Matera, Italy, October 2016

Because Matera exists in all her glory, Borges did not have to create her. The great Argentinian would have felt at home here. The city is built upon other cities, each new incarnation preserving intact the ones that came before. Buildings are placed directly on top of other ones, or enclosed within them. A pillar may begin as Romanesque, then come the medieval gargoyles, and at the top is a triumphant Romantic curlicue.

The whole history of art is painted into the frescoes of the churches which are hewn directly into the rock. Byzantine saints rub shoulders with depictions of holy men whose visages reflect Chinese ideals, borrowed from the other end of the Silk Road. Renaissance angels raise their hand in blessing alongside.  The saints of different ages, dfferent peoples still exist next to each other, or they are visible in traces where the new paint has given way to the old again. At closer look, the walls are encrusted with primordial shells, a memory of the time these stones were the bottom of the sea.

As night falls, the moon lights up the Sassi and highlights the skeleton of the city. Our eyes sweep over the undulating hills, then pass over the Neolithic cave dwellings that imperceptibly turn into a younger, inhabited cave city. In the stone sea of Sassi rises Matera’s own Mt. St. Michel, with the church of Madonna of Idris buried in it. Lights glint in gardens and windows. We look upwards into the newest city, which too was made in many ages.

Matera is MATER-A, the great mother, a womb of a city. She lets her children play in her streets and ravines and rivers millennium after millenium, beautifying her. The city has been sculpted out of Mother Nature, and that makes Matera natural and warm and part of nature herself. Through this stratification and intertwining of nature and city, all her wisdom and all her stories have been preserved in situ. They nourish her newest inhabitants and lucky travellers like ourselves. 

The palimpsest of culture and time extends not only to the physical city. The dialect seems to crystalise the essence of all that is vital to life here. The deep ruby red wine is mr, an Arabic guttural sound that sums up the earthy rumble of the terroir. The long-raised, slow-baked bread is pain, a heritage from the Normandy people. The most precious resource is water, l'oq, a drop of which is locc.  The same intensity and sense of nuance are present in the food: there are a dozen variations of texture and flavour in the Lucano cheese a pasta filata: mozzarella, caciocavallo, scamorza, ricotta.

Our little troupe of travellers uses the word “paradise" a lot. Matera is, in its own way, a culmination of what humanity holds dear: variety in beauty, harmony of the ages, a strong connection to the ground and between people. Even the landscape bears a strong resemblance to Gardens of Eden in centuries of art. Scope and nuance are everywhere: spider webs have an unusual density, lizards are more agile than elsewhere. No wonder it is a popular place to film.

Ideals and principles are firmly anchored in the concrete reality of the city and its culture: there is a right way to do things, but variation is allowed and appreciated. Everyone has a point of view and shares it willingly. This, combined with the balmy climate, makes the streets and piazzas alive and friendly.

One evening remains more firmly anchored in memory than others. Our wise and beautiful hostess, A,  invited us home for dinner. As befits a true woman of the city and her culture, the table glinted with gold and candles. Pasta was served with wild vegetables she had gathered herself, dressed in gentle garlic and oil. The conversation flowed, helped along by copious mr. 

G: There are over 150 churches hewn into the mountains, and humans have made their home continuously in the caves and houses and cave-houses from Neolithic times. The treasures found in one single cave area, the Grotta dei Pipistrelli, fill an entire museum. Can you imagine how much still remains to be discovered? The entire landscape pulses with hidden treasure.

Ja: my guru, Sri Mataji says that woman is the earth from which man, the flower, gets his beginning and his power.

G: Mater-a is the place of the Mother, the place where Mother lives. The hills are her vulva, the caves are her vagina and womb.  This is a place of birth, a place to be born. 

A: But there is also a fierceness here, hidden beneath the sunlit warmth. We always need to rebuild ourselves, make ourselves worthy of life.

G: Primo Levi compares the descent into Sassi to Dante's descent into the circles of Hell.

Jo: But if the Sassi are some of the circles of hell, then Paradise must indeed be present here also. They are built on top of each other, and dependent on each other.

A: Sometimes I feel like I am living two parallel lives: the one which was pre-written for me, and the one which I have chosen for myself. In the first one, I am 42 years old and do what is expected of me. In the other one I am 20 and I am free. I have found that the best way to reconcile these two lives to one another is to help others, to give of myself. In giving, I receive harmony. 

Heartfelt thanks to G and A for enriching our lives and all the kindness and hospitality that you showed us. 

 

 

 

Practicalities:

We stayed in the lovely Residenza Margherita, available on AirBnB. The history of the building and the original owner of the flat is interesting - art, history and political power entwined.  Another good choice would be one of the stylish BnB's available in the Sassi.

Food is really a draw here: Il Caseificio Maggiore (piazza Vittorio Veneto 49) provides superb local cheeses, I Vizi degli Angeli Laboratorio di Gelateria Artigianale (Via Domenico Ridola, 36) is the place for ice cream and wonderful bread is provided by a master baker at Panificio Paoluccio on Via del Corso 22. A biodynamic olive oil of excellent quality is made by San Canio.

A restaurant we enjoyed is San Biagio (Via San Biagio 12) with smashing truffle pasta and views to the Sassi. Another good one is Ristorante da Nico (Piazzetta S. Pietro Barisano). G's unforgettable birthday party was hosted at stylish and comfortable Area 8.

For souvenirs, Feelosophy makes elegant natural textiles and handmade ceramics. The whole via delle Beccherie is full of enticing shops. In the Sassi, on via Bruno Buozzi there is a workshop for bread stamps, which have endless stories attached. There are also antiques and quality artesan goods in the shop attached to the workshop.