Posts Tagged ‘Michael Dubruiel’

First, some links:

I’m in Living Faith today.

Ash Wednesday in the desert….and for twelve-year olds

Evelyn Waugh on Ash Wednesday in New Orleans

Days of Joy and Ashes!

All right…so how did Ash Wednesday go over here?

I was irritated with myself because I hadn’t carefully noted any Ash Wednesday Mass times I’d seen. I will say that the churches over here have a very helpful practice of posting Mass times for every church in the town/region/whatever – in every church. No competition, just…get you to Mass when you can.

But I didn’t think this would be like a Sunday, and I also knew that evening Masses would be a more likely happening, not only because they’re a favorite over here anyway, but because of the craziness last night.

Nonetheless, I set out around 9, thinking that maybe there’d be a Mass somewhere. I tried the churches closest to my apartment – nope. Doors were shut and locked, and there was no signage indicating when Mass was. Okay, I’ll try San Domenico, where I went to Mass on Sunday. By now it was 9:15. The doors were open! There were people sitting inside! The priest in his cassock was at the ambo, preparing the readings! I’m in!

I sat down. The church was about a third full already, which I thought was a little strange. The sacristan came in to light the candles. He lit the altar candles and then – he lit the Paschal candle. Wait, what? Is this some new, Spirit-led, synodal thing happening? Is it Italian? Does the guy just not know what he’s doing?

The minutes ticked on. The Paschal candle burned. More people came in. I glanced outside when the door swung open, and saw a couple of men in black suits with white gloves on. Oh, wait. I think –

-and then, on the shoulders of six men…came the casket. People were following it. They were crying.

RIP, but I don’t think this is going to be an Ash Wednesday Mass.

After this, I drove to Lecce (more on that later), and filled up my already full experience of the Italian Baroque with still more Italian Baroque, in some stunning churches that were certainly well-maintained, but not having Mass until the evening either.

All right. Return to Putignano, do some final souvenir shopping, and on the way, check in San Pietro, the church closest to me. Ah ha – 6:30. I’m there.

As well as a lot of other people. The church was full, including groups of people in garb that was not clerical, but something else. I want to say they were the canons of the parish, but can canons be non-clerics? Because there was at least one woman in the group. Anyway, I finally made it to Mass, and just a reminder: In Italy (and perhaps other European countries), they don’t have the annual self-scourging comparing Jesus’ words in the Gospel for Mass with the big black smudge on the forehead. Because in Italy, the ashes are sprinkled on top of your head….your Father knows…

Oh, and I got interviewed for..something after Mass. I walked out into the piazza, and a woman with a microphone followed by a man with a camera approached me. I offered my usual reflexive no Italiano – when she started, in very broken English, asking me about Carnevale. Where was I from? I told her. Did you follow Carnevale? What did she mean? Did I come here especially for Carnevale, following it? Well, sort of. She asked again, Do you follow Carnevale? Is she asking me if I followed the parades along the route? Well, yes, I followed. The parades. I guess. She finally got the right words – Do you like – did you like Carnevale? Ah, yes. Oh, very much!

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Oh, I’ve had octopus before. I just don’t have any interest in munching on tentacles in a sandwich, no matter how “local” it might be.

(Click on photos for larger images. Go to Instagram for more photos and videos – especially in “highlights.”)

First, some clean up – literally. You might (or might not) be wondering about the mess left from Carnevale celebrations on Sunday night. The answer: About two this morning (Monday), I was awakened by…noise and I thought…why are there motorcycles racing around at two in the morning? This isn’t Naples, after all. It took a minute, but I eventually realized that what I was hearing was street cleaning happening, and yes, they did it. Of course not every speck of confetti was gone – that would be impossible – but in general, there was no hint this morning of what had been going on twelve hours before.

And tonight? So quiet. The first quiet night since I arrived here. It’s actually a little strange.

