A Volkswagen bug sits on top of a limestone column, squashed by one final, huge block. The sculpture, by famed Italian artist Antonio Paradiso, stands at the entrance to an outdoor gallery housed in an old abandoned quarry not far from Matera, a small town in the Italian southern province of Basilicata. The metaphor is not a subtle one.
"I think this was Paradiso's way of saying how he felt about the automobile," says my guide Dora Cappiello, who was born in Matera and in 2000 returned to start a business specializing in bespoke tourism. "It's a good representation for Matera – here there are many streets where cars simply can't go."
And it's because so much of Matera is cut off from the automobile that it offers a unique opportunity to gain insight into personal mobility. Matera is one of the oldest cities in the world. People have been living here continuously for the past 7,000 years. Matera was built first and foremost for walking and horse-drawn carriages. Even in the 1950s, the primary means of travel was donkey and cart. Unlike North American cities that were built around the automobile, in Matera the car is far from king. This fact influences every aspect of life.
In 2019, Matera will be the European Union's Capital of Culture, and the community expects tourism to increase from an annual 200,000 to 600,000 visitors. One of the town's biggest challenges will be how it moves its population and all those tourists around.
The automobile is the best way to navigate Basilicata's gorgeous countryside, and long trips to nearby towns such as Montescaglioso and Miglionico are usually made by car. Here, modern drivers adapt to the previous transportation footprint; the main road into Matera is the SS7, which runs directly on top of the Via Appia, built by the Romans.
Within Matera, though, the most famous attraction is the Sassi district, and there is only one way to properly see it – on foot. The Sassi are subterranean dwellings carved out of the mountain on which Matera sits. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, they are divided into three sections – the Sasso Barisano, the Sasso Caveoso and the Civita district.
The cave dwellings became an example of postwar rural southern poverty after author Carlo Levi, who was exiled here by Mussolini, chronicled his time in Christ Stopped at Eboli. Sassi residents suffered enormous deprivation and had an infant mortality rate of 50 per cent. The Sassi appeared, Levi wrote, "like a schoolboy's idea of Dante's Inferno." In the 1950s, the Italian government cleared out the Sassi and transplanted its inhabitants. The Sassi's cave homes remained abandoned until the 1980s, when adventurous entrepreneurs returned to start hotels and restaurants.
Matera has many "Area Pedonale" (pedestrian-only districts), as well as "Zona Traffico Limitato" (Limited Traffic Zones) where automobiles are banned during peak hours. In total, three hectares of Matera's Centro Storico's streets are pedestrian-only, and the Sassi's 36 hectares have very limited access by car.
At first, shop and restaurant owners worried that the pedestrian-only zones would be bad for business. This doesn't seem to be the case. These areas are crowded with people enjoying a customary evening passeggiata (from "passegiare" which means "to stroll"). They stay busy late into the evening, window-shopping and going for supper.
Matera allows a visitor to combine art, dining and exercise. I spent an average of five hours a day walking its streets, visiting ancient Augustinian monastries, 12th-century churches and modern sculpture galleries. For lunch, it was antipasto followed by pasta with a couple glasses of local wine; dinner is a repeat with the addition of a finishing grappa. I kept track of the distance I travelled. On my first afternoon, I walked six kilometres and climbed 20 flights of stairs; on the second day I logged 9.2 kilometres and 40 flights; and on my last, 7.6 kilometres and 23 flights. Granted, I was sightseeing, but it wasn't a surprise that, despite all that food, I managed to lose weight. If all the visitors expected to visit Matera in 2019 pick up the same habit, Matera will be one of the happiest, healthiest places on Earth.
But that can be tricky. Our North American reliance on the automobile became painfully clear to me in Matera. Many Canadians spend their time "trip-chaining" – the act of making a series of intermediate stops on the way to your ultimate destination. We drive to the dry cleaners, grocery store and then home.
It would be nice to import some of Matera's habits, though Canada's climate might not make them a good fit. When I imagine people in Calgary or Montreal going for a daily passeggiata after dinner in February, it looks more like Napoleon's troops fleeing Russia. During Toronto's recent record cold, I logged my walking. One day, I walked 0.94 kilometres and two flights of stairs (the equivalent of going for an espresso in Matera). Canadians embrace cold weather, but they tend to do it at higher speeds – on skates, skis or snowboards. And besides, minus-24 C is not always good for digestion.
One lesson we can take from Matera: pedestrian-only zones are disruptive when they're first implemented but can have very good long-term effects on business. They're also good for people. Walking is one of the easiest and most beneficial ways to get exercise. I'll borrow an adage about the Eternal City, but I think it applies equally to Matera. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When not in Rome, do as the Romans do when not in Rome.