I stood at the top of the hill, perched on the side of a gorge, and held my breath musing on the town below me. I have an affection for historic places, and the city around me is one such place. Actually it isn’t just one such place. It is perhaps the place.
I am in Matera, and Matera is absolutely ancient. The age is overwhelming. It has been continuously occupied for at least 10,000 years. That makes it older than Paestum, Athens, and even Knossos by colossal margins. Ten thousand years of continuous human occupation. That’s a minimum, because people probably lived here in the paleolithic period as well. Yes – that means cavemen. This is reported to be the oldest continuously occupied city on Earth.
Assuming a generation length of 20 years, that’s more than five hundred generations of humanity learning to draw and make crude tools, learning to write and to read; learning to learn. Five hundred generations of parents and their children working and playing, teaching and learning, rejoicing and grieving. These hills and their caves bear the weight of 500 generations of welcomes and farewells and wars and plagues and holidays. The earth is watered with five hundred generations of tears of sorrow and tears of joy. This entire city is a sacred space, a place where we share the air and water and earth of our forbears beyond the memory of our histories. Prehistoric humans lived here, and their hopes and aspirations and fears and anxieties are ours. And in some sense we are theirs – all of it in uncounted ways.
And their dust is on my shoes. The dust of Matera.
This morning, our shockingly brief time at Masseria Salinola came to an end. I mention this masseria by name because they were such wonderful people, and it was such an incredible place. I would go back in a heartbeat. We ate breakfast and quickly checked out and were on our way. We had an appointment to start the day.
This pressing appointment was with another masseria, but not one at which we intended to stay. Instead we came here to see an operating farm. This land is ancient too, and they have been making olive oil here since pre-Roman times.
Some of these trees are thousands of years old. The oldest, this tree, is three thousand years old.
The guide explained to us that some people believe that olive trees are immortal. While they aren’t perhaps undying, they can be extremely long-lived. As they age, the center of the tree dies, giving rise to the typical hollowed core appearance of some trees. He also informed us that the trees naturally put out suckers (they are most natively bushes) and if the tree is looking unwell, the caretakers will allow a sucker to develop so that the original tree is not lost.
Because olive trees lose their heartwood, they are unable to count rings to calculate the age of these trees. Instead they have to use carbon dating.
The trees here are spaced 60 Roman feet apart, in the most traditional manner. They are much more widely spaced than many places we have seen in this region or in Crete. The Romans wanted every tree to have unobstructed sunlight, and this was the distance needed to assure that. Regarding other aspects of the process, it sounds as though harvest is similar to that in Greece, but rather than using rakes and sticks, the olives are shaken from the trees and then collected in the nets laid out below.
This is the cave where, for millennia, people have been making olive oil on this farm. This picture shows the old mill stone (certainly not the original)
In pre-Roman times there was a press in this cave, and the press-works was expanded under Roman rule. The makers of the oil collected the precious liquid in this large basin. This space continued to be used through the middle ages up until the 19th century. In the middle ages there were numerous presses here, standing side-by-side, and operated by a single screw mechanism. Those presses drained into the small basins toward the top of this photo.
In the 19th century, the operation was moved upstairs to this newer mill, but today the extraction of the oil is all done offsite.
This was an interesting tour, but incomplete in that they didn’t show the actual making of the oil or explain it very well, and if I hadn’t done two tours previously in Crete I might not have understood some elements of the process. Still, in conjunction with those tours the picture starts to become more complete, not only of the process itself, but also the evolution of that process from ancient times to modern day olive oil production.
And with the end of the tour we bundled ourselves back into the tiny car and hit the road heading northwest to Matera, which sits just across the border from Puglia in Basilicata. Matera ended up on our list somewhat by accident. Our final destination for the trip home is Naples, and Matera splits that drive into two more-manageable parts.
I’ve already mentioned Matera was home to cavemen, and that’s not an exaggeration. In fact, many Materans today live in caves, or sassi. These caves were originally carved into the sides of the cliff, which explains the appearance today.
Because the houses have facades, it isn’t always easy to get a sense of the caves, but this church shows it fairly well.
After a late lunch, D needed a break. He has somehow injured his knee (we don’t know how) so I plied him with ibuprofen and continued on my own. My objective was the bridge at the bottom of this gorge. On the opposite side, you can see more caves facing us.
I descended in my not-good-for-hiking shoes, slipping occasionally, but reassuring myself that people were doing this in flip-flops. As I reached the bottom of the gorge and crossed the rope bridge (steel cables, really) the sun had moved behind the city, and I was having a difficult time estimating the time needed to hike up and return on the opposite side, so elected to turn around.
At the end of the hike I found this sign. Hmm … I’m not an expert hiker, didn’t have the right shoes, didn’t have a hat, and didn’t have water. I was definitely prepared!
It was then that I decided to dive into the city and see what her streets held. But first I had to figure out how. This is a city whose streets run in three dimensions, and while structures don’t generally share the same footprint, the map was confusing. Actually – it was downright useless at times, and I might as well have been carrying a map of Istanbul for all the good it was doing me.
I watched a tour group, which helped me get oriented, then passed them on my suspected path, which led me here. Yes – this entrance, looking very much like a scene out of The Calico Mine Ride, was my path forward.
And at the end of the tunnel I found the cathedral.
And the views here, as everywhere, were extraordinary.
I walked along the ridge of the hill, and eventually found my way back down many a flight of steps to find D, who was feeling somewhat better by this point. As the dark settled in we searched for and found a location for dinner. It was up a long flight of steps, but D was game for the challenge.
And it was well worth it. As we climbed the throngs around us built. This city is alive at night. We moved along to what sounded like a marching band (although marching bands aren’t a thing here). And we had a smaller but delicious dinner starting with burrata. We have had so much burrata this trip I may consider renaming myself burratablogger.
After dinner we paused one more time to take in the view from our restaurant. This side trip to Matera was, in the end, perfect. Maybe this is the real eternal city.