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Caserta and Matera

From Napoli I went to Caserta for three nights. My B&B was a lovely place, 200 meters from the secondary entrance to the Reggia, the vast palazzo and gardens for which the city is famous. The B&B was a gated building with a beautiful courtyard and two sets of staircases leading to the rooms. My room was huge, quiet, and very comfortable. Breakfast was very good, with some items changing daily. The staff was so helpful, printing out train tickets for me (the email link wasn't working so we used the copy machine to copy the ticket from my iPad; I like having hard copies of tickets.

I had been to the Reggia as a child, but wanted to try it again. I remember being so overwhelmed by the abundance of decoration that I almost felt ill. This time, I got as far as the ticket office, but I just couldn't do it. Seeing how the ultra-rich lived three hundred years ago just doesn't interest me (heed advice about making your own "must-sees").

Instead, I took the extra-urban bus to Castelmorrone. Had no idea about it, but thought there might be ruins of a dark castle there. I loved the ride up into the mountains, which seemed familiar to me; they looked like the mountains of my father's home town in the same region. At one point, I was the only person still on the bus, and the driver asked where I was going in that tone of mixed annoyance and concern that adults use when speaking to children who seem to be going off the rails. "In giro" (for a ride), I said, and he had some tough criticisms (muttered to himself) about the stupidity of my choices. I can be quite judgmental myself, so I am forgiving about these things. Apparently he soon thought better of it, told me to get off at the next-to-last stop where there was a cafe and shade, since he wouldn't be back for 25 minutes and the bus' terminus was in a hot, sunny parking lot. I thanked him and had a coffee while I waited. All the women over fifty in this small town wore the traditional black dresses, emblem of a life sentence of mourning for a deceased husband. Younger women, and almost all women in cities of any size, no longer follow this custom. It is amazing how many women are widows in these very small towns.

It was a nostalgic day for me, and well worth my time.

By contrast, Matera's current fame is based on the tragic poverty-borne diseases of the last few centuries. The sassi, now a World Heritage site, were until the late 1950s inhabited by the very poor, and diseases like typhus and cholera were rampant. Children would beg visitors to the area, not for candy or money, but for quinine (Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi). The shells of cave dwellings (some of which are now fully amenitized boutique cave hotels) stand silent witness to a history that goes back more than 9000 years, to the dignity of the poor and the hope of the human spirit.

In a few days, the town will celebrate La Festa Della Bruna, and the big carriage which will carry the statue of Mary was blessed by the bishop yesterday. It will be torn apart (after the statue is removed) by revelers on July 2. Blessed today, gone tomorrow - hit's a mataphor. The streets are now decorated with arcades of lights, there is a tournament of mini-basket in the main Piazza (basketball for 10-11 year olds, there are teams from all over Italy and some other countries). Hundreds of children being wrangled by parents and chaperones, all well-behaved or just done in by the heat, 36 degrees Celsius today.

I am staying at my usual B&B, Donna Eleonora, a staircase away from the main street and a ten-minute walk from the entrance to the sassi. Breakfast is brought in fresh every morning by the owners. The place only has three rooms (plus one small single), so now that I have mentioned it, I am making my reservation for next year. It is one of the rare small B&Bs with a room for four.

(continued below)

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Matera continued...

In addition to the sassi, there are a couple of museums and other sights, mini-bus and golf cart tours to the sassi and the mountain ridge (Le Murgie) beyond them, a Matera underground walking tour, and lots of bars and restaurants. Matera is also famous for and proud of its bread, which is fabulous. A big loaf that looks like a Victorian sofa, it has a thick crust and chewy center. I think that the stronger the history of poverty, the better the bread is (thinking of that flavorless unsalted roll from Emilia-Romana in particular as a contrast).

Revisiting the theme of transportation delays: on the way from Napoli (post-Caserta), the Frecciarossa was 70 minutes late (refund applied for), so my arrival in Matera was delayed (switched to the FrecciaLink bus in Salerno). My friends/B&B owners were meeting me at the Matera train station, which was turned into a carnival for the Festa Della Bruna and closed to car traffic, so several phone calls later we met up nearby. As the bus crossed from Campania into Basilicata, I began looking for the change in stone that would mark the nearness of Matera. I soon saw the porous, off-white stone where caves occurred naturally or were dug. And I was almost home.

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All the women over fifty in this small town wore the traditional black dresses, emblem of a life sentence of mourning for a deceased husband. Younger women, and almost all women in cities of any size, no longer follow this custom. It is amazing how many women are widows in these very small towns.

Sometimes it has seemed to us that these people are placed there to add character. Little old men in suits and ties, hunched over their canes, as well as the widows in endless mourning. But then black is fashionable, non è vero?

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9879 posts

This is just fascinating Zoe. What a trip you are having!! I would love love love to get to Puglia. That's where my father-in-law is from, and one of his brothers still lives there on what was I think the family farm. The funny thing too is that their family name is literally "Sassi."

Can you imagine, begging for quinine?!!! We can't even begin to understand the level of poverty that existed there.