Tis Returns to Italy! Day 64: Tis Becomes Organized Tour Prey

Published by Lisa Tisdale on

View of the Murgia, Matera Italy
View of the Murgia, Matera Italy

Lisa of Tis Travels is on a three-month journey through Italy, exploring, eating, and living like an Italian. Follow along on “Tis Travels” on Facebook and Instagram!

There are all different types of travelers. The spectrum runs from those who love to join a package tour to those who want total control over planning their days. I am firmly on the total control side.

Preparing for Matera Explorations

Prior to arriving in Matera, my research included checking the list of nearby “Unesco World Heritage Sites”. There I learned of the Murgia, a rugged, rocky area centered on a gorge, with many Rupestrian (rock) churches. Some are simple caves and some contain frescoes dated back as far as the 8th century. However, they are located outside of Matera. 

When I only have three nights in a place as I did in Matera, I usually spend my time exploring within walking distance. There is always so much more to discover than guidebooks will tell you if you are a fan of the “Museum of Life” as I am. This had put exploration of the Murgia in the “unlikely to visit” column.

Exploring the Neighborhood Sassi

During my first day of exploring the Sassi, I visited three of the rupestrian (rock) churches located within the two Sassi. These rugged churches are simply holes carved into the rock. As I explored these spaces, I was in awe of what remains of the frescoes inside. The colors were beautiful and some of the images were so well-preserved you could really picture what they were like in their day. These churches had to be breathtakingly beautiful places back in the 8th-15th centuries, the period to which the frescoes date back. 

As I walked around the outside of these churches, I had a view across a dusty valley to caves on the other side. It was not a long walk so some people were just hiking over to the other side to get a closer look at them. It was getting late in the day so I ended my explorations here, putting a possible walk over to the other side on my mental checklist.

How I Became Easy Prey 

I generally avoid tours if I can help it. By training, I am a researcher which makes me pretty good at finding out everything I need to know on my own. When in Matera, I had been traveling for over two months. The first full day of exploring had me climbing in and out of cave districts and fairly exhausted, especially as it followed a tough travel day. This left me in a vulnerable position.

On the way to my apartment, I saw the description of an open-air bus tour of the Rupestrian churches of the Murgia. I imagined the little bus driving me close to these spaces, allowing me to hop out and walk inside to admire the beautiful frescoes. If you’ve ever seen an image of Petra, some of these places are comparable to that level of that stark beauty.

A lovely lady was ready to help me with any information. Some of the time slots were already sold out. It must be a great tour! I chose an open time for the next day and paid for my ticket, excited for the chance to see more of these amazing structures.

Let the Tour Begin!

The next day, I woke up ready for my tour. We were to meet at noon to head out for our 90-minute journey. Being the first to arrive, I watched as others joined. One couple waiting closest to me seemed very nice. Yay! I might meet some fun people. This was going to be great!

We all took seats on the bus as the tour guide began telling us what we would see. In Italian. Wait? Did I sign up for an Italian language tour? While I can speak with the locals fairly well in one-on-one situations, being able to translate the words of a guide speaking rapidly was not going to be successful. After she finished her overview of what we had just passed, she repeated it in English to me, the only non-native Italian on the tour… 
Well isn’t that lovely! After we pass something, I will get to learn about what I already saw. I decided to see this as a positive and use the opportunity to expand my language skills. I listened intently to everything she was saying in Italian and tried to translate it before she did it for me.  

When Things Go Sideways

As we drove out of the city, I was excited to see the rugged landscape of the Murgia. Instead, we pulled into a dumpy area on the side of the street with a bunch of modern “art”. From what I could tell on my own, some “artist” had made “art” out of metal and placed it in a park, or more accurately, a parking lot. 

To add icing to the cake, as we drove away the guide switched to English and I learned that the metallic bowl of spaghetti I had just seen was actually made out of metal from the World Trade Center. She explained that this was the artist’s way of memorializing that tragic day that I spent wandering around the hellscape that was Manhattan on 9-11, wondering if my friends were already dead and if I would be next. Wow. What an asshole. 

Finding Ways to Cope

As I tried to restrain myself from sharing my feedback on the bowl of spaghetti “tribute”, 70% of the group were bantering about happily in Italian. I realized that the nice couple and myself had been added to a large group of friends. What joy. As they got more comfortable with the guide, they monopolized her time by asking her a few questions about the area but mostly just engaging her in banter completely unrelated to the Rupestrian churches of the Murgia.  

As we progressed, my English explanations came so long after what we had seen, I lost interest. To pass the time, I started making up my own interpretations, including linking the history of the caves to the nearby Smurf Village I’d stayed in. My version of local history had Papa Smurf and the gang inhabiting the Murgia caves back in the 8th Century. After all, how do we really know Handy Smurf did not build some of these rock churches? It’s entirely plausible. 

Finally, We Arrive at a Rock Church

This Is IT? Matera, Italy
This Is IT? Matera, Italy

At long last, the bus stopped and we were told to follow the guide down a path into the Murgia. She would tell us about the area and we could wander around for a bit on our own.

As we walked, I recognized the two Sassi districts of the city of Matera just across from me. Wait. This little tour bus has only taken me across the valley I could have walked across myself? 

After she finished her Italian version of what we were seeing and everyone but me walked away, she turned and gave me the Cliff notes version. Apparently, there is a rock church with frescoes nearby but it is locked behind bars for some mysterious reasons. However, we are allowed to peek in and see what we could behind the heavy, thick bars and then return to the bus. Wonderful. 

The Disaster Tour Peeks and Ends, Thankfully

What a bust! This was it and it was nothing as what we were led to believe we’d see. I did wander to the tiny, well-fortified, rock church to hold my phone inside the bars and take a photo of the frescoes I was not going to be able to admire. Photos of the Rupestrian churches are strictly prohibited as I am sure it is a bigger revenue generator of sales of the book on Rupestrian churches. I stuck my phone inside the bars and snapped away. Flash off of course. I’m a lover of art after all.

After a ride back that was filled with more mindless banter between our perky guide and her new Italian fan club, we arrived back into town. The guide proudly told us that the area we were driving through was one of the first ones where the residents who were “evacuated” from the Sassi were allowed (forced) to live. 

At this point, I could no longer restrain myself. I asked Miss Perky, “Weren’t many of the residents unwilling to move from their cave homes and instead forced out against their will?” Let’s just say Miss Perky was not very pleased as she tried to avoid answering the first tough question of the day. 

Letting Go 

When we finally got off the bus, she gave us an enthusiastic smile along with her card and a request to write her a review on Tripadvisor. I thought to myself, “Do you really want me to write you a review honey?” In an act of undeserved kindness, I dropped her card in the nearest paper recycling bin.

Let’s just say my guided tour days are over.  At least until enough time has passed that the tour from hell fades from my memory…

Ciao for now!


Lisa Tisdale

Lisa Tisdale has traveled all over the world, writing about her experiences and making local contacts. She recently completed a three-month trip through Italy, exploring her favorite country’s food, wine, and sites, and making new friends!

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