Travel Notes
Grottole — June/July 2023

In Grottole, we live amongst ruins.

In the historic center of Grottole Grottole 40° 36.054′ N 16° 23.076′ E  — a small town in the Basilicata region of southern Italy — there are 629 abandoned homes, in various stages of decay. Since the 1960s, depopulation due to economic flight is common in many small villages in Italy. In 1980 Grottole was also hit by a devastating earthquake. The government encouraged inhabitants to move to new houses further out rather than repair the old ones. The average age of the remaining population in the center today is over 70. Sometimes walking through the alleys is eerie. Through broken windows or open doors I see traces of family life left behind: derelict furniture in what used to be living rooms; in the cellars, broken glass balloons, once used for storing wine, now stand abandoned. However, most of the time it doesn’t seem desolate: I find incredible beauty in the abandoned houses, in the exposed walls — many several centuries old — made by stacking irregular rocks and stones, or beautifully colored terracotta bricks, in the aging materials and the plants taking over the walls. But it is more than just their deserted aesthetic that pulls me in.

I search for the right words to express what makes these buildings so striking, what makes their architecture so powerful compared to modern houses … without falling into the mindless romanticism of r/ArchitecturalRevival or dangerous tropes of trad-architecture Twitter accounts but come up short. All I find is that they are so incredibly well proportioned, so human-sized and diverse, and are bursting with complexity even on a small scale. Their floor plan isn’t clean cut, their facades aren’t well organized: Windows of different shapes and sizes, and arch here, a balcony there. A staircase meanders around the yard and leads to a second story flat.

The arch on the left, which goes over the entry to the yard, is also a staircase that leads to the second story entry of the building next door.   
The arch on the left, which goes over the entry to the yard, is also a staircase that leads to the second story entry of the building next door.   

There were other things to worry about: The tightness of the space in the narrow alleys, the steep ground of the hillside, the changing needs of the inhabitants, the closeness of the community, the hot climate — you can viscerally feel that these buildings grew organically into and from their surroundings, ending up more harmonious than if they had been “well planned”. Turns out this unplanned growth leads to more wholesome buildings than a well thought out program.

Ruins of the abandoned church, “Chiesa Diruta” ​Chiesa Diruta  40° 35.934′ N 16° 23.172′ E  , destroyed in an earthquake in 1694   
Ruins of the abandoned church, “Chiesa Diruta” Chiesa Diruta 40° 35.934′ N 16° 23.172′ E , destroyed in an earthquake in 1694   

Overlooking the empty houses around me I sit on the roof terrace of our house and read “Learning From Las Vegas”. It feels sacrilegious Venturi slacks off architects’ love for the Italian plaza and small Italian villages a lot., but at the same time also very appropriate What is “contextualism” in its purest form, if not this?.

Cars §

One thing that captures my attention as soon as we arrive are the sensibly sized cars. To navigate the steep, narrow streets you need a tiny car. Of course there are Fiats of every make and model, with Pandas from every generation being a favorite. Coming from Hamburg with its epidemic of ever bigger SUVs, utterly unnecessary in the large city Writing a few months later, having experience American-sized SUVs, I must reassert this sentiment., the change is positively harrowing. When a car is clearly necessary for everyday life in such a small town with very limited public transport this is a reasonable mode of private transport. The bus from Matera to Grottole drives twice a day. Designing attractive, modern small cars that people want to buy might be the most pressing challenge of contemporary automotive design.

The Badlands §

Our friend Rocco takes us to the badlands. Grottole’s Badlands 40° 35.094′ N 16° 22.938′ E A few kilometers outside town we suddenly find ourselves in an alien landscape. The soil is dry and cracked, forming a strange and beautiful pattern.

Because it is so rich in clay, the soil has been dug up thousands of times. After a few cycles of rainfall and drought the pattern forms again, dissolving any trace of human intervention. Clay from this spot has been used as a building material in Grottole for centuries.

Much of the town is constructed with terracotta bricks created from this rich natural resource. Talk about building with local materials. Vessels to store wine and olive oil also used to be made from it. In the earliest times, the ceramics were fired in impromptu ovens dug out right here on the spot Later, there were special ovens up in the town, which still exist today. — with some luck, you can still find ancient shards from vessels that didn’t make it.

Absolutely Natural Wine §

Francesco’s Wine   
Francesco’s Wine   

What the hip kids call “Natural Wine”, the people of Grottole just call “my family’s wine”. Every family owns a little vineyard and a cave where the wine is stored. There are 400 caves in Grottole. Historically they were where people lived — the poorest inhabitants lived in their caves until the middle of the last century. Nowadays they are used for storage — and for celebrations (the wine is right there). They keep the same exact temperature throughout the entire year, making them perfect for storing wine. Once a year, they produce enough wine to last their family through most of the year. The same is true for olive oil.

Dug into the hillside next to our house is Francesco’s cave. Not that we know him — we just greet him as he parks his car in front of our yard. A few minutes later he is back with a bottle of his wine, insisting that I take it. When I offer to pay he gets offended.

This is the most natural wine I have ever tried — in every dimension. It is organic, small-batch, all the natural wine adjectives you can think of, and at the same time, none of them. Of course it’s spontaneously fermented and Funky with a capital F. It is an adventure.

I visit Francesco in his cave to return the empty bottle. He is a bit confused as to why it took me longer than one day to drink it. While most families only produce red wine, Francesco is a bit more experimental, he tells me proudly. He pops open a bottle of his Pet Nat and his Orange Wine for me to taste. He doesn’t call it that of course, but I deduce it from his explanations Which he gives in Italian, which I don’t speak.. Interesting how tasting the amazing complexity, depth and rawness of natural wine at the same time gives you an appreciation for the cleanness, clarity and harmony of commercial wine. I wouldn’t want to have to choose.

Repository [Grottole] §

Wonder Grottole 40° 36.108′ N 16° 23.136′ E Wonder Grottole is an amazing project, establishing sustainable tourism in Grottole. We stayed at Wonder Casa for tree weeks, and I couldn’t recommend it more.
Barzolletta 40° 36.036′ N 16° 23.064′ E The town’s true center.
Sandwiches from the Deli Counter of Carrefour 40° 36.186′ N 16° 22.8′ E Theresa makes the best sandwiches. Ask for Mortadella, spicy Spianata and Mozzarella.
Bar Trattoria Quaranta 40° 36.15′ N 16° 22.89′ E Whatever you do, do not miss out on Elena’s homemade pasta. Her “Pasta con i peperoni cruschi” might be the best pasta I’ve ever had.
The Garrison Speakeasy 40° 36.012′ N 16° 23.136′ E