Paestum, also known by its original name of Poseidonia, was a Greek colony founded around BC 600 on the west coast of Italy, some 80 km south of modern Naples. It was conquered by the Romans in BC 273, renamed Paestum, and prospered for hundreds of years thereafter until some time in the 4th century when most of the inhabitants started to move inland to what is now Capaccio because of the spread of malaria in the area (following persistent deforestation and the land turning marshy). By the end of the 9th century, because of the malaria and ever increasing raids by Saracen pirates, the last inhabitants had left and the town was overgrown and lost until 1748 when during local road building the temples were rediscovered and excavated.
Today Paestum is one of the most visited archaeological sites in the world due to its three relatively well preserved Greek temples. They are purportedly the best of their kind outside of Greece although, trying to determine to whom the temples were originally dedicated is no easy matter. Google it and you’ll find that the larger middle temple of the three was dedicated to one of either Apollo, Poseidon or Hera. As for the other two, don’t ask. The museum attached to the archaeological site claims that the two larger of the three temples were both dedicated to Hera while the smaller temple was dedicated to Athena and I’ll go with them.
We were heading north towards Salerno and the Amalfi Coast and halted for a night or two at a camp site by the sea near Capaccio (at a place called Licinella-Torre di Paestum). It was pure chance that whilst out exploring the area around the camp site (I was actually looking for a decent restaurant) I stumbled on the archaeological site of Paestum… and wasn’t I pleased?!? I spent the next three hours happily wandering the site and it’s associated museum (and for dinner that evening we had to settle for a pizza and a couple of beers at the camp site). Some things are just meant to be.
Camp site at Scalea was disappointing and we elected to move on after the one night.
The dogs liked the place (give them sea and sand and they are over the moon) and, parked right alongside the beach, we had a tremendous view but neither Vanya nor I have ever been keen on grubby lukewarm showers.
We headed off towards Paestum in Calabria. Time for a little culture.
Whilst visiting Matera we stayed at an outstanding campsite just outside the town, Area Camper Matera (Kartodromomatera), owned by Gianfranco and family. He recommended a couple of places to visit and one of them was the hilltop village of Craco, also in Basilicata, which he told us is only an hour or so drive from Matera.
The drive was straight forward and passed quickly enough. Craco was easily discernible from some way off. Stark and striking and topped by a very obvious Norman Keep it is perched at the very edge of a 400 metre cliff in the Cavone River Valley.
The town was founded around AD 540 although, there is evidence of an earlier settlement on the same site during the Iron Ages. Much of the current town (such as it is) dates back to the Middle Ages with the Norman Tower, built in 1040, being the oldest known building.
It is totally deserted, except for some stray dogs and a few sheep. Throughout it’s known history, Craco has suffered from landslides and, to a lesser extent, earthquakes but a series of landslides between the 1950’s and early 1960’s compelled the majority of the population (some 1,800 residents) to move to nearby Craco Peschiera. A major flood in 1972 and an earthquake in 1980 forced the remainder to leave except for one last person who hung on until 1991.
Once abandoned, the town became overgrown and then, in the 2,000’s it started caving in on itself. Many of it’s buildings have since collapsed or are on the verge of collapse. A few remain intact with various original features still in place (range cookers, electricity meters, etc) but they have all been plundered for anything of value and for the most part they are not safe.
A local ordinance provides that no more than 35 people are allowed in the town at any given time and even then they have to be guided. No one was allowed in on the day we arrived (don’t ask me why) but it was easy enough for me to avoid security, scale the fence and have a good nosey around. It is quite surreal. I am used to seeing ruins on my tours and I have certainly seen abandoned towns before but never a whole town complete with 20th century fixtures and fittings.
I don’t see that it has any future. Film makers have made use of it – It formed a background for Judas’s suicide in The Passion of Christ and was used again in Quantum of Solace – but, it is becoming increasingly unsafe and, I suspect, totally beyond repair (even assuming anyone would be foolish enough to want to renovate buildings in an area so prone to landslides and earthquakes).
Leaving Craco we made our way over to Italy’s west coast, enjoying splendid views as we did so, and settled on a campsite at Scalea in Calabria.
The only nice things to be said about that campsite is that we were parked up on the beach with pretty good views and the dogs seem to like the place. Otherwise… we’ll be moving in the morning.
Matera has the “wow factor” in spades and is up there with the most special places we have seen in Italy. We were only staying one night but after an initial wander and an evening meal in the centre we simply had to stay on.
