Friday, March 6, 2009

"Feeling Sassi?"

Thankfully, I can’t take credit for the horrible title of this blog entry. It actually came from an article by the Washington Post, and not that I ever did before, but I now vow to never read it. The title of the article is referring to the “Sassi” of Matera, Italy [literally meaning “Stones of Matera”]. The sassi have a pretty loose definition from what I can tell, but usually refer to caves dwellings dug out of the earth that many times date back to the Neolithic era. Matera is a rather small town in Southern Italy, and the majority of the sassi are along the steep walled ravine called “La Gravina” that runs along the eastern side of the old city center. On the west side of the bank are the dense ancient stone houses and more recent sassi, while the east bank is home to uninhabited sassi tucked alongside giant boulders and worn footpaths. The cave dwellings are said to be the first signs of human occupation in the world [bold faced lie] but are most likely among the oldest still inhabited dwellings in the world.

I stayed at a cheap, though beautiful hostel the first night with an aloof Italian concierge, but since they had a whole school renting out the premises for the next night, I had to find alternative place to rest my head for the following two nights. There was a sign resembling an aged bumper sticker for a bed and breakfast on a lamp post that I took to be a good omen and therefore gave a call. After haggling about the price for a few moments I agreed that I would stay there and grabbed my luggage to head over. The only reason I even mention this relatively small occurrence is because it led to me meeting the host of my board, the great Bruno. Little did I know that this man would teach me more about the town, its history, and Cuban women, than I would care to fathom. Bruno is a jazz trumpet teacher and retired communist. I know the communist bit because I asked him if he was religious, to which he replied, “No, my father was un communiste”. I understandably asked if you couldn’t be both and he answered, “No…no I don’t think so…” So that settles that debate. As far as I could gather [through lots of questioning and cross examining] the status of the apartment was as follows: Bruno lived there and rented out the room with a piano and other musical items as a bed and breakfast. In one of the other rooms his brother’s Cuban ex-wife and child, named Pasqualino, were staying for a few nights. The last room was occupied by the same brother’s current Cuban girlfriend. Where was the brother you ask? In Cuba, getting a new girlfriend. The first night I stayed at the B&B de Bruno he lamented to me for about an hour over a Panini and beers about the downfalls and hardships of dating Cuban women. I eventually asked if he had a girlfriend and he told me, “Yes, but she live in Cuba right now.” For all of his interesting domestic affairs he was an incredibly gracious host, offering me constant tea, coffee, and wine as well as eventually driving me halfway to the next town I was going to. And a damn fine trumpet player to boot.

But the real reason I was in Matera was not to find out how to acquire a Cuban girlfriend. By the way, if you’re in Cuba as a tourist, you have to quite literally register your girlfriend/boyfriend if you find one there. Apparently it’s done to curb the prostitution trade, but all the same you both have to go fill out information saying you’re dating at a government institution, otherwise you’ll be stopped and questioned by the police. Okay, the Cuban promiscuity lesson is over, we’re on to stone caves. The ‘sassi’ cave dwellings in the city were occupied until the 1950’s, when the Italian government turned everyone out and claimed the land once again. The people living in the sassi were mostly all poor and did not have running water or sewer systems, so malaria was starting to turn up. It was looked on as taboo in society to live in one, being it was public land and mostly occupied through squatter rights mentality. In the 1950’s the total size of the city was 30,000 people, with 15,000 of them living in sassi dwellings. So the removal of half of the population was a very big deal and lead to many people migrating to neighboring towns. Though people couldn’t live in the sassi technically after the government intervention, Bruno told me you could still “take a sassi” up until the late 80’s. Bruno himself “took” one for trumpet playing for some months. It was public land still and you could basically just claim it for use and other people would probably respect it and move on. But in the 1990’s Matera’s Sassi were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list and therefore began an extensive refurbishing of the old center and its cave dwellings. After that moment many of the sassi on the west bank were fenced in so they could not be occupied at all [though a lot of dogs were locked in behind the iron bars, never did figure out how that worked]. There are construction sites claiming every other building it seems like, and the town is filled with the sounds of drills and saws during the day. Though the sassi near the river are still sitting idly by behind steel fences, it looks as if the rest of the city is in a state of great rebirth. I didn’t stay long enough to see how the gentrification process will play out, with old families being pushed aside to make way for bars and souvenir shops, but only time will tell.

Most of my time in Matera was spent on the opposite side of the ravine however, where the ancient sassi were located. To get there you had to descend about 100m straight down and then ford the fast moving water at the bottom. Both days I dared crossing ended with me having wet socks and bruised shins on the way walk home. The eastern side of the hill is populated by black openings all along the steep cliffs. Most of the caves in the last dozen centuries or so have been used by sheep herders to get their flock out of the rain and not as actual dwellings. One of the reasons it was settled long ago, besides weather and available access to fresh water was the type of rock most of the mountains are composed of. The rock is called “tuff” or “tufa” depending on who you talk to, and is a very soft, easy to break substance. This allowed for the carving of the dwellings with not very sophisticated tools, yet still provided good structural stability as many of the caves go back fifty feet or so into the mountain. As rocks were excavated from inside the cave, they were then used to build walls outside of the opening, thereby reusing much of the material used in the relatively simple construction process. The sassi at some point become pretty advanced, with multiple rooms connected by openings in the back, a skylight/smoke flue in the middle of every room, and shelves and seating carved out of the thick stone. The tufa rock also provides a good surface to bounce light off of, as it is almost white when carved away and most of the caves are unusually bright, even with only one or two light sources. I didn’t stay long in Matera, just a few days, and I moved on to Alberobello, Italy about 40km to the east of Matera studying the trulli stone houses. As I'm posting this my sister Whitney and I just got done exploring the cliff top monasteries of Meteora, Greece! We're at an internet cafe entitled "Surf City" in Kalampaka and internet has been hard to come by still, but hopefully new posts soon. Megan, my girlfriend, is coming out for a week as well to give me some much needed company. Needless to say, when your main source of conversation is your trumpet playing, Cuban dating, communist hotel owner, you tend to get a little lonely.

Thoughts on Traveling #6 : If you're alone and you see a stray dog in a field, don’t whistle. The chances of him having about seven stray friends is very high.

1 comment:

Ken P. said...

If you have enough of these 'thoughts on travel #' you should make a book out of them... oh and a book on 'lessons for dating cuban women'

... inquiring minds want to know