According to a recent survey done by Italy’s widest read financial newspaper, the Sole 24 Ore, Matera ranks as one of the towns with the best quality of life in Italy, it also happens to have the lowest crime rates in Country. Matera is a perfect mix of culture and fun and a great place to live. Whether living here or just planning to visiting, the best way to get around is on foot. The people here are really friendly and down to earth and the cost of living is less than half what it is in larger cities.
Matera is a little off the beaten track. That is because it has been historically cut off from the rest of Italy. There is no Ferrovie dello Stato (or national railway) that gets here (the tracks stop in Bari or Metaponto, both around 60 kilometers away). Roads from larger towns nearby like Bari and Naples are nothing to write home about. From the positive point of view, this means that mass tourism took a while to get here.
Only now, more than fifteen years since Matera was declared a UNESCO world heritage site, and a good six since Mel Gibson and his troupe came over to shoot The Passion of Christ is Matera appearing in international guidebooks.
Only recently have the roads and access to the city been improved, coach parking organized and hospitality arrangements been made to cater for all kinds of tourists, from campers to those looking for a luxury hotel.
I landed up here by chance. Everybody knows that the best way to learn a language is to fall in love. So when I met this really nice Italian guy I thought it would be a great opportunity to brush up on my Italian. After knowing him for a couple of months he invited me to his hometown, Matera, on the instep of the boot, more or less where you would find the genuine leather sign.
I had no idea where Matera (or the Basilicata) was, and when I arrived for the first time almost twenty years ago and I was quite shocked. It was about an hours drive from the airport to Matera, which seemed endless after my flight from Cape Town. The most astonishing thing is that for an hour, after leaving Bari, there was nothing. You drove for 65 kilometers through olive groves, wheat fields, passed Masserie, farmhouses in the rocky murgia terrein and encountered a few towns and very little traffic on the way.
I was not ready for Matera. I had travelled to Rome several times, seen Milan, Turin, Venice, seen Capri and even done the ‘cinque terre’ in Liguria, but Matera was far from all of this. It was like a time warp. 20 years ago Matera seemed to be like a living set for a Francis Ford Coppola movie. The main piazza was (and still is) the centre of town, the place where everybody goes to meet, get a gelato, celebrate if Italy wins a soccer match or do any other kind of socializing, especially over weekends. In the summer months, Piazza Vittorio Veneto is a hive of activity until early hours of the morning (and with an anglosaxon upbringing I always ask myself ‘shouldn’t those children have been in bed hours ago?)’
Food is taken very seriously. The word fresh here has a different meaning from the rest of the world. Fresh ricotta is sold directly in the plastic basket because it is still warm and has the consistency of thick cream. Bread is still baked in wood burning ovens and sold piping hot, fresh mozzarella different from anything that you have experienced outside of the Basilicata.
Needless to say, it didn’t take me very long to get used to the slow way of life (or to the really nice Italian guy to whom I am still happily married to).
As a foreigner the things that surprised me the most were those that seem pretty normal to locals.
For example, you can’t make an appointment at the hairdressers or doctors. Clients are treated on a first come first serve basis, so you just have to wait your turn (which can take several hours and can get pretty annoying if you don’t have a good book or a laptop with you). Any other appointment will begin a good half hour after the agreed time, and believe you me, it is useless to complain, rather… when in Matera… do as the Materani…
Queues do not exist; it must be something genetic around these parts because people rarely stand in line and wait their turn. If you wish to be served you’d better make yourself heard and learn to push your way to the front.
In Basilicata (and most deep southern Italian regions) Sunday lunch begins at around 3pm and finishes at around 6. Everyone over the age of 8 has a mobile phone and people constantly talk on their mobiles, wildly gesticulating with their free hand, be it in the street, car, shop or office.
When driving in or outside of the city, very few people wear seatbelts or helmets.
Life is just taken at a much more tranquil, relaxed pace (that is probably why the Basilicata region has one of the highest unemployment rates in Italy).
You go to the market to do your shopping in the morning and you meet hundreds of little old ladies wearing black. The market is for fruit and vegetables and an experience on its own with vendors shouting out the prices for their goods, then pass by the macelleria if you need chicken or meat, the Salumeria if you need ham or mozzarella, the panificio to get the bread and foccaccia etc. etc. so if you need to make a complex dish with several ingredients in it you are likely to spend most part of your morning doing the shopping.
But believe me Matera is catchy. You get used to this really flexible way of life in no time and find yourself having withdrawal syndromes for the laid back atmosphere, local bread and food when out of town.