Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Sassi: Cave Dwellings in Modern Italy

Mostly facades with caves behind
Before we left home in Vancouver on this trip, I had read about a town in southern Italy where people had lived in caves until the 1950s when the government decided that their lives were a shame on Italy and forced them to relocate to new farm houses or apartments in the city. Articles in both the Smithsonian and the New Yorker certainly piqued my interest in visiting these places. Then as we began really planning the places we would stay during our three month trip, I managed to forget about this town. 

The cathedral tower from our room
Still empty caves.
These will be among the last to be occupied
as they are on the shady side of the hill.
The work of one man. No charge, but donations are appreciated
On our first night in Sorrento, we walked by a tour agency that had a sign offering several tours. One was to this town I did not recognize, Matera. The picture looked intriguing so I made a note by taking an iPhone picture to remind me to look it up when I was at the computer. I was surprised to read about this place and remember the articles I had read. I then started looking at options for visiting and quickly found a couple of places where we could stay in the caves for a very reasonable price. Hiring a guide also seemed to be reasonable and something that we would want to do since we had no guide book information either. So we booked a two-night stay in a B & B and took off for the drive.

Once we left the Sorrento/Naples area and their heavily trafficked switchbacks, we were on a four-lane highway. This is the best highway we have traveled in Italy. I was expecting something quite different as I had read that roads in southern Italy were much worse than in the rest of the country. At least the roads we traveled were in perfect shape. Perhaps Italy has been shamed into improving these roads. The beautiful cloud-free sky also helped make the ride enjoyable. We passed several hill towns on the way that looked interesting enough to visit as well. Next time we come to Italy, we may budget a couple of weeks of just traveling in southern Italy without specific plans. It seems like a region where that would work well.

Where we slept. Note the "closet" (hangers)
We arrived in Matera about 2:30. Expecting to find a bunch of caves, we were surprised to find a modern Italian city of 60,000. Unsure if we had made the right decision to come here, we continued to let Google maps guide us to our B & B. Soon we were off the main city streets and winding down a brick road amongst buildings that had been hewn out of the rock. After checking in, finding a place to park in the upper city and securing a guide for the next morning, we were ready to take a walk around the town. Literally, we started walking around the town as we wanted to stay in the sun that was disappearing behind the hill above us. As we walked we could see that Sassi, as the cave dwelling part of Matera is called, was built between two ravines. We could see more caves across the ravine and what appeared to be churches also hewn out of the rocks.

We continued our walk up to the cathedral which is closed for renovations and then climbed down the sloping stairs to our room. It may be a bit hard to describe, but steeper slopes often include a step every five feet or so. This sometimes makes walking more difficult as you have to both walk downhill and remember that there is a step down every few feet. It is winter and daylight savings time is over, so it now gets dark around 5:00. Our restaurant would not open until at least 7:00, so we relaxed before heading over to the cave where we had some excellent steak and local Aglianico for dinner.

Our restaurant: Oi Mari
The next morning we met our guide Dora who would lead us around Sassi for the next three hours. She grew up here and both her parents and her husband’s parents actually lived in the caves so she was able to share personal stories along with the usual tour-guide spiel. We started along the same path Linda and I had taken the previous evening. She pointed out several churches across the ravine and the trail that we could take to visit them. She also told us about the earliest people to live here in Paleolithic times. This has been a good place to live because it has a reliable water supply.
Several cave churches dot the hillsides across from the Sassi

The river below with terraced farmland from the past.
During the Middle Ages, Matera was home to a self-sustaining population of 10,000 – 20,000 people. A system of waste management and an intricate system of cisterns assured that there was plenty of food and water in a clean environment. However, as trade increased and Matera became less isolated, more people came to the area and the system broke down. The caves were now relegated to use by the poorest people who often lived with animals in their caves creating waste problems and a lack of a reliable water supply. The city became one of the haves who lived in the nicer homes above the caves and the have-nots who lived in their caves with their animals.

The oldest part of the Sassi, now almost totally empty.
 Then in the 1950s, the artist Carlo Levi who had been forced into the area by his opposition to Mussolini, wrote a book, Christ Stopped in Eboli, a portion of which chronicled the dismal lives of the cave dwellers. Malaria, a life expectancy of 39 years and an infant mortality rate over 40% made it one of the least healthy places on the planet. Italian politicians began talking about the “Shame of Italy” and making plans to fix the problem by moving the people out of the caves. Approximately 15,000 people would be moved between 1954 and 1958. Of course, many did not want to move. Some would look back fondly on some aspects of their lives there, especially the sense of community that was lost. The new apartment complexes did not readily funnel people into the common areas as they had in the Sassi, so people did not gather there. On the other hand, more would move gladly and never ever want to look back. When the area began to be revitalized in the 1990s, they would wonder why and even still argue that the entire area should be destroyed.