Anyway, since today was not a parade day, I could leave the city without any hassle. (Non-residents can only enter the perimeter on parade days with a ticket, which I don’t have, since my apartment is, indeed, within the perimeter. And I’m not a resident. So I’m stuck. Which I knew from the beginning, and is fine – and is of course one of the reasons I’m here.)

So, Bari, it was. And although I have a car, I decided not to use it for this. It would have made the trip shorter, but Bari is a large city, and I just didn’t feel like dealing with it. Besides, with the total round trip cost (bus one way, train the other) of about 7 dollars, I think, between gas and parking and stress, I came out better this way.

Also: Google Maps is not trustworthy on public transportation, at least in Italy. It told me there was a 9am bus from Putignano to Bari. There was no such bus. There, was, however, a 9:25 bus. So that became my bus.

I only spent a few hours in Bari. I had a few goals: see the Basilica of St. Nicholas and the Cathedral, see the sea and eat one or two local foods. I thought about getting on the train and also going to either (or both) Polignano de Mare or Monopoli – seaside towns just a very short way from Bari, but by the time it was time….I didn’t want to extend my day that much more. So back to Putignano it was, with time to go to my fourth favorite place while traveling, after wandering town streets, churches, and museums: the grocery store. And I found a good one, finally.

Both the Cathedral and the Basilica are medieval Romanesque structures which were festooned with baroque elements during…the Baroque era, and were subsequently stripped of (most of) those elements in the 20th century. I have no problem in getting rid of the Baroque elements – Lord knows there’s enough of that in Italy, and yes, I think it’s appropriate to restore these buildings to their original silhouettes. But my problem with both, in their present form, is that while their starkness has a certain dignity to it, that starkness is not faithful to the period in which they were built any more than the Baroque swirls were. They were probably both painted up and filled with statues – neither of which is the case now.

Enough of the nit-picking, let’s go.

The first set of images is from the Cathedral of Saint Sabinus. I don’t know why I don’t have a photo of the exterior – I think I was eating when I walked up to it, finished my focaccia, brushed off my hands and went in without thinking about it. Well, you can see those elsewhere. The first three photos are the interior of the main church. The middle photo is the crypt, and the last three are of a mosaic floor in the archaeological area below crypt level that holds evidence – this floor – of the original church on the site, built in the 6th century.

Next, the Basilica of St. Nicholas.

The Basilica is run by Dominicans (hence the images of Dominic and Thomas Aquinas), but the Russian Orthodox use the crypt for liturgies. There is a Russian Orthodox church in Bari, but of course the relics are in the basilica. The Orthodox celebrate liturgy in the crypt with the relics, once a week. In the gift shop, most of the items by far were icon-ish and had Cyrillic writing on them, not Roman script.

Also, you might note the real candles. I’ve been in a lot of churches over the past two weeks, and I’ve seen real – as opposed to electric – vigil candles in only one church: the Institute of Christ the King parish in Naples. My theory is that the Orthodox aren’t having any of this electric candle nonsense, so it’s not happening here.

This was not the sight H.V. Morton describes in his book, but then he was there on the feast celebrating the translation of the relics, and it was decades ago. Nonetheless, I had the sense, even in the few minutes I was there, that this is still primarily a pilgrimage site. There was a lot of prayer happening. Also note the contrast between the photograph of the condition of the church in the 1930’s and today.

So now let’s talk food. I don’t have good – really any- photos because most of what I eat is street food that I’m holding and I can’t take a picture with one hand.

First up was focaccia barese from Panificio Santa Rita. This focaccia is tomatoes and olives. The Santa Rita version is obviously fame among travelers – the place is tiny, so you really can’t wait outside and there’s big guy at the door to make sure you don’t overstep. I didn’t have to wait too long, but the next time I passed, the line was probably 20 people long.

I wanted to get fish, but the takeout place I’d marked was closed, and I’d just eaten something else when I passed the octopus place, so..stupidly, no fish in Bari for me.

