I made an interesting choice this time... a night in a luxury cave hotel. Matera is a town in southern Basilicata (in the boot's ankle bone) where as far back as 40,000 years people lived in caves. There are even ancient churches and pagan temples in caves here. Back in the fifties the Italian government moved all the people out of the cave home because of poverty and disease. They built a new town up the hill... nowadays it is a fairly large city with its historic Sassi sections. Sassi means stones... the term for these unique homes carved from the mountain.
At first we couldn't get to our hotel... Tommy kept directing us into a pedestrian zone crowded with people here for a hot air balloon fest. The the fiesty gps directed us to enter a dreaded ZTL (zona traffico limitata)... where cameras capture your plates and you get an expensive summons six months after returning to the U.S. We called the hotel and they said to drive through the ZTL and they will give the police our plate number.. no ticket. I guess we'll see after six months.
The hotel is chic and very stylish... the room they gave us was up several flights of exterior stairs... whew. They had someone to carry luggage but still... what a climb on rustic stone steps. I mentioned to the porter something about my bad knees slowing me down and before I knew it, we had switched rooms to a larger suite lower down with a huge walk-in shower and bigger rooms. The air conditioning was barely working... the Italians aren't into chilled anything.
We walked the village and looked across the gorge to where the paleolithic caves are...lots of them. There is a church carved into the rock cliff above the Duomo. We bought a clay water vessel whistle for Lucas in the piazza outside the Duomo. You fill it with water... blow into the spout... and it sounds like a bird's warbled song. Oh, and I got myself nice clay ocarina. I collect instruments of all types. This is a little treasure.
Next, we walked through an archway next to the duomo toward the Sassi Museum. This was very interesting and reminded us that these sassi used to be the homes for people--and livestock--up until the 1950s when the government decided to move all the people to modern (and sterile) apartment blocks in the newly built part of town--away from the gorge. Instead of moving them, I think they should have helped them modernize their homes to have healthier places to live. There is a movement today to take back control of the sassi from hotel developers and international investors and put the descendants back into their sassi homes.
We first tried to go into a nice restaurant with a good menu... we walked in and all of a sudden about 7 waiters snapped to attention and looked toward us. I said, "Tutti per me?" (All of you this, for me?) No one laughed. One look at us and they claimed the restaurant wasn't opened yet. It was after 7pm so I thought it should be. Then I got it. The white shirted and tie waiters, the white table cloths. Sure, for someone else (who didn't happen to be wearing shorts), they might be open. For us, no. Seriously, this was the impression I got.
SO... we found another small, modern place called Panecotto (literally, Cooked Bread)... and that was their specialty--stale bread country soups. I had a bean soup with stale bread and sausage. Definitely something to try at home. We also had an assortment of bruschette, cacciocavallo and ham. The restaurant was in a renovated cave. Pretty cool. Afterwards when paying I noticed what I though was Altamura bread--with the brown crust and looking like a floppy chef's hat. (Then I realized the bread on our table was the same). I asked about it and I was corrected immediately. "E la pane di MATERA!" These people are really passionate about their local versions of bread. It sure tasted the same as Altamura bread.
The next morning we had a chic so-so breakfast in a white on white cave deep in the bowels of the hotel... VERY deep. It was like a rabbit warren of passages and steps. And it was very hot, with Italians coming into breakfast wearing puffy quilted jackets or sweaters. It's been mid-seventies to over eighty the last few days... and WE have longed for each cool evening while the locals put on winter coats an scarves! There was no ventilation in the dining rooms at all, and everyone was SO quiet while they ate. We were compelled to whisper. I whispered to Lucas that one of us should let out a loud burp or fart to wake everyone up! (We didn't).
We walked out to the balcony and saw hot air balloons launching over the canyon. There was a balloon festival across the canyon that we knew nothing about. What timing. We then packed and loaded up and headed out across the canyon to see the view looking back toward this sassi town. It's like a little Grand Canyon with a village clutching its edge. We even found a cave church over there...
Next stop... a two night stay in a trullo. A cone shaped house known only in this part of the world...