly restaurants that we would have loved to try if we didn’t come down with stomach pains and slight fevers during our stay.

Perhaps it was too much pomodorini for breakfast or maybe the large amount of Fico d’India seeds that we ingested the night before, but our stomachs restricted us to only the lightest meals until our final lunch in town. That said, we did manage to get a taste of the two main local specialties:

Orecchiette con Cime di Rapa was one of my favorite memories of the Italian South, so much so that I’ve since learned the recipe from an Italian co-worker, who in turned inherited the recipe from his mother. There’s no magic to it -- just the perfect balance of slight bitterness from the Cime di Rapa, the savory essence of anchovies and most important of all, heaps and heaps of fresh garlic. This dish was an eye-opening experience that would likely serve me well for the rest of my life.

What sustained us during our two days of sickness was arguably Matera’s greatest contribution to the Italian food scene -- the famous Pane di Matera with its signature crunchy crust, pillowy soft interior and intense aroma of durum wheat. Needless to say it was among the best bread I’ve ever tasted, even with my reduced appetite and numbed tastebuds.

We bought our bread from the busiest Panificio I encountered anywhere in Italy -- by 08:30 I was already fighting with 20 or so housewives and grannies inside the tiny shop for a fresh loaf! For any reader planning on visiting Matera, definitely drop by Martino Casa di Pane (on the south side of Piazza Vittorio Veneto) and give your tastebuds a treat, as early in the morning as possible before the best selection is gone.

Despite our sickness we did manage some easy sightseeing inside this fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Site, starting off with the neighborhood of Sasso Barisano where we stayed.

The star attraction of the Sassi was its amazing collection of medieval rock hewn churches such as the 12th Century San Pietro Barisano, a massive subterranean hall that served as the heart and soul of the neighborhood until the 1950s.

Most of the churches originated from natural caves inhabited since stone age, expanded through centuries of digging into the soft rocks and some even became cavernous enough to feature multi-level catacombs that doubled as the town’s cemetery.

On the opposite side of Piazza del Sedile, narrow steps passed below the medieval arches to the other Sasso district known as Caveoso, an even more primitive-looking neighborhood of dense cave dwellings and rupestrian churches.

Across the ravine from Sasso Caveoso was a series of prehistoric caves once occupied by the first humans who settled in the area, some 9,000 years ago when Sassi Barisano and Caveoso were founded in the same way, before millennia of continuous inhabitation and adaptation developed them into this unmistakeably ancient and yet contemporary city.

This could just be Southern Italy’s greatest comeback story, transforming some of country’s poorest slums into a fashionable, internationally facing city of boutique cave hotels and restaurants. As the city readies itself to become the 2019 European Capital of Culture, one has to believe that the best is yet to come.

In the meantime, independent travelers like ourselves will keep enjoying Matera’s relatively anonymity for now while it flies under the radar from most organized tours. The only queues I ever encountered over three days were at the panificio and the supermercato, waiting behind the local housewives.

On our last day our landlord drove us to the train station in his little old Fiat, after which our flight out of the BRI airport was a mere 2 hours away by train. Access to this world class scenery wasn’t as inconvenient and time-consuming as most people think.

On our flight home I browsed through these photos and considered how Matera would rank among all the destinations we visited over 23 days. It’s certainly among my favorites along with beautiful Lecce, which tells you how much I loved this final week in Southern Italy. Our stomach pains did cease prior to arriving home, leaving us no excuse from settling into our 9-to-5 routine again, for another year before our next overseas trip.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Whitewashed Citadel of Ostuni

For one day we felt like we took a break from Italy and teleported onto a remote Greek island, some 800 km away in the southern Aegean.

Whitewashed architecture, throngs of English-speaking tourists, the aroma of grilled octopus in the air -- this could easily have been Paros or perhaps Mykonos, only without the heavy bass of electronic club music in the background.