Fish-related: it’s traditional for fishermen to set up tables in a certain spot on the lungomare after they’ve fished for the day, selling their wares for taking or consumption right there (oysters, urchins, etc) – I don’t know if it’s because it was later in the day (after 1) or February isn’t a productive period in the Adriatic, but there were only a couple with a few boxes of creatures when I walked by.

One of the other foods Bari is famed for is orecchiette pasta. There are certain areas where women make orecchiette and sell it outside their homes. I found one informal outdoor restaurant and had a small bowl – I should have gotten it with rabe, which is the proper Bari way, but as per usual, I was confused when the woman asked me what I wanted and gave the wrong answer. Anyway, it was good, and I mostly wanted to experience freshly made, properly cooked orecchiette, and I did.

Finally, some gelato from this place – wow, was it good. My flavors? One called San Nicola (of course), which had (I think) nuts and caramel, and then flavor with pepper in it that was fantastic. I see they have four locations in NYC, too.

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Well, THAT was bonkers….and it’s only Sunday. What will Tuesday be like?

Okay, by “bonkers” I don’t mean literally insane or bizarre. I just mean intense and very, very Italian – that combination of the highest level of artistry (the floats, in this case) with abstruse storytelling, political digs, people walking in parades drinking beers and smoking, off-handedness and bottomless enthusiasm. Just good times, all around.

Oh, except for the three women who suddenly erupted into a physical fight very close to me, knocking me off the perch the short-even-in-Italy me had found on the base of a streetlamp. Two of the women were led away by authorities, and the first remained, upset, her face quite scratched up and the older man with her – I presume her father, occasionally erupting into impassioned emotive speech about what had just happened. So that was not a good time for them, but quite absorbing for the rest of us…

As I said in the previous post, you can find the “fairy tales” that the floats expressed written about here. Those were the main attractions, of course, and they are marvels, even if the stories are silly and (to me) strained. Huge, manually-fabricated paper-mache and elaborate. What’s interesting to me is that they’re not hidden away before and after the parade. They were brought out a few hours before (one was nearby when I came out of Mass at noon) and remained on the street after the parade, while folks are milling around and partying. The parade follows a road that encircles the old city.

Each large float was preceded by a group of..(sort of) dancers who I think were acting out, in an interpretive dance type fashion, the story of the float. I’m not sure, but I think that was what was happening.

In addition, other groups were part of the parade (no live bands, though – Italian marching bands are my favorite, so that’s too bad) – I am not sure who they were or what their associations were, but they ranged from puzzling to entertaining. There were at least two hundred walking dressed as Alice in Wonderland characters. The music didn’t seem to have a relation to Alice, and the dancing was cheerful, but perfunctory, so that was weird.

I think what I enjoyed, after the artistry of the floats, was the just shear amateur-level fun that was being had. There was dancing, and there were moves, but the people doing them ranged from little children, to people pushing strollers, to young women who were very precise, to young men who were absolutely game for whatever was up and not embarrassed at all, even if they were having to wear glittery, light-up wings, to older women who still had their moves, to older men giving it their loopy, cheerful all.

And..they’re still out there. I can hear them! The streets are coated with confetti, the trash cans are piled high, the babies in their Minnie Mouse ears are passed out in their strollers, but the beat goes on here in Putignano…

Photos are below, but for video go to Instagram, especially to Stories. I’ll put the Stories in a Highlight once the 24-hour limit has passed.

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(They say)

…was Putignano’s Carnevale.

(They say)

I don’t know about that, since my quick read puts Venice’s in the 12th century and the claims for this one are the 13th.

Please note, as you try to parse all of this social, cultural and religious tradition, that the origins of neither have anything to do with Lent – both are celebrations of triumph of one sort or another, over enemies. In the case of Putignano, it’s related to the translation of some of St. Stephen’s relics from Monopli on the coast, under threat from Saracens, to Santa Maria la Greca in this city. The peasants celebrated along the way…and so carnevale was born.

