Murder In Matera

Oh boy, I love it when you can link stories on the blog and quite by chance there I was reading an article about researching ancestry in Southern Italy last night  and no I don’t have any  but the article caught my eye for other reasons.

Living in Puglia I have certainly tended to just accept the place and why it is like it is , the people the cucina povera etc.  Yes  I have read several histories of Italy and the reunification without to be honest really thinking about it just in terms of the South. However this article described quite clearly how difficult  it is for later generations to research the people who actually got on a boat and went to the USA or South America or Australia or indeed other parts of Europe. Not the actual birth docs etc but why they made such a life changing and dangerous move and what kind of life they were leaving behind. And let’s face between 1860 and 1921 there were literally thousands and thousands of them from Southern Italy.

The reason is simple, even by 1921 less than 5% of the population in most of Southern Italy was literate and therefore most were unable to write down their experiences . There is a real dearth of books about life in the Mezzogiorno during those years. The blame for this rests firmly with first the French from Anjou and then the the Spanish who between them for 4 centuries of ruling Southern Italy kept it in feudal servitude with literally ,for the majority of the population, no advancement at all not even in agricultural improvements. Compare this to the City States in the North, Florence, Siena, Venice , the Duchy of Milan etc and their amazing wealth and culture.

Puglia at the time of re-unification in 1861 was the same as it had been in say 1261, nothing but a daily grind for survival and the reunification did nothing to improve their lot until, perhaps surprisingly, Mussolini .

So there, seemingly, are no books to help the would be researcher discover about life in those times. But as always when faced with a insurmountable problem there is always someone who grasps the issue with both hands and does the impossible . Step forward Helene Stapinski, a journalist by trade, but also a descendent of one of those families that upped and left for the States but this one with a secret .

From the age of four, she had heard lurid yet inspiring tales about her great-great-grandmother Vita, a loose woman back in Southern Italy who fled to America in 1892 with her three children after committing murder ! See I told you the article caught my eye !!

“Gripped by her family’s story, she embarked on a decade-long fact-finding mission, making numerous trips to Basilicata, where she comes to learn what really happened and how far one woman would go in search of a better life , not only for herself, but for her children and the preservation of her family”.

All this she has written in her book Murder in Matera which you can buy at Amazon and on Kindle too.

Murder in Matera

Is it any good well here are a few reviews:

“The style is streetwise Hemingway, the theme is Faulkner in a nutshell.” (New York Times Book Review)

“ A thrilling detective story ……..Fascinating and informative . . . Stapinski’s description of the near-feudal life in southern Italy in the 19th century is compelling.” (Newsday)

So I’ve bought my copy on Kindle .

I’ve also been spending time doing more research into those dastardly French and Spaniards as well as learning more about Denis Mack Smith the British historian who is considered by most as the numero uno authority on Italian History and  his assertion that the reunification was always going to be an unsolvable problem because of the feudal nature and poverty  of the South compared to the riches of the North.


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From City of Shame

So reads most of the headlines about Matera becoming the 2019 European City of Culture an award that has been running since 1985 for countries who are part of the European Union. Quite why it has taken the press so long to catch up with this award is beyond me. I can tell you that in 2023 Veszprém (Hungary) is the European Culture city and indeed can tell you which member states are able to put forward cities in 2033. No, one of them isn’t the United Kingdom, behave yourselves at the back of the class .

The reason for making the award is apparently to highlight the richness and diversity of cultures in Europe and Increase European citizens’ sense of belonging to a common cultural area amongst other equally floaty objectives but let’s not take it away from Matera or indeed Veszprém a place I have to admit I have never heard of though given all the auto parts , plastic and pharmaceutical plants there it might be in need of a bit of culture.

Matera is , of course, also a UNESCO site for it’s caves in the Sassi part of the city hence the city of shame headline because in the 1950s when the rest of the world discovered that 15,000 people were living quite happily in the caves there was an outcry and 15.000 cheerful inhabitants found themselves being moved to high-rise apartment blocks on the edge of town .

The real irony is, of course, that once Mel Gibson used the town to film his movie The Passion of Christ in the 1990s and the travel writers followed him there in their swarms the place was put on the tourist map . Initially tourists could spend a few lira visiting the caves that contained shop mannequins dressed in local costume but now many caves have been converted into luxury hotels with the bedrooms and bathrooms in the caves. So in July a tourist can spend upwards of €350 a night to er ,well live like a local did for 9000 years until the early 1960s when the cave was condemned as unfit for human habitation . Maybe in 100 years tourists will be paying to try out the East German style concrete high-rise buildings do you  think ?

I have been to Matera several times with visitors and dare I say it is  a real tourist trap with expensive bars, very expensive restaurants and crazily priced hotels but hey if living in a cave with no windows is your bag , go for it. I tend to suggest people go, look and come back to the house in a day which is easily done from Martina.

