Destination: Matera, Italy (Mavelous, Magical Matera!)
Well, these four weeks in Matera, Italy, certainly flew by!
Matera was our third stop since Brent and I left Seattle seven months ago to begin our lives as digital nomads (folks who work online and can live anywhere in the world). We got rid of our house, most of our possessions, and set out to see the world.
As I've previously noted, we almost made a big mistake by leaving Matera only days after we got here. After a bad co-living experience in Malta, we were afraid of getting stuck in a place we'd end up hating.
We're so happy we decided to give it a chance! Our time here at Casa Netural in Matera has in some ways been even better than our time at Roam in Miami. Had we left early, we would have truly missed out on some amazing experiences. There are almost too many fantastic things we would have missed to list them all, but I'll give it a try.
Casa Netural is plugged into the local community more than most co-living facilities, giving us a much better sense of the country we're living in. Andrea and Mariella, Casa Netural's cofounders, arranged for Brent and I to speak in front of Rivolta, the local LGBT group here. It was an amazing evening where we shared our experiences as two writers living as digital nomads, our life-long fight for LGBT rights, and life as a long-term gay couple.
And we had a translator for the first time since we both began public speaking decades ago! That was fun.
We were also invited to several Mamma Miaaa dinners, another Casa Netural initiative taking place as part of Matera's being the European Capital of Culture in 2019. We had fantastic food and wine, and even better conversations with a great group of Italians.
And had we left early, we would have missed the Sassi, or Stone City, for which Matera is rightfully famous. The UNESCO World Heritage site has an incredible history. First inhabited during the Neolithic Era (and continuously occupied ever since!), the Sassi's fortunes have risen and fallen over the previous nine thousand years. It was once a prosperous center of art and commerce, but by the middle of the twentieth century, it had ended up as one of the most impoverished regions in all of Europe, with shockingly primitive conditions and abject poverty. In 1945, Carlo Levi wrote Christ Stopped at Eboli, a book that chronicled the harrowing conditions. When the book was later translated in English, the people of the Sassi became a sensation -- and the Italian government was forced to act, moving the peasants out of the primitive city and into farms and apartments (and leaving the ancient buildings abandoned for decades). Many of these early attempts at help were poorly executed, perpetuating the "national shame" of the desperate people of the Sassi, but gradually, their lives did begin to improve.
Today the Sassi itself is coming back to life. While most of the buildings are still abandoned, some have been refurbished. Today it's a remarkable mix homes, hotels, restaurants, and shops, all of them carved into the stone hillsides of Matera and or built of that same stone. There are the famous churches, including the breathtaking Madonna de Idris, which is literally carved out of a stone mountain in the middle of the city.
Equally fascinating is the Palombaro, a series of giant cisterns directly underneath the Sassi, which once provided the city with its water and which date back to the 1500s. With the introduction of a modern aqueduct a hundred years ago, the cisterns were forgotten, and were only rediscovered twenty-five years ago. Now they're being converted into tourist attractions.
Is that enough to make Matera seem like a worthwhile destination? But wait, there's more!
We happened to arrive in Matera only days before Festa della Bruna, an annual religious festival that's taken place for 629 years. The displays of lights are stunning, but the real attraction is the evening ritual, when the float that carries a statue of the Madonna is "de-consecrated," then torn apart by the young men of town (and this year, for the first time ever, a young woman!), with everyone carrying off the different pieces of the float for good luck.
But the absolute best part of Matera? The people. Both the people we lived and worked with at Casa Netural (hello, Gillian, Azeem, Susanna, Sofi, and Samuele!), but all of the local people we met. Simply put, the Materans are some of the nicest, friendliest people we've ever met. It's true that in Southern Italy, fewer people speak English, but we all made ourselves understood. In fact, when our power went out one night, and our host was away, the non-English-speaking neighbors did their best to help us get our power back on!
And the Materans aren't just generous to wealthier visitors like us; the local population includes a number of African migrants. The government won't allow them to work, so to make ends meet, they are often found outside of stores greeting shoppers with a cheery "Buon giorno!" in hopes of getting a few euros. Prejudice surely exists against them, but we didn't see any signs of it -- on the contrary.
Come for the sights and attractions of Matera, Italy, but stay for the even more lovely people. We know we'll remember their generosity the rest of our lives.