City of Matera, European Capital of Culture in 2019
Lately, it’s impossible to ignore, the sense that Southern Italy is not only about to have its moment, but that in many ways, it already is.
Half of Lecce is under restoration: our prettiest church, the column that used to mark the end of the Appian way. The old hospital. Scaffolding hides much of the city, the hammering starts at 8 am.
Parks are being replanted. Streets repaired. Websites are going up. There is a new bicycling sharing programme, one that might actually stick this time. People in the street are giddy.
If you haven’t heard, the City of Matera was chosen as the capital of culture, for all of Europe. It’s a bit like the Olympics, but more prestigious and much more cerebral. Administratively, the city of Matera is no longer in the region of Puglia but it’s close enough that travel circuits have formed, with the same 8 or 9 cities receiving higher than average tourism, the increase decidedly out of season (Puglia has been the number one tourist destination domestically for the last 15 years, which remains primarily national, summer-based tourism).
Older than Jericho, Matera is the oldest continually inhabited site on earth, with honest-to-goodness cave people surviving well into the 20th century. That it’s old isn’t a surprise, but that it’s so new, is. The city has skipped printed brochures and telephone land lines. Chain stores never developed. The cultural spending budgets are enough to make even France appear stingy and underfunded.
The ancient city has skipped the middle stages and has taken its old bones right into the 21st century, with hashtags functioning as the new postcards and banks that no longer exchange cash.
Pessimists would argue that ‘tourists are now going to wreck the south’, although I’m not one of them. Italy has seen way too much tourism focused on way too few regions and cities. This new model of international tourism in Italy- in contrast- is now starting to resemble our national tourism here: go to each region for different reasons, the wealth of the country is in its historical diversity and independent histories and cuisines.
What does this mean for us at our Cooking School in Puglia? More day courses, fewer week long courses. In the shoulder months, we’re often now more often a component of a larger trip versus the anchor of it. More of the world is coming but it’s still the more traveled part, those that travel for cultural immersion versus those that just say they do.
Will next year be that ‘so crowded that no one comes there anymore’? I don’t think so, because the world is changing and international travelers in Italy are starting to diversify their interests.
My suggestion? Make it a point of going to new places next year, of sidestepping the cities your neighbors know and visiting places that are still themselves. Consider your own presence and the weight that it carries.
All of Southern Italy is scrambling right now in preparation. This winter, the scaffolding is coming down. The mayors of tiny villages are updating their neckties. Their daughters are repeating their English language tenses up in their rooms.
The best part of Italy can’t wait for you to visit. We’re ready.
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