However there is one caveat in that they must bring back a 1 or 2 kilo loaf of bread not just for me but for half the guys in my local bar as well as for all the bar staff. Pane di Matera is recognised throughout Italy as the finest of breads especially at breakfast with various jams and so we along with most of the bar customers tuck in the next morning   whilst  chuckling about all those tourists sleeping in the caves.

Pane Matera

The bread of Matera is a world patrimony ( no me neither but it means something handed down generation to generation ) . The secret of it’s flavour and long preservation of 8-9 days (Italians from the north always take loafs home with them in the car to give to neighbours) is the special preparation of the yeast base made with the local spring water and fresh fruit to macerate. The yeast is used several times and Matera housewives used have set days to bake based around the yeast life. The bread would then easily last until the next yeast making. The long preservation is believed to also  come from the various wheats used especially the durum wheat, which is also used to make pasta.

Let’s hope Matera has more success with being the city of culture. Paphos in Cyprus was the winner for 2017 and most of the improvements are only now being finished 2 years late and most were cancelled when it was discovered that the E.U. budget was far less these days.



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I got my toes in the water, ass in the sand
Not a worry in the world, a cold beer in my hand
Life is good today, life is good today.

So sings Zac Brown on his song Toes .Now I won’t say I lost sleep last night about the end of the fly flop holiday or the barefoot holiday as luxury operators call it. As an aside I did stay on a magical island off the Kenyan Coast where, when you arrived at the dock, the hotel manager went through your suitcase and confiscated all your shoes which he locked in a cupboard and you only got them back on departure .  But it did worry me. I remembered a travel writer saying that no travel writer worth his salt would write about beaches as there is no story on a beach.

Personally I have always loved beaches . I cut my teeth on Exmouth Beach in Devon as a child dressed in woollen swimming trucks that almost drowned you with their weight when wet. Luckily my father met some of the river pilots who used to guide coastal  tankers from the bell buoy up the Exe Canal to Exeter and I used to go with them most days .

Exmouth Devon.jpg

That’s me with Percy Bradford the Chief River pilot.

But soon I graduated to the shores of the Mediterranean ( my father was an airline pilot ) every summer in the 50s and 60s and in the 70’s when I joined a British Airways to beaches much further afield.

So last night I wondered if those beaches told a story and realised that deserted ones don’t  the Puglia ones most certainly do. There is nothing boring about a beach full of Italians in July and August .

Those of you of a certain age from the UK might remember an advert on the telly and in cinemas for Strand cigarettes . A look-a-like Frank Sinatra walks at night along a completely deserted wet London Street. His raincoat collar is up and his hat turned down  against the elements . He then stops takes out a packet of Strand cigarettes and lights one as a voice says ” Your never alone with a Strand” and you could equally say your never alone on a Puglia Beach as the Italians love to sit as close to you and each other as humanly possible.

The Strand ads incidentally won lots of awards but failed to sell an extra cigarette in fact the campaign was a total disaster. The fault of an unsophisticated 1950’s market said the ad agency but more realistically why would anyone want to buy  a pack cigarettes that turns you into a Johnny-No-Mates was the public reaction. The brand was renamed Embassy and the new ad showed a man at the centre of a party offering his pack of cigarettes to a group of laughing friends. Embassy became the best selling cigarette in the UK.

Torre Canne.jpg

I reckon if you sat on a beach in Puglia for a week in August you would have enough material for at least one book let alone a single article or short story. The men standing  in circles in the shallows talking about buying food, preparing food and cooking food and the women when not kissing their own little boys  moaning about their mother-in-laws who still dote on their sons and hate their daughter-in-laws. The smell of suntan oil, the cool boxes containing snacks, lunch and dinner to be eaten by vast families and friends. The noise of raised voices, the football games, the beach tennis , the budgie smuggler swimwear on the men, the bikinis on ladies lets just say weight challenged !

It is an experience all in its own rite and one not to be missed when in Puglia.

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A Whole New World



Both my children work in the travel industry , I know, I know, yes they’re both grown up adults but hey to me they are still the kids. My son is in corporate travel but my daughter is in up market tour operating in other words designing the holidays that people take on their hard earned vacation time .

Her boss, dare I say, is given to speaking in mantras a bit like the ones that English soccer teams come out with before being flattened by Barcelona in various cup competitions  (which is also a private joke with my son-in-law ). My daughter’s boss’s mantras though, are unsurprisingly ,  more travel related.