An abandoned cave waiting for someone - You?
Ancient bee hives
Then the area began to be reborn. First it was the drug dealers and the prostitutes. Then some local artisans found the area to be perfect for their work. Artists are often the first to find the next big thing. In Portland that is what really began the redevelopment of the Pearl District, now the trendy place to live and be seen in that great city. Others followed suit buttressing the ceilings and bringing in electricity, running water and a sewage system. In 1986, the Italian government began offering subsidies to cut the cost of renovation in half. La Traccia, a software company, moved in and by 1993 UNESCO named it a world heritage site. With that designation, hotels, B&Bs, and restaurants were opened and the tourism really began to take off.

Renovations along the Fascist road on the sunny side
New bricks being laid. They are lighter colored and stronger than the originals.
There is talk of changing them to a darker color to fit in better.
Our stay here is good evidence of what tourism here means. Our room used to be a single one-room home. Now the domed ceiling is cleaned bricks and the walks are plastered and white-washed. We enter the living area with adjacent bathroom. The living room has one couch, a small desk and chair, a refrigerator and the requisite high speed Wi-Fi . A spiral staircase takes us to the sleeping loft, barely large enough for the king-size double bed and a small cabinet and separate rod with a few hangers. I could do without the low ceiling in the bathroom, but otherwise the room works perfectly for a short stay.
Our living room at San Giovanni Vecchio B & B
Across the street, the restaurant has several rooms all joined by wide arched passageways. A rest room is off one side and the kitchen off the other. Approximately 20 tables seat guests who are served with excellent pizzas or good fish and steak alternatives. Wi-Fi is available, too, for those who need it while eating. In our two evenings there we saw a few tourists sharing our winter travels and many locals who were out for the evening.

Note the symbol of Fascism in the center.
Grain stalks bound together.
Strength in unity.
Our tour began walking around the southeast side of the Sassi along a road built by the Fascists in the 1930s in an early attempt to improve lives. 

Here eyes in the cup she holds in her left hand
We stopped first at a restaurant in what used to be a monastery dedicated to St. Lucia. She was a Roman who became Christian in the 3rd century. For this she had her eyes removed and was executed. Statues and pictures of her feature the eyes held in a cup reflecting her role as a protector of sight and the blind.
Cave church of Santa Lucia Alle Malve
Malve (mallow) grows abundantly around the church
Graves on top of the Santa Lucia Alle Malve

From there we walked further along the road with views of the oldest part of the Sassi until we came to one of the remaining original cave churches. No pictures were allowed inside, but we did see some interesting frescoes from different ages and of differing quality. This church is also interesting because in later years only one of the side aisles was used as a church. The other two were turned into a home. Two pillars were removed and the stones were used to create a separate kitchen area. These stones still contain some of the frescoes in various pieces making for an interesting game of what fits where. The top of the church was used as a burial site. The nature of the cliffs does mean that one thing is built on top of another. Many of the paths and roads are actually the roofs of living spaces below.
The donkey is home
We were surprised at the well-stocked kitchen
Family photographs
We also visited a reproduction of one of the homes filled with artifacts as if they people still lived there. Our visit here included a lot of information about how the people used to live and how they used the many items unusual to our modern ways of doing things. The place seemed actually quite nice since it is all spruced up for visitors. I’m sure that it would have been much dirtier and the smell reportedly caused some visitors to leave these homes as soon as they entered. A back area was used to collect the manure of the animals and people. As it decayed it provided some heat and was eventually used as a fertilizer. Imagine the smell.

The cage around the fire is to protect falling children.
Families might have a dozen children
even with an infant mortality rate over 40%
Daddy sits on his 'throne'. Note the lack or privacy.
One especially interesting item was the loaf of bread. They baked bread only once a week as it was a time-consuming process and required paying for a large oven to do the final baking. A slow leavening process would leave the bread with large holes throughout prolonging the life of the bread. Once the loaf was ready for baking, it would be marked either with a brand or the use of a certain sequence of seeds to identify the owner of the loaf. Taking the wrong loaf could lead to big fights in the community. We did see a couple of neighborhoods that had their own private oven which would have helped some.

