Christ Stopped at Eboli But You Should Go On to Matera, Italy

Matera
Matera Morning
Matera Morning

Every Italian schooled in Italy has read Carlo Levy’s book Christ Stopped at Eboli.

Eboli is a town just south of Salerno in Southern Italy. Once you go south past Amalfi, you enter the REAL Italy.

Carlo Levy was a doctor, a writer and painter who originally lived in Turin in the northern province of Piedmonte.

He was an outspoken opponent to the creeping Fascism during the time that Hitler and Mousellini were teaming up to unleash hell on the entire planet.

Because he was not quiet about his beliefs, he was sent into exile for two years to a tiny southern Italian hill town in the southern province of Lucania called Aliano.

 

Street sign in Aliano
Aliano street sign directing you to the house of Carlo Levy

It was not unusual at that time for people to be exiled. In Aliano there were a few exiles, They had strict rules of conduct that they had to adhere to.

The reason Levy’s book is so significant is that his writings went on to shed light on what was later called the Shame of Italy.

The Shame of Italy was the fact that the people of the nearby hill town of Matera lived in abject squalor. They had dug caves out of the rock and lived in medieval houses made from the white stone that is ubiquitous in that region.

Because the landscape in Southern Italy is arid, in the days before large scale irrigation, people lived on the meager fare they could scratch out on the farms and their livestock.

 

Matera in the evening
Matera in the evening

Many times the animals would live in the houses with the families for warmth in Winter.

Malaria was rampant throughout Matera and the conditions made it hell.

 

Detail Church of the Pergatory, Matera
Detail Church of the Purgatory, Matera

For these reasons the locals told Levy that “Cristo si e Fermata A Eboli”, Christ stopped at Eboli, north of them and not even Christ himself had cared to come this far south.

Levy’s book caused an uproar and finally the people of Matera were moved out and into government built houses. They were provided food and medicine and Matera sat lonely and vacant for awhile.

Finally in recent years, the beauty and history of Matera has drawn new interest and people have moved back and created a new and vibrant Matera.

Matera is now a cultural Mecca drawing not only tourists but musicians, artists and film makers.

Some of the scenes from Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ were filmed here.

 

Street sign Aliano
Street sign Aliano

Last Fall my husband and I visited Matera and Aliano. We had read and reread Levy’s book and we wanted to see where this intriguing story had played out.

 

The church Aliano
Even the church in Aliano had Gli Occhi (The eyes)

Aliano was fascinating to us as we coud see the actual location where Levy had experienced his exile. We watch his story spring to life.

 

View from Aliano
View from Aliano
The View from Aliano

Although being exiled there today would not be much of a hardship, back then it was a rough existence filled with illness, hopelessness, superstition and endless arbitrary bureaucratic red tape that made the smallest effort to make things better suddenly illegal.

Today Aliano is a lovely hill town springing up in the middle of arid land. It is sleepy and unhurried. Businesses thrive and the restaurants are good, even great.

 

Carlo Levy's exile
Buildings of Carlo Levy’s exile

Buses filled with school children file into the town and later, out again because the students are still studying Christ Stopped at Eboli and probably will for a very long time to come.

But superstition still dips its hat there as the restaurant we had lunch in was called “La Laconda Con Gli Occhi” or the “Inn of the eyes”.

The building itself sports the architectural design that when you look at it from the front, looks like a face with eyes. It is said that the eyes keep evil spirits away.

This seems to work fabulously as the food and service were amazing and we highly recommend it.

 

Street scene in Matera
Street scene in Matera
Street Scene in Matera

As we later arrived in Matera, we were taken aback by the modern buildings and streets. It was teeming with tourists despite the fact that it is a bit of a trek to get to.

 

Street shops in Matera
Street shops in Matera
Street Shops in Matera

We had booked an AIR BNB there overlooking the Sassi de Matera (the old town). This is where the people lived as illustrated in Levy’s book. Our balcony overlooked the Sassi and in the evening the gold lights came up making it look like a fairy town.

As dinner time approached we walked to the town center. Matera is a vision of white stone streets and houses.

