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THE CAVES OF MATERA:

BY LUCIA MAURO

Producers of biblical epics have been drawn to the craggy, cavernous landscape of Matera – a city in the southern Basilicata region forged out of rocks. The Paramount picture "King David" was filmed here, as was Rosi’s interpretation of Carlo Levi’s bestselling book, "Christ Stopped at Eboli." The author is said to have likened the multileveled rocky terrain to Dante’s "Inferno." Controversial filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini selected the jagged limestone plateau for his unconventional take on "The Gospel According to Matthew."

This cinematic contrast of the blessed and bathetic can be applied to the history and urban planning of a place where people continue to live in caves hewn by neolithic civilizations. Once considered a land of unspeakable squalor, especially for the first half of the 20th century, Matera has carved a contemporary niche for itself. Those hovels, where large families and livestock lived together with no plumbing or electricity, are now stylish restaurants and shops. But a specter of spine-chilling dankness still hovers over these tilt-a-whirl clusters of churches, fortresses, towers, castle turrets and living catacombs.

"Bring out your dead" was a familiar phrase to the people of Matera over the centuries – plague or no plague. Shrouded bodies were placed in the twisting streets for hooded "unge mortes" to spirit away. Here one can truly imagine an army of veiled figures – not unlike the leper colony in the film "Ben Hur" – crouched inside these heavy stone archways.

Initially, however, my husband Joe and I were deceived when we drove into Matera on a chilly but bright winter day. We arrived in a remarkably modern city center at the height of the lunch-time frenzy. Moms in glimmering leather skirts picked up their children from school on wailing motorini; teenagers smoked in huddled masses around shiny new Ducati bikes; and people of all ages haggled at a vibrant outdoor market in a spotless piazza near the train station.

We had made reservations at Il Piccolo Albergo on Via de Sariis. Figuring Matera to be a small city, Joe and I expected to find signs pointing to the hotel as soon as we exited the rugged "statale" roads. Instead we found ourselves driving around in wild circles in a metropolis and dodging pedestrians – and German Shepherds – at every curve. We turned "up" a street to discover a peaceful suburban enclave of cul de sacs and bougainvillea-festooned modern homes.

As is often the case, we didn’t have a map of Matera. So, between asking the locals and feeling our way around the unexpectedly smooth pavement, we turned right at an impossibly congested intersection and guessed our accommodations must be near. But a befuddled sense of angst set in when we surveyed an endless file of narrow one-way streets and overflowing parking lots.

I was on the lookout for Via de Sariis. Miraculously, it turned out to be the first street ahead, and it was a "senso unico" in the right direction. This was no small feat considering the amoeba-like sprawl of Matera’s modern section. At the end of this sudden rickety street stood Il Piccolo Albergo – but there was no place to park or unload our bags. I checked in while Joe circled the block no less than 10 times until a spunky older gentleman pulled out right in front of the hotel door.

An ancient man dozed at the front desk. He did not respond to my greeting or to my tapping on the little bell at the end of the counter. I raised my voice. He was suddenly startled but did not hear anything else I said and claimed our room was being cleaned. Within seconds, his daughter – a beatific, dark-haired young woman – entered through the front door with a smiling baby in a stroller. She kissed her father tenderly, took his arm and guided him to a comfortable big chair. The kind, feeble man whispered an apology as his daughter beamed at me and helped us carry our bags to our neat room adorned with floral curtains and white-washed shutters and a shockingly modern stainless-steel bathroom.

Anxious to see the mysterious "Sassi" district – where the oldest cave dwellings are stacked one on top of the other like honey combs – Joe and I crossed the street and purchased a guidebook from an effusive Signora who pointed us toward the Piazza Prefettura. This area, engulfed by a synagogue and the Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista, sprung to life with its gushing vertical fountain, palm trees and sleek black-marble monuments. Students on a field trip poured out of the palatial city hall as more German Shepherds galloped past flower stands and partially unearthed ruins.

We stepped into a crumbling arched structure to view the famous Sassi – an unsettling image of architectural ingenuity chiseled into an almost supernatural terrain. Punctuated by the distant Duomo, this heap of stones molded into living quarters reminded me of an inverted Positano. But instead of the Amalfi Coast’s town of pastel colors facing the sea, Matera is a sepia-toned mass folded inland to cast an immovable, insular shadow across the scorched earth.

Northern Italian author Levi is responsible for drawing attention to Matera’s squalid living conditions after World War II. What we regard today as mystical and charming was once a national disgrace. In 1950, the Italian government evacuated the putrid caves, which had become sequestered breeding grounds for disease. Its caves were then designated as national treasures on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites – and a massive clean up ensued.