The symbolic figure of carnevale is Farinella – the name for a kind of flour ground from chickpeas and barley. Origin? Another tale of intolerance against Saracens. The baker Farinella thought of a clever way to keep the Saracens from attacking: using flour to mimic sores and other manifestations of disease, convincing the would-be attackers that plague was rampant. It worked, the legend says, and so another reason to celebrate.

Well, there you go. I have no idea how this all got connected to pre-Lent, but I’m sure someone has done the research. I’d be very interested to know how that happened.

And as for the history of this trip? I didn’t look at the map and calendar and say, Ah! Yes! Of course! Putignano’s Carnevale!

For of course, I had no idea about the existence of this place before, I don’t know – maybe two months ago?

No, the origin story here is that when it dawned on me that the parameters of this trip included pre-Lent, I got to thinking…where are the good Carnevale celebrations in Italy? Well, Venice, of course, but it also seemed that most of the notable celebrations were in northern Italy. Except for this one. So…I kept figuring, looking at Matera as a place I wanted to go, looking at Puglia as an area I’d never been and certainly wanted to see….and so I got this cute little apartment a block away from the parade route, and here I am.

And…here I am. There are big parades today (Sunday) and Tuesday, and for those days, I’m essentially trapped in the perimeter. If you’re not a resident of the historic center, you have to have a ticket to get into the area (it’s pretty securely blocked off). Which is fine. I need to catch up on work, and this gives me the great opportunity to drift out, see what’s going on for an hour or so, then drift back – I won’t say “away from the din” because it’s all..pretty loud. Music is blasting from speakers on the street and there’s a bar that’s pretty close and last night, despite all these ancient stone walls…that was happening.

But it’s good! Very interesting – I’m always fascinated by community celebrations and how this sorts itself out in terms of modern life, culture and especially religion, if that even plays a part.

I’ll do another post later about some other sights I’ve seen (mostly churches of course), but here are some photos of the Carnevale celebrations so far….the Sunday parade is in about an hour, but the floats are out there already. I’m looking forward to Tuesday when after the big parade the spirit of Carnevale is burned or something.

(Although there’s another parade on Saturday….)

The theme this year is something about fairy tales, but from perusing the stories behind these floats, it’s all newly created “fairy tales” which seem to mostly be about communities finding freedom from oppression. And one about a boy and girl finding connection through unlimited gigabytes? I think? The one with the Phoenix is political – about women rising to power. I don’t quite understand the presence of King Charles, and other than Giorgia Meloni, I don’t know who the other women are, but I’m assuming one is the president of the EU…..

It’s kind of insane but the floats – all paper mache – are impressive. I assume there’s movement involved, so hopefully I’ll get some good video of that.

Oh, and of course 60% of people are in some sort of costume, and 100% of the kids. Besides Spiderman, most popular among boys is Harry Potter, and as predicted, judging from what I saw in Naples, Wednesday Addams wins among the girls. I don’t know if you can tell from the photo below, but it was highly entertaining to watch this group of children getting their photo taken because Wednesday remained resolutely in character, standing with her arms folded while everyone else embraced. Excellent!

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Click on photos in galleries for larger versions. Go to Instagram, particularly Stories, for video. I’ve compiled most of the Stories so far into Highlights.

As I mentioned the other day, I have driven in Italy before, including, to my surprise, in Palermo, a rather chaotic city, so I should have been filled with confidence about this. But I was still a bit nervous, not only about the 2-minutes-to-leave-the-airport part, but also the risk of accidentally driving in an historic zone (apparently Google Maps doesn’t account for that and has you plough right through them) and the challenge of finding parking.

(Fingers crossed) Saturday’s drive assuaged my hesitation, and reminded me of some things I had learned before, but had forgotten. Basically: road directions, including parking sites and historic zones, are very well marked here. You just have to understand and trust the signage. Also, the two basic rules of Italian driving seem to me to be: 1) Stay out of the way and 2) Don’t hesitate. Italians are attentive and aggressive drivers, and they assume you are one of them. So if you start to go…they assume you are going to keep going.

