OUR SUNNY OCTOBER - Italy/Crete 2008 
Here is the path we travelled, from Tropea, in the southern Italian province of Calabria, up the coast to Maratea, in the province of Basilicata, across the spine of Italy to Matera, then to Ostuni, in the east. From there we took a train to Bari and travelled on the overnight ferry to Patras, in the southern part of Greece. From Patras we rode the bus to Pireaus (the port of Athens), where we caught another overnight ferry to Crete and then went south by bus, through the mountains to our final destination on the south coast of Crete - Plakias. That's Plakias you can see behind me in the photo above.

Our first port of call on this sunny, Mediterranean journey in October 2008 was Tropea, a little town perched improbably on top of a cliff overlooking the sea.

i With its narrow alleyways and cobbled streets, Tropea was a delight to explore.

And from where we stayed, half a mile up the coast, every trip into town involved climbing the dozens and dozens of steps.

The views from the top, however, were spectacular.

After three days in Tropea, we caught the local train north - well actually three separate local trains, as different trains stop at different places - to the  'jewel' of the Basilicata, Maratea.
We had visited Maratea last year and were so taken with it that this year we decided to stay there for a week.

From the station, which is low in the valley, we walked several miles uphill to 'Casa Gravina',the little house we had rented for the week. It is perched high up the hillside, a mile beyond the Centro Storico - the ancient section of town that you can see in the picture above. From the spot where I took this picture, our house was another half a mile up a very steep hill. So as you can imagine, we got plenty of exercise, just walking back and forth to town for our groceries!
I fell in love with Casa Gravina. It is divided into two apartments, but one was empty so we had the whole place to ourselves. Surrounded by gardens full of olive and fruit trees, it was very quiet and peaceful and the nights were beautifully dark.

We had a roof terrace with a 360 degree view of sea and mountains ...
...a vine-covered porch laden with bunches of ripe grapes, all for the picking ...
...a fig tree with ripe figs, a walnut tree surrounded by fallen walnuts and even a persimmon tree with a few persimmons left on it just for us...

... and there was rucola (wild rocket) growing everywhere. My favourite salad vegetable, growing wild. How neat is that?!

The house itself was a delight
Kitchen                                                              Living-room  

Maratea's best-known landmark is Il Redentore, a giant statue of Christ the Redeemer on top of the mountain.
As we had done last year, we walked up the path to the top (well almost to the top, as the last bit is a rather ugly concrete switchback for cars). It is a beautiful walk, through the woods and at this time of year we found it carpeted with tiny, pink cyclamens.

We ate our picnic lunch on the steps of a church - 'Our lady of the Olives'.

The view from up there is awesome.
After our week in Maratea, we headed inland. Caught the local bus from Maratea to a nearby town called Lagonegro, and from there we caught another bus to a larger town called Potenza. After a lunch break in Potenza, we caught a third bus for our journey to one of the most remarkable places I have ever seen - Matera.

Here's what Wikipedia has to say about Matera:

"Matera has gained international fame for its ancient town, the "Sassi di Matera" (meaning "stones of Matera"). The Sassi originate from a prehistoric (troglodyte) settlement, and are suspected to be some of the first human settlements in Italy.

The Sassi are houses dug into the tuff rock itself, which is characteristic of Basilicata and Puglia. Many of these "houses" are really only caverns, and the streets in some parts of the Sassi often are located on the rooftops of other houses. The ancient town grew in height on one slope of the ravine created by a river that is now a small stream. The ravine is known locally as "la Gravina".

In the 1950s, the government of Italy forcefully relocated most of the population of the Sassi to areas of the developing modern city. However, people continued to live in the Sassi, and according to the English Fodor's guide: 

'Matera is the only place in the world where people can boast to be still living in the same houses of their ancestors of 9,000 years ago.' 

Until the late 1980s this was considered an area of poverty, since these houses were, and in most areas still are, mostly unlivable. Current local administration, however, has become more tourism-oriented, and has promoted the re-generation of the Sassi with the aid of the European Union, the government, UNESCO, and Hollywood. Today there are many thriving businesses, pubs, and hotels.

One of the benefits of the ancient city, is that there is a great similarity in the look of the Sassi with that of ancient sites in and around Jerusalem. This has caught the eye of film directors and movie studios."

As you may already know, Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ was filmed in Matera.

You can read the rest of the Wikipedia entry by clicking here.

Matera took my breath away when I first saw it. It is almost surreal.
The whole place is bleached to the same colour, like very old bones.

And in its jumble of ancient alleyways and smooth, worn steps you could be lost for ever.
We did get lost a lot, in the beginning. But after a while, we learned to find our way.
Many of the cave dwellings are still the way they were.

But the one we stayed in had been nicely updated, I am pleased to say !
The 'Residence San Giorgio', where we stayed, is a complex of several apartments, built over what was originally an ancient cave church. The church was deconsecrated several hundred years ago and was turned into an olive press. It later became a wine cellar.
Our apartment was named Il Pozzo ('the well') and sure enough, it had an ancient well, right in the living-room, in an alcove next to the TV. There was a cast-iron grille over it, and we could see water way down at the bottom.
At the end of our kitchen there was a window which looked right down into the original cave church/olive press.
If you click on the link above and go to where it says 'English Version' you can see many more pictures of the underground section.

Leaving Matera, we caught the train eastwards to Bari, on the eastern (Adriatic) coast. And from Bari, another train down the coast to Ostuni.

Ostuni, like many other Italian towns, was built on the top of a hill for reasons of safety from invaders. And like most others of its kind, its ancient heart is a place of narrow alleyways and steep, stone steps and passages, while around the outside a modern town has grown up. As we had in Matera, we got ourselves lost amongst the jumble of old streets and staircases and eventually found again.

But the hardest part was finding our accommodation. We thought it was near town but it wasn't. Google maps, for once, had let us down. And by the time we discovered the right address and called a cab to take us there - and by the time the cab driver managed to find it because he didn't know where it was either - it was already dark!

However, even in the dark it was beautiful. It was a little cottage in the grounds of an estate, set amongst the olive trees - for this estate was an olive farm. (Free olive oil was supplied). Choosing between two cottages, 'Sole' and 'Luna' I had chosen Sole, and I was glad I had, as it was so sunny and bright.

Once again, we had grapevines, walnuts, persimmons, wild rocket, and this time, almonds as well.

Ostuni is in the province of Puglia - the 'heel' of the Italian boot. And although Ostuni itself is built on a hill, most of the surrounding countryside is flat. This area is a fertile and productive one, supplying vegetables, nuts, fruit and olive oil to the rest of the country.

We were given bicycles to ride along the lanes between the olive groves (though I preferred exploring on foot)
I took pictures of ancient olive trees whose branches had been propped up by bricks
And I was fascinated by the 'trulli' These are one of the things the Puglia region is famous for. They are small, round buildings with conical roofs.

Some are small and are used as sheds or shelters in the fields and olive groves. Others are dwellings. Often, you see several clustered together to form a larger house, or built onto with other, more conventional structures. As explained in the Wikipedia entry on Trulli (which describes the way they are built):
"The walls are very thick, providing a cool environment in hot weather and insulating against the cold in the winter. The vast majority of trulli have one room under each conical roof: a multiroomed trullo house has many cones representing a room each. Children would sleep in alcoves made in the wall with curtains hung in front."

I loved the look of them. We saw small, humble ones ...

... and larger, more extensive ones 
... and each was unique.
After our three days on the olive farm (it's called Villa Agreste, by the way, and here's the link), we caught the train back to Bari. And from there, we took a ferry to Greece.

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