Guns and Frocks

Loving Delta and the Bannermen since 1987

Purae Sunt Plateae

Thursday 9 March 2023

The Sassi: rows and rows of yellow stone buildings cover the side of   a hill. There's a road below them, and below the road the scrubby hillside can be seen. It's a beautiful sunny day.
The Sassi

It’s my last full day in Matera. Gotta get up really early tomorrow morning — well okay, at 7 AM — to get the bus from the other side of town to take me back to the bay of Naples. So, an early night tonight.

Matera is not a big town: located in the arch of Italy’s foot, it’s got a population of about 60,000 people. And it takes about half an hour to drag a heavy suitcase from one side of the town to another, which is what I will be doing first thing tomorrow morning.

In 2014, Matera was declared the European Capital of Culture for 2019. Also in 2019, Daniel Craig came here to shoot a car chase around the streets of the town and a confrontation with one of the three facially disfigured villains in the most recent James Bond film No Time to Die. (They also shot scenes from the risible and horribly blasphemous Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ here, but I think we should all just agree as a species to forget about that film completely.)

Those aren’t the reasons I came here, obviously. The real reason — and Matera’s main claim to fame, is the Sassi — a cunningly hidden medieval city which clings to one side of a river valley on the eastern side of the town. All its buildings are constructed from large, soft, yellow blocks of limestone. But the interiors of those buildings — including some churches and monasteries — are limestone caves. Caves which may have had human inhabitants as early as 10,000 years ago.

In 1952, the Sassi were evacuated. They were malarial, and kind of unfit for human habitation. People had lived there for centuries, with no natural light and no ventilation, crowded into the caves with their families and their livestock. But over the last few decades, with the help of the EU and UNESCO, it’s been developed, and now it’s full of small businesses, bars and restaurants.

I arrived at Matera on Monday, after hanging around a bus stop with my suitcase for a few hours and travelling 3½ hours by bus south and east of Salerno. I checked into the hotel at about 7:30, went and grabbed something to eat and then went to bed.

The hotel is like the one in Salerno, only much, much cleaner. There are only four rooms here, and no one on site most of the time. There’s a four-digit code to get into the hotel and another one to get into the room. I think only one of the other rooms is currently occupied.

(This is a much better arrangement than the hotel in Salerno, which I got into using an app on my phone. One day I left my phone in the hotel room and spent an uncomfortable thirty minutes imagining myself sitting phonelessly outside the hotel for hours and hours, hoping someone nice might come by to let me in, only to remember that the keyring with my room key had two other keys on it whose purpose should have been immediately obvious.)

Each day I’ve been here, I’ve got up and wandered through the Sassi all morning, taking photos, searching for an affordable restaurant for dinner that night (unsuccessfully), and trying to find the locations where the Bond movie was shot (successfully, for the most part, although the graveyard isn’t real and that bridge Bond falls from is actually thirty kilometres away in a town called Gravina). I’ve mostly spent my afternoons reading or wandering around the rest of the town listening to podcasts. It’s been nice. Things are a bit expensive here, I think, but the streets are wide and clean and there’s nothing to hinder those who are deep in thought.

After today, there are just over seven days left in this part of the trip. Next Friday, I’ll be flying out from Rome to Delhi, where I will catch up with Calvin, and where the second, much weirder phase of the journey will begin. I’ll catch up with you before then.

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