Driving around Italy is full of humorous moments. A nun walking out into the middle of thick traffic with her arm sharply extended, palm out, to stop traffic. The supposedly two lane coastal roads the width of a bus that become especially interesting to traverse, when a bus is coming the opposite direction. The tiny parking spaces that every Italian seems to be able to slide into without breaking a sweat.
But of all the on-the-road antics that are so comical all you can do is crack a smile, my favorite is this: inching up to a turn in an ancient village, the map/GPS/signs telling you this is the turn to take, and yet every fiber of your common sense is saying no, this turn is just too narrow, these streets were not made for these kind of modern cars, there’s no way we’ll make it, this can’t be the right turn. If you’re lucky, you won’t have 5 impatient Italians behind you honking while these thoughts go through your mind, before just giving in, turning the wheel, and slowly maneuvering your way through unforgiving stone walls. Maybe the passenger will hop out, just to ensure the corners of the car make it through. Or maybe you just laugh, at the absurdity of it all, and feel quite proud when the car is safely parked nearby.
Of all the tight turns successfully traversed during my three-week honeymoon through southern Italy around this time last year, the tightest of all was to enter the ancient sassi of Matera, a village set on the edge of a plunging ravine in the in-land region of Basilicata. Completely abandoned in the 1950s, used as a film set to double as the ancient city of Jerusalem, this stone village is now a destination in southern Italy for its historic churches covered in frescoes, luxurious hotels with suites carved into caves (I wrote about 3 of the best recently for AFAR.com), and for its sheer drama.
Spend a few days here, and you will climb lots of stone stairs, each revealing views more impressive than the last. Small enough to wander aimlessly without a map, this village is not only rich in history and beautiful to look at, but is also home to a creative class that have opened lovely shops with design-centric items, art galleries, and small, charming restaurants where the small price tag does not match the high quality of the food.
I loved waking up in a cave, taking a bath in a tub carved into stone, and eating breakfast on a stone terrace overlooking the tiered core of the village, but two memories stand out above the rest from time spent in Matera. The first involved an afternoon rain storm. We spent a lovely morning getting lost in the heart of the sassi when our stomachs started to rumble. We found a small restaurant with a covered, raised terrace out front and ordered lunch. Right as a plate of burrata was plopped down, the skies opened, as if a release valve had been switched. There was not a single drop before there were sheets of rain, plummeting with force to the earth. We were shielded under a strong awning and watched the storm wage around us, cooling a steamy June afternoon. There was nothing to do but linger over our pasta, order another glass of wine, then an espresso, and another espresso, and wait it out. Despite the ferocity of the storm, it was one of the most peaceful moments of our trip.
On our final evening in Matera, we followed the advice of the hotel proprietor not only to a specific restaurant, but to a specific dish at a specific restaurant. He declared it the best pasta in all of Matera and I wanted a taste. The handmade pasta at Ristorante Francesca, served hot straight out of a skillet, was fantastic, but it was the company of the evening that stood out most.
Next to our table was a pair of octogenarian ladies — I imagined friends since childhood — dining together. They were so elegant, with their coiffed hair and nails, their scarves, their delicate and slow way of twirling pasta in such tight spirals. Quite simply put, something about this dinner looked the good life, a snapshot of where I’d like to wind up down the line, at a lovely table, with friends and family, raising a glass.