Where to go in Italy in 2018? Here’s my annual off-the-beaten path list

Eating breakfast in the garden courtyard of Procida's Albergo La Vigna was one of the highlights of our year. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Eating breakfast in the garden courtyard of Procida’s Albergo La Vigna was one of the highlights of our year. Photo by Marina Pascucci


So you’re sitting at your desk and you can’t decide whether to continue your mind-numbingly boring project or kill your boss? Your last three Internet dates looked straight from the cast of “Night of the Living Dead”? It has snowed so much you’re questioning your commitment to global warming?

What photo do you put on your computer to keep you motivated? The Grand Canal in Venice? The Ponte Vecchio in Florence? Piazza Navona in Rome? How about just a damn pizza from Naples?

I have a better idea. In fact, I have 10 of them. If you daydream about Italy, go where few others go. Here is a list of 10 highly recommended off-the-beaten-path places I’ve been, mostly last year, during my combined 5 ½ years living in Italy.

Print this list (including links to expanded blogs of destinations), written in alphabetical order, and post it on your laptop instead of that gondola photo. My 2017 list received a tremendous response. I’m hoping this list will produce the same.

And maybe I’ll even save some boss’ life.

Porchetta truck in Ariccia, the birthplace of the suckling pig treat.

Porchetta truck in Ariccia, the birthplace of the suckling pig treat.


ARICCIA

It’s one of 14 towns in Castelli Romani, a series of villages in the picturesque Alban Hills southeast of Rome. At one time, they were used as defenses against an NFL lineup of foreign invaders and now offer some of the best views in Italy.

Ariccia is where Romans go to get away from the summer heat. It’s notably cooler in the hills and the town’s center is lined with restaurants specializing in porchetta. That’s the rich, sizzling, suckling pig you see served all over Italy. Seemingly every shop window in Ariccia has a giant pig, its eyes thankfully closed, laying prone with a meaty butcher carving huge slabs off it.

Leading you into town is a long suspension bridge with a beautiful view of the deep valley 60 meters below. It also has an eerie reputation. So many people committed suicide, the town built steel netting on both sides. At least now if you want to throw yourself onto the jagged rocks below, you have to work at it.

Ariccia can be reached by taking Rome’s Metro subway A line to Anignana then the COTRAL bus 40 minutes, getting off at Largo Savelli. Cost is 2.50 euros.

Where to stay (All prices based on two adults for one night June 1. Numbers are without the country code 39): This is an easy day trip. However, I highly recommend spending the night in small Italian towns. You’ll meet more locals at night. Try the three-star Hotel California, Via Quanto Negroni, 46, http://www.hcalifornia.com/, 06-934-0122, 55 euros including breakfast. A simple but clean hotel a short walk from the commercial center and highly rated.

Where to eat: Dal Brigante Gasperone, Via Borgo S. Rocco 7, http://www.fraschettabrigantegasperone.com/, 06-933-3100, 6 p.m.-midnight. An amazing antipasti plate including porchetta, bufala mozzarella, ricotta bufala, three different sausages (including horse), pancetta, prosciutto, salami, bruschetta and bruschetta with spinach. If you have room, order the pappardelle cinghiale, wide, flat noodles with wild boar sauce.

Piazza del Popolo in Ascoli Piceno. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Piazza del Popolo in Ascoli Piceno. Photo by Marina Pascucci


ASCOLI PICENO

In 2002, I threw a felt pen at a giant map of Italy on my wall and visited wherever the pen landed. It hit Ascoli Piceno and I couldn’t have had better aim. It’s a charming small town of about 50,000 on the Le Marche-Abruzzo border only 15 miles from the Adriatic coast.

Le Marche is Tuscany light. It has everything Tuscany has — beaches, vineyards, hill towns — at about half the price and a quarter the tourists.

Ascoli Piceno is so cute you’ll want to wrap it up in a doggy bag along with it signature dish, the olive all’ascolana: olives stuffed with breaded veal then fried. It’s served from Sicily to the Alps but nowhere is it better than its birthplace. You also must try the fiori di zucchini con mozzarella e acciughe (zucchini flowers with mozzarella and sardines), cremini (fried cream puffs) and agnello fritto (fried lamb). Come during its annual Frito Misto (Mixed Fried) festival April 21-May 1.