Matera old town has a timeless beauty about it. The colour and the atmosphere of the place changes throughout the day. In the afternoon when the sun is at it’s hottest and the town is eerily quiet with shops and restaurants mostly closed and the streets almost deserted, the almost total silence and the dazzle of the sun reflecting off the limestone buildings seems reminiscent of the holy land some 2,000 years ago. It’s surreal – you are remote and on high, looking down on an ancient time and city. Yet, in the evening, as the city comes alive with families emerging to shop, eat and socialise and; with the increasing sound and; with hundreds if not thousands of small streetlights reflecting off the limestone, the place takes on a pale, cooler more inviting hue that draws you in. There’s a noise and vibrancy about the place. You want to stop and absorb everything but at the same time you want to keep walking so as to see and experience more and; of course, you get sucked deeper into the city – that is when you find the cave houses and start to feel the real atmosphere of the place. That is when you want to know everything about how the people in the cave houses lived; what they ate and drank; how they coped with the heat and the cold; you want to know it all. Vanya booked me on a walking tour of the old town for the next day and it was it was just what I needed – talk about money well spent!
I’ll not go into all the detail but during the 3 hours that my guide, Sarah, walked and talked me around the Civita and the Sassi Caveoso and Sassi Barasano (which areas form the old town) I learned much about the early history of the place and how the people lived and how Matera came to be regarded first as a total embarrassment to Italy and then a World Heritage Site and national treasure. No longer need anyone feel ashamed about the Sassi, least of all the people who lived there.
Matera goes back a long way. It has been described as the world’s third oldest city. I don’t know about that but there is evidence of the numerous natural limestone caves in the Gravina Canyon (which forms one side of Matera) having been continuously inhabited for some 7,000 years and with the Altamura Man having died anything up to 187,000 years ago just 13 miles away, it is distinctly possible.
That said, it was in the Middle Ages that the city we see today started to take shape. In the 13th century the cathedral of Santa Maria della Bruna was built on the ridge high above the Gravina in an area now known as Civita and the people started to build all around the cathedral – the richer nobles in large elegant houses along the top of the ridge and the less fortunate in smaller houses either side of the ridge in what became the Sassi Caveoso (on the steep canyon side) and the Sassi Barasano on the softer side. What we might term the middle class built traditional stone houses on the northwest side of the Civita (the Sassi Barasano) while the poorer classes had to be content with cave houses on the steeper south east edge of the ridge overlooking the Gravina (the Sassi Caveoso). The areas are termed Sassi because most if not all of the properties were constructed entirely from stone and the Italian word for stone is sassi. Over time, the Sassi quite literally grew as individuals living in the original caves around Civita dug deeper into the rock to create more space and shaped the excavated rock into limestone blocks that were used first as facades at the entrances to the caves (for protection from the elements as much as anything) and then to form extensions and build churches, etc and then, in the Caveoso area, the rooves of the existing cave houses became roads and paths as the local people excavated more and more of the rock face to create additional dwellings at every available level of the canyon.
This was never going to be sustainable and as the population of Mantera grew, the Sassi Caveoso in particular became increasingly overcrowded, not least because the steep sides of the Gravina Canyon limited any real expansion and the area soon degenerated into a totally overcrowded and unhygienic slum with large families and any animals they possessed being crammed into the small cave houses. The people of the Sassi Caveoso and, to a lesser extent, the Sassi Barasano were living in the most unthinkable living conditions; malaria was rife and mortality rates, especially amongst children, was spiralling.
In 1952, after visiting Mantera and witnessing the situation for himself, the Italian Prime Minister, Alcide de Gasperi, was outraged; describing the living conditions as inhuman and a national disgrace – the “shame of Italy”. He instructed that new homes be built and the grottos be emptied and this happened over the ensuing 15 years with everyone being moved out of Sassi Caveoso and parts of Sasso Barasano and the evacuated areas being left to crumble and rot.
The evacuated areas were left idle until certain film makers found the area and started using it as a setting. Pier Paulo Pasolini came first in 1964 when filming “The Gospel According To St Matthew” (he said that in Matera he “found those places and faces that went lost in Palestine”) and some restoration work was begun shortly after the 1985 release of “King David” starring Richard Gere but, it was Mel Gibson’s “The Passion Of Christ” in 2004 which really kick started the Sassi regeneration. There’s talk in Matera of raising a Mel Gibson statue (heaven forbid) because his film is credited with attracting so many more film makers (204 films have been shot at least in part in Matera, including remakes of “The Omen” and “Ben Hur”, the 2008 Bond movie “Quantum of Solace” and the 2017 production of “Wonder Woman”) and these, in turn, have attracted more investment.