Dining in the main square

They tore down old church buildings to replace it with this Bank of Italy.
A short walk to the Piazza San Francesco provided us a view of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi and one of the lowlights of any trip. During the 1950s, the other older monastery buildings on the square were demolished so that Bank of Italy could build a modern bank. Dora then pointed us in the direction of a 25 minute video presentation we would watch about the history of the Sassi created by the Italian National Trust. Dora said goodbye and we walked another 150 yards and down a couple of flights of stairs to watch it. Housed in a former Sassi house that was saved from new development when the 92 and 94 year old sisters decided that donating it to the Trust was better than selling it for €50,000,it was a fitting end to our tour as we saw old movies of life in the Sassi along with an explanation of its geological history and the rebuilding that has taken place since the 1990s. The movies were a good counter to the pleasant view one could get by just visiting the reproduction of a cave house. That evening we visited another such house that left us with much the same pleasant feeling so we are glad we saw the videos with their much more realistic perspective.

A cardinal, pope, king, and bishop
Reminds us that we all face death
Old cave church above the cistern
Small squares here and in the picture below.
These were filled with people all day long.
People who lived in the town above remember the constant din coming from these small squares.
I did some more walking around on my own and discovered the largest cistern in the world. It is 16 meters deep and 50 meters long. Holding more than 5 million gallons of water, it lies underneath the main square of the town. Above most everything else in town it would provide decent water pressure for most of its users. The walls are covered with a terracotta paste that is completely waterproof. I missed the tour but I guess that just provides one more reason to return to this beautiful hill town of southern Italy. At the same site is the remnants of another old cave church.

Sloping stairs
Note the small ramps added for carts and wheelbarrows
An old cart in front of a museum (closed while we were in town)
On our drive back to Sorrento we took a couple of back roads, one of which took us up to Grassano, one of the other hill towns of southern Italy. We did not stop to check it out, but it looked as interesting as those in Tuscany. As we drove on, we saw several others in the distance and had some good views of the rugged Dolomite Mountains. More reasons to return to this beautiful region of Italy.

Grassano from a distance
Brindisi di Montagna, another small hill town in the distance
Looks like an interesting castle to visit someday


An unusual note here at the start. Please make some comment today as you read this. I don't care what it is. You can even just say, "I'm here." but I would really like to know who is reading this.



I often forget that southern Italy was Greek territory during their glory days. The Greeks had trade routes all over the Mediterranean and also needed territory to send their growing populations. Southern Italy was the perfect spot. One of the best for us today is the town of Paestum on the coast a few miles south of Salerno and a two-hour drive from our base in Sorrento. It is reputedly the best site for Greek ruins in Italy outside of Sicily.

One of half a dozen artists we saw. It must have been a workshop.
Founded as Poseidonia by the Greeks in the 6th century BC, the town was later conquered by a barbarous inland tribe, the Lucanians and then by the Romans. Malaria chased out most of the residents and the site was ignored and forgotten until the 18th century when it was rediscovered and became a part of the Great Tour that Europeans and Americans used to consider one of the requirements of a well-rounded education. Since the town was essentially abandoned, it wasn’t destroyed as so many early towns have been. By the time it was rediscovered, there was a more general consensus that these old things needed to be saved fortunately for us today. It was an easy day trip from Sorrento by car. Even though the train stop is right next to the entrance to the site, to get there by public transport would have entailed a train ride to Naples and then another to Paestum (three hours each way, doable, but too much train time and a late return home assuming you didn’t miss the last train.

It was raining when we arrived so we started in the museum, a beautiful modern building with plenty of signs in English to help us understand what we were looking at. The first room we entered, really the centerpiece of the museum is for temporary displays. Currently, the show is about colors used to paint the sculptures and buildings. Excellent explanations of how they created and applied the colors along with samples of reproductions made for an interesting show. Some of the reproductions were created with a 3-D printer, a useful use of this brand-new technology. This was accompanied by an explanation of the colors’ symbolism. For example, the discussion about green points out that while today, we think of green in association with nature, for the Greeks, green was just one of the four elements of nature representing water. The other three were air (white), earth (black), and fire (red). Green’s unstable nature as a paint also meant that it represented a lack of stability and ambivalence.

