We arrived, finally, in a hilltop town in Basilicata, an hour west of Bari, in a wuthering African wind. The sirocco rocked the street lights, unsteadying the shadows. Scaffolding moaned like a Cyclops’s harmonica. Our son stirred in his sleep.
“I know where we are!” his mother announced, triumphantly. Her phone and the car’s satnav had squabbled on the way in, demented by new roads and by Italian cartography. Both now believed that we were parked on the brink of a chasm. Night one, and our self-drive holiday around the ankle of Italy already felt like an epic.
“Are we at the hotel?” murmured the five-year-old.
“This is Matera, darling!” I said. “We made it!”
Italy is the most stimulating place to practise motoring. At Bari airport the car-hire man winked: “We go slow. Slow but sporting.” On a half-lie and a full laugh we prepared to tour Basilicata and Puglia. We were trialling a new trip put together by tour operator Red Savannah; our itinerary showed three handsome hotels plus activities. In fact, we would trace ancient webs of settlement, sustenance and culture from the dawn of human time, via classical antiquity and Magna Grecia all the way to the near future in Lecce, our last stop.
In a corner of the Piazza Duomo stood our lodging, the discreet and sumptuous Palazzo Gattini hotel. If you judged it by its former guests, you would imagine Sharon Stone supping the (perfect) cauliflower and gamberi rossi soup and the Dalai Lama bothering the waiters. One of the Lama’s companions, staff say, performed a ceremony to calm the hotel’s ghost — a count who, in life, threw outraged townspeople a handful of change. They did him in. At this moment, as I was being told the story, the power cut out. Every alarm in town wailed. It is not that I’m superstitious — Matera is just wonderfully spooky.
From the square we gazed on the miracle. Jericho, Aleppo, Matera, I kept thinking, three of humanity’s oldest inhabited cities! The gorge below us, known as the Gravina, looked like a sunken hull, lit as if under water, ghostly dim, accreted all over with windows and dwellings; with stairways, lamps, cobbles and lupine shadows. Someone had left a small crane unchained. It spun like a weathervane. This is the Sassi, the subterranean town that travels through time; inhabited since the Palaeolithic, by the 20th century it had become a slum.
Carlo Levi’s memoir of exile Christ Stopped at Eboli shamed authority into action; the Sassi was partly cleared in the 1950s. A tourism-driven renaissance is now in full flower. The work is painstaking: the entire settlement might as well have been whittled from a single piece of limestone.
“Because of the way the water runs through the rock, if you do anything it affects everyone else,” our guide Dora Cappiello told us the next morning. She was full of gems: capers grow in cracks in the rock, she said, because lizards cannot digest the seeds. She showed us the entrance to Matera’s giant underground cistern, the Palombaro, which is deep enough to be explored by boat.
We wandered the lanes, finding a terrific scale model of the town by Eustachio Rizzi: his family also runs l’Antica Casa Grotta, a museum that brings a tiny dwelling scraped out of the soft tufa to vivid life. We nosed into cave hotels like the Palazzotto, places forced to do clever things with dehumidifiers and scent sticks: guests want the pleasure of subterranean living without the crypt odour. Visitors to this European City of Culture will also hymn the food.
We relished spectacular local varieties of everything from rare-breed pork to grapes (the Aglianico wines are every bit as good as more famous appellations). But I would go back for the feeling of being absolutely present — and on one of our oldest stages — in the story of humanity, which, here, is farming, building, feuding and finding peace.
Matera is extraordinary for not coming under the control of any one of the surrounding Mafia clans: I was told that ‘Ndrangheta, Camorra, Cosa Nostra and Sacra Corona Unita treat this ancient jewel as a free city. It might be a myth, of course, but what a fine one: the idea that there is a true patrimony of humanity here, an antique serenity slightly to one side of the daily world.
Down the hill and a little way across the green plain, we found our serenity at L’Orto di Lucania, a 17th-century farm with kitchen and restaurant attached. We made pasta: a little flour and water, some kneading and rolling, then the orecchiette (made by flipping a nail-sized piece over your thumb), then the tubes, made by rolling a worm around an elongated toothpick.
One of us was a natural. “Dad! It’s easier if you don’t look? See?” Somehow we had parented a perfect pasta factory. “Buonissimo!” cried Beatrice Racamato, the lovely chef who oversaw us, in whose hands and manner was the tireless energy and kindness of the maternal south. “Brava!” said Cinzia Spada, the lady of the house. We all glowed with pleasure — and ate magnificently: pasta, dumplings, sauce, weep with gratitude. Less is ever more. We returned to Matera through storms and took the road the next morning into a bright wide day.
I loved driving behind the road trains carrying aubergines, through the gaze of hawks and the songs of cicadas, between spaghetti-Western service stations with perfect coffee and the farmers smoking in the shade. We sneaked up on the ancient Greek city at Metaponto: there was no one to stop us climbing on ruins strewn across green sward like a Lego model of a theatre and Doric temples.
One source has Epeius, inventor of the Trojan horse, as the founder of this idyllic settlement around 700BC. Metaponto has a sea and a hinterland so rich that they minted silver coins decorated with sheaves of wheat. If you find yourself facing a Greek theatre like Metaponto’s, turn your back, squat down, and imagine the chorus outlined against the sky. The Romans erected curtain walls behind the stage, blocking off the view. The Greeks saw their drama as of the gods and for the gods, their staging setting man in tiny proportion against the universe.