Matera has come a long way during the last few years. Film makers continue to arrive (part of the 2020 Bond Movie “No Time To Die” has been filmed here) and tourism is set to become a major feature of the area. Now you can find a whole new town of elegant pedestrian squares filled with restaurants and stylish designer shops sitting alongside the dramatic tangle of stone houses that were the old town. Some of the cave homes have been leased from the government and transformed into classy hotels and trendy cafe bars (there’s even a Michelin listed restaurant) and cave B&B’s and; Matera has been granted UNESCO World Heritage status and more recently recognised as a European Capital of Culture (2019). What is pleasing is that a large part of the Sassi Caveoso is set to be restored and left as a permanent reminder of what once was.
The primary entrance to the Sassi Cavioso is through an arch that is part of the Chiesi San Pietro Caveoso. This is one of the most unusual churches I have seen. It is a very basic church with none of the rich trappings one might ordinarily associate with a Catholic church. It was built to serve the local peasants. The images and sculptures in the church by which the locals could learn of the scriptures (few if any could read or write) were designed and made by the locals themselves (and it is plainly obvious that none were artists)…
I could go on for hours about this place but, instead, I’ll just add a few more photos which for me capture certain elements of the city:-
Beautiful little fishing port down in the heel of Italy. I stopped off here two years ago on my way back to the UK from Greece. For that reason I will not talk much about the place – if you are interested you can read my earlier blog. For those who have read it already it will suffice to say that Arkwright’s is no longer there. Shame.
Stayed at a different, far better camp site this time – La Masseria – large site with all amenities and reasonably priced. We stayed two nights and if the weather had been better we would have stayed longer. The swimming pools looked great and it would have been nice to have taken advantage of it.
Vanya hadn’t seen Gallipoli before and we therefore used the free camp site shuttle into town. It was very windy and so after a quick circuit of the peninsula which houses the old town (i.e. the more interesting and historical parts) we made our way into the lanes (for protection from the wind as much as anything), did some window shopping, sat and had an ice cream and then made our way back. Doesn’t sound particularly exciting but Gallipoli is so picturesque (even in what sometimes felt like hurricane force winds) that you don’t need much more. We both enjoyed the visit.
We headed for Gallipoli today by way of Fasano (for its theme park) and Ostuni (because it is pretty).
Fasano Theme Park or, to give it its correct name, Zoosafari Fasanolandia has various fairground attractions and multiple rides (roller coasters, dodgems, ghost train, log flume, etc) but it is the 150 acre drive through safari park that captured Vanya’s attention and which brought us to Fasano. Just as well since Covid had seen to it that the fairground attractions were all closed down. The safari park is not that large but what sets it apart from others we have been to is that the dogs were allowed to accompany us as we drove through and it was almost as much fun watching our dog’s reaction to the animals in the zoo as the animals themselves.
We had the park almost to ourselves and with no queues passed through it quite quickly. It was fun though and while there was not a great variety of animals, there were significant numbers of certain species (in particular lions, tigers and brown bears). The pride of lions was one of the largest I have seen and included a surprising number of fully grown males but the streak or ambush of tigers was huge. I thought they were quite solitary creatures but, no, there must have been 20+ sharing the tiger enclosure.
I was going to write a little about our second stop of the day at Ostuni. Known as “The White City” because of its plenitude of whitewashed houses, Ostuni is not a particularly large town (circe 30,000 people live there) but, spread across three small hills and towering over the surrounding area, it is is quite literally dazzling and ranked amongst the most picturesque towns in Puglia. This is another of those towns I earmarked for a visit some two years ago (when I returned from my Balkans Tour via Italy) but I never quite made it.
Well, I made it this time and, yes, parts of it looked wonderful. Unfortunately however my SatNav chose to play up just as we entered the town and I wasn’t therefore best placed to enjoy it. The bloody thing had me going round in circles for ages but worst of all it took me into the labyrinth that is the oldest part of the city. It was inevitable I would end up lost in the lanes and as the lanes became narrower and narrower it was almost equally certain that I would get stuck – and, yes, that is precisely what happened. It got to the stage that I could proceed no further. I don’t want to write anymore. I don’t even want to think about what happened. Let’s just say that we (eventually) got out out of it with Vanya stopping traffic and guiding me backwards and you can imagine how sympathetic the Italian drivers, who were behind me, were.
Alberobello is a World Heritage Site that I had intended calling in on during my return from the Balkans early in 2018. It didn’t happen then but it has now.
