Trulli, Matera, Sassi: Falling in Love with Southern Italy
Our trip to Italy was carefully gauged so that after a few weeks immersion in the ‘tried and true’ environs of Tuscany, CinqueTerre and Rome and the Amalfi Coast we would be ready to slide off the tourist map into lesser known areas in southern Italy such as Basilicata and Puglia. Our launching pad to Italy unknown would be Pompeii, the most visited destination in all of Italy., in case we had any doubts about our decision to leave the crowds behind!
Within two hours of leaving Pompeii, we had traded the gnarled roads and traffic of the west coast of Italy for the dark forest and infrequented hilltowns of Basilicata. One of them, Accetura, became our stop for the night. Our apprehension about being the only foreigners in town were dispelled by the hospitality we received as honoured and only guests at our hotel and at a local restaurant. We continued through this beautiful area (and one documented and championed by Carl Levi in “Christ Stopped at Eboli” and later by Dave Yeadoon in “Seasons in Basilicata”) stopping in Aliano (where Levi is buried) and then in Matera to digest the history of this, the poorer south, of Italy. So poor that in Matera its citizens lived largely in “sassi” – cave dwellings that are believed to be the first ever human settlements in Italy – along with their extended families, domestic animals, unsanitary conditions and numerous infectious diseases. Government decrees in the 1950s ordered people out of these caves and into ‘proper’ homes with proper facilities, leaving the sassis to languish unused for half a century.
Sassi Hotels and Troglodyte Churches
Fast forward to the 21st century, curiousity seekers and Rick Steves’ tour groups and yes, the sassis are now a well-deserved tourist phenomenon, and a designated World Heritage Unesco site. The view of one of the barrios from our own sassi hotel terrace looks out to an evocative kasbah-like landscape – a barren rock-cut ravine and hillside pockmarked with caves now sporting new masonry, gardened patios and spectacular spot lighting. Closer investigations of the grottos the following day bring us up close and personal with Paleolithic history and Rupestrian (troglodyte) stone churches, frescoes and all, found in the warren of the underground chambers of this prehistoric settlement.
Trulli Homes in Alberobello, Italy
The ‘unusual homes department’ doesn’t end in Matera. Fifty kilometres down the road, towards the shores of the Adriatic, brings you to the wee town of Alberobello and its conclave of ‘trulli’ homes – small round mortarless whitewashed stone structures with pointed slate roofs. They are built this way so they could be dismantled in hours should the tax collector be expected. Dense clusters of them in Alberobello give the town a whimsical character – like one is steeping into Hobbitville on a sunny Greek island. A thought that may have been behind its popularity as a backdrop for wedding photos!
With visions of precious vintage Citroens, hobbit houses and impeccably attired Italian wedding parties dancing in our rear-view mirror, we reluctantly depart for points eastward, knowing that it would be difficult to experience another Italy so Trulli, Matera, Sassi.