Walk it all off by prowling the 9th century Piazza del Popolo, which may be the prettiest piazza in Italy

Where to stay: Il Decumano B&B, Corso Giuseppe Mazzini 335, 348-339-9592, 70 euro. A simple but charming B&B on quiet Corso Mazzini lined with some of the prettiest buildings in town.

Where to eat. Del Corso, Corso Giuseppe Mazzini 277, 07-362-56760. Just down the street from the B&B, the scowling owner wasn’t enough to spoil spectacular seafood fresh from the nearby Adriatic. Try the fish soup.

Cala Azzurra on Favignana.

Cala Azzurra on Favignana.


FAVIGNANA

I liked this little island off the west coast of Sicily so much I went there twice last year with my girlfriend, Marina. The Weather Channel made Favignana famous in 2016 by ranking it 13th on its list of bluest water in the world. Go in the fall when the Italian tourists have left and the water is still warm.

The butterfly-shaped island, formerly a major tuna fishing outpost, is only 14 square miles and the main mode of public transportation is bicycle. Rent one and cruise along the lonely roads, trying different beaches at every stop. Don’t miss Cala Azzurro (Blue Beach), which earned Favignana the spot on The Weather Channel’s list.

Leave enough time to hang out in Piazza Madrice where the locals go to drink Nero d’Avalo, Sicily’s signature red wine. Favignana is only a 70-minute flight from Rome to Trapani and then a 30-minute hydrofoil ride to Favignana.

Where to stay: Albergo Isola Mia, Strada Punta Marsala 18, http://www.favignanaisolamia.com/, 09-2392-2116, 333-310-0154, 120 euros. Run by rocking musician Jose Tammaro, the single story bungalows have nice porches, a great breakfast spread and is walking distance to the main village.

Where to eat: Trattoria da Papu’, Piazza Madrice, 324-532-1497. The best seafood on an island known for it, Papu’ has a nautical theme with fish nets and seashells hanging from the walls. Order the busiate, western Sicily’s trademark thick twisty pasta, great with seafood. Reservations a must.

Hotel Lenno

Hotel Lenno


LENNO

Lake Como is my favorite lake in the world and Lenno may be my favorite town. Quiet and unpretentious, it’s lined with casual lakeside eateries for afternoon aperitivos. The lake is surprisingly warm in the summer and there’s even a small sandy beach for sunbathing.

Don’t join the throngs ogling George Clooney’s mansion in nearby Laglio. You can see it well enough when the ferry passes it on its way to Lenno. Instead, take a tour of Balbianello, built in 1700, one of the many astounding villas in the area. You can also climb to the top of 1,700-meter Monte Tremezzo for great views of the cobalt-blue Lake Como.

Where to stay: Hotel Lenno, Via C. Lomazzi 23, 0344-57051, http://www.albergolenno.com/, 170 euros. The four-star hotel is across the narrow street from the dock and has a gorgeous swimming pool and lakeside seating for drinks.

Where to eat: Al Veluu, Via Rogaro 11, Tremezzo, 0344-40510, http://www.alveluu.com/index_full.html, noon-2:30 p.m., 7-10 p.m. I don’t remember if the food was any good. No matter. It’s up on a hill in neighboring Tremezzo with a spectacular panoramic view of the lake. Lit by candles and adorned with white tablecloths, it’s no place to go alone — as I did. Shut up. It’s not funny.

Matera's cathedral at night. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Matera’s cathedral at night. Photo by Marina Pascucci


MATERA

It’s hard to classify a place that gets 400,000 tourists a year “off the beaten path” but Matera is so far out of the way — yet so worth it — only the hearty make it here. It’s the world’s third-oldest city, a dead ringer for Old Jerusalem. That’s why 25 movies have been filmed there, including “The Passion of the Christ” in 2003.

It’s a seven-hour bus ride from Rome to Matera in Basilicata, Italy’s forgotten region between Puglia (heel of Italy’s boot) and Calabria (the toe). Basilicata has only 570,000 people, making it one of the most rural in Italy.

