Most travelers are compelled to leave home by curiosity – the desire to know what life is like in different parts of the globe. Many of us, myself included, are especially interested in visiting places where people live a simpler life, without all of the modern technology that most of us in the United States take for granted.
But the more you travel, the easier it is to become jaded. In Italy, there are scores of beautiful small towns, each with their own piazzas, churches and corsos, where townsfolk take their evening passegiata, or stroll. Sometimes, it can become difficult to distinguish one place from the next. But there are several towns in Italy where some residents still live in primitive, cave-like dwellings that are quite out of the ordinary and well worth a visit.
Five years ago, I visited Sperlinga, a town in the interior of Sicily that is famous for its cave dwellings, and this week I had an opportunity to visit Matera, a fascinating small city in Basilicata that is famous for its sassi cave dwellings, and Alberobello, a unique town in Puglia with some 1,500 trulli, small, primitive homes with distinctive conical tiled roofs. Both places are UNESCO World Heritage sites and major tourist destinations but are nonetheless well worth a visit.
%Gallery-155508%Matera’s sassi are considered one of the oldest inhabited human settlements in the world. The town’s earthy stone buildings give it a biblical feel that inspired Mel Gibson to film part of “The Passion of the Christ” in Matera. (Most of it was filmed in an abandoned town nearby called Cracovecchia.) Only about 3,000 of the city’s 60,000 residents still live in sassi, but as recently as the 1950s more than half the town’s population was living in them, many in desperate poverty.
These days the sassi are big business, and if you have the cash, you can stay in a very nice one, complete with Wi-Fi, luxury bathrooms and memory foam beds – a far cry from the wretched living conditions chronicled by the writer Carlo Levi, whose writing galvanized the Italian government to forcibly relocate some 15,000 of the sassi dwellers into modern apartment buildings in the late 1950s.
Alberobello is a smaller town, filled with souvenir shops, and the distinctive trulli homes, which have eight different rooftop symbols. Many of the trulli have symbols painted on them, some with Christian symbols, some are primitive and others pertain to magic and the occult. While Matera has several ancient cave churches with stunning frescoes, the only real site in Alberobello is the town itself, which is well worth a visit, as is the surrounding countryside, which is also filled with trulli.
If you go: Matera can be reached by the regional FSE line from Lecce or the FAL train line in about 90 minutes from Bari, a Ryan Air and German Wings hub. I stayed at the Residence San Giorgio and highly recommend it. The nearby town of Altamura is famous for its focaccia bread, but the bakers in Matera have copied their recipes and you can sample some of the best tomato focaccia bread you’ll ever have at Panificio Paoluccio, located just off the main square in the new town at 22 Via Del Corso.
We visited Alberobello on a day trip from the seaside town of Polignano A Mare. You can rent a trulli if you want to sleep in the town, but most visitors don’t stay in Alberobello for more than a night, as it’s mostly geared towards day-trippers from Bari and other nearby towns. If you don’t have a car, you can arrive via regional train from Bari or Lecce. The nearby town of Locorotondo is also well worth a visit.
Photos and Videos by Dave Seminara