Part I – Matera 1979
by D. Hirsch
Fourteen years before it became a UNESCO World Heritage site, I visited Matera, deep in the heart of southern Italy. This was back in 1979 and I had just finished college. A friend and I packed our bags and headed to Italy, first to see all the famous sights in the north and then on to Sicily. Along the way we would stop in Matera, the town where my grandfather was born. Because he rarely spoke of it, for me it was a place shrouded in mystery.
We took the first train to Bari in the early morning. We watched in silence as we passed by vineyards and pastures of grazing cows. From Bari we took a local train to Matera and chose one of the two hotels we saw off the main square. Tired of sitting on trains for so long and with only a day to spend, we left our bags in our room and headed out to explore.
In a few short moments, we were on a main street overlooking the ancient part of the town. We stopped in our tracks. The view was absolutely stunning. Even though we had seen some old buildings in the north, nothing compared to this. The homes of the Sassi (meaning Stones) were carved into the tufo hillside. They were built one over the other so that the sidewalk outside one level was the rooftop of the one below. Many had the flat façades of typical houses, but the insides were rough-hewn caves. It looked terribly poor, yet at the same time it had a poignant beauty. In the distance stood the Duomo with its campanile rising high above the dwellings.
The Sassi consists of the Sasso Caveoso and the Sasso Barisano, which originated from prehistoric settlements. In between is the Civita, which dates back to medieval times. Practically a ghost town, the Sassi had been virtually abandoned. I later learned that the book, Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi, had exposed the poverty in Matera and spurred the government into relocating the inhabitants out of the Sassi in the 1950’s. The cave homes, which lacked even the basic amenities like plumbing and electricity, were often overcrowded and diseases like malaria spread like wildfire. Most people moved into the new apartments, but some people stayed, determined to live out their lives in the homes of their ancestors. Across the ravine were caves dating back to the Paleolithic era. I walked the same streets my grandfather walked and saw places where he must have played as a child. I saw the poverty that the people faced, and while I understood why he and so many others left, I also saw why he choked up with emotion at the mention of his hometown. I imagined life in an inhabited Sassi and I felt the spirits of my ancestors all around me.
My friend and I knew nothing about Matera, and we wandered the maze of streets and steps in the hot August sun. We seemed to be the only people in the entire town. It hadn’t occurred to us that it was the middle of the day and the afternoon respite was being religiously observed. The streets were empty except for a few enterprising young boys who offered to tell us a bit about the town. We understood very little Italian and none of the dialect, but we wanted to show our appreciation. Unfortunately, we had used up all our Italian coins before we arrived in Matera and had only large bills. The coins we gave them were American and I can’t forget their confused and disappointed faces when they looked down at this strange money in their hands. Occasionally I think about those young boys, now grown men, and wonder if they remember when the two oblivious tourists gave them some useless coins.
While walking around the Sassi, we came across tomatoes drying on a rack in the sun. This was years before sun-dried tomatoes became popular in the States, so we were very curious about them—it even took us a few moments to figure out what they were. An old woman came out of her house, surely suspicious of the strangers hovering around her trays of tomatoes. My language skills pitiful, I could only smile and say, “Buon giorno”. Further along, we spotted a man carrying what looked like a basin of cement up a long flight of stairs, perhaps to patch up holes and cracks that a cave home must inevitably develop. A few chickens pecked around in the cool shade of a doorway. Unknown to us, the rupestrian churches, with their wall paintings done by monks long ago, were on the other side of the ravine but we never saw them. Not far from the main square in the more modern section, I was delighted to find a pastry shop with the same surname as my grandfather’s proudly displayed. Not a common name, surely we were related, I thought. How I wanted to go in there and ask if they remembered my grandfather. But not speaking the language and certain that they spoke no English, I just discretely snapped a photo of a man standing outside. I dared not approach him and engage him in conversation. Being a timid, young traveler and not speaking the language had very much limited my first experience of Matera. All those missed opportunities continue to haunt me to this day.
After walking around all day taking photographs, my friend and I went back to the hotel to wash up for dinner. We stepped outside the hotel, the cool evening air a welcome change from the searing afternoon heat. We turned onto the piazza and what a sight we beheld! The streets that were so deserted during the day were now teeming with townspeople. Everyone in the town must have been there. It had the air of a festival and the contrast from daytime was so stark and surreal, we thought we had stumbled into a Fellini movie. Later on, I learned that the evening passeggiata was an age-old Italian custom. But for me, it made Matera a magical place. That day in Matera is something I will never forget. Sadly, the next day it was time to move on, but I knew that someday I would return.