 

The Sassi looking up to the shopping district
The Sassi looking up to the shopping district
Matera looking up to the shopping district

The people were out taking the passagiata, the charming custom of walking and talking to each other that happens every night, eveywhere in Italy.

As you wander through the town you hear music everywhere. Matera, having elected itself a cultural center has several music academies there. On our walk we alternately heard jazz, opera and rock music filtering through the Sassi.

 

Sassi of Matera
Sassi of Matera

Matera hosts many music festivals and events throughout the year as well.

As the sun set the music drifted out over the town and the Sassi. Matera has come into her own.

Matera is absolutely worth the time and effort to get there. It is not that difficult and the landscape on the drive over changes dramatically and is never boring.

Getting to Matera by car is easiest although you can get there on public transport.

The Hill Behind Me was Where Mel Gibson’s The Passion Was Filmed

Matera has done a lot to cater to tourists. I had no trouble finding several gluten free restaurants and vegetarian dishes are available at many places. In fact the gluten free pizza and beer I had was way better than any GF pizza here in the states.

 

Gluten free pizza
Gluten Free Pizza

Before you go, read Levy’s book. Although his book paints a dreary but true picture of what Matera was like, you will see a true life happy ending when you arrive

The best time to go is during shoulder season. The weather can be brutally hot in Summer and cold in Winter. Spring and Fall are magnificent.

If you are interested in visiting Matera or anywhere in Italy, contact me.

IF you have seen Matera, please leave a comment about your experiences there.

Photo credits, Chris Ellis and Pete Sobolev

Why the Calabrian Coast is the New Amalfi

Maratea_coast
Sweeping Mediterranean views from Maratea
Why Calabria is the New Amalfi
Why Calabria is the New Amalfi

Remember when Amalfi was the cool place to visit? The highbrow travelers flocked there to see and be seen.

The Amalfi coast and Positano in particular have reached truly Disneyesque status as tourist destinations.

The Disney phenomenon seems prevalent in the areas that cater to tourists. As more and more tourists descend on a town or a province, the mom and pop shops sell out to trinket shops and high end designer fashion stores.

Many times the beauty of the old architecture is destroyed and turned into a sterile new “modern” look that defeats the entire purpose of visiting a small Italian fishing village.

You could go visit Amalfi and pay way too much for a meal at one of the restaurants there but your travel dollar is way better spent a little further south.

Most guidebooks featuring Italy stop at Naples and claim to have reached “The South”.

They completely ignore the fact that there is almost half of Italy further south and that, to have a true Italian holiday immersed in the food, customs and community, you have to venture further.

Italy is a glorious country but there are reasons to avoid the crowds and tourists of the Rome, Venice, Florence trifecta.

Calabrian Antipasti
Calabrian Antipasti

1) The food

Calabria has its own cuisine. In fact most of what Americans know as “Italian food” is Calabrian cooking.

Starting in the late 1800’s and continuing through two world wars, Calabrians emigrated in great numbers to America, mostly New York.

Much of Calabria at that time was a brutal place to farm and farming was the sole subsistence of most of the people.

The Calabrian Diaspora (Emigration) continued over decades and ultimately Calabrian influence could be seen everywhere in the US.

Your pizzas and pasta ragouts are from Calabria and Naples.

A walking tour through any Calabrian village finds hand made fresh pastas, home made breads and a complete array of delicious pastries.

My two favorite restaurants in Calabria are the Bella Vista in Santa Domenica Talao where my husband and have a place, and Al Caminetto in Tortora which is another beautiful Calabrian hilltown.

Order anything off the menu at any one of these two places and you are in for a treat.

Calabrian Views
Calabrian Views

2) The Scenery

The Calabrian coast or The Riviera Dei Cedri is not only bristling with picturesque little fishing villages but also has spectacular mountain ranges jutting up into the sky in a myriad of colors.

Beautiful Tortora
Beautiful Tortora

Add to this the little medieval hilltop villages clinging the rocky crags like mushrooms on a tree trunk and you have an enchanting vacation destination.

Calabria is a photographer’s dream. Around every corner is another jaw dropping view that stops you in your tracks.