(The most useful hint I read in driving prep was that the Italian STOP sign (yes, in English, which I do not understand, except it’s a shorter word) – does not mean “come to a complete stop.” It’s more of a harder yield. That is – if there’s clearly no traffic coming…don’t stop at the stop sign. If I hadn’t have known that, I would have made a dozen or so drivers very angry yesterday, and maybe even have caused an accident. Or two.)

So anyway, I left my lovely apartment in Matera Saturday morning. Next stop would be Putignano, about 45 minutes away, but of course I couldn’t check in until 4. So it would be a day to do a little exploring of Puglia.

I decided the first stop would be the famed Alberobello, famed home of the trullli. What are trulli?

Trulli (singular, trullo) are traditional dry stone huts with a corbelled roof. Their style of construction is specific to the Itria Valley in the region of Puglia. Trulli were generally constructed as temporary field shelters and storehouses or as permanent dwellings by small-scale landowners or agricultural labourers.

Trulli were constructed from roughly worked limestone excavated on-site in the process of creating sub-floor cisterns and from boulders collected from nearby fields and rock outcrops. Characteristically, the buildings are rectangular forms with conical corbelled roofs. The whitewashed walls of the trulli are built directly onto limestone bedrock and constructed using a dry-stone wall technique (that is, without use of mortar or cement). 

Alberobello has the largest concentration of trulli in the area – 1500 structures – but the truth is, they are all over the place in this area of Puglia. I would have liked to get photos of some of them in the wild, so to speak, but there was never a good place to stop on the road where they were. Alberobello was certainly worth a visit, but I’ll also say that it was very touristy. I’m sure during the summer it can get crazy.

Anyway, some pics. Parking – easy to find, just a short walk to the center. In a paid lot, next to an olive tree.

From the Church of Sts. Cosmas and Damian . I really liked the twin sets of murals on either side, one focused on Christ and the other on Mary, accompanied by figures related to them from the Old and New Testaments, and the saints. The Stations seemed relatively modern, and I liked them.

Another church, St. Anthony, built in the style of the trulli. Had some interesting art and a regrettable (in my view) tabernacle.

These churches get a lot of visitors, especially on weekends, and it’s clear to me, they are not only there to see, but to honor and pray. People don’t just wander in – they make signs of reverence, they have their children do the same. The other day I was standing outside a church somewhere – Naples, I think – and a (young) guy puttering by on a scooter crossed himself as he passed the church.

A few more shots, including lunch, which was a panzerotti – basically a small calzone. Okay, basically a Hot Pocket. I had the “Visconte.”

Next was Locorotondo – as you might be able to tell from its name, a town known for its roundness. Unfortunately, my direction of approach didn’t give me the angle in which the shape of the boundaries are clear, but if you look it up, you can see.

I didn’t have a ton of time – so I walked around for a bit, got a sense of the place – pretty, clean – and went into two churches, one large and magnificent the other small and simple.

(Parked in a garage, very easy to find, thanks to signage, just a few steps from the center)

The first church was the church of St. George, the “mother church” of the area

One of the things I like about traveling and visiting all of these churches is that I always learn about new-to-me saints and saints-in-the-making from the area. This church highlighted two, one very much,

(Please note – the Pace flag is more of a general social-justice and, obviously, peace flag in Italy. I mean, it doesn’t fit, aesthetically, in this church, but that’s their deal, not mine.)

The local venerables?

First, Matteo Frina, a young man who died in 2009, declared venerable in 2020 – from Brindisi.

Then, Francesco Convertini, a Salesian born in the Brindisi province, baptized in this church, but who spent most of his ministry and died in India – which is where his cause is centered. But he was all over this church. He died in 1976, and was declared venerable in 2017.

Now, down in the crypt, some more contemporary art that I liked quite a bit, as well as some…storage areas.