With a lazy spare day between magnificent Lecce and ancient city of Matera, we stopped for one night at evidently one of Southern Italy’s prettiest towns, la Citta Bianca -- the White City -- of Ostuni.

Located halfway between Lecce and Bari and blessed with a small station on the national rail network, Ostuni makes a logical stop-over for independent travelers like ourselves who wish to experience small town Puglia without a rental car.

Visitors stepping off the local train would be presented with a fitting first impression of Ostuni -- an imposing hill town of medieval residences perched on a knoll, overlooking the haphazard olive groves and the blue Adriatic in the distance. But it is too far to walk, and the community bus is not always timed to the arrival of the hourly train from Lecce.

The 20-seater community bus drops off at the Baroque square of Piazza della Liberta, graced with an elaborate plague column that has become the town’s main traffic roundabout.

This is also where 18th Century Italianate architecture ends and the famously medieval commune starts, just a few steps in the uphill direction.

Despite its origin as an ancient Greek outpost and architectural resemblance to the Aegean islands, Ostuni owes its lime washed houses to the Normans who built this coarsely circular fortress of heavy defensive walls, curvy narrow alleys and archaic rowhouses that seem to be amalgamated on top of one another.

Gracing the highest point is an impressive Gothic cathedral from the 1400’s, fit for a town many times this size and delighting every visitor with an intricately carved rose window.

While tourist number are already soaring during the summer, they could really skyrocket if the town’s application for UNESCO World Heritage status (as part of the Barocco Leccese bid) becomes accepted.

For a quick bite we went with the local favorite fast food, a massive panino crammed with chunks of chewy octopus tentacles and a generous wedge of Caciocavallo cheese, washed down with a Peroni Chill at the sandwich shop of Sapori d'Eccellenza. Adding a simple dish of orecchiette and a dessert of frozen almond creme from nearby Caffe Fanelli, and our cheap lunch came to 16 euros for two.

Bill for Two Persons
Panino con Polpo e Caciocavallo5.5 euros
Peroni Chill2 euros
Orecchiette al Pomodoro6 euros
Crema Fredda alle Mandorle2.5 euros
TOTAL16 euros (CAD$22.4)

While we could have rented a scooter and lazed away our afternoon on the alluring beaches along the Adriatic coastline below, we found it much more interesting to navigate the labyrinth of entwined passageways that swirled around the hill and weaved past (and sometimes right underneath) the local residences.

Our preference should not surprise the thousands of Brits and Germans who routinely migrate to this far southern corner of Europe every summer, driving up prices of vacation properties in the Pugliese countryside and inflating the town’s population by three fold. There is just something inexplicably tempting about the sunshine and slow life at the heel of Italy.

Interestingly this small town seems to boast possibly the highest concentration of real estate agents -- all featuring advertisements in English -- anywhere we’ve traveled with the notable exception of property-crazy Hong Kong. While I had heard of the nickname of Salento-shire prior to arrival, it was still shocking to hear London accents everywhere in the historic quarter.

For one night we joined the armies of seasonal migrants, settling into one of these eccentrically shaped peasant dwellings dating from the Middle Ages, just a few steps up from the ramparts in one of the oldest neighbourhoods in town.

We rented our suite from a local operation called I Sette Archi, aptly named for the series of medieval arches in the proximity of its rental apartments. In fact the entrance to our suite (No. 93 on this winding alley) was conveniently located underneath one of these arches.

While the suite wasn’t overly spacious (especially compared with our apartment in Lecce the previous night), it was cosy and functional with a simple stovetop, coffee maker and bar fridge for keeping our breakfast Prosciutto and yogurt fresh.

Then there were the quirkier elements deriving from the house’s medieval origin: a bathroom and shower stall in the form of a dark grotto, and a loft underneath the vaulted ceiling that would easily turn this into a home for four. For its rock bottom rental price there was no air conditioning, but it wasn’t necessary with the old-fashioned insulation provided by the 2-feet thick stone walls.

