Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Desiree Kendrick

© Copyright 2021 by Desiree Kendrick
Photo from the author.
Photo from the author.

 At a time when travel restrictions are in place, we ache for adventure. I flip the pages of my travel journals and photo albums. Italy, shaped like a boot, is my favourite shoe obsession. Here’s some arm chair travel to share.

My parents’ home was a treasure trove of hardcover books, National Geographic magazines and encyclopaedias. The colourful spines were passports to vibrant lands that ignited my curiosity. It’s possible I associate the musty fragrance of relics and remnants with the dust in my childhood basement. The cocoon of cement walls was a safe place to dream. My passion for the past was detonated as a child and continues to simmer. I love strolling cobblestone streets and exploring crumbling shambles. If there is a museum, I will find it.

A trip abroad transports my sister and me to the Apulia region. Located in the heel of Italy’s boot, it’s a diverse landscape with oodles of history. The coast is prime real-estate. Over the centuries, a variety of international conquerors moved in. The Holy Roman Emperor – Frederick II left his mark on the region, constructing the Castel del Monte. Apulia changed hands much like square dancers: constantly on the go. In the 1500s, the Spanish Empire led the dance. Do Si Do. The Turks and the Venetians sashayed onto the stage. It wasn’t until 1861 that Apulia joined The Kingdom of Italy. I too am determined to conquer Apulia, absorb the culture, and ignite all five senses.

Our accommodation in Polignano a Mare is within walking distance to the seawall. Travellers mingle in the dining room or patio lounge. Every day offers a new adventure given the hotel is close to several heritage sites. It’s late autumn, yet the sun wraps our bodies in a warm embrace. A short walk from our twentieth-century hotel leads us to a pebbled beach. The sandy coast is populated by people determined to get their natural dose of Vitamin D. Not me. At my age, I have enough discolouration thank you very much.

My digital camera works overtime. There’s a rocky shore lined with wooden boats. Fresh paint masks the rough edges. Fishermen cast their nets daily. The ocean seasons the octopus with a distinct flavour. I’m adventurous and sample the delicacy. Trust me, it doesn’t taste like chicken. “It’s too rubbery,” says my sister Sophie, but I relish the experience. Wines tempt my tongue with an aged confidence. My taste buds are mature, suggesting I am an experienced sommelier. The truth is I have only one favoured choice: white.

From my balcony the view is majestic but up close this panorama is awe inspiring. Varying azure shades are a dazzling contrast to the rocky structures that emerge from the sea. The arched doorways and windows set into the coastline appear like faces with their mouths gaping open. I wonder about the earlier workmen who sweated in the heat. Had they chiselled the rock and wielded their plaster with the flare of Michelangelo or da Vinci? Artisans in their own right, they have left a legacy of historical buildings.

A fishing vessel hurls an imposing shadow upon the slabs of stone opposite. What secrets lay buried beneath the water? Who were these merchants that traded goods? I spend my Euros on trinkets to remember my holiday. A watercolour print by a local painter fits between the pages of my travel journal. “Generations have enjoyed this landscape,” says the artist. The earth, sky and ocean has gifted this country with an abundance of jewel tone living.

Every day the tour guide ushers us to the ancient ruins of neighbouring villages. Bellissima. The drive is postcard worthy. Most roads are lined with hundred-year-old olive trees. The knotted limbs twist and curl much like an aging centurion suffering with arthritis. I’m not a fan of olives but no one goes hungry in Italy. Buon appetito. Sophie and I are disappointed when our lunch is bland, served with a North American tour stamp. Where’s the fresh mozzarella? Give me scampi. Bring on the olive oil - I know it’s in the kitchen. “Let’s stop for pizza on the way home,” says Sophie. Take-out pizza in Canada doesn’t compare to the cheesy Margherita pizza we devour. We discover that dining in the local Trattoria is a better option than the meals arranged by the tour company. If I’m going to declare extra baggage on the flight home, give it to me in calories.

When we visit Alberobello, I’m astonished by the one thousand Trulli dwellings. Constructed during the fifteenth century, these cone-shaped houses are perfect for a community of Smurfs. Being petite, I feel right at home. The white stone kept the inhabitants cool during the hot summers but the interiors tended to be dark, with few openings. Using a dry-stone, pile as you go technique, the limestone was arranged in a circular pattern. Legend suggests these UNESCO Heritage homes were easy to build and tear down. When the tax man called, if your whitewashed stone dwelling was a pile of rocks, you paid no tax. Bravo to the villagers.

A craftsman, wearing bleached overalls, works in the shade. His body-hugging t-shirt suggests he has earned those well-defined muscles. He ignores the procession of tourists. His job is to maintain the semblance of the past. I appreciate his diligence. History often serves as blueprints to the future. Citizens build on lessons learned and ignite innovation and progress. The concentrated Trulli homes tell us that community is important.
Photo from the author.
Photo from the author.