Ah-ha. The artist who did this painting cycle in the crypt was Onofrio Bramante – who also did the Stations and the large paintings of Christ in the church in Alberobello. A famed comic book artist who devoted himself to painting – mostly religious, but with a few historic – subjects in the late ’60’s. Very interesting, and, in my untutored opinion, really fine examples of contemporary religious art.

All right – one more little tiny church:

Yes, yes, the electric candles – one just does not find real votive candles in Italy these days, it seems. Nonetheless, look how many are lit. People still need places like this, people still pray, people still stand in front of these images, fully aware that there is no magic there but also knowing that in the concrete, in the expression of the sacred, even if they don’t find answers, they can trust that they are heard.

Back in the car…onward.

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Too tired to pull together a post tonight. Come back tomorrow to see what’s up!

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Putignano, Italy:

Vending machine has empty bottles for .50 E. Then there’s a wine dispensary:

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Back in 2012, I took my two youngest, then 7 and 11, to Europe for 3 months. It was the beginning of our homeschooling era and, honestly, a test on my part to see if living abroad might be something we could do. What I discovered was: yes, we *could* certainly do it, but I had to face it: these were American boys who liked American things. While they were (and are) great travelers and were always up for an adventure, when it came to ordinary life – they were Americans. To live abroad at that point would be, for a while at least, living in a place as newcomers, as strangers, and no, that’s not what they needed at that point. They needed home, with their friends and their sports and all of that.

So with this trip – I’m not seriously considering living abroad, but the thing I’ve had to admit is that I don’t think I could even live a digital nomad kind of lifestyle. I had this idea that I would be exploring during the day and the evenings would be free for work – and not work on this blog. But it’s just not working out, partly because I do want to share what I’ve seen here and on Instagram, and that takes time, but also because the pace and timing of life here – and in most European countries in which I have the strongest interest – is so different, and there is, indeed, always something new to see, because it’s all new to me. Perhaps if I were in a place for several months, I would be able to adjust. But as is, I’ve seen a lot on this trip, and in the end there will be fruit, but at the moment, my “productivity” – and that includes really being able to think about other things beyond what I’ve seen and learned that day – is at zero. Which is, of course, not nothing, because the experiences will, as I said, bear fruit. It’s an indirect research trip, I suppose. But it’s not the normal life into which I can settle and do meaningful, sustained work.

Anyway: Friday was a day in Matera. More on Matera here.

I spent the morning and early afternoon exploring the town, going in and out of ancient churches, eating some amazing pastries – one sweet and one savory. Then, in the afternoon, I hiked. I’ll write about the latter first, then share images of some of the churches

The intention was to go down into the ravine, cross the hanging bridge, and then go up the paths to the other side, poke around in caves, and then return. Which is what I did, with one initial obstacle:

Yes, the gate to the trails was locked. The area across the way is part of a regional park, and as such, has car access. I have a car. I could have driven – and been over there in 15 minutes. But I wanted the exercise and the experience, so I really wanted to walk it. I saw people on the trails and on the bridge even on the Matera side. How had they done it? A couple of minutes of observation showed me: they were just climbing over the gate. Okay, sure. Done!

It was a good hike, although I didn’t see as many caves and cave churches as I had hoped – the park is quite large, and is worth at least a day’s exploring if not more. Plus, I didn’t really know where I was going – just followed a few signs. But it was good. Fellow tourist observation: In Naples, most of the non-Italian voices I heard were French. Here, they are German, especially on this hike. I think everyone else I heard speaking, at least, was German.

Walking around Matera on Friday, I could sense life picking up. Especially in the evening, many, many people wandering around the sassi with their roller bags, clearly arriving for the weekend.

Anyway, some churches. First, the Cathedral. You must pay to enter, which I really have no argument with. I would not like it if every single church required an admission fee, but maintaining these structures, which do function as tourist sites, does cost money, and I won’t begrudge them getting a few Euros from the American for that cause.

