The next day in Matera was more of the same. We had little on the agenda, so thought we’d walk around some more and explore the inner roads and stairways of the Sassi. I still had not found the illustrious Sextantio and in this maze of buildings I started thinking I never would. As incredible as the Sassi were, it was hard to distinguish individual residences, hotels and restaurants: there’s only so much you can do with a cave.
During our walkabout, we entered a craft shop and looked around. There was nobody inside except numerous clay figurines of such luminaries as Sponge Bob, Homer Simpson and Jesus Christ. It was a very large store but most of the material was religious in nature, so it was not really our cup of tea. (Although I’m still angry I never bought the Pope Francis bobble head from Positano.) Just as we were about to leave we heard “buongiorno” echo from a dark stone hallway. Out walked a man who offered us a glimpse into life in the Sassi. He took us through the doorway into a back room–another cave–with an open area and a bed behind a frail curtain. In one corner was large cardboard cut-out of a mule, and in the other corner was a fireplace cut from the stone. A large wine jar was on an old wooden table and he asked for a donation. I gave him two Euro knowing we wouldn’t be buying anything in the store. <Clink-ity clang> The Euro dropped to the base of the glass jar and he started to tell us about his family.
“My family grew up here. There were five people who lived in this area. They lived here with their animals.”
He pointed to the cardboard donkey. I looked around and it could not have been more than about 400 square feet.
“So, when were they forced to leave?” I asked.
He pondered for a few seconds. “It was 1952 when they were forced to leave. I finally returned in 2008 and I’ve done everything to fix this place. I added wiring and plumbing. I can live in here now.”
He walked us back into his store and made us stop in the middle.
“A family of fifteen lived here.” He said and then guided us to the back where there was an elevated rock structure behind a stubby rock wall.
“This is where they kept the pigs and chickens,” He said.
He then turned to narrow staircase down to a darkened room below and told us it was a manger, where they kept larger animals. He continued to the back of his store and hopped down a ledge to another darkened room.
“Be careful.” He said, just as Julia stumbled. I hopped down to a stone platform with a dirt crawl space and several broken clay pots.
“What do you think this is?” He asked mischievously.
“The toilet.” He said. “We used to go in these pots and take it outside then dump it in the river.”
The truth of the Sassi was finally starting to be revealed, that this area was defined by abject poverty through much of its history. Up until the 1950s, Italians lived in these caves without running water, without electricity and without sanitation. The Sassi were a great stain on Italy’s image as a modern nation because residents of Matera lived in Third World conditions, prone to infectious diseases and some of the highest infant mortality rates in the World, yet Matera will proudly be recognized as Europe’s cultural capital in 2019 and the Italian government is doing everything in its power to give it a spit shine. It’s almost impossible to photograph Matera without capturing one of the many cranes towering over the Sassi and each day was greeted with the sound of jack-hammers, the only real useful tool in the Sassi. There’s another interesting ethical dilemma with the hubbub surround 2019: the Sassi are rapidly being converted to into a modern tourist haven, but at what point does it lose any historical significance and become a theme park? Perhaps becoming a theme park will allow it to survive and thrive into the future or perhaps in ten years you’ll be able to stay at the Holiday Inn Sassi and actors will portray life in the caves with animatronic livestock and posters of Mel Gibson.
We left his gift shop without buying anything and I felt guilty. He made whistles out of clay and showed us one that when you added water, changed the pitch. It was a high-pitched liquid warble like drawing from a tiny bong. We walked to the church at the civita, which is on the highest point of land, then walked through a narrow lane and came to long staircase that took us back to the road overlooking the ravine. We started down, then near the bottom I turned around and yelped “that’s it!”
“What?” Julia said.
“That’s the doorway I saw in the magazine, this must be Sextantio. Look, it is.”
We stumbled upon the famous hotel that led us here in the first place. It was what started my quest, like Richard Dreyfuss searching for the Devil’s Pulpit in Close Encounters. We had walked right by the hotel the day before without noticing how carefully camouflaged it was in the rock. Matera was complete; it was time to move on. Julia was not fussed on Alberobello, but I was not content returning to Salerno so I cooked up another strategy. I suggested we return to Naples then take the ferry to Ischia, one of the touristy islands in the Bay of Naples. Julia liked that idea immediately, so upon returning to the hotel asked the front desk clerk to look into it for us.
“It’s complicated.” He said. “Come back in an hour or so and I’ll tell you the best option.”
Later that night we received our itinerary. We were to take the bus from Matera to Bari on the east coast of Italy in order to get all the way back to Naples on the west coast. It’s like leaving Winnipeg then traveling to Toronto in order to connect to Vancouver. Our one caveat was we had to buy a ticket a special Tabachhi in Matera’s bright shopping district and we had less than half an hour to walk there. That shouldn’t be too I difficult, I thought, but it’s Italy and everything in Italy is complicated.