Walk the narrow, windy streets between the stone houses of a city that has been continually inhabited for 9,000 years. Look inside the sassi (caves) where people lived until the neighborhood was abandoned after World War II. It stayed that way until the 1980s when a reclamation project brought it back to life.

You can also take a two-hour hike across the gorge for fantastic views back to the town.

Where to stay: La Dolce Vita B&B, Rione Malve 51, 08-35-310-324/328-711-1121, http://www.ladolcevitamatera.it/, 80 euros. Vincenzo Altieri is Matera born and bred and has a great B&B in the heart of the old town. He’s a wealth of knowledge.

Where to eat: Soul Kitchen, Via Casalnuova 27, 368-328-2232, http://www.ristorantesoulkitchen.it/, 12:45-2:45 p.m., 7:30-11 p.m. Picture elegant cave dining, maybe the finest in town. Try the potato ravioli stuffed with bufala mozzarella and covered in pesto and tomato sauce.

Orvieto's Duomo

Orvieto’s Duomo


ORVIETO

Instead of hustling from Rome to Florence, stop halfway in Orvieto. It’s a nice hilltown in oft-overlooked Umbria where the wineries are much less crowded and cheaper than neighboring Tuscany.

Orvieto is perched atop a volcanic rock above vineyards and olive groves. Its duomo, a giant confection of white marble with an outrageous facade, is one of the prettiest in Italy. It should. It took 300 years to build. Take a tour of Orvieto Underground, a series of 440 caves used as bomb shelters during World War II.

Better yet, just wander the narrow streets and listen to the soft jazz wafting from various restaurants. Orvieto’s annual jazz festival, Dec. 28-Jan. 1 this year, makes a stop worthwhile during the holidays.

Where to stay: Hotel Posta, Piazza del Popolo 27, 0763-341-909, http://www.orvietohotels.it/en/, 56-69 euros. Roomy, homey lobby with cast-iron bed frames in nice rooms right on the beautiful main piazza.

Where to eat: Trattoria del Moro Aronne, Via San Leonardo 7, http://www.trattoriadelmoro.info, noon-2:30 p.m., 7:30-9:30 p.m. Wednesday-Monday. A simple trattoria near the piazza specializing in Umbrian dishes such as carbonara with fava beans and bacon.

Otranto

Otranto


OTRANTO

This former fishing village has become an offbeat beach destination in Puglia for those tired of the more popular Bari and Lecce. Some of Italy’s best beaches are only three miles from the city center, all accessible by public bus starting in June. In the off season, you can rent a bike for an easy, flat ride along the beautiful coastline. May is ideal as the Adriatic is already warm enough to swim and Italian tourists are a long way from arriving.

The charming port is a great place to stroll at sunset or have a glass of Puglia’s trademark Negroamaro wine in one of the many restaurants with views of the sea. For insight into Otranto’s bloody history, check out the 11th century cathedral where on display in glass cases are the skulls of 700 locals, courtesy of a Turkish invasion 600 years ago.

Where to stay: Balconcino d’Oriente, Via San Francesco da Paola 71, 0836-801-529, http://www.balconcinodoriente.com, 80 euros. A short walk up the hill from the harbor, this B&B has an odd but cool African-Middle East theme in the rooms. It’s also close to local restaurants.

Where to eat: Peccato di Vino, Via Rondachi 7, 08-3680-1488, http://www.peccatodivino.com/, closed Tuesdays. A romantic, candlelit, elevated, outside dining area is the perfect place to enjoy Pugliese cuisine such as the trademark orecchiette with sausage and shaved provolone cheese. Don’t lose your appetite with the 700 skulls just across the alley.

Porto Ercole

Porto Ercole


PORTO ERCOLE

Like art? If you like art, you must study Caravaggio. If you like Caravaggio, you must visit Porto Ercole. This is the idyllic, seaside village in Tuscany where the great Baroque master died. His death remains a mystery (Madness? Malaria? Murder?) but his intriguing life comes together in this lovely town sticking out on the end of a jetty.