Shopping in Diamante
Shopping in Diamante

3) The shopping

Calabria and Southern Italy in general is known for their markets. The Monday market in Scalea is a shopper’s paradise. The marketplace is lined with stalls selling anything from lingerie to housewares to cheeses.

Every little village has a market once a week and the downtown areas all have shops that sell products unique to their specific regions.

Many of these products like Cedro cookies and jellies, fiercely hot N’Duja and chile peppers are unique to the region.

My Beautiful Friends Nunzia
My Beautiful Friend Nunzia

4) The people

When my husband and I first purchased our home in Santa Domenica, we barely spoke Italian and worried whether we would fit in.

Somehow, between then and now we have become fast friends with our Italian neighbors.

Nunzia who runs the market in the village took us under her wing and from that point on we were part of the community.

Giacomo and his Lovely Family
Giacomo and his Lovely Family

One day while visiting the little hill town of Aieta, close by our place, a man came running out, brought us in for coffee and introduced himself.

Since then Giacomo and his family have been good friends and they are always up for a day or a dinner out when we are there. (On the right is Roseangela who is an amazing chef. Check out our video as she tries really hard to teach me how to make pasta.)

We have made so many great friends there despite our halting Italian and funny California ways.

Giuseppe
Guiseppe the Artist. He has a Lovely Soul.

They happily look the other way when they see us eating dinner at 6:oo and drinking cafe latte in the afternoon. Any time we need anything they are there to help us out.

5) La Pausa

The afternoons in Calabria are set aside to recover from a big Calabrian lunch. Everything shuts down at 1:00 and everyone snoozes.

At first this bugged me. Where was everyone? I had to plan my day around La Pausa (The pause) but more and more I fell into the habit of reading and taking a short snooze in the afternoon.

It is a lovely custom. You feel so refreshed after a pause and you can then stay up late and enjoy the festivals into the evening.

6) Everything is inexpensive

At my favorite restaurant, I can get an oven fired pizza for eight Euros. The homemade red wine there which is fabulous by the way, is also about eight euros for a liter.

The food is fresh and many times it comes to you without you having to go out shopping.

Several times a week we hear the voice of our fish man broadcasting through the village “Peschi! Peschi fresci” and a huge filet from an unfortunate seabass who was just pulled from the sea, is yours for ten euros.

The Sassi, Matera
The Sassi in Matera, Basilicata, Italy

7) It is the perfect home base for an exploratory trip

From most Southern Italian towns, everything is accessible by rail. You can go North to Paestum for the best preserved Greek city still in existence.

You can head south to the fishing village of Scilla for seafood, or to Paola to visit the extraordinary sanctuario there.

You can head further South to Reggio Calabria and see the promenade and the beautiful museums and shops.

You can go further south to Sicily over the Straits of Messina and arrive in Taormina. Everything is a short hop.

Or you can stay in one area and explore the many hilltowns that dot the region. Each one has its own beauty and charm and the people love tourists who interact with them.

Passegiata
The Passegiata

8) The passagiata

Every evening and especially in weekends, everyone in the village dresses up and performs the passagiata or “The walk”. They leave their housework, their TV’s and telephones and they walk around the village.

They touch bases with their neighbors, have an ice cream and kiss new babies. The men play cards at the tables left out for them by the shop proprietors. The woman walk arm in arm and talk about their lives.

In my village I see no one with mental health issues and I think that the simple act of walking with another person arm in arm and talking to them goes a long way in preventing depression and loneliness.

The people of the village belong to the family that is the entire village. It is a powerful support group.

Bella Nunzia
Bella Nunzia

9) Calabria is Magical

While walking in the alleys of Diamante one day I heard a gasp. I looked up and a tiny lady was running toward me with her arms outstretched. “Che Bella Duona!” (What a beautiful lady!) she said and fell into my arms.

I looked up at my husband and friend who were as surprised as I was and said “I love this place!”

And who could not love a place that raises its children with the idea that these spontaneous outbursts of love and admiration are perfectly ok?

If you love life, all the joy it brings, all the sights, smells, and sensations, you will love Southern Italy.

Calabrian Magic Peppers
Calabrian Magic Peppers

When you go, visit my friend Clive and Cathryn at Casa Cielo, in Scalea. They are the number one BNB there and are English so language is never a problem.

