From rags to riches – Matera

Matera cave dwellingWho would have believed that the squalid damp cave dwellings of the past would make Matera a major tourist attraction, a Unesco World Heritage site (1993) and even more than that, the European Capital of Culture in 2019.

Major restoration work is underway and as the EU indicates “the experience is an excellent opportunity to regenerate the city and breathe new life into the city’s culture and boost tourism.

Matera is tucked away in the corner of the little known region of Basilicata next to Puglia, so for us it was an easy 2hr drive across from our ‘trullo’ in Puglia. I had heard about these cave dwellings for years and the extraordinary beauty of the place through the Women’s Fiction Festival held for the past 12 years and from my artist friend Enrico Paolucci after his exhibition there in 2006.

Eager to understand more about the history of this amazing place I booked a Matera view of cave dwellingsfantastic local guide, Marta, who lead us through the Baroque Upper town to the panoramic site overlooking ‘i sassi’. The view was spectacular, an expanse of buildings crammed on top of each other in a maze of little alleyways and we were yet to appreciate that they were in fact built into the rocks.

Marta explained the ancient beginnings, from the 6th century BC through the middle ages when each civilisation, and monastic orders from Benedictine to Byzantine built on the past using the natural rock caves as early lodgings, stables, cellars later carving out churches, chapels and convents. By the 1800’s most of the cave areas were only used as stables or deposits and better accommodation was built above ground. In that period Matera held a certain prestige, being the Capital of the Province from the late 1600’s till 1806.

But with the removal of the Capital to Potenza  and recurrent agricultural crisis the city slid into a long period of decay. The degradation was so serious that the poorest of the population were forced to use the caves as dwellings, accommodating both families and their animals until 1952. On our tour with Marta we were taken into one of these dank dark cave houses, hardly able to imagine the sufferance these families had experienced in such cramped unhygienic conditions.

Life was hard and depended on communal living as testify the communal oven that baked the enormous weekly loaf that is still baked to this day.

It was not until the 1950’s that the Government decided to move the 15,000 families to new residential quarters, not an easy task and despite associated criticisms and delays over the new housing the families were relocated. The area of ‘i sassi’ remained abandoned until the 1980’s when new funds were made available for the recuperation of this ancient site. Now the properties can be leased for 99years and the city has seen a boom in tourism ever since. Some of the ancient cave dwellings are even available for rent on Airbnb with a decidedly improved look, although they still retain the physical aspects of the past, with  rarely more than one window and/or entrance so definitely not appropriate for anyone with claustrophobia!

Wandering the alleyways and hearing the history and developments of the place was fascinating, visiting the ancient Rupestrian church had me spellbound. The squalor of the past was now an inviting stone paved road to alleyways lined with creamy architecture cut into and over the rock. The Stone Age’ restaurant tempts us with “panzarotti fritti’ (typical half moon pasta fried and filled with delicious mozzarella) and fresh pomegranate juice but we continue the tour

The upper town is beautifully Baroque in style, reminiscent of our time in Lecce.

Concave churches, and as many cherubs and menacing skeletons decorating the Matera city cisternfacades, together with mega cisterns still visitable below street level. There was hardly time to explore it all, an absolutely fascinating city that will merit its title of European Capital of Culture.

How could we go past lunching in one of the cave dwellings – the ‘Soul Kitchen’,  highly entertained by the waiters, and delicious local dishes. The pistachio semifreddo was out of this world!Pisatchio semifreddo - Soul KitchenMatera cave restaurant





With tummies full and the threat of rain we headed back to our trullo, knowing full well that I will be back again, sooner or later, to explore in depth ‘i sassi’ of Matera, as well as the extensive list of places that Marta had suggested to visit next time in the Basilicata region.Matra Rupestrian church



In the heel of Italy – Puglia

Lecce entrance to cathedral squarePuglia -Travelling in the ‘heel’ of Italy, amidst countless olive groves, cruising the coastline through picturesque beach resorts, an explosion of white and blue light ending with a mellow glow of our graceful Baroque base in Lecce.

Polignano a Mare

Quite a Greek feel to so many places which is not unexpected since Greeks settled along the Ionian coast as early as the 8th Century BC.



Our first step into paradise is at Polignano a Mare, caressed to the sounds of “Volare oh oh, cantare oh oh oh oh” playing from a restaurant as we wandered the shimmering limestone pathways. The village perched precariously on the cliffs protects a beautiful cove with only a handful of swimmers considering the time of year. On Domenico Modugno statuethe opposite side a very appropriate statue to Domenico Modugno, author of “Volare” since it was his hometown.


Our first taste of delicious seafood and vegetarian specialities – puree of broad beans with chicory. The beauty of the place enticed us back for a second visit and swim and local buskers entertained us with a different rhythm of drum and violoncello.

Ostuni, known as ‘the white city’, for its whitewashed medieval centre, a practice begunOstuni main square to disinfect the poorer residential area during the period of the plague as well as a means to lightening the labyrinth of alleyways and stepped passages. The only buildings not white are the palatial dwellings now government buildings or churches. Blue skies enhance the contrast.

