Turns out Matera is not so easy to get to. What should have taken an hour and a half, took FIVE HOURS. We took the Ferrovie Appulo Lucane (a little Puglia/Basilicata only railway)
through a gorgeous, slightly rolling, but mostly flat landscape of rocks, rocks, more rocks, and grizzly olive trees:
To the end of the line, Gravina…. hold, up! Gravina!? But we’re supposed to be going to MATERA, why are we in GRAVINA? Turns out in the penultimate stop the train cars disconnect and half of the little train goes to Gravina and half goes to Matera, and because we didn’t know that, and I didn’t trust my brain when I heard someone softly call “Scambia per Matera” (change for Matera), we had an hour to kill in a little town before the next train.
It turns out Gravina (full name Gravina in Puglia), is actually pretty cute, and there’s a national park there, so if we had more time we could have discovered these things. Gravina also continued the everybody-is-super friendly trend, because after we scrounged around some lunch (prosciutto and bread, not the slow-food recommended feast I had planned for us in Matera), and began stuffing ourselves on a bench at the station, one of the guys working there came out to wish us “buon appetito” and without us even asking told us when the last trains leaving Matera go back to Bari. Nice.
So after all of those SNAFUS, (including having to get off the train before the last stop in Matera to get on a bus, with some extremely pissed off Italian teenagers). We finally, finally landed in Matera. Like almost all spectacular Italian towns, the modern bit could be nearly anywhere in the country, but, once you trip down the hill, finally, thankfully, this is what we saw:
It’s a town with pre-historic origins carved into the rocks. And if it looks familiar, you might have seen Mel Gibson flagellate Jebus here, because this is where the Passion of the Christ was filmed (among a lot of other movies). And it is ASTONISHING. The cave dwellings are called sassi and people lived in them, much in same way they had since the beginning of forever, until the 1950s! Now a lot of them have been refurbished and made into shops or hotels or restaurants, but some sit empty and abandoned, adding an eery ghost town feel to the place.
Since we were there in mid/late February, it was almost as if we had the town to ourselves. And since we arrived much later than originally planned, we didn’t get to do quite as much hiking about the caves as I had imagined. Regardless, I was astonished. Matera is astonishing.