Today Matera is undergoing an unprecedented economic resurgence based on oil and industry. Its mesmerizing prehistoric topography is preserved while modern technology has ushered the city into the 21st century. Matera is an idyllic town filled with fashionable residents and cultural activities. The caves are shielded by an updated and upscale suburbia lined with swaying fuzzy-topped trees (like the ones along Rome’s Via Appia), gold-inlaid bars and boutiques selling clingy black garments.

We stopped for a quick lunch at the Gran Caffe bar, where the rather flashy gray-haired owner in a red sport coat had a habit of "dealing" cups, sauces and spoons like an unwieldy ceramic deck of cards. His faux brusqueness made for some colorful entertainment. He grew especially impatient with the teenage backpack-carrying crowd. Then he almost blew a gasket when I couldn’t decide what I wanted. When I opted for a hearty slice of spinach-and-ricotta quiche and bottled water, the man’s face turned as fiery red as his jacket.

"I don’t have any water," he barked (even though several bottles of the Panna brand were stacked behind the counter). "Don’t you prefer a Coke or a coffee?"

As hard as it is to believe, he evoked a certain charm despite his testy aggression.

"No," I stood my ground. "I’d like some water now. But I’ll have a cappuccino with my dessert later."

"Brava!" he shouted with exaggerated hand gestures.

The owner was so elated, he prepared a cappuccino subito – and flung a plate with a glazed raspberry tart on it in my direction – while I was still savoring my luscious spinach-and-ricotta delicacy. After Joe ordered pizza con funghi and an espresso, the now-grinning server handed him a chocolate-covered butter cookie as a bonus – a somewhat showy form of gratitude or apology.

Joe and I then trekked into the Sassi. On our way, cyber cafes, banks, sporting goods shops and an ultra-plastic UPIM department store segued into a gaping labyrinth of rocky towers whose roofs melded into doors that led directly into more subterranean winding streets. We followed Via Corso past the Baroque Chiesa di San Francesco and toward the National Museum Di Ridola.

At the center of a deadly four-corner intersection with four blind spots, we came face to face with a rotting skull. It and others of its chalky ilk decorated the doors of the medieval Chiesa del Purgatorio. Beneath an etching of skeletons dancing around weeping infants engulfed in flames was an inscription that reassuringly read: "We are the miserable ones. Help us my friends."

Once inside, we were surprised to encounter a huge crown --like the one in the old Imperial margarine commercials – suspended above the altar. Atop each holy water font and Stations of the Cross plaques jutted out more broken-toothed skulls looking like moldy gargoyles. We briskly exited and, within a few feet of such dour horror, a hot-pink Persian-style villa extended across the length of a quiet cobblestone street.

We arrived at the Museo Nazionale – founded in the late 19th century by doctor-senator-archaeologist Domenico Ridola – only to discover its doors firmly chained. The closing did not correspond to the open times on the door – a custom that seems to plague us all over Italy. To our surprise, though, the thick wooden door was suddenly flung open as if by a poltergeist. We didn’t see anyone right away and cautiously ventured inside a pottery-strewn courtyard. We were then greeted by a man who could have been actor Jack Nicholson’s doppelganger. He was even grinning in a diabolical way reminiscent of "The Shining."

At least he wasn’t wielding an ax.

He explained that the museum was closed for restoration, but he would take us around anyway. With a perpetual smirk on his face, the custodian ushered us through a cloister scattered with broken columns and pediments. He told us that the archaeological museum was built on the former site of the 17th century Santa Chiara convent "for lost women." He then escorted us to a glass-encased two-story museum, shut down the alarm and turned on the lights. He beckoned us to come in and explained how these were artifacts excavated, beginning in the 1920s, from Basilicata and the Murgia plains. Then he disappeared.

The prehistoric and neolithic rooms displayed stone tools and ceramics dating back 700,000 years ago. Other rooms exhibited Hellenic busts, statues and jewelry from the Magna-Grecia period. Scenes from Greek mythology were painted in tan and black hues on enormous pots and vases. Wiry cosmetic brushes and pointy bronze eyeliners from this era looked more painful than glamorous.

After we had our fill of dismembered Greek deity statues, dog-shaped oil lamps and corroded bronze knives, our elusive guide reappeared and told us about a fresh archaeological dig around the corner. He tried to sneak us through the barricades, but the abyss-like crevasses gave us pause more than the tacky orange police tape. We politely passed, and "Jack Nicholson" waved us back toward the entrance. He vanished again.

As Joe and I were leaving through the front door, we were accosted by a husky female guard whose garlic breath streamed through the echoing travertine corridors. She shouted at us – hands on her ample hips – from the top of the stairs.

"Who are you?" she demanded. "What are doing here?" "Who let you in?"

