In the city of Matera, in the little-known region of Basilicata, I stumbled upon my first long-lost relative—or someone I assumed must be a relative. I had been in southern Italy for less than a week, researching my family story.
Vita, our family matriarch, had emigrated from the Matera province more than 100 years ago, after killing a man during a card game. She made her escape by steamship to Jersey City, New Jersey, and then died prematurely at the age of 59, the result of being hit in the head with a sock full of rocks on Mischief Night, 1915.
Karma, I figured. Live by the sword, die by the sword. Or, in Vita's case, the sock.
As far as Vita's life and crimes in Italy were concerned, I had very little to go on, just her name and some rudimentary knowledge of where she had lived in the province of Matera, in the villages of Bernalda and Pisticci.
I had persuaded my friend Lisa to make the maiden voyage with me: Basilicata, tucked into the arch of the boot, near the Gulf of Taranto, was the last of Italy's secret corners, I told her, still wild, still mysterious, and—like the details of Vita's crime—on the verge of discovery. Matera, the city, is known throughout Italy for its sassi (cavelike dwellings), many of which had been dug as early as the eighth century by hermit monks fleeing religious persecution.
In Matera's Santa Lucia alle Malve, an ancient cave church, we came upon a fresco, one of many painted by the Byzantine and Benedictine monks who had lived there. The fresco was of Saint Agatha, about whom I knew very little. When I saw the painting, though, I flinched.
It was like looking into a mirror.
I turned to Lisa, flustered and feeling a little weird about the familiar features floating above mine. "Do you think this looks like me?" I asked.
"Oh, my God," she said, stepping back to get a better view. "It does."
There was the oval face; the downturned, Lennonesque nose; the almond-shaped eyes; and my permanent frown, firmly in place. I looked at this reflection, painted right above where the cave's kitchen had once been, and wondered who had put it there. I imagined the hermit monks who had lived here, creating their Eastern Orthodox Madonnas and saints, using the faces of the local women they'd met as their models.
Now, the whole point of being a hermit monk, I thought, was that you didn't meet any women, or anyone at all. Maybe the model was simply someone this artistic monk had fleetingly glimpsed on the streets of Matera, had bumped into just in passing. One of my ancestors, perhaps.
It dawned on me that this was entirely possible. My great-great-grandmother had been born in the nearby village of Bernalda. Maybe this was where her mother, Teresina, had lived. Or Teresina's mother. Or grandmother. Or her own great-great-grandmother.
I spiraled back in time, falling, falling, inside my own head, generation past generation, and landed right here, like a stone, inside this cave. What if my ancestors had been shepherds or wayward monks and had started out their virtually prehistoric existence in Matera?In this very cave?
"Who knows?" said Lisa, casually reading my mind. "Maybe she's a distant cousin."
My genealogical adventure had begun three days earlier, in Rome, where Lisa and I caught a train for our descent into Basilicata. For close to four hours we watched civilization slowly slip away, the Roman aqueducts surrendering to poppy fields and fruit orchards, then to the palm trees and fishing boats of Naples and Salerno, to cacti and stretches of woods where, 150 years ago, brigands had stashed their hostages.
Our ride ended in Potenza, the regional capital of Basilicata, a modern city rebuilt from the ruins of the 1980 earthquake. Here we rented a car and for another hour drove east on the empty and pristine Basento Valley highway. We passed through vineyards, white hilltop villages, and the craggy Lucanian Dolomite mountains until, finally, we came upon Matera, a city the color of old bones.
Because of the city's raw, untapped beauty, several movies have been filmed here in recent years, including Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ and John Moore's remake of The Omen, starring Liev Schreiber, Julia Stiles, and Mia Farrow. Thanks to Hollywood, the tourists have just begun to trickle in; a few fans of The Passion have come to retrace the steps of "Jesus." But the restaurants are authentic, the nearby beaches uncrowded, and the locals not jaded by visitors—yet.
The city of Matera has two levels: the upper, modern part, with its fancy boutiques and wineshop selling the increasingly popular wine of the region, Aglianico del Vulture; and the lower level—the sassi—in two pits near the edge of town, where we would be staying. Down, down we drove, into the sassi, in search of our hotel, Locanda di San Martino, which the proprietor had claimed would be easy to find.
But the sassi all looked alike at first glance: off-white and chalky, with dark, carved-out windows. They resembled the homes you might see on a Greek island—but without the blue water. Within seconds, Lisa and I were completely lost, like a pair of sorry Minoan heroes in the Labyrinth of Knossos.
The roofs of several of the sassi were the sidewalks of the next level, the steps worn low and shiny from centuries of foot traffic. I wondered whether Great-great-grandma Vita's feet—when she was running from the authorities—had helped erode the path we were now taking.
