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E + 14 : Cave Town - Steel Town

Sun rise near Porto Policoro at 6 am from the AFAET

It’s handover day today. A few unfortunate team members have to leave and return to the US, new ones are going to join in Taranto. We got up rather early at 5.30 am and were rewarded with the most beautiful moon set. It is full moon today. The moon looked like a pink grapefruit as it dropped below the Calabrian mountains. It was a chilly morning – the boat was wet from the morning dew. Half an hour later, the sun rose. Same but stronger pink than the moon and bigger in size, it marked its presence with the first ray. I could feel the heat on my forearms – the result of nuclear fusion 8 light minutes away.

Matera's luxuries train station for the local train from Bari

As the crew needed everybody to leave the boat for a few hours to scrub the decks, clean the interior and restock it, we decided to visit the town of Matera, famous for its caves in which people lived for centuries. It is now all beautifully restored and attracts a lot of tourists – Europe made it in 2020 its Cultural Capital and invested quite some money to prop it up. There is a new railway station, the old one meticulously refurbished, tracks have been laid underground to make space for a bus and car park, the churches have been cleaned and most of the decaying noble palaces were converted into luxury hotels as were some of the original caves.

Matera is built into the right flank of the Torrente Gravina Canyon

Matera has its beauty and is definitely a place to return. Over thousands of year, the Torrente Gravina carved a canyon that looks very much like the Grand Canyon (plus few trees) out of the lime stone plateau. The cliffs collapsed into the river. The sediments were swept towards the sea. The climate was considerably wetter during the last ice age and until Roman times. Today, the Torrente Gravina is a trickle and a shadow of its past.

The impressive Canyon of the Torrente Gravina today

Cave people loved the place. The dry lime stone caves were ideal shelter and used way into the bronze age. It was kind of free housing. As Greek people arrived on the shores at 1’000 BC to develop agriculture and a forest industry for exporting to Greece, the population got lured to the coast. Living was more comfortable and better closer to the sea. Why living in a cave if you could afford a town house in Taranto or a big farm in its vicinity? Matera was abandoned for almost 2’000 years.

The Medieval Cathedral of Matera was rebuilt in Spanish Baroque - it looked better before

All this changed again with the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476 AD. Export markets first shrunk then disappeared, the coast became unsafe once Arab pirates started to raid it in their fight against the Byzantine Empire. People saw their wealth destroyed and had to move inland for safety. Arriving with just a few clothes, they rediscovered the caves and rebuilt them into houses. Usually, one or two rooms were added in front to create a terrace that could collect rain water. Whilst the housing was inexpensive, there were almost no jogs. The area around Matera slid into a subsistence economy. Everybody was poor – for generations to come. Most people had just one set of clothes. Living in an oppressive feudal system where the landlord got 50% of your harvest did not help either. The people in Matera lived in dismal poverty until 1950 when the Roman government developed social housing outside the old town and resettled people. Matera was left and decayed. Then the tourism industry re-discovered it. We thus get a glimpse into the past which we otherwise would have lost. Feels a bit like some of the old towns in former communist Germany where the government never had the money to tear them down and built ugly “communist model towns”. Today, we are grateful for their lack of money. These towns are beautiful.

The mighty Castle of Charles V which was an effective corsair protection - they never tried

After lunch we returned to Taranto, where we would meet our boat again. Captain Nikos had brought it over during our excursion. Taranto is another interesting example in economic history. By 1'000 AD, the town had lost 97% of the population compared to its heydays. Given the constant pirate threat, the remaining people were forced to huddle inside the fortified area of the former acropolis, today’s old town. Charles V fortified Borgo Island further by adding gun platforms and gun towers to the Orsini castle – it was unassailable – something the Ottoman Corsairs acknowledged and never even tried. But it was 700 years of stagnation.

A squadron of the Regia Marina in the 1930s in the Harbour of Taranto

All this changed in 1866 with the Italian reunification when the new Italian Navy, the Regia Marina, needed a harbour in the deep south. Taranto was chosen and is still Italy’s most important naval base . It was here where the the bulk of the fleet was stationed during WWII and where the English Swordfish heavily damaged three capital ships with their aerial attack in 1940 – it was a dress rehearsal for Pearl Harbour in 1941. The attack was carefully studied by the Imperial Japanese Navy.

A lot of the industrial capacity is in a state of repair - not sure it is ever coming

To build and maintain modern battleships, steel mills and engineering factories were established in Taranto. In the years between the two world wars, the Italian dictator Mussolini, accelerated the build-out of his beloved Navy – it was one of his strategic tools to re-create the Mare Nostro. Under Italian supremacy of course. The naval base and related industrialization gave Taranto a new lease of life. On the ruins of ancient Taranto, a new city was quickly built in the late 19th – early 20th century– one of the reasons that almost nothing survived of ancient Taranto.

Many of these palaces from Spanish time are walled up and not accessible

When Italy surrendered by the end of 1943, there was no use for its large navy any longer. Taranto was now too big and had to re-dimension. For a while, commercial ship building took the slack. This ended in the 1960s when competition from Japan and then Korea caused the sharp decline in European ship building. Sadly, Italian politicians decided that this was now time to double capacity of Taranto’s steel mills. Domestic demand was big. The Italian economy boomed. Towns were rebuilt. It was the glory time of the Vespa, the Fiat Cinquecento, Fellini’s “Dolce Vita”, Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni and early mass tourism. But demand for steel declined, as everywhere in Europe, the mills went bankrupt. The bankruptcy of the steel mills followed the bankruptcy of Taranto.

The only two Dorian columns which survived in Taranto's old town - the former Acropolis

The town is in a bad shape. So many houses and palaces are walled up. The sea walls are decaying and need to be supported by giant steel beams. There is rubbish everywhere. It will take a long time to bring the town back to life. It would deserve it – wonder whether the political will is really around.

There is some hope though. The new regional government started more sustainable development and tries to establish industrial parks for small and medium businesses. Hope this works and that Taranto gets out of its dependence from mono-culture industries.

Sunset over the commercial harbour in Taranto - what an interesting day!

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