A 90-minute drive from Rome, Porto Ercole has a Piazza Caravaggio, a Via Caravaggio and La Locanda Del Caravaggio. “The Master of Darkness” is everywhere. His presence in the forest near the beach is marked by a small white statue, his face contorted in a silent scream.

The town wraps around a lovely harbor lined with nice restaurants, bars, crafts stores and high-end apartments. The Spanish, who ruled in these parts 500 years ago, built forts on facing hills.

Where to stay: Hotel Don Pedro, Via Panoramica 7, 05-64-833-914, La Locanda Del Caravaggio, http://www.hoteldonpedro.it/, 100-120 euros. I only came to Porto Ercole on day trips but this three-star hotel has beautiful views of the harbor.

Where to eat: La Sirena, Via Caravaggio 89, 05-64-835-032, noon-2:30 p.m., 7-11 p.m. Just off the harbor, it serves fresh seafood such as squid and prawns with excellent service and fair prices. Reservations recommended.

Marina and I on a port-side bar in Procida.

Marina and I on a port-side bar in Procida.


PROCIDA

Forget Capri. Next time, avoid the crowds and come to Procida, 10 miles to the north. It’s what an Italian fishing village was like in the 1950s. That’s where “Il Postino” was set when the charming love story was filmed in 1994.

Procida is an island only 1.6 square miles with just 12,000 people. Its curved harbor with pastel-colored buildings is a perfect place to eat a neapolitan pizza or have a glass of wine. Take a cheap bus to the fine beach on the north end where you can also while away an afternoon at one of the many harbor bars.

It’s only a 70-minute train ride from Rome to Naples then a 30-minute hydroplane ride to Procida.

Where to stay: Albergo La Vigna, Via Principessa Margherita 46, 08-1896-0469, http://www.albergolavigna.it/, 130-180 euros. It’s set in a vineyard with remarkable views of the Bay of Naples. And don’t miss the spa which you can reserve for a private hour. (Wink!)

Where to eat: La Lampara, Via Marina di Corricella 88, 08-1896-0609. Impossibly romantic location above the harbor. The seafood ravioli, stuffed with shrimp and ricotta cheese, was the best ravioli of my life.

Terme dei Papi in Viterbo.

Terme dei Papi in Viterbo.


VITERBO

This walled hill town is 40 miles north of Rome and can be done in a day trip. However, after spending all day in the Terme dei Papi thermal baths, you don’t want to sit on a bus. The outdoor baths, with different temperature pools, have been around since Michelangelo and Dante Alighieri used them and are still popular with Romans today.

Wander the Old Town behind the Roman walls. The window shopping is wonderful but stop in Ejelo, a local wine and cheese shop where the owner will ply you with local Nettaro di Confini wine and wild boar sausage.

To get here, go to the Roma-Nord train station outside the Flaminio subway stop and take the train to Saxa Rubra. From there take a bus to Viterbo and get off at the Porto Romana stop.
Where to stay: La Meridiana Strana, Str. Cimina 17, 347-0173-5066, http://www.lameridianastrana.com/uk/prima_uk.html, 60-80 euros. A charming 19th century farmhouse just outside of town seven kilometers from the spa, it features a swimming pool.

Where to eat: Felicetta, Strada delle Terme 5, 07-612-50420, https://www.facebook.com/TrattoriapizzerialaFelicetta/, 7 a.m.-11 p.m. The little country inn not far from the thermal baths has what’s considered the best gnocchi in Italy. Go on Thursdays, Italy’s “Gnocchi Day.”

Matera: World’s third oldest city rocks Basilicata in more ways than one

The Sassi (The Stones) was once abandoned less than 40 years ago but now is Matera’s nerve center and site of 25 movies, including “The Passion of the Christ.” Photo by Marina Pascucci


MATERA, Italy — Living in Rome makes it easier to grasp the history of civilization. After all, it’s nearly a 3,000-year-old city. Almost all of mankind came after it. Much of the world today modeled itself off what Rome created, for better or worse. This city came before the birth of Christ for, um, Christ’s sake.

