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Our last blog update was over six months ago, months we’ve filled with living life in Licata, Sicily – working on our Italian, cooking, eating, spending time with friends, and, well yes, drinking good wine. We’ve also traveled to the US, as we’ll be doing again in fairly short order, for my older daughter Sarah’s wedding in July. It will be a lovely opportunity to celebrate a wonderful couple!
In the meantime, we finally took to the water in a much renewed Serafina, with a new stove and barbecue, a new set of batteries, new bottom paint, a polished hull, a new cutlass bearing. (That bearing keeps the propeller shaft from wobbling around, and the old one was showing some wear after 7 years in place and maybe 20,000 miles of travel.)
But the weather has been downright weird. Springtime in the southern Mediterranean usually comes fast. This year strong winds, unseasonably cold weather and lots of rain have everyone thinking about global climate change. Of course, seasons vary from year to year, but disruptions in the Polar Vortex seem to be at least partly responsible for a spring that has seemed more like an extended winter.
Of course, it’s important to avoid jumping to conclusions, but at a certain point people who ascribe increasing occurrence of really bizarre weather to normal seasonal fluctuations begin to remind you of the people, 60 years ago, who demanded more proof that there was a link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.
We began our summer cruise on Serafina May 8th, with our friends Morten and Anne-Inger on their boat Vid Vandre, ducking one period after the other of strong winds. Vid Vandre continued on towards France, and we, after a short stay in the Aeolian Islands, continued on to the small Calabrian town of Vibo Valentia with the idea of doing some exploring on land while waiting for summer to come.
Calabria and Basilicata are two regions in the “shoe” of the Italian boot, and both have been, until very recently, outside of the highly touristed regions of Italy. A “well kept-secret of Italy” is how they’ve been described, but someone blabbed, and now the small, ancient t town of Matera has been designated the 2019 European “Capital of Culture.” We rented a small car and drove the 150 miles there, a lot of twisting, mountainous roads in breathtaking scenery, green and often wild, to see why.
We were surprised to learn that Matera is described as the longest continuously occupied settlement in the world, or at least one of the longest. Early human habitation began there in limestone caves around 7,000 B.C.E. and has been uninterrupted ever since. The city grew to include the caves in its basic structure, and they were occupied by peasants and the poor until the early 1950s when the Italian government began a concerted drive to move people into “modern” housing. Fortunately, over the last 30 years or so, an effort has gone into cleaning and restoring many of these original habitations, now often restaurants, B&Bs and private residences again. Exploration is, by necessity, on foot.
We continued on to the regional capital of Basilicata, Potenza, which has a slightly shorter but much more violent history. Despite its present relative poverty, Basilicata, and Potenza in particular, has been fought over by Romans, Cathaginians, “Saracens,” Normans, the French and Spanish, and finally Potenza was heavily bombed by the US and its allies during World War II. In between the various battles and sackings, it was almost completely destroyed three times by earthquakes in A.D. 1273, 1694, and 1867.
A remarkable aspect of our travel through the region was the enormous open spaces. Wheat fields, forests and steep mountainsides are, this time of year, a deep, fresh green, perhaps less settled than in the past due to the consolidation of small peasant holdings into larger industrial-scale farms. But wildlife remains present enough that signs along the winding two-lane roads remind drivers to be alert for wild boars!
It’s hard to avoid some thoughts on tourism after a visit to this region. The economy of the region is worse than the Italian economy in general, and young people, as in Sicily, often emigrate in search of jobs. Tourist dollars are important. At the same time, busloads of tourists and rising real estate prices as B&Bs and commercial operations expand, fundamentally change the nature of these communities. So far, only Matera is heavily impacted, but it’s easy to see the threat to the cultures that have existed in these hills for literally thousands of years.
An extreme example of what can happen can be seen up the coast in Amalfi – where the resident population of the town has dropped from around 100,000 in 1900 to perhaps 5,000 today. In Amalfi there are virtually no food stores or affordable housing, and all but the bones of the town have been swept away. Tourism there is simply a form of entertainment, having nothing to do with absorbing or understanding another culture, or even another language. There are hard choices ahead for the people of Basilicata…
For a nice review of the Basilicata, its unique cuisine and fine local wine, check out this recent piece in the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/03/travel/matera-basilicata-italy-southern-world-heritage-city.html?searchResultPosition=4
Serious economic and environmental problems are faced by Basilicata and Italy. It’s tragic that it Italy, as in so many other places, unscrupulous politicians preposterously blame poverty-stricken immigrants for the economic and social pain felt by the vast majority of Italians. It’s an old trick – talk about anything other than the criminal responsibility of the rich and powerful, who run the politics and economies of the world. Results of the recent elections show this old scam is still fooling so many.
On a much happier note, the weather does now seem to be improving, so we’ll head out to visit some of our favorite anchorages in the next weeks ahead. Sooner or later, the water will be warm enough for swimming!