Part I. Roma.
In a bit of a slump, tired, and anxious about changes overall. This was my state of mind upon entering the vicinity of Roma. My low-level energy and exhaustion was riding on the coattails of a supposed two-hour drive from Pompeii which took over five hours due to construction, a discouraging side trip up Mt. Vesuvius, and traffic that would make the best and most offensive driver squirm. It was no surprise to me that I felt anxious and intimidated by the city which boasts 2.7 million inhabitants. Not feeling too certain of anything, especially what to do or where to start, what I was sure of was that I could not handle one more hour feeling “lost”. Therefore the decision was quite easily made to start with a bicycle tour of the city. [TopBike Rentals]. Georgia-a very hip and cool guide-was so much fun and also really knowledgeable about the area where she grew up.
At any rate, since there are so many accounts of travelers in Roma, here’s what I have say about my experience there. I would like to ride a bicycle around the cobblestone paths all day. I enjoyed the bike-pace while looking at all the little shops which line the streets. I think it’s an interesting juxtaposition with the centuries old cultural icons that the area is known for. On the same block a person can gaze at statues created forever ago, marvel at incredible artistic technology on ceilings and walls [aka: frescoes], and buy cheap plastic renditions of everything in sight at kitschy tourist shops. You would think I’d get used to this apparently universal [yet somewhat sad] aspect of locations that attract tourists, having grown up in the lovely well known tourist destination of Carmel, California. I may be stating the obvious in this case, but it’s worthy of a reminder. The problem with notable, one-of-a-kind, beautiful, quirky, or otherwise well-known places is that they become a veritable circus of activity due to the reasons that attracted people there in the first place. Depending upon the actual type of attraction we’re talking about, the exaggerated presence of crowds can become a complete detraction from the place itself.
For example, consider for a moment the literal Piccadilly Circus vs. St. Peter’s Basilica. Piccadilly Circus in London is in the middle of a bustling city; it is intended to have a gaggle of people participating in whatever it is people like to do there. St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, on the other hand, was intended as a place of worship where words like “gaggle” and “crowds” do not even belong. Walking through the Basilica was memorable: the uber-ornate-ness of everything was astonishing to me, and while I’m not really into ornate, it is irregardless something to marvel at what the early Catholics decided to do with their Basilicas. Due to the conservative estimate of about 5000 other people inside at the same time, the most mellow moment in the Basilica was when I went into the smaller section “for pray only: no photos, no cameras, no talking”.
Okay, here is my general opinion. If you are actually going to Italy, go to Rome. Seriously, there is a lot of history to see. In my case the visit clarified historical concepts that apparently were confused in my memory. But if you do not love big busy cities and are not going to Italy, then don’t go to Rome.
The end of Part 1.
If you would like to book your ferry to Croatia online from the vicinity of Roma, you cannot expect to reserve a spot on said ferry for the following day. Drat! Now outfitted with five unexpected days in Italy, the anxiety level crept back up. Now what? With no idea what to do next we left it to the greater unknown and sat down with our oversized guidebook and the internet and came up with a UNESCO listed site called Matera.
Part II. Matera.
“A visit to Matera would be a shame without staying in a Sassi [cave]” the guidebook said. Good enough for me, I thought. So after more than two hours of researching and figuring out what might be next we reserved a cave-room in Hotel Sassi, in the old cave-dwelling section of Matera.
Now the cultural history of this area stands on it’s own as far as interesting. The geological background is an added bonus. Once upon a time, there was a ravine carved over the years through the limestone bedrock. Centuries of geological processes put final touches on the crevasses, caves, and unique features of the area before the early inhabitants came along and decided to live here. As time passed the population grew. In the early 1920’s the Sassi -as the area came to be called- was an area of high population density among the poor peasants. The sanitary aspects of the area were marginal at best: read, clean water was a trick to come by, and there was no community sewage service. Did I mention that any property-such as donkeys, chickens, pigs, and the like- was also kept inside the small and overcrowded dwellings? Imagine.
In the mid-1950’s the government finally decided to build “new housing” for the people from the Sassi, thereby evicting them of their homes kind of by force. I suppose the health standards were an issue so maybe this was considered a good thing at the time. After all, as late as the 50’s! These people had been living in severe poverty unlike many people in the rest of Italy [according to printed materials].
How did this poverty-stricken location from which it’s inhabitants were kicked out end up on the UNESCO world heritage list by 1993 you ask? Good question! I was curious, too.
It turns out that a non-governmental group of local,hip young people from the new generation decided that this place was a unique area worth saving. The architecture alone is of curious value, and these young hipsters also wanted to display art and other more modern things in juxtaposition with the Sassi. By the mid-80’s the Sassi had become a hip and more expensive place for a “new” generation of Materans (?) to purchase and refurbish a home. Fewer and farther between than the earlier habitations, nicer homes were created, and hotels and other lodging became more common. Now, while the streets are not too thick with interesting smells, stagnant unclean water, or people going about their day, the area takes on a different air of living history. While walking along a person may pass four doors with chipped paint and an old rusty lock holding it closed, and the next door is modern and bright and clean: in some cases this is the only outward display of what might be inside.
So I started asking people. It didn’t take long to confirm my suspicions.
“What does the older generation think, now?” I asked the early-30’s woman at our hotel. She, along with a few others, concurred that for the older generation who grew up here it was a source of shame and embarrassment. After all, to live in the Sassi was to be the poorest of the poor in an already less-affluent area of the country. However, it was also apparent that the older generation expressed interest in their heritage from time to time. She shared that on occasion some old-timer would come to the Hotel and ask to look around. As she accompanied them they would point and say “..in that room my cousin was born”, and “..I was born here, in this room”.
If you’re like me, that is the history which is amazing. Here are a distinct few who dare to return-despite cultural insinuations- to get another look at the walls and stone which house personal memories, images of a past, a childhood long gone. Our memories of childhood transcend monetary means or government listings; they are as unique as each individual. To me it is incredibly endearing that those few had returned to see what it was like now, into the future, while sharing with that lucky woman some of their own personal heritage.
If you’re going to Italy, go to the Sassi of Matera. This small town has some recent history still available by word of mouth, and from the mouths of those who lived it. Now that is cool.
The end part II.