A major advantage of an apartment in town was the luxury of an afternoon Riposo in the Italian custom, great for recharging our legs for that unmissible evening stroll when staying in such a charming historic neighborhood.

This was by far our favorite time of the day with the majority of visitors gone and the warm tavern lights reflecting off the town’s cobblestone streets, polished by seven centuries of foot traffic.

For dinner we originally had in mind a couple of restaurants inside the historic quarter, but decided to head for the regular blue collar neighborhoods in hope of finding something not entirely catered to tourists.

Corso Garibaldi 1; on the east side of Parco Rimembranze

And I’m not sure if we succeeded. As much as we intended to stumble upon a hole-in-the-wall Trattoria for some Burrata and Orecchiette, we were quickly sidetracked when passing by this seemingly authentic Pescheria with no English menu. Pescheria Delfino’s fish counter was connected to two separate dining areas: one with a fancy ristorante-type setting, and one with an outdoor patio with plastic chairs. Seeing that there were no customers on the ristorante side, we took the hint and sat next to a table of Italians on the patio.

For antipasto we started with a dish of Carpaccio di Tonno, paper thin slices of red Mediterranean tuna steaks so heavily marinated with lemon juice that the acidity simply overpowered the sweetness one would expect from the raw tuna.

Infinitely better was our primo of the ubiquitous Tagliolini alle Vongole, served here with local Salentine clams of the freshest and most savory quality.

With the fish counter merely 10 steps away I went inside again to pick our secondi, the first of which came in the form of some scrumptious deep fried baby octopi, shrimp and white bait.

With everything else being quite reasonably priced, we decided to splurge on one of the most expensive dishes of our Italy trip -- nearly a full kilogram of grilled Scampi, a regional favorite here on Italy’s Adriatic coast. There must have been a dozen(!) or so large Scampi to be shared between the two of us, and while the meat wasn’t as briny and flavorsome as I had hoped, it was strangely gratifying sitting in an Italian version of the Japanese Izakaya or Hongkonger Dai Pai Dong, sucking shells after shells of Scampi meat and washing down with the local beer.

So much for our original wish for a blue collar Trattoria -- one antipasto, one primo, two secondi, a contorno, some drinks and we end up with the most expensive dinner bill of our 23-day trip. I can’t say it’s overpriced though, especially for that ginormous platter of Scampi that shall always rank among our favorite memories of Ostuni.

Bill for Two Persons
Carpaccio di Tonno12 euros
Tagliolini alle Vongole10 euros
Pesce Misti6 euros
Scampi ~0.8 kilo17 euros
Verdure Grigliate3 euros
Beer3 euros
Coperto x 2FREE
TOTAL51 euros (CAD$71.4)


Fico d’India was the most unforgettable Italian term I learned on this trip.

After our dinner at Pescheria Delfino we went for dessert at Cremeria Borgo Antico, just off the side of the Duomo at the hilltop of the walled town. That was when I spotted a new flavor with no name labels, only represented by a peeled, orangy-pink fruit sitting on the gelato. “What is this called?” I asked, and the store clerk replied with a small sample for our tasting, “Fico d’India” (which I thought was “Figolindia”).

Curiosity overtook me and I ordered a cone of this mystery fruit, which was mildly sweet like watermelon but quite distinct from anything either of us had ever tasted. While the store clerk tried his hardest to explain the fruit to me, he spoke little English and I spoke next to no Italian. At the end asked me to follow him to a dark alley behind his shop ...

... and pointed to a small cactus tree. Ah! This brought back memories of the one time I had tiny cactus spines stuck on my tender lips when I came up with the worst method to peel the fruit after mom brought it home. This time the generous store clerk gave us this peeled prickly pear as a present, and taught us to peel the skin only after immersing it in hot water to soften the spines.

That’s the friendliness of the Pugliese people, and a memorable parting gift before our departure to neighboring Basilicata the next morning.