Now imagine a city that’s 6,000 years older than Rome.

Imagine what is now Italy was nothing more than mountains and marshes and fields. Jesus wouldn’t be born for 7,000 years after this city became established.

I am in the middle of that town now.

Calling Matera’s old town old is like calling Jupiter distant. I’m standing on the lone road, two stone lanes so narrow two cars must squeeze by to pass without sideswiping. Looking up I see a hodgepodge of houses. No, call them dwellings. Or how about shelters? They are piled on top of each other as if some giant built a model city on a mountain with pebbles. Some are built right into the rock, perfect for storing food before electricity.

The 12th century Cathedral is Matera's Christmas ornament. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The 12th century Cathedral is Matera’s Christmas ornament. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The yellowish-white stone give Matera a uniformity that takes me back to Sunday school and textbook images of the Holy Land, of chickens clucking and dodging oxen in the dirt-strewn road, of bearded carpenters hammering wood in dusty roadside workshops. I keep thinking I’ll see Jesus trudge through town with a cross on his back which is exactly what Matera’s 60,000 inhabitants saw here in 2003 when Mel Gibson filmed “The Passion of the Christ.”

On the watchability meter, I rank the film down there with “Caddy Shack II.” Yeah, OK, Mel. We all know you say the Jews killed Jesus but do we have to see a man get flogged for two hours? Nevertheless, Gibson knew no town on earth could better replicate a time from 2,000 years ago.

That’s because Matera really hasn’t changed much since then.

Matera is the world’s third oldest city, according to Traveller magazine. Only Aleppo, Syria, and Jericho, Palestine, are older. So unless you like your pizza in a war zone, Matera is the place to explore. Matera was first inhabited in the Paleolithic Era which ended about 10,000 B.C. Back then, Matera’s inhabitants were discovering stone tools and how to hunt and gather. It has been continuously inhabited for the last 9,000 years.

However, the neighborhood where I’m standing and where my Marina and I are staying, wasn’t around less than 40 years ago. It was abandoned, an empty shell of a novelty. It was a forced evacuation, long overdue from a time after World War II when this neighborhood was rife with malaria, where people lived with no running water or toilets, where the infant mortality rate was 40 percent. In 1948, justice minister Palmiro Togliatti called this area, known as the Sassi (Italian for “stones”), a “national shame.”

Matera has only one road that snakes through the Sassi. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Matera has only one road that snakes through the Sassi. Photo by Marina Pascucci


As I view the chock-a-block stone structures, which come together as neatly as a jigsaw puzzle, I also see dozens of tourists climbing the narrow stairs snaking through the hill and walking the street. Call Matera old. But also call it one of the great comeback stories in Europe. The Roman Empire never rose again.

But Matera did.

“The greatness of this city is they survived all the way from Paleolithic time. So there was a vision of the world.”

Speaking is Vincenzo Altieri, 46, a born-and-raised Materana who owns the La Dolce Vita Bed & Breakfast where Marina and I stayed for three nights last weekend. He has seen Matera grow from an impoverished shell of its former self to a cleaned-up historical site to a Hollywood magnet to one of the growing tourist attractions in Italy.

Today, Matera gets more than 400,000 visitors a year. Forty years ago, you couldn’t get a plumber to come here.

“We take pictures of the city because every day is different,” Altieri says.

Marina, Roman born and raised, had never been to Matera. Like the rest of us, she’d heard stories. We saw photos. I saw “The Passion of the Christ.” I hated the movie but behind the whips, yelps and blood, the scenery was good.

Matera, at 1,315-foot elevation, is not difficult to reach but takes time. Not wanting to risk driving in snow — although the postcards of Matera dusted in white are mesmerizing — we took a bus. The big, modern pullman took seven hours, south through Campania and Puglia before slicing into Basilicata. It’s Italy’s forgotten region, a land of only 570,000 people squeezed between the beautiful beaches of Puglia, the islands of Campania and rural charm of Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot.

