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MATERA

Weekend Wanderlust: Matera, Italy’s city of caves, contrasts, and culture

The third-oldest city in the world, Matera is in the limelight in 2019 but it has an enduring, timeless appeal that few travellers will be able to resist. Here's what The Local's editor Clare Speak made of it on a recent weekend visit.

Weekend Wanderlust: Matera, Italy's city of caves, contrasts, and culture
Matera.Photo: DepositPhotos

It was surprising to read in the New York Times recently that Matera’s mayor doesn’t want tourists.

“We don’t want to be occupied by tourists,” he said. Tourism will “deplete the city of its soul.”

His statement wasn’t just surprising because mayors aren’t supposed to say things like that, or because it was so futile – tourist numbers have already jumped by 216 percent here since 2010.

It was more surprising because it went against everything I know about the open, friendly people of Matera.

“In Matera you’re a guest, not a tourist,” insisted Giuseppe Bartucci, who grew up and lives in the city, where he works as a tour guide alongside his full-time job.

Standing in front of the grand municipal library, we could barely move for the crowds jostling to photograph part of a Dali exhibition, the sculpures standing in stark contrast with their historic surroundings.

When I asked if tourism caused problems for people living in Matera, Giuseppe just shrugged: “It makes some things more expensive.” But as far as he and many other residents are concerned, it’s not a problem.

Either way, the tourists keep coming. The third-oldest city in the world, Matera is today one of Italy’s hottest travel destinations; a UNESCO heritage site about to celebrate its year as European Capital of Culture, beginning on January 19, 2019.

Natural openness and curiosity about other people is part of the way of life in Matera, Giuseppe tells me – and perhaps that’s no surprise when you consider how people here lived until just over 60 years ago.

With roads, gardens and even cemeteries built on top of churches built on top of houses, from above, Matera’s old town, or Sassi, looks like a chaotic jumble.

Photo: Depositphotos.

It’s hard to tell where one building ends and another begins. But after walking the streets for a while, you start to understand that there is plenty of logic to it.

Every bit of space had been put to good use. And not only were the homes built around small communal squares with shared wells and cooking facilities, but on closer inspection, you’ll see that the cave homes themselves, dug by hand from the soft stone, have a remarkably sophisticated design.

Dug out at just the right angle to make full use of any sunlight in winter, and keep as cool as possible in summer, the cave homes are a chain of rooms, each slightly lower than the next. The excavated stone was used to build a simple facade – but doors are a recent addition.

Their inhabitants also created sophisticated underground cisterns under every home, which trapped rainwater and stopped it from evaporating.

Photo: Depositphotos.

Matera is known for once being “Italy’s shame.” The government intervened in the 1950s, passing a law that forced residents out of the Sassi and into modern housing after squalid, overcrowded living conditions were discovered.

But until the 1930s, Giuseppe explains, things were not like that at all. There was more space, animals had their own quarters, and the city had decent sanitation, with a kind of sewer running down channels in main roads.

But when that sewer was paved over, people had little choice but to empty chamber pots into the street. Disease spread. And as the city’s population exploded, in a space with natural limitations, there was less room for everyone and soon animals had to share space with the family.

The town and its inhabitants were in a shocking state by the time writer Carlo Levi arrived in the 1930s, after being exiled from his home in Turin and sent to a tiny Basilicata village by the fascist government.

Levi described dirty, impoverished conditions in the cave houses and malaria-ridden children in front of the cathedral begging for quinine. He compared the Sassi, tumbling downwards into the Gravina, with Dante’s vision of hell.

Despite Matera being an important town, and the seat of local government, distant authorities in Rome had no idea it had fallen into this state until Levi, returning from his exile years later, sounded the alarm.

Photo: Depositphotos

“Old people didn’t like it, but most other people saw it as a new start,” says Giuseppe, of the forced move to more modern housing.

But adjusting to this new, modern way of life was still a challenge for very social people used to living very literally on top of one another, with a curtain for privacy at the most.

“Materans are countryside people who like a simple life. People still leave their doors open in some parts,” says Piero Manicone, bartender at Aquatio, the newest and possibly the shiniest of all Matera’s polished high-end hotels, which have transformed many of the city’s former cave dwellings into luxury suites.

Piero grew up here in Matera and has witnessed its rapid transformation up close. He clearly remembers when the luxurious, gleaming white space he now works in was an abandoned cave house, little more than a dark hole in the earth, where he and his friends played as children.

