Volunteers Restore Ancient Ruins

Volunteers restore ancient ruins.

Increasing numbers of Canadian and American tourists are working on underground settlements


November 11, 2006

PUGLIA, Italy — You spy them quite effortlessly. Amid the barren, ochre-looking limestone and tufa rocks that pockmark the landscape of the Murgia hills of Puglia in southern Italy, green pockets of lush grass stand out.

These are where the masserias, or farmhouses, sit, but it’s what can be found beneath the pockets of grass that’s most intriguing: A number of ipogei or underground settlements — once used for housing, shelter for livestock and churches — all carved out of natural caves and hollows around the town of Altamura. Some are up to 90 metres deep, and date from the 13th century.

While the stunning masseria of Jesce, some 12 kilometres from the town, was created later in the 14th century, it is regarded as one of the most important of the settlements. Local peasants flocked there and worshipped underground in a crypt that is accessed via a stone pathway. Now being restored, the crypt is decorated with Byzantine-influenced frescoes including images of the Madonna and Child seated on a throne, Saint Nicolas the Pilgrim, Francis of Assisi and Archangel Michael fighting the devil.

It’s easy to see why a number of Canadians and Americans have already swapped being tourists for a stint volunteering alongside Europeans to repair these sites. The Italian Sinergie Cooperative’s Eutropia project coordinates the effort.

Focusing on stonework (an art that involves no mortar), sculptures and finding drainage systems, for example, turns out to be a great way to be totally immersed in the culture. As one such volunteer, Vancouver artist Jennifer Bell, commented, “It’s an excellent introduction to a region for travellers not ‘travelling with someone,’ an interesting way to understand a culture and its history — and also to be immediately introduced into the Puglia culture, history, its local people and their food.”

Needless to say Bell’s oil paintings frequently reflect her time at Jesce, which also has archeological finds dating to Neolithic and Bronze ages.

(An exhibition of her work will be show at Gallery Shoal Creek in Austin, Texas, from Nov. 15.)

Rest assured, the ipogei are even further off the beaten track for the rare tourists who journey to this less-travelled part of Italy. Venice, Florence, Rome, this is not. You’ll find virtually no postcards on sale here, no tourist stores offering cheap, tacky souvenirs. In their place come strange but innocuous stares from the locals, and even the odd hanky waved towards you by old men whose tooth- and dentureless faces are contorted by facial origami. It’s rare to stay in a place where tourists are still a novelty — especially in Europe — and where the old, Felliniesque Italy can still be found.

For all of its seemingly stark vista — it is with good reason that old people are bent double from toiling a land consisting of 90 per cent stone — Puglia is also rich in olive trees (it is reportedly home to 50 million) as well as pomegranate and plum trees. (Although even these frequently look arthritically twisted as if in sympathy with the workers.) Blousy sunflowers and wild weeds are randomly scattered around, while small, traditionally pruned oaks often line farm driveways.

In the towns of Altamura and Santeramo, life operates on a strict timetable: You won’t find stores — or banks — open between 1 and 5 p.m. On Sunday afternoons the centres are eerily ghosttown-ish as the locals feast over long courses, followed by obligatory siestas. Yet stroll around the early evenings and unthreatening boys preen themselves in front of the girls in town squares, men link arms, and kiss and hug each other with indiscriminate abandon, while playing backgammon or chomping on ice-creams (locals swear by the hazelnut flavour…). The higgledy-piggledy cobbled streets guide you past people’s cellars filled with rows upon rows of tomato vines and baskets of walnuts, past 1,000-year-old churches and one with a lit-up neon Ave Maria guiding the faithful whatever time of night.

And if you missed the fleeting opening hours in the morning, the stores stay open until 9:15 p.m. It is the custom for farmers to own a townhouse as well, where they will sell their produce after a day’s labour. The nocturnal buzz in Santeramo is often, rather strangely, kickstarted by a swarm of hawks and other birds noisily filling the evening sky.

As you would expect in such a rhythmical setting and in the home of Slow Food, everything runs according to the seasons. You’ll religiously hear and see the tractors ploughing at 6 a.m. — as the sun rises; walnuts are harvested — throughout the region — on one specific day in June; olives in early November…

And continuing the theme of cave dwelling in this region naturally takes you over to Basilicata, on the border with Puglia, which is served by cheap flights from London to either Bari or Brindisi. The pilgrimage to Matera, the city built into the Stone Age rock, is an ancient ‘intact example of a troglodyte settlement’ to borrow Unesco’s description when it awarded the city a World Heritage status in the 90s. I defy you not to gasp when you first dip down the steps into the viewing area above this labyrinth of 100-odd churches and tiny houses, still lived in by some 60,000 people — including a few hermits in alcoves above the city. It is like a model village and reminiscent of Jerusalem — no surprises, then, that filmmakers, including Mel Gibson in The Passion of the Christ, have been coming here for years.

And, unlike Puglia, it also tellingly offered the first and only set of postcards I saw for sale during my week-long trip.