The accidents of birth

In 1956 the final inhabitants of the caves in Sassi were evicted into bright, modern apartment buildings into a new part of town. For millennia the population had lived in hollowed out bits of the tufa cliffs, spaces carved into areas resembling habitable rooms. These rooms, humid, dank and dark, eventually housed the poorest, their chickens, their livestock, all their worldly possessions.

Slum clearance required

The Sassi cave dwellers are thought to have descended from the oldest settlers of Italy but by the middle of the 20th century were the poorest of the poor and thought to be a bit of a blight on Italy. So they were shifted.

The caves fell further into decay and were left to rot. Then UNESCO decided they were unique and deserved recognition but they had to be spruced up a bit. And so, in a fit of genius, the Italian Government stumped up some cash and Matera became a tourist Mecca and the caves, nicely uninhabited, became things of wonder.

I’d never heard of the caves, Sassi or Matera before this trip. We visited today. It was a real eye opener and made me realise that by a mere accident of birth, I avoided being born in a cave…albeit an Italian one.

In order to reach Matera, we organised some buses. One to get there then two to get back. Knowing you can’t buy a ticket on the spur of the moment, I booked and paid for them all online, intending to flash my phone in the driver’s face at the opportune moment.

Our plan was to arrive at Matera then take a taxi the two kilometres to the Sassi. Mirinda had booked us in for lunch in a cave restaurant after which we would see some sights before getting a taxi back. The reason we’d booked two buses was in case we wanted to stay longer. As it turned out the late bus was the only real option.

And I have to say that the buses were very reliable and on time. Actually, all apart from the last one which was late arriving and very late leaving while the driver had an excruciatingly long conversation with an old chap sitting at the front of the bus. Not that that mattered much. The bus was comfy and our legs welcomed the rest.

View from the bus

Mind you, there’s a lot of roadworks presently scarring the otherwise ugly landscape. The dusty lines of olive trees amid a flat, scenery free world is slightly better than the parade of plastic barriers and temporary lanes erected while the big roads are being built. This did mean that the bus travelled slower than I think it normally would which was good.

In Matera we hailed the only cab in the small car park attached to the bus stop (or vice versa) and he took us to Piazza San Francisco which was hosting some sort of market of local costumes and weird paraphernalia that would not have been out of place in Hogwarts. He told us that was where he’d meet us if we ordered him for our return.

The first view of the Sassi is like a glimpse of an abandoned city. It looks like the plague has been through, reducing the population to mere structures of crumbling stone. But this is not what we’d come to see. These are not caves.

We then set off on a very long, seemingly rambling wander through the smallest, often slipperiest cobble stoned streets I’ve ever encountered. It was as if for every step up there were two down. Anyone watching us would not have realised that we were on a mission. But we were. We were on a mission to find Baccanti, the restaurant in a cave.

It was not as easy as you’d think. The streets (stairs and corridors would be a more accurate description) hold no order or rhyme. You could be right on top of where you want to go but it’s actually 100 feet beneath you…which is exactly what happened to us.

Giving up on the electronic map which insisted we were already at our table and ordering antipasti, Mirinda called the restaurant for some guidance. It turned out they were directly underneath us just down a few flights of stairs then back a bit.

View from our table

And what a superb restaurant. Deep inside the caves we sat and ate and drank (a wonderful local chardonnay) and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The local bread was decidedly delicious especially when dunked in the local olive oil.

Easily the best meal we’ve had this trip made especially so because we hadn’t eaten 304 little bowls of antipasti first. To be fair, the places where we dined in Alberobello were perfectly lovely and rustic and the Japanese fusion place last night was lovely but, Baccanti was a cut above all of them. The fact that you have to book for dinner two weeks ahead is a bit of a clue as to their quality.

Mirinda was especially delighted with her dessert (frozen nougat in a dark chocolate sauce). So much so that she decided to show it off.

Mmmmm, frozen nougat…

Feeling full but not bursting, we then headed out to wander more of the Sassi. Mirinda really wanted to see two things: a cave dwelling kitted out like they were originally and a cave church. We managed to see both. Only one allowed photographs so I’m going to ignore the other…which is a shame because there were some gorgeous frescoes. Still.

The cave dwelling was beautifully done. Small and cramped (only a fixed number of people are allowed in at a time) with the big main room containing everything except a small kitchen and a storage room at the back. Even the horse had a space in the corner. Mind you, I don’t know how many would have owned a horse. Maybe a mule or a donkey. Or a sheep. I’m not sure about a horse.

Next door there was a small cave where a wonderfully preserved wagon was sat. It was the type used by the poorest to move everything they needed moving, probably with the horse (or mule or donkey…not the sheep) between the shafts.

A primitive ute

We then went in search of the church with the frescoes. Which we found.

There was a lot of noise going on somewhere deep within the town. Drums, yelling, the stamp of many feet. It reminded us of the parade of the Half Term Mary in Seville or the 2am Wobbly Jesus of Jerez but it was a parade of kids in costumes with a spattering of adults. There was some sort of speech every now and then but, basically, they just marched through town (without a religious icon) stopping every now and then and frightening the pigeons. We didn’t see a lot of it because we suddenly had to find a taxi.

The guy who had driven us up to Sassi who had given us his card so we could order him to go back, said it would be impossible for him to come and get us. We then had to find a taxi rank. It is not that easy to find a taxi rank in the Sassi. There’s not a lot of through traffic beyond the occasional moped or unexpected tuk-tuk.

Mirinda started off on a mission. Her phone in hand, with Google her guide, she was determined to do better than she had with the restaurant. And she did. Through strange streets, down busy footpaths, around countless bends until, bang, there was a taxi sitting alongside a sign saying ‘Taxi’. It was situated where the buses live while their passengers are wandering the Sassi.

And so we were taken back to the bus stop back to Bari where we sat for a bit before heading to the oddly named Prestige Cafe for a drink because we were an hour early. The Prestige Cafe didn’t really live up to it’s high falutin’ name but the beer was cold and that was really all that mattered.

Back at the bus stop we waited. And waited. And waited.

Eventually the bus turned up and we clambered aboard. About an hour before finally leaving the driver came to the back of the bus and, like a primary school teacher on the first day of school, did a roll call of all our names. As we said ‘here’ he ticked us off then went back to resume his conversation before, FINALLY driving back to Bari.

So, our adventure ended and was a marvellous, though exhausting, day. I may have never heard of Matera or Sassi or cave dwelling Italians before last week but I’m not likely to forget them now.

Our last day tomorrow and we’re, hopefully, going to Castel del Monte.

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