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Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Slow-Travel Road Trip in Italy: Puglia and Basilicata

Written by Russ & Emily Firlik
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We were excited to explore two of the three southern Italian boot regions: Basticata (Instep) and Pulia (Heel). The other boot region is Calabria (the toe). ‘The North of Italy may have the Euros, but the South has the Soul.”

Slow-traveling fosters careful planning and promotes boundful energies. However, once one is actually on the road these factors proved to be essential: An informed and calm navigator; a regional paper map (we used the Michelin Tourist & Motoring Atlas 2019); careful attention to the driving laws and being aware of the residents driving nuances, and finally, hitting the “Avoid highways” option on Google Maps makes for additional enjoyment and discoveries.

As slow-traveling seniors, we are inspired by art, informed by culture and motivated by curiosity. Although everything on our agenda had been pre-planned, one of the marvels of slow travel is discovering what has not been planned: Slow travel and Italy are endless surprises! As American travel writer extraordinaire, Paul Edward Theroux, reminds us, “As far as reading about the history of a certain place or novels, I leave that until afterwards. I don’t want to research a place intensely, I want to discover it.”

Our extensive research, carefully planned agenda, and endless reservations in Basilicata and Puliga looked like this: 10 days in Basilicata and 47 days in Pulia. Our road trip took us from Matera in Basilicata, across over to Puglia region of Italy, to the east and west coasts of the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, and around the heel of Italy and returned to Bari. We stayed in hotels, apartments, B&B’s, and agriturismi.

Our road trip started with a 1.5 hr drive south from Bari to Matera (pop. 60,000) in the region of Basilicata (which is bordered by two short coastlines on the Ionian and Tyrrhenian Seas). The population of the region is 580,000.

Matera was all spruced up for its year as the European Capital of Culture in 2019. Fodor’s states that Matera is "one of the most unique landscapes in Europe". It was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993. Along with the many Baroque churches, twelfth century cathedrals, Tramontano Castle and many grottoes carved out of limestone, it is the two neighborhoods - Sassi - where the cave houses are located and are thought to be the first human dwellings in Italy, perhaps 9000 (Palaeolithic Period) years ago. The Sassi lay empty for decades after the war; people moved back in the 1980’s to modernize the caves and convert them into residences, hotels, bars and shops. Basilicata is a high altitude region, made up of tufa and sandstone buildings. The steep steps, rocky outcrops and stone alleyways could be from biblical-era Jerusalem. A little research indicated that the 2006 remake of Ben Hur, Wonder Women and Mary Magdalene were filmed in Matera.

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The Sassi were divided into two sections, the Barisono and Caveoso. We spend most of our time in the Caveoso section where there are 150 rock-cut churches and eight museums. We spent considerable time in three very informative and insightful museums: (1). The Casa Grotto museum, which was the recreation area of the cave-dwelling peasants, with their animals and stone latrine in the corner; (2). Casa Noha Museum, with their multimedia exhibit using the tufa walls within the 16th century family house, told the story of the city from ancient times to the Sassi as a World Heritage Site; (3). The Museum National d’Art Medieval e Moderna Della Basilicata, one of the most important museums of the region. On exhibit are sacred paintings, ancient mosaics, and a collection of 44 paintings by Carlo Levi. It was Levi’s famous 1951 book, Christ Stopped in Eboli, showing the world the sickness and poverty of these cave dwellers and were moved from this area after the Second World War, only returning in the late 1980’s. Wine, olives, and oil were the economic drivers behind them, now tourism dominates this economy of Matera - and we certainly saw why this was a town to discover in-depth.

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Matera Highlights:

1. Baroque Doumo and churches - late 16th century;
2. Matera Cathedral 1260 - Romanesque;
3. Tramontano Castle - 16th century;
4. Sasso Barisano - new town- where most residents live and work; there were a number of Byzantine churches, with 12 century frescoes.
5. Sasso Caveoso - old town - there is a fascinating ninth century graveyard and the eleventh century church.

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Enchanting Matera: We could have spent a few more days in Matera’s captivity tapestry of organic beauty and contradictions, but we made the most of our 10 days. What pure joy!

From Matera we continued to Montescaglioso (pop. 10,000). Our sole purpose was to see the 11th century Abbazia di S. Michele Arcangelo in the village of Terra Murata, based on a Benedictine foundation dating back to the XI century. Once destroyed, seen now with the multiple layers and transformations made over the centuries. The church itself is accessed by a stunning Romanesque grey and green stone portal built in the early 11th century. The Abbey of San Michele Arcangelo is one of the most prestigious and richest churches in southern Italy.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 01 July 2020

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