Sassi and sassy

In search of warmth and the true meaning of relaxation, I could think of no other place to go than Southern Italy. I spent my time here in three places: Bari, Alberobello and Matera. The same characteristic attracted me to each of them: a beautiful place to wander about without much to do. Perfetto.

The particular variety of “not much to do” in Bari mostly involved the picturesque old town, where the streets are tiny and easy to get lost in. As in, you enter old town, think you have a good idea of where you’re going, and wind up exactly where you started five minutes later. It’s particularly loveable around meal-times, where all the families cook delectab;e meals with the doors and windows thrown wide open. Another sizeable chunk of my time was spent relaxing by the ocean. Especially when one can ignore the thin layer of petrochemicals and fish oils that is perpetually adorning the surface, it’s really quite beautiful.

See, the pollution makes it even more reflective and shiny, so it’s actually a good thing.

I attended one Mass at the cathedral, after which I resolved to go to the rest at San Nicola, the basilica where St. Nicholas is interred (apparently I missed quite the party on his feast a week ago). I’d prefer Dominicans who don’t give homilies (the P stands for……nope, I’ve got nothin’) at the latter to extremely disinterested, yawning, speeding-through-everything priests at the former. Although, some of the oddities of Masses in Southern Italy come from the other side of the altar… For instance, everyone in the congregation is very chatty, all the time. Such as during the consecration. Although, this is preferable to, say, smoking in church. Which wasn’t during a Mass, and was one of those electronic cigarettes, but still happened. Ah, Southern Italy, you are a very unique place.

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If you look carefully enough, you can see the smoke—I mean water vapor—steaming out of every nook and cranny. Just as it should be.

On Wednesday, I took a day trip to a town called Alberobello. This particular part of Apulia is known most for its unique architecture, buildings called the “trulli” (“trullo” singular). 

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Stone traffic cones meet Star Wars.

I explored the town a little, but my real reason for going was the vicinity to the wide open countryside. Nothing but olive trees, trulli and good honest dirt as far as the eye can see.

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Rocks. I forgot to mention they have rocks. REAL rocks!

While happily meandering amongst this beauty, I noticed that there happened to be a lot of wide open space devoid of nearby sources of manmade light. Coincidentally, these happen to be the ideal conditions for stargazing, and I had nothing to do that evening. It helps that the sun sets rather early here. Briefly, since words cannot do it justice, it was cold but worth it.

Thursday was spent in Matera, another nearby city famous for the amount of scat to be found in public places. Or at least, that’s what it should be famous for. I counted 7 different species. It is actually known for its ancient dwellings, known as the Sassi:

This is the Lord of the Rings to Alberobello’s Star Wars. I’m not saying it’s a lot cooler or anything, but yeah, kinda that.

From another angle, it looks like:

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…I’ve got nothing. Let’s see you try to caption something this awesome.

Yes, the city sits on the brink of rugged, barren wilderness. It’s very poetic, very photogenic and makes for good hiking:

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And reminds me of Utah. I expected Mormons to be hopping out from behind the rocks any second.

Really, this blog post would be infinitely better as an uninterrupted series of pictures of Matera. But, a picture is not really worth a thousand words, so some description is in order. In addition to the city’s ancient, primal aesthetic (that I’m sure is contributed to by being hewn from the side of a mountain), across the valley there are some cave dwellings that archaeologists believe make the city the oldest continuously inhabited place in Europe, if Wikipedia is to be believed (and it is). The lady I asked for directions kept insisting that I needed a car to get to them, but I proved her wrong.

My interaction with the local culture (across all three cities) revealed that Southern Italians are unused to and rather hostile towards tourists, which I loved (this is the “sassy” part of the title; it’s a stretch, but it’s also late and I’m tired). It was either admire it or be offended, so I chose the more enjoyable outlook.

The first glorious exception to this principle was the gracious and hospitable matriarch of the hole-in-the-wall family run restaurant where I ate on Wednesday night. Coincidentally, her food was also the best. First she brought me a free bruschetta, complements of the house. It was probably the best bruschetta I’ve had in Italy, which is saying something. Then I had some tubetti (“little tubes”) pasta with mussels, perfectly grilled shrimp, and some grilled peppers (served cold but surprisingly delicious, given that). All of this with a delicious house wine (red, of course). I had some trouble picking out a dessert (since I didn’t know any of the terms in Italian) so she brought me a little sampler plate, and some gelato that had chunks of sugar on top of it. I won’t explicitly tarnish my image by saying that it wasn’t even a disappointment when it turned out that there was some coffee flavored ice-cream inside, but I will say that everything I ate that night was exquisite. Take that for what it’s worth…All of this cost just over half of what it would have in Rome. The other nights were also very fine—pizza and buffalo mozzarella on Thursday, mountains of Greek food (there’s a pretty big influence in Bari) on Tuesday—and of course sempre vino.

The second exception to the “Southern Italians don’t like tourists” rule was the amazing hostel at which I stayed, called the “Olive Tree.” The owners were incredibly kind and helpful, above and beyond the call of duty, and made my stay amazing. It was probably the best hostel I’ve stayed in during all my adventures. I just felt like they deserved a shout-out.

Alas, there are so many little details that I wish I could relate, but that would be unfeasible. I had a great time! There have only been two downsides to this trip. First, relaxing is hard for me. But somehow I managed. Secondly, I haven’t had enough things to complain about. All things considered, I’m not too upset with either. 

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