Additionally Clive is a fantastic chef and at the slightest prompting he will make you a meal you will you will never forget.

And if you happen to pass by Santa Domenica Talao in Summer, look for me. I will be at a table at the cafe or walking around the village. We can have a coffee and a chat.

If you like this article and want to read a story about our village festival, check out San Giuseppe and Dog the Blasphemer .

If we have whetted your appetite for all the magic that is Calabria,  contact us. We will put together an unforgettable trip for you.

10 Secret, Stunning Italian Destinations That Will Make You Skip the Big Cities

Pizzo
Aragonese castle in Pizzo

Most Italian tourist itineraries cover the cities of Venice, Florence, Rome, and maybe Naples.

There is certainly much to see in these places, making them the first stop for first-time Italian tourists.

In Florence, for example, summertime tourists vastly outnumber the local residents.

Florence

But if you look beyond the big cities, there are locations off the beaten path and not covered by most tourist guidebooks. There, you can enjoy a quieter, uncrowded, and much more authentic Italy.

You need to know about these 10 secret destinations, all along the Tyrrhenian (western) coast of Southern Italy:

1.  Aieta

Aieta

Aieta is nestled in the mountains 1,600 ft. above the sea. It is slightly inland from the coast and is only marked by a single sign along the main SS18 highway. The name of the village comes from “aetos“, the Greek name for eagle.

The territory of Aieta has been inhabited since prehistoric times, as proven by artifacts that have been uncovered there dating from the Paleolithic and Neolithic ages.

The village is dominated by the Palazzo Rinascimentale, considered to be the most beautiful example of Renaissance architecture surviving in Calabria. It has recently been converted into an art gallery and museum.

Aieta

2.  Belvedere Marittimo

Castello Aragonese di Belvedere Marittimo

Belvedere Marittimo is a beautiful village that’s separated into two distinct areas: the modern town which borders the beach and marina, and the Centro Storico (historical center).   The village features a Norman Castle originally built around 1000 AD and restored by King Ferdinand of Aragon in 1490.

Belvedere is a photographer’s dream with stunning architecture and sweeping views of the crystal-blue Mediterranean.

Belvedere Maritimo

3.  Diamante

Diamante

Diamante is known as the “City of Murals” and features over 150 works of art by artists from all over the world. These decorate the walls of the buildings in Diamate’s Centro Storico.

Diamante also features a wide promenade next to the sea, bordered with shops and restaurants.

Diamante is perhaps most famous for its annual Festa del Peperoncino, held early in September, celebrating the local hot chili pepper which is the foundation of Calabrian cuisine.

Diamante Peperoncino Festival

4.  Maiera

Maiera

Maiera is perched high atop a narrow ridge overlooking the sea. It was first established around 500 BC. The town derives its name from antiquated Spanish, meaning mountain.

The village has a very reverent and reserved feel to it as you walk along its narrow streets and paths.

Like in Diamante, there are many murals on the town’s walls, and ceramic art can be seen in windows along the narrow paths in the town.

Maiera

5.  Maratea

 

Maratea comprises two distinct areas:  a scenic harbor and a medieval village farther inland.

South of Maratea is a coastal road just as scenic as the famous Amalfi Coast road. This road dips and winds past cliffs and pocket-size beaches along the Golfo di Policastro.

Overlooking the entire region is the Cristo Redentore, or Christ the Redeemer, a 69-ft. high statue set on top of Monte San Biago, 2,100 ft. high. From there the views of the majestic Tyrhenhian coast stretch out to eternity.

Cristo Redentore, Maratea

6.  Orsomarso

Orsomarso

Orsomarso is locally known as “the soul of the mountains” and the village is indeed folded into the jutting landscape.

The Church of San Giovanni contains paintings from the 16th-century and houses hundreds of frescoes constructed by the ancient local master, Colimodio.

Towering above the oldest part of the town is the clock tower built into a cliff.

Orsomarso

7.  Pizzo

Pizzo

Pizzo has several main attractions: the Chiesetta di Piedigrotta, a cave-chapel on the shore, the Castello Murat, and the renowned Tartufo di Pizzo, a chocolate truffle ice cream.