I explained that a custodian opened the door for us. She wanted his name. We realized that we only knew him as Jack Nicholson. We said we didn’t know. And for a minute, we thought she was going to cart us off to jail for trespassing. Joe and I just smiled a lot, and soon convinced the peeved carabiniera that we were American tourists and how much we admired the museum. She softened and even invited us back for another tour later.

We continued our wanderings past several churches built into rocks and secret passageways that seemed to lead to the lower depths of the earth. The chronic tuning of horns accompanied us as we strolled through the car-cluttered Piazza Stidile, where children lugged tubas and trumpets to the nearby music conservatory. An archway opened onto what looked like part of the Colosseum.

In fact, Matera is a living picture frame. Peek through a de-bricked wall for stacked mountainous vistas; an elevated arch crowns a distant medieval castle. More treacherous descents and ascents led to the main Romanesque-Apulian Cathedral built on the city’s highest peak in the 13th century and dedicated to Matera’s patron saint: Madonna della Bruna.

Dusk was falling. So the Cathedral was washed in buttery-gold light. Side entrances guarded by gilded griffins evoked an opulent Middle Eastern allure. The rose-windowed façade was topped with elongated stones that looked like femur bones up close.

From this vantage point, we spied a bloated gray castle on the other side of town. Despite the setting sun, Joe and I backtracked in the direction of that bulging citadel. We took a short cut around the corner of the Chiesa del Purgatorio – the skeletons looking more depraved and foreboding at dusk.

In a flash, we landed in an ultra-modern strip mall that fed into another rocky slope. The two of us trudged onward, wondering how to access the deserted castle’s entrance. The weeds on the path soon sprung up to our waists. Below us, a solitary swing careened in a desolate playground. Ghosts seemed to push us along. When we finally found the main gate, a sign proclaimed that the castle had been converted into a restaurant/banquet hall – but it looked more abandoned than inviting.

We envisioned "Jack Nicholson" lurking in the ramparts. This time, an ax would have come in handy. We were now entangled in gnarled shrubbery – like the Prince who had to hack his way to Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Not wanting our vacation to turn into a horror flick, Joe and I walked back briskly to our hotel. I rested while Joe headed back out to Piazza Prefettura for a haircut.

He asked his newfound barber-friend, Nicola, if he could recommend an authentic restaurant. Nicola, a flamboyant older man with shoe-polish black hair, asked Joe to return with me. He would personally escort us to his friend’s kitchen in a cave. It was late November, and Matera was gearing up for the Christmas holidays. Along Via Roma, multicolored lights proclaiming, "Buone Feste," were being strung. Others in the shapes of angels and Santa Clauses flashed across a wire suspended between the stores.

Nicola had just closed his immaculate shop and was waiting for us outside – his leather jacket draped over his shoulders. He had a paradoxical air of laidback efficiency about him as he hurried us down dark, circular steps – blowing cigar smoke in our faces as he introduced us to curious passersby as his new American friends. We landed in an aromatic lair: an unobtrusive eatery without a name. Nicola introduced us to the gracious owner and wait staff, who were busy preparing for a children’s birthday party.

Like "Jack Nicholson," Nicola grinned and scurried out the door – wishing us a "most romantic evening."

Joe and I were seated in what felt like a hollowed-out tomb as we feasted on some of Matera’s rustic and refined specialties. Against this catacomb-esque backdrop, we dined on orecchiette con rapini, barley and ceci soup, fried goat cheese, a medley of roasted vegetables and the crowning glory of the evening: an enormous, bubbling "pignata" – a type of pot pie of veal shank, root vegetables and potatoes topped with a volcanic puff pastry. It reminded me of the Imperial margarine crown in Chiesa del Purgatorio!

Stuffed beyond comprehension, we wandered past the darkened caves close to midnight. As we climbed and zig-zagged through what could have been the set for Tim Burton’s animated "Nightmare Before Christmas," an ominous fog rolled in and hung over the Duomo’s bony bell tower.

Joe and I were relieved to enter the world of the living once again at Piazza Prefettura, where the perpetually well-dressed locals – loaded down with Christmas presents -- were sipping espresso and hot chocolate around the main square’s geyser-like fountain.

By mid-morning the next day, Joe and I hit the road. The sensually stratified cliffs of Matera soon gave way to the smoke-regurgitating refineries of nearby Taranto. At one particularly bleak corner, semi-trucks lined up for gas at a congested AGIP station surrounded by big blonde prostitutes in leopard-skin bras and Albanian children selling trinkets. The air was so thick with pollution, our skin became flecked with black soot.

Further down, a large-boned older woman wearing a babushka – who looked more Slavic than Italian – was hitchhiking. She frenetically waved her thumb in back of her ear to no avail. Across the street from her a broken, trash-laden religious shrine of Christ, the Virgin and saints seemed to weep at the surrounding squalor only minutes away from the pristine, and at one time profane, caves of Matera. •

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