The town is known for its “trulli” which are unique to Puglia and in particular the Itria Valley. They are cylindrical stone walled huts with cone shaped roofs which are invariably topped with a spire and often adorned with crudely painted religious or superstitious markings. They are a drywall construction (no mortar is used) of roughly worked limestone blocks with the conical roof being made of ever smaller blocks and then topped with a final layer of flat angled stones so that rain water flows away from the building. The walls of each “trullo” are very thick so as to keep the inside warm in winter and cool in the summer and, nowadays, the walls are usually whitewashed with the conical roofs being left grey. This makes for a very picturesque building and Alberobello has almost 2,000 of them.
Quite often a number of trulli will be clustered together thus creating several rooms (Trullo Sovrano, the Sovreign Trullo, is the largest in Alberobello with several rooms spread over two very distinct floors) and there is even a trullo church, the Sant Antonio Church. Alberobello is a picture postcard town and there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world.
The trulli originated some time in the 1500’s when the Acquaviva family, feudal lords over the Itria Valley, sought to avoid paying property taxes to the king. They ordered local peasants to build dwellings without mortar so that, in the event of a royal inspection, they could be dismantled very quickly and with the peasants in hiding the inspector could not then call in taxes against an inhabited settlement. Hard luck on the king and most especially the peasants who had to set about rebuilding their homes until the next inspection. This went on some 200 years until discontented citizens appealed directly to the king and he gave Alberobello royal town status and so freed the inhabitants from the rules of feudal lords.
We wanted to see Alberobello at night and that first evening were given a lift into town by a local who dropped all four of us (Vanya, Nala, Beanie and myself) behind the Chiesa dei Santi Medici Cosma e Damiano (the Basilica Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian) with a promise that he would collect us in 2 hours time. He also advised us to make our way down the Corso Vittorio Emanuele to the Piazza del Popolo where we could access the two main trulli areas of Rione Monte and Rione Aia Piccolo. That gave us just enough time to both wander the Rione Monte area and catch a couple of drinks at a bar on the Piazza del Popolo. We would return the next day to properly explore both areas.
The Rione Monte is a large, brightly lit pedestrianised area built on a slope overlooking the Piazza del Popolo. It is covered with trulli; over 1,000 of them. Not all of these particular trulli are homes; many have been converted to cafe bars, restaurants, small shops selling local produce (linens, jewellery, local sweets, and model trulli etc) and tourist accommodation. In fact, almost all of Rione Monte seems to have been given over to tourism notwithstanding that the Sant Antonio Church (also built in the trulli style) towers above this particular area. No matter, it is still truly beautiful (forgive the pun).
Two buildings in the Rione Monte deserving special mention are (a) the Casa d’Amore, built in 1797 and not a love nest as the name might suggest but the home of one Francesco Amore who was a ringleader in the uprising against the feudal lords which led to Alberobello becoming a royal town and (b) Il Pozzo Illuminato, an unusual shop selling the most bizarre ceramics and old movie photographs (in addition to the ever present model trulli).
We returned to the town the next day to see Rione Aia Piccola and revisit Rione Monte. Aia Piccola is a largely non commercial, wholly residential area of 400+ trulli which sits opposite Rione Monte. It looks and feels lived in and with few if any tourist shops it appears far more authentic than it’s counterpart on the opposite side of the Piazza del Popolo.
We thoroughly enjoyed wandering in and around the area’s narrow winding streets and were delighted to be called into one trullo by the gentleman who still lived there. His was a clean but cluttered little property of three connected trulli. He shared a glass of Primitivo wine and some Amoretti biscuits (which we were encouraged to dunk in our wine!) and invited us to view his grandmothers old trullo which was, let us say, more sparsely and traditionally furnished but still quite homely. His grandmother’s property also comprised three connected trulli but, having a number of significantly sized arched alcoves, hers offered considerably more storage and living space.
After Aia Piccola we had time to both eat an al fresco lunch on the Piazza del Popolo and revisit Rione Monte. In the cold light of the day (except it wasn’t cold) and after visiting Aia Piccola, Rione Monte appeared far more commercial and therefore not quite so appealing as the previous evening but that is perhaps to be expected after seeing Aia Piccila and that comment should not detract from it’s overall beauty.
I’ve long said that as a place to visit and for things to see and do, Puglia can compare with any of the other better known regions of Italy (Rome, Venice, Tuscany, etc) and it can only be a matter of time before Puglia will begin to receive the same media attention as it’s more illustrious neighbours. That is perhaps when tourism will start to detract from places like Alberobello but for the present, so glad it is there and to have seen it!
POST SCRIPT: Alberobello completely overwhelmed me. I forgot to mention that we made our way from Bisceglie to Bari to catch our ferry to Albania (en route to Greece); we checked in, got our tickets and were about to board the ferry when, after learning of Covid restrictions between Albania & Greece and then Greece & Italy, we decided to cancel it all and stay in Italy. That means more time in Puglia!!
