With the arrival of spring, we decided to drive down to Lecce, about 5 hours south of here, in the little-visited (by Americans) province of Puglia.
Lecce is not located on the coast or on a navigable river, somewhat surprising for an ancient city. It turns out that it has access to an underground water source, an important consideration in a region where the availability of sufficient water has always been an issue.
Lecce affiliated itself pretty early with the ultimately victorious Romans, and it was a thriving city during the ancient Roman empire. After the fall of Rome, it was associated for a while with the Byzantine empire, and eventually became part of the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.
The city is known for its many baroque churches built in the local golden-color stone. Many of the statues are in “cartapesta” (what we would call papier-mache) a surprisingly durable and lifelike material. The tradition of working in “cartapesta” remains vibrant today, and there are little shops all over the city featuring the work of contemporary local artists.
Some of the city’s older churches, like SS. Nicolo e Cataldo, were remodeled during the Bourbon era but retained some of their late-Byzantine-era frescoes, a unique combination. There is very little art of the time in between those two eras here. It’s almost as if the Renaissance occurred in some other country — which, in some sense, it did.
We saw more Byzantine frescoes at the abbey of Santa Maria di Cerrate, just outside of town, which recently reopened after a major restoration. The restored colors on the interior frescoes, so different from the more typical faded colors, challenge your conceptions about what these frescoes are “supposed” to look like.
We took a short day trip to Otranto, a pleasant seaside town near the end of the heel of Italy’s boot. We were lured into a local restaurant by the promise of “ricci,” fresh sea urchin. I was introduced to ricci near Bari, on my first trip to Italy so many years ago. Over the years, I have eaten them in Japan (where they are known as uni), California and France, but nowhere are they as fresh as they are in Puglia. Many people eat them raw, right out of their spiny shell. But eating them as we did, with pasta, is also popular.
Otranto also has an old and very historic Cathedral. In this case, the cathedral floors are covered in mosaics from the 12th Century and mostly tell bible stories.
We visited the lighthouse just south of Otranto, which is the most easterly point in Italy. (Not quite the most southerly, though — Italy continues for about an hour south of Otranto). The Adriatic is at its narrowest point here, which in less orderly times made Otranto the frequent victims of raiders and pirates (hence the lookout castle on the seaside). These days, the narrowness of the channel makes for some fabulous views — on a clear day, you can see Albania.
After leaving Lecce, we went to Matera, in the even less-frequently-visited province of Basilicata. If you think of Italy as a boot, Basilicata is the arch between the toe and the heel.
Matera has been inhabited since Neolithic times, largely due to its combination of natural caves and an easily defensible location (a fertile valley surrounded by steep mountains). By the Middle Ages, Matera was a thriving small town, albeit one where the dwellings were inside instead on top of the rocks. Whole communities developed in these grottoes, including not only churches but also monasteries and convents with several subterranean levels. Beginning in the later Middle Ages, the more prosperous citizens started living on top of the rocks, but most of the city’s population still lived in the “Sassi” — the grottoes below.
The city went into decline during the later Bourbon period, when the provincial capital was moved. The middle class departed, and the people of the Sassi became poorer. By the late 19th C, the divided city featured wealthy people living in the sun in the upper city, and thousands of the less well off living essentially below ground, deprived of sunlight, fresh air, and modern sanitation, like something out of Blade Runner.
In the 1940s, Carlo Levi, a political opponent of Mussolini, was sentenced to internal exile near here. After the war, he wrote a book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, which among other things highlighted conditions in the Sassi and scandalized the nation. The inhabitants of the Sassi were moved out of their rock dwellings, some to new apartment buildings in town, and others (less successfully) to new “farming villages” a few miles away. The old grotto buildings, including the cave churches , were allowed to sink into disrepair.
By the 1980s, Italians were taking a fresh look at the city and its unique artistic heritage. The city was named a UNESCO heritage site in the 1990s, and has been named a European “capital of culture” for 2019 — marketing designations that have brought restoration attention and tourist dollars into the economy. Today, about 4,000 people are living in the Sassi again (in dwellings now fitted out with modern conveniences). About half a dozen cave churches have now been restored, with more in process. You can even stay in a luxury hotel built right into the grottoes (although we didn’t.)
Rupestrian (cave) church in the Sassi
The city has also had some success marketing itself as a movie site. Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ and other Bible-themed movies have been filmed here, since the city’s narrow stone streets and deep ravines make it a plausible substitute for Jerusalem.
Who knows what the future holds for Matera? Historically, attempts to base a local economy on tourism often founder when too many people want to come to a very small place. For the time being, though, Matera is just far enough off the beaten track, and just hard enough to get to, that a visitor won’t be overwhelmed.