After Paestum we planned to go to the city of Matera following an enthusiastic recommendation from our Texan friends, Virginia and Zac. Luckily for us it is one of the few places in Southern Italy with a campsite open at this time of year. The road there wasn’t straightforward – a long cross country route beset by lack of signage, road closures, renumberings and chunks missing. The wild and sparsely inhabited landscape as we crossed from the province of Campania into Basilicata made up for the extra 60km added to our day. The Via Appia route across the ridges with a view of Matera in the distance was thrilling.
We pulled into a chilly campsite – a glorified carpark run by the local ‘agriturismo’ farm/restaurant – to a warm welcome from two sets of Brits. Sheena and Brian were tired from their journey from Corfu to Bari, but Scottish/German pair Stacey and Frank invited us to join them for drinks. Together with their one year old son Quinn, they have, like us, been on the road since May. They took three whole weeks from deciding to go travelling to actually leaving. This included buying their caravan and then rebuilding it, all with their small boy in tow.
Next morning, after waving Stacey, Frank and Quinn off, we got the free shuttle bus to the centre of Matera with Brian and Sheena. Matera sits above and into a deep gorge and has a unique heritage in its Sassi areas – dwellings hewn out of the hillside in layers. These areas of the town were populated from ancient times up until the 1950s and 60s, when they were considered slums and the people were forcibly rehoused in new accommodation on the edge of town using post-War Marshall Plan money. Since then the Sassi have been cleaned up and declared a World Heritage site. They have been repopulated to some extent and many are still in the throes of being done up.
It’s an intriguing place to explore – passages up and down steep inclines, and views across town from all angles. We visited a reconstructed interior of a sasso dwelling giving a snapshot of life as it was, on three levels going deeper into the rock, the family would have lived here together with their livestock.
We were also able to enter some abandoned sassi. What held us most in awe though were the chiese rupestri – the churches within the rock. Some with remains of frescoes going back to the 13th and 14th centuries. We also went inside one of the water cisterns – a huge tank that collected and stored surface water for the Sassi dwellers to use.
We spent a wonderfully meandery couple of days walking around exploring the Sassi and other parts of town with our new friends, punctuated by beers in the warm sunshine at outside cafes, or shared wine and pizza at our haunt in Piazza Sedile to the sound of students practising at the music college on the corner.
Matera does have tourists, but it is much quieter than so many of the other places we’ve visited and it was pleasing to have so much of it to ourselves. We enjoyed the atmosphere and vibe – another place to put on our ‘want to return and spend more time here’ list.
Brian and Sheena have recently retired and are on a long trip partly revisiting some of the places they lived in the hippy 70s – working in Greece and living on the beach, grape picking in Northern Italy – they lived the dream and had marvellous stories to tell. They also turned out to have owned several 2cvs in the past. Sheena semi-adopted one of the timid at first farm kittens who we named Maria. After Sheena had fed her for a couple of days, the tabby and white mog got rather cheeky and persistent. We ate together every night we were there culminating in a barbeque and campfire until the early hours on the last night. They insisted we help them with their twenty litre wine box … and we can’t let friends down. We look forward to catching up with them in the future.
After five months on the road now, the last couple of weeks has been more social than the rest of the trip put together, excluding the time spent at the 2cv World Meeting and staying with friends. There are fewer people on the road now, and those that are out here are travelling for longer and for similar reasons to us. With fewer campsites open there’s the necessary swapping of information for those heading north and south. It’s good to meet so many lovely people on the same wavelength and it has shown us how much we’ve missed the social aspect that we had expected to find at the beginning of the trip. We seem to be making up for lost time now.