We came to Bisceglie because it has one of very few camp sites currently open in the Bari area and at the end of the month (in two days time) we are scheduled to leave Bari on a ferry to Durres in Albania. We are finally making proper progress on our journey to Greece.
Bisceglia is a fair sized town of 50,000+ some 20 miles north of Bari. It was around in Roman times (known then as Vigiliae) but didn’t really come to prominence until the 11th century after being conquered by the Normans. Agriculture (olives) and to a lesser extent fishing are the main activities in the area but lately tourism has also become important.
Our camp site was some 2 kms north of the town centre and it was a lovely sunny walk along the promenade to the harbour and then into the old town which adjoins the harbour and is wholly residential except for the cathedral and a handful of small cafe bars. The cafe bars were full of locals and there was no sign of tourism or any other form of commercial development. The lanes are wonderful and were a breath of fresh air after some of the places that we passed through during our drive down from Vieste.
We enjoyed a wander around both the harbour and the old town and stayed long enough to enjoy a late breakfast in an old town cafe and an early lunch sitting outside a harbour cafe.
Breakfast amounted to a chicken taco and a local beer (okay it was early for booze but we are on a kind of holiday) while lunch comprised the local bread and four very large prawns coated in chopped almonds. One thing I missed out on was a Bisceglie Sospiro. This is a light sponge cake, the flour of which is flavoured with lemon zest, filled with a vanilla infused cream and coated with a thin sugar glaze. According to local legend, when Lucrezia Borgia, the countess of Bisceglie, wed Alfonso of Aragon, the nuns of the San Luigi convent prepared these little cakes for the wedding celebrations. Other stories say that the Sospiro was invented by a romantic confectioner who was inspired by the shape of his lover’s breasts. The cakes are breast shaped.
We stayed for two very enjoyable and relaxing days.
One other thing, there were some rather bizarre sculptures on the harbour of which I can find no detail. They included 3 pairs of shoes right by the waters edge, a pair of hands (cut off at the wrist) and a most curious fisherman. If anyone knows anything about these, please drop me a line…
Whilst we were in Vieste a local chap, Francesco, had recommended we visit Trani; a fair sized town of 50,000 people further south on the Adriatic. Trani was en route to our next planned stop of Bisceglie and, while my admittedly limited research on the place suggested there was not much to see (It’s real interest is in it’s history – it was a major jumping off point for many of the Crusades) we decided to give it a try.
We elected to follow the coast road. We figured it would be slower but more picturesque and; it was for the first few miles across the Gargano Peninsula to Manfredonia and; it should have been impressive beyond that but, so far as Vanya and I are concerned… Well, read the travel blurb and it will tell you of the numerous luxury holiday resorts all with blue flag beaches that adorn this particular stretch of the Adriatic coastline. It will tell you too of the beauty of the Riserva Naturale di Stato Saline di Margherita di Savoia. Sorry, not when we were there. We drove the coast road all the way from Manfredonia, through Zapponeta, Margherita di Savoia and Barletta to Trani and, honestly, it looked like an extensive plot from Dawn Of The Dead. The first half of that journey we passed countless holiday resorts and camp sites; every one of them closed if not derelict; shredded flags blowing in the wind and rubbish, tons of rubbish and dumped furniture, strewn along both sides of the road and; no people. The second half of the journey it was salt marshes; miles of flat, featureless salt marshes occasionally punctuated with metal skeletons that I assume were some form of industrial processing plant and small mountains of salt and; rubbish, tons of rubbish and dumped furniture strewn along both sides of the road and; no people. And it was grey and it was raining and all very apocalyptic.
We arrived at a bad time, about noon, when every self respecting Italian is off for a two or three hour lunch) and the ensuing lack of activity around the town combined with worsening weather (heavy rain clouds were forming) ruled out one of my favourite pastimes – people watching over a glass of wine or two.
We decided that, because Trani is a historic fishing port, anything worth seeing would be down by the seafront and so we made for the harbour. I knew too that the Cattedrale di San Nicola Pellegrino, one building that I am keen to see, is also by the harbour.
It was easy to find the harbour and we parked up on a delightful square almost on the marina, the Piazza Plebiscito. There followed a brief wander around the marina (taking the usual tourist snaps as we went), and then a stroll along the harbour walls and promenade and through the adjacent 19th century gardens (the Villa Comunale).
We decided against a trip across to the cathedral because the sky was darkening at an alarming rate and we were denied any decent photographic opportunities as a result of it being totally enveloped in scaffolding for renovation purposes. Just my luck! By the way, I am talking about the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas the Pilgrim, not the other better known Saint Nicholas of Santa Claus fame.