The view from Ostuni across 19million!! monumental olives to the coast is outstanding and we secular Olives Pugliacannot resist the temptation to see them close-up. Puglia has 60 million olives planted centuries ago and still going strong, 14 times the population of the region. Producing a range of  eating olives and extra virgin oil.

Villanova Puglia


Our day ends at the sleepy port and fishing village of Villanova with its XVI century Castle still guarding the entrance.



Lecce, ‘the Florence of the South’, left us spellbound as we rounded the corner into the Cathedral square after dark and met this splendour.

The city is a riot of cherubs, ornate balconies of strange beasts and decorative facades, a Baroque masterpiece in local stone to rival Noto in Sicily.

A couple of days exploring Lecce‘s parade of ‘putti’ (cherubs) and savouring it’s local delicacies of tarallini, burrata mozzarella and orecchiette pasta with turnip tops finishing with the most fabulous gelati from the famous Gelateria Natale. With over 45 flavours it’s a difficult choice!

We head towards the very tip of the heel at Santa Maria  di Leuca with a stop at Otranto, yet another paradise coastal resort, winding it’s way down from the Aragonese castle, laneways lined with tourist shops, and tempting restaurants and bars.

But we are not to be dissuaded from our project of arriving at the furthest point of Italy, and drive through endless fields of olive groves bordered by miles of dry stone walls, to the picturesque coastal road. On arrival hardly a tourist in sight and for the few that are about the owner of the ‘Sea Wolf’ restaurant commandeers us all with the promise of “if you are unhappy with what you eat, you don’t have to pay!” This would seem unlikely as he proudly boasts he has been in the business for 50 years! And we are not disappointed as we feed on the local fish of the day with a chilled glass of wine.

The day ends with a quick swim near Gallipoli in crystal clear water with a view of the city from the bay. The old town centre sits on a tiny island connected to the mainland by a 17th century bridge that ends at the fish market.

A robust fortress dominates, confirming the city’s strategic importance from the past Gallipoli seafronthaving been sacked by just about everyone – Vandals, Goths, Byzantines, Normans to Bourbons! A pleasant stroll around its walls and a wander in the main street again past Baroque churches and aristocratic palaces.

It’s time to head home and while there are still so many places to discover in Puglia, this first trip has certainly been a delight and I will definitely be back….sooner or later!Martina Franca

Puglia map



Trulli amazing Puglia!

Trulli PugliaNothing like the excuse of having my Aussie family over on a visit to explore a new region of Italy – Puglia….and it was ‘trulli’ amazing! The grey tiled cones dot the landscape, in the Itria valley, amidst fields of monumental olive groves and farm plantations just like the gilded Buddhist temples dot the countryside in Myanmar.

Our trullo in PugliaI had been dreaming for years of staying in one of these quaint conical roofed houses, and my choice of trullo turned out to be ideal!

Our 2 domed trullo sat in a cluster of trulli, under renovation and still to be renovated, next to historic olive trees, vegetable gardens, and a pig family of three.Our neighbours





The owner Gianvito, a super hospitable local with an enormous smile and a twinkle in his eye, proudly introduced us to his family’s trullo where his grandfather used to keep farming equipment and which he had renovated into a charming 2 bedroom residence. Every detail reflected his passion for his local culture – old stable doors as bedroom doors, together with a unique architectural panache – old pieces of ceramics decorated the shower recess like ancient mosaics and a pasta colander as a light shade!


He told us the original conical rooms were from the 1500’s and the square addition, that now housed the second bedroom and kitchen, was built a century later. With the continuing Indian Summer weather we could not have chosen a better time to savour our trullo experience. The thick stone walls act as a natural insulation against the cold or heat outside and strengthen the structure to hold the domes.

View of AlberobelloTo get an overdose of trulli we drove to the nearby town of Alberobello where thousands of trulli make up almost the entire town. The history of the town, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, is as curious as its picturesque trulli since they were originally built as a tax dodge!

The land had been given to Count Conversano for his services in the crusades so he moved his entire settlement, cultivating the land and clearing the woodlands. However the King of Naples had imposed taxes on new settlements so simple dwellings of dry stone walls with conical roofs were constructed, as they could be dismantled in a hurry! It was not until 1797 that Alberobello was given a permanent town status.

Considering the thousands of trulli present in Alberobello, I hate to think of the enormous mountain of rubble it would have created if dismantled, let alone the chore of reconstruction! For us it was a magic exploration of a village, hobbit like in size and nature, attractive and proud with its whitewashed houses and glistening limestone pathways that wind and bend around souvenir shops, enticing local food delicatessens and buzzing restaurants.

Each spire on the dome a status symbol, demonstrating the builder’s skill and the spending power of the owner. Many of the roofs have painted symbols which may have linked to superstitions of the past, although the whitewashed heart featured in many postcards suggests a more touristy symbol.Alberobello Cathedral, Puglia

The major attraction is obviously the trulli although Alberobello‘s baroque Cathedral also warrants consideration.

And if you can’t stay in a trullo you can always buy one to take home!Puglia trulli souvenirs





But Puglia is not just about trulli and as we toured from Bari to the tip of the heel and back we discovered more splendours….to appear in another post