Basilicata is where savvy travelers go to avoid the beaten path. Its once fertile forests are now a mosaic of wheat fields, olive groves and grapevines. The Lucanian Apennine mountains cut through the spine of Basilicata, putting Matera to the east almost in their shadow. Basilicata has a history of toughness. When a discussion of unifying the country swirled in the mid-19th century, loyalists to Basilicata’s ruling Bourbons rose up in violent protest against any political change.

That fighting spirit continued in Matera where 30 years ago they took back the abandoned honeycomb landscape and turned it into their homes again. It is in that neighborhood where Marina and I woke on a crisp, clear 45-degree day, the perfect temperature to roam.

Matera has three sections: The two Sassi neighborhoods are the more impoverished Sasso Caveoso in the south and the more spruced-up Sasso Barisano to the north. To the west is the new town where the Sassi’s great unwashed were moved, most by force, in the 1950s and where Altieri grew up though he wasn’t part of the exodus.

To the east of the Sassi is the Parco della Murgia Materana, featuring a huge gorge with a river snaking through it and hiking paths crisscrossing up the side. It’s as rugged as the people and it’s the panorama we’re gazing at as we climb the first stairs behind Altieri’s B&B.

Matera gets more than 400,000 visitors a year. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Matera gets more than 400,000 visitors a year. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We walk down a narrow path overlooking the gorge and come across St. Lucia, an 8th century Benedictine convent. It’s one of 170 churches in Matera. That’s one for every 350 people.

“We have more churches than Rome,” Altieri jokes.

It’s 6 euros to enter St. Lucia along with 12th century San Pietro Barisano and 13th century San Giovanni farther north. I always balk at paying to enter a house of worship but here I marvel at the 12th century frescoes, including a rare breast-feeding Madonna. The walls are blackened from age and the two giant white stone pillars are lit from below. It feels more like a haunted house which somehow fits with the theme of Matera.

We walk north along the one main road, Via Madonna delle Virtu, with its spectacular views of the Sassi to our left and the ravine to our right. We cut left up a tiny staircase leading to the Piazza Duomo. Its 12th century cathedral is Matera’s centerpiece, its Christmas ornament where a 52-meter tower can be seen from every vantage point in the Sassi.

From the spacious surrounding piazza, we can see a panorama of the gorge with its tufa walls and tufts of grass in between. Between groups of tourists, including a wedding party where the couple posed with the church in the background, we could hear the river rapids below.

Continuing our journey, we stay on the narrow path above the mob and could smell garlic and hot olive oil emanating from the small houses, some surrounded by potted plants on tile courtyards. Italian food seems to taste better in the countryside, and our stomachs begin to churn despite the filling breakfast of focaccia with tomatoes.

In the tiny wine bar of Vicolo Cielo, we see how Matera reinvented itself into modern Italy. Despite being built inside a cave, Vicolo Cielo is a hip, casual enoteca/sandwich shop where we sit on a big, overstuffed couch. Across from us, under the white, naturally arched ceiling, sits a shoeshine chair, for no apparent reason.

As Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” plays on the loudspeaker, the young waitress brings me a panino (not “panini,” Americans) of crudo ham, gorgonzola cream, tomatoes and lettuce between thick slices of Basilicata’s famous soft bread.

Cheese plate at Caveoso

Cheese plate at Caveoso

La Cantina Bruna is built into a cave as well.

La Cantina Bruna is built into a cave as well.


A benefit to modernizing a hovel into a tourist center is Matera’s food options are tremendous. Besides bread, Basilicata is known for its terrific cheeses, including a scrumptious Caprino a Vinacce displayed beautifully at Caveoso, another restaurant built into a cave. At Morgan, one of the first restaurants established in the Sassi in 1997, I had two of the best sausages in my life, taken from Cirigliano, 15 kilometers from Matera. I also took a recommendation for Soul Kitchen, one of Matera’s most elegant restaurants where my unique potato ravioli was filled with bufala mozzarella and covered in pesto and tomato sauce. Washed down with the local Primitivo house wine served all over town, Matera hits all the gastro points.