Close to the town’s main Piazza (the Piazza della Republica) lies the Castello Murat. It was built in the fifteenth century. Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, who was King of Naples for a short time, was imprisoned there and later executed.

The castle is open to the public, and also hosts special events.

Pizzo is most famous for itsTartufo di Pizzo . This is a delicious chocolate and hazelnut ice cream treat coated in cocoa powder and sugar, with a core of chocolate fudge sauce.

Its popularity spreads beyond Pizzo and you’ll find it on dessert menus all over Southern Italy. The cafes around the main square in Pizzo all serve this specialty, and delicious variations of it.

Tartuffo

8.  Santa Domenica Talao

Santa Domenica Talao

The hilltop village of Santa Domenica Talao was established in 1640 when the land originally belonged to Hector Maria Spinelli, Prince of Scalea.

Today, the character of the original town is still evident in the buildings of the village, and reflected in the relaxed and friendly lifestyle of its residents.

Santa Domenica Talao is only 4 mi. away from the beach at Scalea, and also borders the Pollino National Park, the largest natural park in Italy.

The village overlooks the Lao River valley, which is rich in history and offers hiking adventures as well as white-water rafting.

On a clear day you can also see Stromboli (80 mi. away), a volcano that’s been continuously erupting for the last 10,000 years.

Santa Domenica Talao

9.  Scalea

Scalea

Scalea is a major beach resort community just down the hill from Santa Domenica Talao. There are basically two towns: the Centro Storico, with buildings dating back to the 1600’s, and a shopping area surrounded by condominiums and apartments mostly occupied by tourists during the summer.

The shopping area is a charming area pedonale or walking area where no cars are allowed.  Some of the best restaurants and pastry shops are located there.

The area pedonale is a wonderful place for a leisurely lunch followed by a stroll and perhaps even a gelato.

There are several restaurants in the Centro Storico that serve authentic Calabrian cuisine during the summer.

Scalea_at_night

10.  Tortora

Tortora

Tortora (from the Latin turtur-uris, or turtle-dove), is the north-westernmost village in Calabria. The area has been occupied since prehistoric times.

Excavations that took place at the foot of the limestone cliffs of Torre Nave (an ancient watchtower) revealed stone tools dating back to 35,000 years ago.

Since then the area has been occupied by the Enotri (the early people of Italy)  up through the 6th century BC, as well as by the Romans, Lombards, and Burbons thereafter.

The village is divided into three sections: The Marina, the Centro Storico, and small mountain towns in the area.

The area hosts many summertime activities including concerts and theatrical performances.

The Museum of Blanda, in the Centro Storico, houses a large collection of local Etruscan artifacts.

Tortora

Now that you know the best kept Italian secrets, you can spend your vacation time exploring, taking amazing photos, and eating magnificent food instead of fighting the crowds.

A gorgeous train ride south from Rome is all it takes to get here.

Contact us! We will arrange your trip.

Ancient Greek Cities in Southern Italy

Temple of Neptune
Temple of Neptune

Sunshine, the sea, astonishing natural beauty, unbelievably good pasta, pizza, and wine, and friendly, warm people! These are the reasons my wife Chris and I bought an apartment in Santa Domenica Talao five years ago, in a 400-year old hilltop village in Southern Italy. We also knew the area had a deep rich history,  but little did we know we would stumble upon a 2,500-year-old ancient Greek village literally in our own backyard! But more on that later ….

Our village is in the coastal area of Southern Italy known as the Magna Graecia (literally “Great Greece” in Latin). Greek settlers extensively colonized this area starting around the 8th century BC, who brought with them their dialects of the Ancient Greek language, their religious rites, their traditions of the independent city-state, and most importantly, a variety of the Greek alphabet which evolved into the Latin alphabet.

Magna Graecia Map
Magna Graecia Map

Unquestionably, the highlight of the Magna Grecia is the ancient city of Paestum, about an hour and a half away by train from Santa Domenica Talao, and which we visited the day before we purchased our apartment in April of 2011. Paestum was founded around 600 BC, and it has the best-preserved ruins of Greek temples anywhere outside of Greece.