There was a small museum, with a striking crucifix.

In the church, a lovely old presepe.

I was interested in the pulpit – particularly the wooden arm sticking out. I wonder what it’s designed to hold? I’m thinking maybe a crucifix, since I’ve seen small crucifixes built into other pulpits – similar, in a way, to the Eastern tradition of the celebrant holding a cross for the entirety of the liturgy, including the homily.

There are a few rock churches in Matera, including – high on the hill, that most striking church. None permit photos inside, so if you are interested in the interiors, you can go to this site.

In all, the art – which represents centuries of overlapping use – expresses a mix of Latin and Byzantine traditions. Very interesting to see.

A revisit to the church of San Francesco, in better light. I like the pulpit here, as well.

After the hike, I visited the main art museum. There are several well-regarded museums in town, as well as a few recreating life in the sassi, but this was the only one I had time for I particularly wanted to visit it because it holds many works of Carlo Levi – I wrote about him and Christ Stopped at Eboli here.

There were other works as well. As well as a huge group of schoolkids – early high school age – who proved that kids are…the same everywhere. They surged through the galleries, followed by their largely hapless teachers and chaperones, barely looking at the art. Reassuring in a weird way.

So that’s all for Matera. I’ll leave you with a couple of videos related to No Time to Die. Also this site – with a list of other films using Matera as a location, including The Passion of the Christ, King David and Pasolini’s Gospel According to Matthew – the last made, of course, in the early 60’s, before the redevelopment of the area.

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So today I left Naples, and drove to…a new place.

No, of course I’ve not had a car the whole time. That would be idiotic. As the trip evolved (I will not say “was planned”), I knew that I’d want to go somewhere beyond Naples…but where? Well, there’s Puglia and so on – that all looks very interesting. And then I thought of something else, looked it up, and thought….yes, this is meant to be. (That’s to come in a few days).

Now, you can do this part of Italy with public transportation, especially if you are sticking to the coast. But I wasn’t, and the first place I decided I would want to go to – Matera – was certainly accessible from Naples, but, unless I wanted to take a bus that left at 7am, I was looking at 6 hours on a train…as opposed to maybe 3 hours at most in a car.

Now, I’ve driven in Italy – I drove all around Sicily, including (accidentally) through Palermo – which is almost as scary as driving through Naples – and a few years ago in our last Italy trip, after we left Bologna, trained it down to Rome and then up to Orvieto, I rented a car in Orvieto, we drove around Tuscany, and I dropped the car in Pisa before we left.

So I initially decided that yes, I would drive this part, no problem, but then last week, I started getting cold feet. I knew, on paper, it would be easy – just a kilometer or so out of the airport car rental place and then straight on the autostrada. But for some reason, that 1 kilometer was freaking me out (mildly) and the whole parking and driving in historic Italian cities with their ZLT zones that you’re not supposed to drive in and their narrow streets, got me thinking….maybe 6 hours on a train isn’t so bad.

So earlier this week, I cancelled the car (no cost, hadn’t been paid for). But within minutes, as I looked at the train schedules, I thought…this is really stupid. I don’t want to have my life circumscribed by public transportation. I’ve done this. So…I got another car (for less, as it turn out) – with complete, massive insurance coverage, which wasn’t that expensive.

And as I hadn’t at that point even obtained accommodations for Matera, I focused my search on places with dedicated parking – which eliminated staying in the Sassi itself, which was okay with me (reasons outlined below). What I found is wonderful – not too expensive, a full apartment, which is a welcome change from the (nice) room (in the nice apartment) that I’d been staying in.

I think my hesitation about driving was about two things. First I’d been in Naples for several days, which is crazy traffic, all the time, and even though intellectually, I knew I would not be having the same kind of experience (hopefully), all the zooming, careening, screeching and honking must have dug into my subconscious. Secondly, although I’ve driven in Europe before, this would be the first time I’d done so alone. It’s not that I feared for my safety driving by myself. It’s just not that having that second (or third) pair of eyes from my sons, watching the traffic, helping navigate, made it seem more daunting.