You need fuel. The town is bigger than you think and there are so many strange things to see. It’s like a living funhouse with a religious bent. One of Matera’s most bizarre sites is San Pietro Barisano. The church was plundered in the 1960s and ‘70s, leaving the altar empty and some of the surrounding statues without heads. But below the floor is a maze of narrow passageways with 4-foot-high niches in the walls. This is where they placed corpses during draining. The close quarters are too much for the slightly claustrophobic Marina but I inch my way along the walls imagining dead bodies lined up like bowling pins. As I touch a wall, some of the tufa crumbles in my hand.

Inside the 13th century Matera Cathedral. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Inside the 13th century Matera Cathedral. Photo by Marina Pascucci


As we walk from church to church, I can’t help noting that it’s not a coincidence so many were built in a town that looks like old Bethlehem. You feel as if you’re walking through one giant presepe, the native scenes from the Holy Land you see all over Italy as Christmas nears.

This is why the most beaten path to Matera has been made by the movie industry. Twenty-five movies have been made here, starting with Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 film, “The Gospel According to St. Matthew.” In 1979 came the hit “Christ Stopped at Eboli.” Later, in 2006 they filmed the Jerusalem scenes in the remake of “The Omen,” my favorite movie of all time. Last year Morgan Freeman pounded the stones here in the filming of “Ben-Hur.”

A statue on a resident's courtyard in the Sassi. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A statue on a resident’s courtyard in the Sassi. Photo by Marina Pascucci


But the film that launched the flood of tourists was “The Passion of the Christ.” For three months the crew took over the town. In fact, right next to our B&B, Jesus, played by Jim Caviezel, fell during one of his many savage beatings.

“You’re living here so you’re living on the set even if you don’t want to,” Altieri says. “You see Romans. You see camels. You see horses everywhere. You get used to it.”

Ironically, a generation earlier, another movie had a bigger influence on the Altieri family. In the 1950s, most of Matera’s population lived in the Sassi. Today the city has a sample cave in which we saw a room about 50 square meters where 12 people lived. That didn’t include a horse and chickens in one of the rooms. A bed was shoved in the corner under a small loft. An iron pot sat under the bed. That was the toilet. The room had no drainage. No electricity.

Replica cave home. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Replica cave home. Photo by Marina Pascucci


This was 1965. It was during this time the government, tired of the black stain Matera put on the Italian landscape, started moving people into the new town.

During this time, the older brother of Altieri’s grandfather went to his first movie. It was “King Kong.” Suddenly, the Meterana saw themselves as the government did: as backward as an oxcart.

“Just by the images he realized, ‘OK, there are skyscrapers, women without moustaches, fancy dresses, cars, boats, airplanes, animals I’ve never seen,’” Altieri says. “There’s a different reality out there.”

Vincenzo Altieri, left, and me. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Vincenzo Altieri, left, and me. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Altieri grew up in a typical Italian family with 11 other members. If all roads lead to Rome, few led to Basilicata. They were nearly isolated. The government all but forgot them. Then in 1986, the government allowed families forced out of the Sassi to return and fix them up with their own money.

In 1999, Altieri took a two-story building just off the main road. A software engineer at the time, he started to rebuild. He shows me photos of our room at that time and it was a barren pit. It looked like a flood had hit it. But he went to work and later turned it into a thriving B&B with a patio overlooking the sassi.

“This place (Matera) was meant to share,” he says. “There was a wisdom of looking at the world and saying, ‘OK, we can do better even though we have no resources. We will succeed.’”

A man plays a zampogna, a traditional Basilicata instrument often played around Christmas and around Italy in folk music festivals. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A man plays a zampogna, a traditional Basilicata instrument often played around Christmas and around Italy in folk music festivals. Photo by Marina Pascucci


It’s our last night, and we go to Sunday mass. I’m not religious but living in Italy, mass is a cultural event. Marina goes regularly, and I learn more about her life and my adopted country’s traditions by sitting in church for 45 minutes. It’s was held in San Giovanni, made of gray and white stone, beautiful in its simplicity.

The priest, a short, young man in a brilliant purple robe, talks about how the real sense of life is having time for brothers and sisters and family. He says modern man doesn’t have faith, that he must keep the faith.

Matera has kept the faith for 9,000 years. That’s a passion Christ could appreciate.