There are three large temples still remaining, all amazingly well-preserved:

Temple of Athena
Temple of Athena
Temple of Neptune
Temple of Neptune
The Basilica/Temple of Hera
The Basilica/Temple of Hera

After its foundation under the name Poseidonia, the city was conquered by the local Lucanians (who named it Paistos) and then the Romans who again renamed it to Pesto or Paestum. Alongside the original Greek temples, you can now see the remains of Roman roads and houses.

Roman Floor and Foundations
Roman Floor and Foundations
Roman Road
Chris on a Roman road in Paestum

So fast-forward to June of 2016, when I was driving through the village of Marcellina, about 20 min. away from our village, on my way to look for furniture for our apartment. Just outside of Marcellina I noticed a fenced-in area alongside the road with a placard stating “Parco Archeologico di Laos”:

Parco Archeologico di Laos
Parco Archeologico di Laos

Signs on the fence confirmed that this was the site of the ancient Greek city of Laos, founded around 500 B.C.!

Placard at Parco Archaeologico di Laos
Placard at Parco Archaeologico di Laos

Even though a sign stated the park was supposed to be open, the gate was locked. Peering through through the fence I saw what appeared to be foundations of several houses:

Ancient Greek House Foundations
Ancient Greek House Foundations

A few days later, Chris and I drove past the park and noticed that this time the gate was open and there appeared to be a tour group inside. We quickly stopped and went in to look around and saw that the area encompassed a few acres of mostly remains of stone foundations of houses. Several signs described these areas in quite a bit of detail and even described a house (“The Mint House”) that was used to mint coins!

The Mint House
The Mint House

I was amazed to see that this technologically advanced city that even had terracotta sewer pipes!

Sewer Pipe
Sewer Pipe

I had no idea that this ancient city was literally in my own backyard!  I now understand the origin of the name of the Lao River which runs though the large plain above which our village sits:

Lao River Valley
Lao River Valley

Ancient Greek cities like Paestum and Laos are only a few of the treasures of Southern Italy that await your visit!  Let me know if have any questions about the area or need any tips on what to see in Southern Italy.

Leaving Home; Why So Many Italians Left Italy

Leaving Home
Leaving Home

A couple of years ago Chris and I were walking through our hilltop village of Santa Domenica Talao in Calabria.

Across from our favorite market we saw a group of students and adults crowded around the bottom of a set of stairs leading up to an apartment.

At the top of the stairs was a group of students dressed in early 20th-century outfits.

The students appeared to be rehearsing a play showing the father of a family with packed suitcases getting ready to leave his village. He was probably headed for the United States.

America was the main destination for Italians leaving Italy from the late 19th century until the 1930’s.

This must have been a very familiar scene to many Italians in Italy between 1876 and 1915 when 14 million Italians left their homes seeking a better life.

Between 1876 and 1930, five million Italians immigrated to the United States (shown in dark green in the graph below). Most were coming from the southern regions including Calabria.

These people left because of poverty, political hardship, and the desire to earn enough money abroad to return home and buy land.

Most Calabrians at that time farmed for a living, and they lacked modern technology to farm efficiently.

Moreover, landlords charged high rents and provided low pay and harsh living conditions for the farmers.

After the reunification of Italy in 1861, repressive measures by the government through WWII caused more Italians to leave.

Many people of Italian heritage are now returning to Italy to rediscover their own roots and also to buy properties to renovate.

In many cases, they return to small villages such as Santa Domenica Talao.

Chris and I don’t have Italian roots that we know of (although we haven’t done a genealogy search yet!). But we bought our own property in Santa Domenica Talao.

We fell in love with its natural beauty and its warm and friendly residents.

Renovating an apartment in Santa Domenica Talao

Calabria is a hidden treasure waiting to be discovered. The region is sprinkled with charming little hilltop towns and seaside fishing villages, each one having its own character and personality.

The landscape is breathtaking, the people are wonderful and the food is, well, Calabrian food is legendary.

Let us know if you are interested in learning more about the wonders of Calabria!

For a lighthearted look at Santa Domenica Talao, check out this article.