Matera is wild…a mystical dream Salvador Dali or Hieronymus Bosch could have had. The word “otherworldly” was created just so it could describe Matera. A town carved straight out of the mountain, it is known as“la Città Sotterranea” (the Subterranean City), and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city has been inhabited since the Paleolithic and is so surreal and unique many movies have been filmed there including Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, The Omen and the most recent Ben Hur. So many sites are underground or in caves; homes, restaurants, churches…there is even an underground museum which I can only describe as poignant although I’m not sure why. Maybe because these pretty works of art exist underground, in the dark, never seeing the light of day.
THE FAIRY TOWNS
Crossing the inset of the Italian boot on the way to Sicily there are several notable towns besides Matera, each unusual in its own way; Ostuni, Arbelobello, Lecce are just three.
Ostuni, the White City, sits on a mountain top – as do many Southern Italian towns – in a crazy maze of white-washed houses on winding medieval streets. If you were dropped into the middle of this labyrinth there is no way you would find your way out. Ever. We hired a little motorized three-wheeler to take us through the town and noticed the houses and businesses were carved out of the mountain itself. One of the restaurants we ate at “Il Tempo Perso” (Lost Time), was essentially a cave. The food was certainly tasty but the whole cave experience is what made the meal.
Arbelobello is unique in that the houses are all built in a conical shape. The story is that long ago the local lords decided to tax the people based on the houses they inhabited. To avoid this, the locals built the conical structures in a way that would allow them to be easily dismantled. And the practice stuck.
Just at the heel of the Italian boot is Lecce, famous for its 17th century baroque architecture, a style referred to as Barocco Leccese. It has been alternately described as the most beautiful city in Italy as well as a lunatic’s nightmare. Either way it is an explosion of elaborately carved stonemasonry that awes you the first time you see it.
Lecce was our first introduction to the true “deep-south” of Southern Italy. We drove into the town looking for our hotel, the Presidente. A local policeman directed us to drive up a one-way street in the opposite direction to get there. No one seemed to notice or care that we were driving against traffic.
At a rustic restaurant called Alle Due Corte they told us they were full. We lingered in the doorway looking hungry and they eventually found us a table. Sometimes it pays to be a little brazen. The food was bursting with strong, contrasting flavors drawing from the local produce.
Which of the movies filmed in Matera is your favorite?
To read part one of this series, Seven Delicious Adventures in Southern Italy: Naples: Pizza and Erotica, click here.
To read part three of this series, Seven Delicious Adventures in Southern Italy: Taormina, Intro to Sicily, click here.
To read part four of this series, Seven Delicious Adventures in Southern Italy: Magical Ortygia, click here.
To read part five of this series, Seven Delicious Adventures in Southern Italy: Agrigento: Greek Ruins, click here.
To read part six of this series, Seven Delicious Adventures in Southern Italy: Monreale’s Architecture, click here.
To read part seven of this series, Seven Delicious Adventures in Southern Italy: Palermo Streets, click here.