Which…was dumb. Because here I am, safe and sound, with no problems:

(Except how to put the Fiat in reverse, which was a puzzle at first. Turns out there’s a ring of sort below the knob on the gear shift, and you have to push up on it to get to R)

Let’s talk about Matera.

As the capital of the province of Matera, its original settlement lies in two canyons carved by the Gravina River. This area, the Sassi di Matera, is a complex of cave dwellings carved into the ancient river canyon. Over the course of its history, Matera has been occupied by Romans, Longobards, Byzantines, Saracens, Swabians, Angevins, Aragonese, and Bourbons.

By the late 1800s, Matera’s cave dwellings became noted for intractable poverty, poor sanitation, meager working conditions, and rampant disease. Evacuated in 1952, the population was relocated to modern housing, and the Sassi (Italian for “stones”) lay abandoned until the 1980s. Renewed vision and investment led to the cave dwellings becoming a noted historic tourism destination, with hotels, small museums and restaurants – and a vibrant arts community.

Known as la città sotterranea (“the underground city”), the Sassi and the park of the Rupestrian Churches were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. In 2019, Matera was declared a European Capital of Culture.

I’ll add that The Passion of the Christ was filmed in Matera, with the city in the role of Jerusalem. The first major scene of the latest James Bond movie, No Time to Die was filmed here, too.

As I said on Instagram, Matera, particularly at night, is described as “magical” – and it is certainly beautiful. But it’s a transformed, sanitized, magic constructed out of great suffering in the past. Carlo Levi wrote about it in Christ Stopped in Eboli – he did not go there, but his sister, also a physician did, and this would have been in the 1920’s. What she described was hovel after hovel of misery, filth and malnutrition. It’s a little odd. You get a kick about staying in a “cave” AirBnB or hotel room, but what misery dug out that cave and made it its home? I guess it’s not as bad as partying it up on a plantation, which is the worst, but still there’s plenty of food for thought here

That said – Matera certainly seems to be a different place than it was 70 years ago. A walk through the center (the new area) reveals the typical sparkling clean, relaxed, high-end vibe of many mid-sized Italian towns.

And as for food? Well, I really hope to get a couple of the typical local dishes, but honestly, I needed a break from these sophisticated dining hours, which are also playing havoc with my work intentions. So it was into the local grocery story for me tonight, getting a supply of meat, cheese and olives. I also found…Coke Zero with lemon. Maybe this won’t be so bad? Okay, it isn’t And with an extra dash of Monster Italian Lemon – not bad at all.

Oh, and here’s a reminder from one of the local clergy:

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I’ll have reflections on this part of the trip at some point in the next couple of days. In the meantime, here are links to all the posts so far:

Day 1: Trying to stay up, getting oriented

Day 2: San ‘Domenico, Santa Chiara, pizza (Instagram post)

Day 3: Art Day (Instagram post)

Day 4: Herculaneum and Oplontis and Maradona (Instagram) (Instagram Reel)

Day 5: Vomero neighborhood and the St. Gennaro catacombs (Instagram)

Day 6: Caserta (Instagram)

Day 7: Capri (Instagram)

Day 8: Sorrento and its feast (Instagram here and here)

Day 9: Revisiting the Archaeology museum, a haircut and a catacomb (Instagram)

Day 10: On the road from Naples to Matera (Instagram)

Day 11: A day in Matera (Instagram)

Day 12: Alberobello, Locorotondo and Putignano (Instagram)

Day 13/14 : Putignano Carnevale (Instagram)

Day 14: Putignano Carnevale (Instagram)

Day 15: Bari (Instagram)

Day 16: Ash Wednesday

Day 16: Lecce (Instagram)

Day 17: Last Day in Naples (Instagram)

You can also get to them all through this link

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