“O Dio” was all he creaked from time to time, whenever we crossed some bump on the road, along with a load of Holy Marie’s, St. Lucia’s and other Italian Saints in the same package the moment we got on one of the cobblestone streets during our ride. I couldn’t help myself but laughing while he gave me few of juicy fanculos and reminded me that his butt is not made of cushion like mine and that his blather is about to burst and he’ll make sure it catches me when it does. Indeed, his bottom was poorly created as if God started making him from the top to bottom and ran out of the material for his lower part. That wasn’t Paolo’s choice, I’ll give him that, but, he could’ve gone to the bathroom before we hopped on this thing and make his life easier. Why did we get on one of these Italian ”rickshaw” cars for a city tour when he desperately needed to pee is beyond me. Actually, of course I knew, the moment he realized we need to go back up hill, he whistled to one of the guys driving these little cars and we started a tour no one of us paid attention to. Before this, we were wandering around Matera, starting from its city center at the top of the hill, heading down, level by level, until we reached the cathedral placed on the steep cliff, overlooking the caves dug in the hill on the other side. Actually, the whole city is made of, or made on caves dug into the hill and was one of the poorest cities in Italy during 50’s where some families of up to seven members were still living with animals in their cave-houses, with no electricity. Nowadays, situation is different, cave houses became tourist attraction, each having different, uneven shape, with rough, sandy yellow surfaces and walls, spilled down the ravine. It reminded me of some of Star Wars worlds, like planet Tattooine, while in a real life it got its five minutes of fame as Jerusalem in Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” movie and a set for 25th Bond movie – No Time To Die.
Watching it from the distance, where it seemed as if it had no order, buildings immersing one into another and then emerging again in a new, narrow row until the tower at the top, it reminded me of Craco, little town we visited that same day, also known as a ghost town since it is completely abandoned in 1991 due to the horrifying earthquake. This town is also placed in Basilicata, near Matera and it’s a remarkable thing to see from the distance. Sandy colored buildings are placed against the 400 meters tall cliff, partly emerging from it, with a castle and its tall tower at its very top. To get in, we needed a ticket and a guide who gave us directions all along with protective helmets, which you are guessing, Paolo couldn’t fit easily, because of his slightly bigger head. As I mentioned God didn’t spare material on his upper parts, which he always justified saying that big head means having big brains, God bless him. Not to mention the moment he finally put it on, Super Mario tune started playing in my head.
Most of the city was in stone ruins, with few broken tiles, sinks, dirty clothes lying under it, traces of people who had to leave their homes on short notice. And in the middle of this dead town, one living thing, wondering around, without a ticket: A donkey. Calmly walking around the ruins, minding his own business. Guide told us that his owner still lives on the slopes of the city and is the only one not giving up and selling his part of it to people who would like to make a museum out of the whole place. Typical stubborn, southern Italian.
Speaking of whom, Paolo was stubborn enough to go through the ride of our lives around Matera, until we have reached the long, downhill cobblestone street, where his stubbornness shrank with each stone crossed. “Fermi!” he yelled as soon as he saw two magical W C letters and finally went to toilet. When he came out, he got that I-can-do-anything look on his face we all get in those situations, of a man who again appreciates life so much and makes a resolution not to take anything for granted. Not even peeing. Smallest things lead to most remarkable discoveries right? Anyway, we decided to walk the rest of the way up and enjoy the site of windows and streetlights slowly lighten up one by one as the dark clouds have bitten last few slices of the bright sky.
“Ready to stuff your belly again Mister?” I asked him, while searching for cozy place to rest my tired feet and eat some heavy meal. “Yes, and you must try a specialty in Basilicata and the whole south, the petolle”, Paolo replied.
Rain has slowly started falling, thus made our search for a perfect place that much harder, but as soon as we reached one of the tucked piazzas around the corner from the main square and saw lighted candles and blankets on the tables, we knew that was it. Even if it wasn’t, we had no luxury to be too picky. We ordered famous pettolle for starters and local wine along with whole lot of everything and I contently crept into the blanket. Vino rosso and pettole arrived five minutes later, one cold the other warm, directly from the fryer, and Paolo pushed this little, warm cushions towards me to try, while pouring the full body wine. As soon as I tried the little, uneven piece of fried dough I smiled and mumbled ushtipci(squeeze). It was the same pastry my mom used to make when I was a kid, a little piece of dough squeezed “as if you are squeezing someone’s cheek” and thrown into the oil for a minute, until it gets golden yellow and it goes with almost everything, salty or sweet. Personal recommendation – ajvar, kajmak or jam. To die for.
“Salute” said Paolo and I took a big sip of a strong, red wine, plunging deeper into the blanket, watching the raindrops fall from the edge of the roof, having a big bite of my childhood in the oldest city in Europe.
“Salute”, I replied.