Today is supposed to be just a travel day with a brief stop in Matera but ends up being an opportunity to see amazing art and history spanning 9000 years.
We are traveling from Pompei to Bari today from the west coast to the east coast of Italy. Sarah wants to see the city of St. Nicholas of Bari. Rather than have the trip be uninterrupted driving I find that there is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Matera, which is along the way, and book some tickets to see the the Crypt of the Original Sin, also known as the “Sistine Chapel” of Rupestrian wall painting.
Situated in a rocky hollow overlooking the limestone cliff along the ancient Appian Way, the “Painter of The Flowers of Matera” has narrated scenes from the Old and New Testament in a cycle of frescoes dating back to the 9th century. A. D. We climb down a ravine and settle into the darkness of the cave.
As lights pick up the various paintings, we see three niches depicting St. Peter, the Madonna and child, and three archangels. On the side wall there is the creation story with God dividing Light (depicted by a woman) and Darkness (a young man) and the whole Garden of Eden creation and expulsion. Tying this all together is a field of red flowers. It is amazing!
Our guide, a young Italian man, hands us a written English version of the oral narrative which is all in Italian. Later, in Italian, he explains how the forbidden fruit became an apple instead of a fig. It was a mix-up in translation between mala, evil, and mela, apple. Although our Italian is pretty rudimentary we are able to pick up a few words here and there to get the gist of what he is saying (thanks, Rosetta Stone!)
After this fabulous experience we head into Matera for a late lunch. We had read that there are limestone caves called “Sassi” in the area once occupied by cave people 9000 years ago. So we figure we will give them a drive-by on our way. Turns out that there is an overlook right off the main piazza of Matera. And it is not just a few caves. It’s a whole city of caves that have been continuously occupied for 9000 years! Some are still just caves while others have had a front extension. People still live here! Everything is built of white limestone.
So what started as kind of a throw away day has become something extraordinary.
The rest of the day seems pretty anti-climactic. We have pizza for lunch and drive the rest of the way to Bari. We skip dinner and turn in early.