Hercules killing the giant Alcyoneuas

Loom weights

Part of a large vase

The rest of the ground floor houses the relics found at Paestum and other sites nearby. One of the most interesting was the nine vases in perfect condition found at Paestum. They were filled with honey that was still in perfect condition protected by the vases and the beeswax seal. At least some of the honey was left to crystallize and become part of the display.

Crystallized honey
For us the most interesting were the many painted caskets. They were painted on the inside with remarkable coloring and quality. These people were sent off in style. Several had horses as the main motif, but the highlight is the Tomb of the Diver. The top is a fairly simple picture of a man diving off a platform into the unknown world of the dead. The Greeks weren’t sure what would happen after death so this was a common symbol. The sides of the coffin showed pictures of lounging either at a bath or a party. At least two of them are assumed to be lovers; perhaps one is the man in the coffin.

Plastic covering caused the reflections

"More, please"

After about an hour in the museum we headed outside.The timing was perfect as the sun was out and the afternoon light highlighted the beauty of the temples. We started with the Temple of Ceres – wait – it is really the Temple of Athena. The discoverers assumed that this temple would be about agriculture, but when modern archaeologists began really digging they kept finding a woman with a big helmet, Athena, goddess of wisdom and war. Local stones were used in the building of the town. It was the Romans who built the road system that would have allowed more distant stones to be brought here. The interior of this temple was, however, plundered and used in the building of Amalfi’s cathedral. The interior was also used as a Christian church in the 6th century.

Temple of Athena

The other two temples devoted to Neptune (maybe) and Hera are at the opposite end of town. The Temple of Hera built around 550 BC is one of the oldest anywhere. The Temple of Neptune built 100 years later shows a somewhat different style with fewer columns and those columns adorned with slightly more stylish capitals. All three temples are oriented east-west with the actual alters on the east side since only priests were allowed to enter.

Temple of Neptune

Temple of Hera
Temple of Hera in the foreground
Other interesting sites included the Haroon, a Greek Memorial Tomb. More likely, this was just a memorial since no bodies have been found in it and the Greeks usually buried their dead outside of the city walls. It survives in part because the Romans were loath to destroy religious buildings. Contrast that with the Christians taking the Temple of Athena apart to build a cathedral elsewhere or ISIS and the Taliban destroying ancient sites simply because they do not fit their belief system. Because this one was in the middle of their town, they simply buried it, thus preserving it for the future.
The buried Haroon
The pool
The forum
We saw a pool that perhaps was dedicated to Fortuna Virilis, goddess of luck and fertility. Next to the pool is the forum, a large grassy area (today) in the middle of town. To either side of the road we could walk through the remains of houses and businesses. While wondering we met a nice couple from Naples who exhorted us to visit Sicily on our next trip. We also met a family with two high school exchange students, one from Ohio and the other from Brazil. The Ohioan was eager to share his experiences as a traveler with us and proud of his newly acquired Italian language skills. They will live here for one full year before returning home. Meanwhile the family’s daughter is living in South Carolina for the year. It’s good to see these youngsters getting a taste of the rest of the world.

The amphitheater
A small amphitheater and an Ekklesiasterion completed our tour of the site. The Ekklesiasterion is really a sunken circular theater used as a meeting place where the Greeks would discuss matters and citizens would vote. We entered through a tunnel  and discovered that the walk along the front seats was also over a tunnel allowing people to walk without disturbing those already seated.

After completing our tour of Paestum, we found our way to the beach where the Allies landed in 1943. Having already taken Sicily, this was the next step up the Italian Peninsula. They stopped in Paestum and used the House of Neptune for a field hospital. Amazingly they treated the place with the respect it deserved. We saw no evidence of soldierly graffiti. From here the soldiers would head north to the famous battles at Monte Cassino and another landing at Anzio as they drove the Germans back towards Germany. Unlike the beaches at Normandy, there are no monuments here at all. Perhaps it is just too overshadowed by the more famous landing at Normandy, or perhaps it has something to do with an Italian ambivalence towards the war. Italy surrendered soon after the invasion although elements of the Italian army continued to fight on with the Germans and the Germans fought tenaciously to maintain their hold on their erstwhile ally.

Similar to what the soldiers saw as they were mostly unopposed as they landed. 

What we did find at the beach was a lovely long stretch of sand with many camping areas and some resorts that looked nice enough to merit five stars from anyone. The place must be absolutely overrun with tourists in August as Italians make their way to the beach or mountains to escape the heat of the summer.

Beach cottages