We found our hotel, finally, with the help of a man on a moped, and over the next several days made our way around by means of trial and error. Day after day, Lisa and I scaled the steep sassi steps, drinking in the churchlike serenity, each cave chimney like a tiny bell tower made of pocked tufa stone.
When the monks left these caves centuries ago, the Italians moved in, sharing the space with their donkeys and chickens and the painted Madonnas. But long before the monks and Materans, there were Paleolithic and Neolithic cavemen wandering in search of shelter from the weather and the immensity of the heavens above. My ancestors, no doubt.
There weren't any trees in this inhospitable ground, but nature found its way of intruding. Plants grew out of ancient sewer grates. Purple flowers tumbled down crumbling walls.
Back in the 1940's, Carlo Levi described this place in his memoir, Christ Stopped at Eboli. But the picture was not enchanting. Levi, a physician, writer, and painter exiled here by the Fascists, depicted Basilicata (then Luciana) as a forgotten land, invaded, then abandoned time after time, by those just passing through: the Greeks and Romans, Goths, Lombards, Saracens, Normans, Swabians, and Bourbon kings.
In Levi's day, malarial children, their eyes swollen from trachoma, sat on the sassi steps begging for quinine. Levi compared the sassi to "a schoolboy's idea of Dante's Inferno"—a hellish place where no one should live, never mind vacation. Because of Levi's book, the sassi came to be known as La Vergogna d'Italia, the Shame of Italy. Out of embarrassment, as well as for health reasons, the Italian government began evacuating the sassi in the 1950's.
But things have changed. Over the past decade, the sons and daughters of those who were forced out have started moving back. And for the first time, tourists from Italy and the rest of the world are coming, joining me on the long list of Basilicata's invaders.
Though I would have been happy to hibernate in our cave hotel for the week, Lisa and I ventured out into the villages of the province. We traveled south, past Badlands-like gorges, to Pisticci—one of the places where Vita had lived—a shepherd's town with green hills and pastures, tiny white houses, and 13 churches, each prettier than the last.
With the help of a friend of a friend from New York City, we found a local café bearing my family name, Vena, which is my mother's maiden name. We interrogated the bartender (who knew nothing of the murder) and tasted the local drink, amaro lucano, a bitter made from wild roots and herbs. The family had invented this Basilicatan liqueur; I bought three bottles as souvenirs for my Vena uncles and moved on.
The next day, in the rain, we drove to Bernalda, Vita's hometown. On the way, we saw people crouched by the side of the road with baskets in their hands, looking for something. They seemed to be collecting small rocks. But the landscape was lousy with rocks. Houses were made of them. Churches were carved from them. Why would anyone collect them? I wondered. Especially in the rain.
In Bernalda, we visited the family of a man I had met in New York's Little Italy a few years earlier. As soon as we arrived, his mother and sisters hugged us and treated us like their own, offering to help me find an apartment for my upcoming summer visit and get me acquainted with the town. I asked Olga, the daughter who spoke the best English, why people were out collecting rocks by the side of the road.
"Those aren't rocks," she said, laughing. "Those are snails!" They would take them home, where they would cook them with mint to create a local delicacy, o vavalic po pulej.
Snails were not on Mama Rosaria's menu that night, but there were homemade pickled artichoke hearts, handmade orecchiette, and polpette, tiny meatballs that Olga's brothers liked to eat straight from the frying pan.
Olga introduced us to a friend who owns some property in the historic district of Bernalda, around the corner from the town's medieval castle. And it was here, on a cobblestoned street, that I found an apartment that was large and airy, with a balcony, tall wooden shutters, and old, tattered furniture, including one bed that seemed to be stuffed with small rocks. Or maybe they were snails.
It was the only furnished place for rent in Bernalda. And it was a steal, by summer-rental standards: $750 a month. The landlady said it was mine if I wanted it.
I said I would take it, provided she got new mattresses. She nodded, and we sealed the deal over shots of homemade limoncello.
"What's the name of this street?" I asked."Via Cavour," Olga said.
I knew from family documents that Vita had lived on Via Cavour more than a century ago.
So in summer, I returned. I settled in on Via Cavour with my four-year-old son and year-old daughter.
Here, I would meet with the local genealogist, who would draw up our family tree. (He had done so for the few Americans that came through town, among them Francis Ford Coppola, whose grandfather grew up here.) In Bernalda I'd also meet the town historian, who would tell me about the local card game that had caused all of Vita's problems so long ago. It was called passatella, a cross between quarters and truth or dare, only with a deck, in which losers are made to drink and winners get to insult whomever they wish in a bit of slurred oratory. The game almost always ends in violence.
