Southern Italy's Matera will rock your world

Matera has been settled since palaeolithic times. Early residents lived in rough caves. Later...

Matera has been settled since palaeolithic times. Early residents lived in rough caves. Later residents carved cave houses and churches out of the rock. ROBIN ROBINSON/QMI Agency

Robin Robinson, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:39 PM ET

There aren't that many secret corners left around Europe, but veering off the beaten path can still be surprisingly easy in southern Italy.

Recently I explored two unique and charming areas that aren't exactly "undiscovered" but could be categorized as "under-discovered" by Canadians.

CHANNEL YOUR INNER TROGLODYTE

Long before I'd ever heard the word troglodyte, I entertained fantasies of living in a cave.

Later, in grade school, I learned people in many parts of the world once lived in caves. But decades after, my adult self occasionally ponders what inspired those childhood dreams.

Echoes of a past lives? Something I heard in Social Studies? Too many Flintstones reruns?

The answer is still open to interpretation, but a visit to Matera last year rekindled those whimsical imaginings.

While relatively unknown to Canadians, Matera -- called "la Citta Sotterranea" in Italian, or the Subterranean City -- is world famous for its historical centre called "Sassi" or "the stones."

The Sassi is a vast honeycomb of cave dwellings that dates back to ancient times.

Located in southern Italy's Basilicata region, this part of Matera is believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on the planet, our guide Dora told our small group during a tour.

Looking more like the Holy Land than Italy, Matera has been used as a shooting location for many films such as Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. A new Lionsgate film -- Mary, Mother of Christ, described as a Passion prequel -- is due to start shooting there soon.

In 1993, the Sassi were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site as "the most outstanding example of troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean," Dora said.

Two main areas of cave dwellings -- Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano -- meander across both sides of a little canyon below what is now the main town higher up the hill.

The oldest dwellings are primitive natural caves or small rooms hollowed out of the soft calcarenite rock (called tufo by locals) by hand. While still rough hewn, later cave houses have more refined exteriors, more rooms and sometimes stone additions.

The little houses are stacked higgledy-piggledy one atop the other, and linked by a chaotic web of narrow stone streets, small courtyards and stone stairways.

Dora warns us to be careful as we traverse the wide steps to visit a restored cave house and Santa Lucia Alle Malve, one of dozens of cave churches decorated with ancient, crumbling frescoes.

Over time the steps have become as smooth as marble and are treacherously slick in the morning mist.

Not surprisingly, during the past 300 years the cave homes were occupied by poor folk -- mainly peasant farmers with no land of their own but many children to provide for.

At a little museum called the Cave Dwelling of Vico Solitario, I see firsthand that living in a cave is somewhat less idyllic than my 8-year-old self had imaged.

Up until the 1950s, impoverished families subsisted in damp dim airless, and often mouldy, cavern homes with no heat, no electricity, no running water and no sanitation systems, Dora said. An entire family and their animals -- usually a horse or mule, a pig and several chickens -- often slept, cooked and ate in the same room.

After the Second World War, some 15,000 people were living in squalor in Matera's cave houses, Dora said. Diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, cholera, typhoid, were rampant. The average life expectancy was 35 years, and the infant mortality rate was about 50%

An estimated 90% of people living in the Sassi were illiterate. Most children did not attend school.

But post war Europe was rapidly modernizing, and the Sassi became the "shame of Italy" until the government decided to do something about the "wretched" living conditions, Dora said. A massive evacuation plan saw residents relocated in 1952 to modern housing developments.

Many didn't want to leave their community. But Barisano and Caveoso were emptied and sealed up, and stayed that way until the 1970s, when hippies and artists started moving back in.

Today, many cave dwellings have been converted to shops, restaurants serving delicious local cuisine, such as Baccanti Ristorante, and boutique hotels such as Sant'Angelo Luxury Resort, which occupies 21 historic dwellings. These have been carefully restored to include atmospheric and comfortable guest rooms with sleek bathrooms, a restaurant, two bars, terraces, an art gallery -- even free Wi-Fi.

And after all these years, an overnight stay at Sant'Angelo reconnects me with my inner troglodyte.

GNOME HOMES

About 70 km from Matera in the region of Puglia, Alberobello is home to an extensive settlement of trulli -- about 1,500 limestone huts built without mortar and topped by conical roofs made of stone slabs.

These whimsical little white homes look as if they might have been designed for Italian elves but in fact, most were occupied by farm labourers and shopkeepers.

A popular theory suggests farm workers were made to build the drystone houses so they could be collapsed quickly when the taxman called, allowing rich landowners to avoid paying taxes.

But historians believe the prehistoric building techniques were so well suited to their environment that they were passed down from generation to generation.

Trulli are found in other places around southern Italy -- but mainly a few here and there on farms. Many of the ones still standing are used as storage buildings for farm equipment or supplies.

Only Alberobello has a complete functioning trulli town. In addition to being used as homes, many trulli there have been converted to small shops, restaurants -- even five-star hotels.

And despite looking a little like the hometown of the Seven Dwarfs -- and the proliferation of trulli-turned-tacky-souvenir-shops -- Alberobello is a popular UNESCO site.

We took a side trip to Masseria Aprile a nearby family run "agriturismo" in Locorotondo, which welcomes groups for tours and has several restored trulli for overnight guests.

While there, Anna Marie showed us how to make orecchiette -- a handmade pasta typical of the region -- and we enjoyed a wonderful home-cooked lunch in the vineyard under the Puglia sun.

NEED TO KNOW - TOURING

Driving in Italy is best left to those with nerves of steel. In addition to famously fast aggressive drivers, narrow roads and pricy gas, finding legal parking spots can be a time consuming hassle and parking tickets can be sky high.

This part of the country is well suited to coach tours, which also allow you to sample the good wine on offer along the way.

Last fall, I toured southern Italy with Transat Holidays, which has two coach tours that take in Matera and Alberobello, as well as many of Italy's top sites.

These include:

-- Under The Italian Sun: Sassi and Trulli, a 10-day, eight night, itinerary with three nights in Rome, two nights in Sorrento, two nights in Alberobello and one night in Amalfi.

-- A Grand Tour of Italy: Option 2, Sassi and Trulli. This 15-day, 13-night, tour features two nights in Rome, two nights in Florence, one night in Venice, one night in San Marino, two nights in Sorrento, two nights in the Alberobello region and a final night in the Rome area.

Both tours are led by professional guides and include round-trip economy class airfare, airport-hotel transfers, visits to sites outlined in the itinerary, some meals and more. For complete details and prices, see transatholidays.com or visit your travel agent.

-- If you do want to tour on your own, Air Transat has direct flights from Toronto to Rome from April 18 - Oct. 26. See airtransat.com for details.


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