On the plain above the Sassi, central Matera has grand baroque and liberty style buildings with Mussolini-era and more modern architecture dotted throughout. The contrast between the many architectural styles, colours and textures is striking.

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local Italy

We walk away from the centre in search of lunch at one of Giuseppe’s local haunts, Ristorante Rivelli. It has just relocated to modern premises, by the Sassi Caveoso.

The food however is rustic Cucina Lucana, with recipes perfected over decades, if not generations.

We feast on rich, buttery trofie – thick, short strands of pasta – with prawns, zucchini and mushrooms. We crunch our way through plates of sun-dried and flash-fried red peppers with a deep, smoky flavour.

After a tagliata of meltingly tender T-bone steak, a basket of famous Materan bread and a bottle of intense, spicy L’Atto from local Cantine del Notaio, I’m afraid I might not be able to walk.

I’m surprised to have been faced with such a mountain of delicious food, since Matera doesn’t have the best food reputation. It is true that restaurants here, like elsewhere, can be hit and miss. “A lot of people are opening B&Bs and restaurants when they have no experience of the industry,” Giuseppe explains.

But there are enough hits. As well as Rivelli, there’s the highly-acclaimed Dimora Ulmo, and even in the most-touristed streets you can find a decent meal if you’re careful. It’s not exactly Venice, and most businesses are owned and staffed by local people.

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local Italy

Many people have reclaimed and renovated the former cave houses that were abandoned by their grandparents, usually turning them into businesses. But the Sassi are far quieter today than they were in Levi’s day, since very few people actually live there.

“It’s not practical for everyday life. You have to park far away, you have to walk a long way to get to a supermarket,” says Giuseppe who, like most Materans, lives in the modern part of town.

An entire old town full of B&Bs and luxury hotels might give the idea that the Sassi has become a soulless ghetto given over entirely to mass tourism. But it’s not the case.

While some main streets are slowly losing their character to tourist shops, the Sassi are still full of a bewitching atmosphere, older than time.

There are expanses of the Sassi where all or most of the houses stand stricken and completely abandoned, untouched since the 1950s.

The occasional string of washing hung out to dry above the street lets us know a house is inhabited, but they’re few and far between, flanked by abandoned buildings.

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local Italy

In the Sassi Barisano, Giuseppe shows me streets with entrances either bricked up or staring out like empty black eyes over the ancient Gravina below.

“Two thirds of these houses are still state property, and for now you can’t buy them,” Giuseppe explains.

And maybe that’s for the best, as for now there’s no sign of tourism “depleting” Matera’s prehistoric soul, as the mayor apparently fears.

At night here it becomes still. If you stay overnight you’ll find that once the crowds leave, the Sassi, like the Gravina below, is covered in a thick silence. Piero compares walking in the silent Sassi to going for a massage.

It’s not easy to understand Matera’s complex and ancient history or see all of its sights on a short visit. And no matter how often I return, there never seems to be enough time.

But whether you’ve got a few hours or a couple of days, Matera is the kind of place that needs to be seen to be believed, and it deserves every bit of the hype.

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TRAIN TRAVEL

Yes, train travel across Europe is far better than flying – even with kids

Hoping to do his bit for the planet, perhaps save some money and avoid spending any time in airports, The Local's Ben McPartland decided to travel 2,000km with his family across Europe by train - not plane. Here's how he got on on and would he recommend it?

Yes, train travel across Europe is far better than flying - even with kids

Summer 2022 has seen the return of people travelling across Europe en masse whether for holidays or to see family, or both.

But it’s also seen chaos in airports, airline strikes and more questions than ever about whether we should be flying at all as Europe bakes under consecutive heatwaves caused by the climate crisis.

But are there really viable alternatives to travelling 2,000 km across Europe in a short space of time – with young kids?

The predicament

We needed to get from Paris to Portugal, or to be more precise the western edge of the Algarve in southern Portugal, for a week-long family holiday.

We didn’t have that much time to spend travelling there and back so the dilemma was how could we get there, fairly quickly?

“We” in this case being a family of four including two children aged 5 and 7, one fairly easygoing mum and a dad (me) who increasingly comes out in a rash when he goes near an airport.

Normally we’d have flown – as we did when we went to the same region of Portugal in October – but the stories of airport chaos, delays, cancellations, strikes and never-ending queues around Europe at the start of the summer made the prospect of taking the plane far less appealing.

