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Jasper James A Matera courtyard in Basilicata.

Photo: Jasper James

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.

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