Driving Across the Boot of Italy

On our southern Italy trip in October we drove across the boot of Italy from east to west. Our drive took us from Puglia through Basilicata to Calabria. We could not go through Basilicata and not stop in Matera. We just did not have the time to stay in Matera for several days to explore it as we would like. The best we could do was a brief stop to circle the main square in the modern town and to view Sassi di Matera. 

The Sassi are cave structures that people have lived in for the past 9000 years. The extensive history of the area is fascinating, and it is the oldest continually occupied city in the world. 

In recent times, it became known as the “Shame of Italy” because of the abject poverty and living conditions after World War II. In the 1950s the 16,000 residents were moved up to new housing on the plain above the Sassi. By the 1990s, people had begun to reclaim the abandoned dwellings and in 1993 it was declared a UNESCO Heritage site for being the best example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean that is perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem. In 2019 it was selected as the European Cultural Capital of Europe and Matera had major artistic events throughout the year attracting people from around the world. From slum to gem. 

The four-lane divided highway runs south of Matera. The winding secondary road we took from Martina Franca to Matera was a memorable two-hour jaunt of steering, shifting and braking. Narrow country roads through valleys and hillsides with scenic views around every corner. Orchards and farmland dotted the landscape. 

On the freeway you make good time. It was five hours to Tropea in Calabria, our next destination. Regularly along the way there are gas stations with full bars. Inside are wonderful fresh Italian pastries, magnificent espresso machines that look very expensive, orange juice machines where they drop whole oranges into the top and out comes the fresh squeezed juice, and a full bar with beer, wine, and spirits. You can have a Jack Daniels and Coke for the road. For $19 you can buy a packaged case of three delicious regional wines with one that is a Reserve (a superior wine that is barrel aged longer). 

At one, I bought a vacuumed sealed kg of arborio rice for risotto that was grown in the fields around the gas bar after I ate a delicious arancini. A carbilicous hand-sized ball of cooked rice shaped around a chunk of cheese and sausage that was breaded and deep fried. When you bit into the warm rice ball the hot steam fragrance, the delicious melted gooey cheese and mild boiled sausage is something to experience. 

As you get into Calabria it starts to get mountainous. There are a lot of tunnels and a lot more concrete barriers that seem to close in the highway with sharper corners and exits that give you less time to react. The freeway gets more congested and both lanes are full of work trucks, buses and other large vehicles that are all moving at 100+ km/h and passing. You have to be more involved in your driving.

We wanted to go to Calabria because many of our friends from Fernie came from the Calabria region in the 1950s to work. They came from small villages in the mountains. And we were there to experience it. My topic for next month.