Then throw in the climate crisis and the growing feeling that we, as a family, need to make an effort for the cause.

So the thought of flying, during what forecasters say was one of the hottest Julys on record in Europe and as rivers dried up and wildfires burn, just didn’t feel like an acceptable option – to me anyway – when there are alternatives.

There was the option of driving from France to Portugal, as many French and Portuguese nationals living in France do every summer. But driving nearly 2,000 km there and back for just a week’s holiday with two kids strapped in the back for hours on end would have been asking for trouble – either a breakdown or lots of meltdowns.

So that left taking the train. But would it be viable?  Would something go wrong as my colleague Richard Orange had warned on his own rail trip across Europe with kids this summer?

READ ALSO: What I learned taking the train through Europe with two kids

Planning the route

With the help of some really knowledgeable European rail experts like Jon Worth and information from the excellent The Man in Seat Sixty-One website we looked at the various rail routes through France and Spain to southern Portugal.

One problem was the line from southern Spain to the Algarve no longer runs which meant the best we could do was get to Seville and then hire a car.

At one point the best option looked like a night train (fairly cheap with a whole cabin reserved for the family) down to the Pyrenees (Latour-de-Carol) and then a local train to Barcelona before onwards travel to Portugal.

But in the end we settled on the direct train from Paris to Barcelona, spend the night in the Catalan city before taking the train the next day to Seville and picking up the car.

READ ALSO 6 European cities less than 7 hours from Paris by train

It would be mean Paris to Portugal in two days – or to be precise 7 hours to Barcelona, one night in a hotel, before a five-and-half-hour train journey to Seville and a three-hour car journey. It was the quickest way without flying, as far as we could see.

We were about to book the tickets when friend who was travelling by rail through Europe mentioned the Interrail option.

I did Interrailing as an 18-year- old and it was a great way to spend a month travelling around Europe (and Morocco) but had never thought it could be an option for a quickish trip to Portugal and back.

But Interrail has changed a bit since 1996 and indeed since 1972 when it was first launched for under 21s.

Now it offers passes that can be used for 4, 5 or 7 days a month – perfect for travel to a few destinations in a short space of time.

And, this was the clincher – Interrail passes for under 11s are free if they are with an adult.

Well almost free, because in certain countries like France and Spain you still need to pay for seat reservations for anyone travelling.

But the cost of the passes for two adults, plus seat reservations were cheaper than just booking direct trains and much cheaper than flying (more on costs below).

The high-speed train from Barcelona to Seville. Photo: The Local

The Upsides

Let’s start with not having to wake up at 4am and arrive at the train station three hours before the train leaves just to check in a bag and then spend the next three hours queuing in various lines – bags, passport, security, boarding etc..

We arrived at Gare de Lyon around 30 minutes before the train left and boarded without queuing and the train departed on time.

Compare this with having to get a taxi or the RER train to Charles de Gaulle airport and then still find yourself in Paris three hours later as you queue to board. (I know this is not always the case but this summer the advice was to arrive three hours before your flight to check in bags.)

Plus there was no luggage limits on the train and no having to empty your bags at security because you left an old roll-on deodorant at the bottom of your bag.

Although rail stations in Spain do have airport style x-ray machines to check all luggage, they were very rapid and didn’t result in any long queues.

Add to this comfortable seats with leg room, a bar you can walk to and spend hours watching the beautiful French and Spanish landscape whizz by.

You arrive in the centre of town – in our case Barcelona – so there’s no need to get public transport or taxis to and from out of town airports. 

Spending a night in Barcelona was a great way to break the journey – albeit a bit expensive (see below).

And it all ran pretty much on time. Over five train journeys in four days we had 15 minutes of delay. Spain’s high-speed trains were fantastic.

To sum it up: when flying your holiday only really begins when you arrive at your final destination because these days the day spent travelling is one big headache, but with the train the holiday begins as soon as you leave the station.

It’s just far, far more relaxing.

heading back to Barcelona Sants station after a night in the Catalan capital. Photo: The Local.

The Downsides

But what about the kids, you say?

Yep this can be an issue. Travelling for 7 hours on a train is not easy with two young kids but if you come prepared and can think of 75 different ways to occupy them from drawing and playing cards to I-spy and “count my freckles slowly” then it’s possible the journey will be tantrum free. (Playing hide and seek on a train with 12 carriages isn’t advisable.)