This same historian would tell me that Vita had likely been the concubine of a wealthy landowner in Bernalda. It was the only way a poor weaver—or farmer—with three kids, facing a murder rap, would have had the money to make the impossibly long journey from Basilicata to America.
Unlike Vita, I would return to Basilicata. Again and again, I was sure. I'd make the opposite journey she had made, crossing the Atlantic with my own children, then sinking southward, deeper and deeper, to a place very few people even knew existed. I would come back not only to search for the name of Vita's victim, not just to enjoy the nearby sandy beaches and eat in Matera's and Bernalda's sublime restaurants, but to show my mother the fresco of Saint Agatha, and my own daughter the little white house where her great-great-grandfather had been born.
Before I went back home that summer, I tried to explain to Olga how lucky I felt, and how strange it was that I had wound up on the very same street where Vita had lived. Maybe, just maybe, Vita was calling from beyond, leading me through the sassi, past the portraits of frowning relatives, through Pisticci, and back to Bernalda, right here to Via Cavour, to ask for absolution.
But Olga just shrugged. To her, and to the other no-nonsense Bernaldans, it was only natural, only common sense that I should wind up right where it all started, like a stone washing ashore to the very spot from which it had been thrown.
Helene Stapinski is the author of two books, Five-Finger Discount and Baby Plays Around. She is at work on a history of her family's European roots.
WHEN TO GO
Spring or fall—in April and May, the fields are green and lush.
HOW TO GET THERE
Trains from Rome's Termini station travel deep into Basilicata, to the beach area of Metaponto. The ride is a little more than four hours. Car rentals—there are several agencies, including Avis—are available in Potenza; the drive to Matera takes about an hour. Or rent a car in Rome and drive south to Matera, a trip of four hours. The least scenic, but fastest, way: fly into Bari, rent a car at the airport, and drive 32 miles to Matera.
WHERE TO STAY
Locanda di San Martino A complex of modernized caves: think Fred Flintstone meets Ian Schrager. The hotel owners are Antonio Panetta and Dorothy Zinn, an American anthropologist. 71 Via Fiorentini, Matera, Sasso Barisano; 39- 0835/256-600; www.locandadisanmartino.it; doubles from $102.
WHERE TO EAT
L'Osteria As at all of Basilicata's restaurants, the antipasto is a must, with fresh goat cheeses, homemade sausages, and owner Giovanni Dileo's transcendent shaved- zucchini salad. His wife, chef Filomena Fabrizio, cooks delicious local dishes with the freshest seasonal ingredients. 58 Via Fiorentini, Matera, Sasso Barisano; 39-0835/333-395; dinner for two $35.
Ristorante Rivelli One of the fanciest and finest in Matera—the waiters wear jackets. Good, hearty country fare, with large carafes of deep-red primitivo wine to wash it all down.27 Via Casalnuovo, Matera; 39-0835/311-568; dinner for two $60.
Ristorante Locanda Pezzolla Run by Mario Pezzolla and his mother, Isabella, this award-winning hideaway is tucked into the mountaintop village of Accettura— but worth the trip. 21 Via Roma, Accettura (halfway between Potenza and Matera); 39-0835/675-008; dinner for two $47.
WHAT TO DO
Visit the frescoed cave churches of Matera, including Santa Lucia alle Malve and Santa Maria de Idris. Arrows point the way. Some caves are locked to protect against vandalism and require a key from an authorized tour guide. Ask your hotel clerk for a reference. Carlo Levi was the first writer to immortalize Basilicata, in his book Christ Stopped at Eboli. The Carlo Levi Center (Palazzo Lanfranchi, Piazzetta G. Pascoli, Matera; 39-0835/314-235) has many of his paintings on view.
Metaponto has sandy, uncrowded beaches and a collection of lidos. An ancient Greek settlement, it was a resting spot for Spartacus and Pythagoras.
WHAT TO READ AND WATCH
Carlo Levi's Christ Stopped at Eboli is a must. Ann Cornelisen's books, Torregreca and Women of the Shadows, are set, in part, in the Basilicatan village of Tricarico. Norman Douglas's Old Calabria, published in 1915, has held up well.
Many films, most of them biblical, have been shot in and around Matera. Pier Paolo Pasolini led the procession in 1964 with The Gospel According to St. Matthew, followed by Richard Gere's 1985 stinker King David, both to be outdone by Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ. It's hard to find a Materan restaurant that doesn't have a picture of Mel or Monica Bellucci taped to the wall. Io Non Ho Paura (I'm Not Scared) is a 2003 thriller set in the bleached-yellow fields of Basilicata.