West of Apulia, Matera steals my heart. Cave dwellings, known as sassi, define the landscape. More than one hundred churches are carved into the sofa calcareous rock. From afar, the labyrinth of stone houses perched on a hillside, appears more intricate than a laboratory rat’s maze. My sister and I exchange looks. “We’ll get our ten thousand steps in today,” she says. Although the uneven staircases look overwhelming, I’m not deterred. I’ve worn good walking shoes. A woman my age is more concerned about twisting an ankle than posing for her Instagram account. It’s a twelfth century marvel: the caves, not me.

Tiled rooftops, jagged walls, and stooped doorways greet us: laying bare secrets etched over time. My mind spools backward. I picture a monk struggling to mount the never-ending steps, a basket of sour grapes resting on his hip. An image of a lazy donkey, sniffing the sandals of his master pokes my imagination. As I wander up a winding path, I half expect a flock of sheep to come baa-ing in my direction, with a shepherd on their tail. But no, there are no four-legged creatures to disrupt my journey, only herds of visitors sidestepping one another. Oddly enough, I don’t feel claustrophobic. Battling the crowd at the mall is more cumbersome than dodging the tourists. There is a mystical quality to the massive terrain that ascends higher and higher. “Mi Scusi”, “Pardon,” and “Discúlpame”, overlap between swigs of water and clicking cameras.

Every time I reach a higher plateau I pause to admire the view. Sapphire skies drape the belfries and stone manors. Grassy moss dots more than one wall. Miniature service vehicles chug along the paved stones, delivering supplies to the converted structures undergoing restoration. It’s a palate of grey, white and beige and yet there is a vivid hue that paints the town alive. Below ground, we inspect a crypt. A flaking Byzantine fresco suggests a religious leader is buried here. Our tour guide is well versed in spewing historical details.

At night, when the sun sets, and the stars come out to play, Matera rises in all its glory, glowing like a treasured nativity scene,” she says. “Mel Gibson filmed the Passion of The Christ on these streets,” she adds.

I’m no Mel fan but the city appears to be lost in time. It would take masses of Hollywood builders to design such an intricate set. I marvel at the decay.

Once upon a time the streets were crowded with vendors towing pigs to market, or religious patrons making the pilgrimage to their preferred house of worship. I fixate on the open windows between two homes and ponder if conversations and laundry were strung across the courtyard. Was a piggy grunt as familiar as a ‘Buongiorno’? Hauling water up the hill would have been grueling. If my dishwasher goes on the fritz I let the dirty dishes pile up in the sink. The simple comforts I take for granted were not woven into the daily life of these residents.

Matera was once a healthy walled city with cutting edge cisterns. Vegetable gardens thrived,” continues the guide. She leads us to a house that is furnished with clay pots, wooden buckets and an assortment of unrecognizable metal tools. “During the 1950s, thousands of residents living in squalor were discovered in these stone huts.”

Did I hear correctly? Please rewind. Now I’m the one with my mouth gaping. How is that possible? Many of the houses we’d poked our heads into were two or three rooms. One open window or doorway provided limited lighting.

This part of Italy was very poor,” the guide explains. “Families shared the homes with their goats, pigs and donkeys. Disease and illness among the residents was alarming. A physician brought the shocking truth to the government. As a result of the discovery, sixteen thousand residents were provided with newer homes, with separate rooming for their livestock.”

I should hope so. What had once been described as a wholesome and nourishing area had deteriorated under urban sprawl and overcrowding. Although the cave dwellings had stood up to the elements, the reality of their occupants living conditions shook the country.

The blemish on Italy’s rural identity was treated with compassion,” she says.

The scent from a nearby lemon tree pries me alert. “Multiple levels of support were required to relocate thousands of individuals,” adds the guide. I gaze over the Tetris-like maze. I can’t erase the image of a family, about the same generation of my parents with small children, knocking elbows with one another in the darkened hovel. Life was simpler in the 1950s, but access to education, healthcare and the basic necessities of life were scant for those residents. There were no encyclopaedias to amuse little children in this confined cave. Matera’s coastline offered them refuge more so than impressive views. The tasty octopus that aroused my senses earlier now spreads its tentacles, churning and leaving me with indigestion. The sea air smells rank.

From my vantage point, the structures are empty hollows in the hillside. Within the walls, family stories of hardship echo between the slabs. Sediments of survival are ground into the rock. For all the exterior beauty these historical houses offer, inside ugliness slipped between the cracks.

My sister and I are silent as we continue our descent. We walk carefully, avoiding the crevices in the steps and pausing when the lane is too narrow to stroll beside one another. “We achieved our walking goals for today,” I say, glancing at my smartphone. I’m grateful for the opportunity to hike along the same cobblestones of the Sassi people. My memories are tracked and recorded in photographic snaps.

The resilient olive groves, the sun caressing my cheeks, and the salty aroma of the sea paints a captivating view. The old, decrepit structures that have survived centuries conjure a different vista. So many families were squeezed between a rock and a hard place. In all of its historical beauty, it is the story of the people that etches a place in my heart.

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