And kids adapt, so the following day’s five and half hour journey from Barcelona to Seville was a breeze because they settled into the pace of life and by that point had worked out the code to get into my mobile phone.

One complaint was how long the TGV train took to get along the southern French coast. Does it really need to stop at Nimes, Montpellier, Beziers, Agde, Sete and Perpignan? Can’t local trains serve these stations and the TGV just head straight to Spain?

Another little gripe was the train food. Whilst buffet cars on SNCF and Renfe trains are great for a coffee or a beer they don’t really offer a selection of healthy meals, so you need to come prepared. We weren’t and spent a lot of money on crap food and drink during the trips.

But if you know this in advance you can bring whatever you like onto the train, with no nonsense about 100ml limits on liquid.

Cost comparison

Working out cost comparisons are hard and anyone looking to do a similar trip will need a calculator at hand. 

It’s hard to do a direct comparison between flying and taking the train because so much depends on what the prices are when you book, the route you want to take and how quickly you want to travel and whether to go first class or standard.

But for us at the time of booking (roughly two months in advance) flights from Paris to Faro were about €1,500 for four people, train tickets booked directly with SNCF and Renfe (not interrail) for four people were around €1,200 (this probably could have been much cheaper further in advance), whilst the Interrail option – 4 day passes plus seat reservations was around €810.

So on the face of it travelling by train, especially using Interrail passes, was cheaper – but then add on the cost of two nights in hotels in central Barcelona and there was no real financial benefit of going by train.

But then it was never all about money – what price on not having to spend three hours at Charles de Gaulle airport?

How easy is it to Interrail?

Interrail proved a great option for us, even though it was only a relatively short trip. It’s more suited to those looking to do multiple journeys through various countries, perhaps at a slower pace. But the kids being free was crucial for us, so other families should definitely explore the option.

The one downside to Interrailing through France and Spain is the requirement to book seat reservations for the high-speed trains.

Whilst this sounds fairly straightforward we couldn’t do it through the Interrail app or website so had to be done with Renfe directly. For most countries you can reserve seats through the Interrail app (more on this below).

With SNCF it required a lengthy phone call because we reserved the seats to make sure there were some available before getting the Interrail passes.

For Paris to Barcelona the reservations cost €34 for standard class seats or €48 for first class.

With Renfe it was more complicated although much cheaper (Around €10 to €12 a seat). We were told on the phone that to reserve seats with Interrail you have to do it either at a Spanish train station or by phone but only if you can pick up and pay for the reservations at a Spanish train station within a certain amount of time.

Neither of these were possible when booking from Paris back in May/June. But the helpful website Man at Seat 61 recommended going via the man behind the AndyBTravels website, who charges a small fee. A few emails were exchanged and our reservations for Barcelona to Seville arrived in the post a few days later. 

Renfe and SNCF could make it easier for Interrail passengers.

The Interrail mobile pass on the the Rail Planner app was very easy to use. It was just a case of adding the days when we were travelling and then adding the specific journeys.

This brought up a QR code for each trip but the ticket controllers were always more concerned about the seat reservations we had on paper.

But all went to plan.

 

Conclusion

Those days spent sitting drinking coffee, orange and beer (in separate cups) starring out of train windows at fields, hills, mountains, villages, beach and train platforms were part of the holiday.

I’d say that if you have a day or two to spare then travelling across Europe by train instead of plane is well worth it – yes, even with two young kids.

They might even thank you for it one day if we all help avert a climate disaster. 

Advice

It’s hard to give advice because each person has different requirements that need to be taken into account – whether number of passengers, time needed for travelling, destinations, cost etc.

But plan ahead and do the research to see what’s possible.

One bit of advice if you need to travel quickly is try keep connections to a minimum or give yourself plenty of time to make them.

My colleague Richard Orange had problems on his trip from Sweden to the UK via Denmark, Germany and Belgium because of delays and missed connections.

Useful links and extra info

You can explore Interrail pass options and prices by visiting the Interrail site here. The site offers plenty of info to help you plan your trip and reserve seats on trains if necessary.

The fantastic Man in Seat 61 guide to train travel across Europe is a must-read for anyone planning a trip. It has pages and pages of useful up to date info and can be viewed here.

It also has loads of information on how to use an Interrail pass and calculations to see whether it’s the best option – if you need help with the maths. The page can be viewed here.

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