We behaved. Instead of breaking in, we ate my favourite meal (aubergine a dozen ways!) in Punto Bianco, a locals’ restaurant named after the owner’s white hair, not far from the school of Pythagoras. To find the restaurant, ignore your satnav. To enter the school, keep silence for five years. We failed that test in seconds and pressed on. We were expected in the hill town of Bernalda, at Palazzo Margherita.
Once upon a time in Bernalda, there was “an aesthetic person”, as one of the locals put it, with a shudder. When he was not pressing himself on girls, he built a beautiful villa with a noteworthy garden, now protected by Italian law.
Also in Bernalda lived one Faustino, who moved to America, abandoning the dark place his hometown had become (the aesthete went on to become the Fascist mayor). One of Faustino’s grandchildren, Francis, became a film-maker. Francis bought the aesthete’s estate and, as if exorcising the evil spirit of past times, transformed it into a place of light, beauty and laughter, with a gorgeous garden and a movie-themed restaurant called Cinecittà that is open to all, so that travellers and the peoples of Bernalda and Tinseltown might sit together and eat and drink. And Francis Ford Coppola? They say he just wants people to be happy here (which is easy) and that his favourite things in the garden are the little red tubers, lampascioni, that go wonderfully in cooking sauces.
You wake up under the full effulgence of a Murano chandelier floating against a rosy azure ceiling complete with cherubim, and think yes, that looks exactly right. We danced on marble. Our hosts were unfeignedly delighted: manager Rossella de Filippo gave us the keys to the palace and stood back, grinning. You are on first-name terms with everyone: “You must get Leo here all the time?” I sallied. “Mmm,” Rossella said, then, melting: “George. George can do anything.” (They even forgive his coffee ads.)
We watched mozzarella-making in the Parente family’s backstreet factory, were greeted and charmed by every member of the clan, then ate a celestial mozzarella breakfast at their restaurant, Il Mastello.
Next up is truffle-hunting. We have looked forward to this most of all. We drive west to the Lucanian Apennines and Pollino, Italy’s biggest national park. It looks like a Wales of rumpled ridges, oak and beech, gorgeous and rough. Following boar tracks, we plunge along, man and boy both suddenly five. Franco D’Arino, the dog’s master and principal hunter, carries the vanghetta, a mini billhook. Koko, a white-ish mutt like a labradoodle, is in charge.
Giuseppe Crescente farms the land and cracks the jokes. Pretty soon we are running down truffles. Koko starts jumping about. The vanghetta smashes a bunch of brambles. In go Franco and Koko. Digging, cursing, wild Italian slang, then — white snot? No! Truffle! They are gold, chocolate and a mysterious potion-fungus rolled into one: at €2,000 a kilo they are good business. The farmers laugh and pocket them.
We eat them at 600 Grotte, a winery and kitchen in the pretty town of Chiaromonte, with fried eggs, red peppers and a gorgeous Guarnaccino rosé. We are absurdly blessed. The next day torrents of hot rain and wild drivers fail to kill us. We arrive in Lecce where my heart is stolen.
It was partly the laughter and the scent. To our balcony in the Palazzo Bozzi Corso hotel, the warm air, a semi-visible vapour rising from Lecce’s underground river, carried wisps of every perfume, lotion and tobacco passing below our window in the nightly public parade.
It was partly the art. The owners’ grandmother, Antonia Fiermontina, was a muse and wife to two Paris sculptors, René Letourneur and Jacques Zwoboda, whose works form part of the hotel’s coolly modernist take on palatial living.
And it was the light — subtropical twilights at dusk and dawn — and the creamy glow of the walls that beguiled me. In Lecce you walk and talk. I became fascinated by the locals’ identification with Greece. Many seemed to be Greeks in their hearts, Europeans in outlook, Italians naturally, Leccesi most of all. They have their own coffee (almond syrup, ice cubes, shot of espresso), cuisine (fish, boar sausages and pulses — always have the zuppa di fagioli) and their own ideas about the future.
Yasmina Antonia Filali, one of the hotel’s owners, won a Schwab Foundation award for her Orient-Occident Migrants du Monde initiative. “We opened workshops in Morocco, with local women teaching. We told the refugees, ‘You have your culture’s power in your hands.’ We helped them to start making textiles and jewellery. The local women showed them what Europeans buy.” Soon the makers were not dreaded refugees, in the eyes of the west, but desirable economic units.
As we flew out of Bari, I thought of desperate Argonauts at sea. In every town we visited we saw African migrants, heroes of a modern Odyssey. This has ever been a land of arrivals. Perhaps it is because Roman politics feel so far away from the deep south, where time moves as slowly as a shadow across a hot wall, that what I saw was a phlegmatic solidarity between locals and immigrants. In his poem “Goodbye to the Mezzogiorno”, WH Auden wrote that the sun “seems to scorn any notion of change or escape”. That is no longer the case. The tides of time and travel may roll languidly here, but slowly, slowly, roll they do.
Horatio Clare was a guest of Red Savannah, which offers a week’s trip from £2,375 per person based on two people travelling together, including two nights at Palazzo Gattini, two nights at Palazzo Margherita and three nights at Bozzi Corso, car hire, a walking tour in Matera, truffle hunting trip and cooking class. For more on Migrants du Monde, see migrantsdumonde.com
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