It seems we are no longer interested in what in my day in the travel industry  we called fly and flop holidays. The days of taking pictures of the beach lounger, of the beach bar , of the bones of the freshly caught fish ( ho ho) and six empty bottles of wine that represented lunch have gone.  Even comparing tan lines each night in the bar is now passé more’s the pity. No instead we all want experiences. We need to come home from the vacation with a story to tell or indeed if we’re lucky enough to have a three week or more holiday then a veritable saga of Lord of the Rings proportions. Gone for good are the gold taps in the bathroom, the rose petals in the bath, the upturned champagne bottle and bits of discarded  swimwear floating in the jacuzzi . No now we need to find that little gem of an hotel that nobody else knows about, the shack on the beach that cooks fish over a wood fire in an  old tin can that was once flotsam from a passing ship or in other words to live more like a local.

So where is all this going you ask ? Well let me share with you this piece from a brochure I saw the other day ( no not one of my daughter’s) ” …. new destination de jour with it’s stunning coastline, baroque cities, endless rows of ancient olive trees, rich history, hospitable people and the hottest spot this year for travellers seeking authentic and immersive experiences .”

Now immersive experiences is something my daughter’s boss must wish he’d said or perhaps he did but you get the idea. And this new hotspot. Yes I know baroque gave it away didn’t it? Puglia , but for god sake don’t tell anyone else or we’ll be swamped !

To be fair the writer is correct the charm of Puglia is that , apart from maybe one or two notable exceptions like The Hotel Borgo Egnazia and the fish restaurants in Savelletri  you are going to be thrown in at the deep end and will come back with a host of ” you’ll never believe what we did and what we saw ” stories . Shame about the jacuzzi though that used to fun !!!




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Never Was Allowed One


So the €500 note is no more or rather the note is no longer going to be produced. Amazingly the European Central Bank now believe that the note was mainly used by criminals and money launderers . Well knock me down with a feather. Who’d have thought it !! Clever chaps at the ECB.

Personally I think the note was the greatest idea the ECB ever came up with . Indeed I venture to say that it has probably saved the break up of the European Union over the last 10 years.

What the clever chaps at the ECB didn’t mention as a use for the €500 note was the Black Economy, the ” I could do it for €X for cash” brigade . How many €500 notes can you fit in a shoe box ? Or in 10 shoe boxes? Or under the floor of the cage you keep the two dogs in next to the house . Well you get the picture .

Then look at what many find confusing opinion polls where people in Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal say they are very dissatisfied with being a member of the E.U. and should leave  but then when asked that includes leaving the Euro say no absolutely no way !!

And finally look at the solution offered up by clever financial wizards to solve Italy’s financial woes . Leave the E.U. and the Euro take a 40% hit on the currency going back to the lira but within a few years with improved competitiveness life will be good again. Then you count your shoe boxes and when the opinion poll person stops you in the street you say………. exactly.

As I said in the title, I have never had a €500 note , my wife would never have allowed it. Things seem to slip out of my pocket or after the odd beer I’d accept change for a €50 note instead and come home happy. However I have seen plenty of them in Southern Italy which is still very much a cash economy. It is rare in a shop to see anyone using a credit card regardless of the bill.

I have stood behind guys in the queue at Leroy Merlin the French headquartered home improvement company in Brindisi and watched them peel off €500 notes from a huge wad in their back pocket and pay €7000 + for stuff. I have stood in repair shops in Villa Castelli and seen guys do the same and then walk out and start up their three-wheeler  and drive away

3 wheeler

Pundits seemed surprised that when the ECB first announced their plans to stop production of the €500 note they didn’t set a date  for it to no longer be legal tender.  The ECB have now made it clear that it will remain legal tender and if you have one you can use it in shops and banks. I wonder why !!!!

Still I will never get to have one but at least for many years to come I can still stand in line gawping at those bundles of notes . Mind you imagine living in Brunei where they have a 10,000 note which is worth the equivalent of €6,628 . Perhaps shoe boxes are hard to find out there ?




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'Keep a stiff upper lip, Mr. Haskins. That's all you get to keep.'

When we bought our holiday home in Puglia ( which I must blog about!)  we toyed with the idea of living in Italy full time and giving up our Cyprus residency and tax status as we enjoyed being in the country. We had been fortunate enough by drinking in the local bar to meet the wife of one of the regulars at the bar and discovered she spoke fluent English .

Kindly we were invited to Sunday lunch with the family and a few of their friends and after the wine had flowed freely for a few hours and Italy was working it’s undoubted magic I slurred to our hostess the thoughts we were having about staying and becoming residents. She translated to the table and conversation stopped. I learnt a few minutes later a word that has come in useful ever since in Italy specially when driving “pazzo” which means crazy, insane, mad . Well I could go on but you get the picture. I have to say I was a bit taken aback by the reaction thinking they would all be delighted to have this rather drunken Englishman in their ranks but instead got a lecture about the bureaucracy and the tax system . A kindly fellow at the other end of the long table suggested before embarking on such a notion I should go and see his brother who was a tax advisor and I accept his invitation.

A few days later saw us in Martina Franca sitting in a very modern office with a commercialista and our newly found translator . I guess I should have know that any country that calls income tax Imposta Sui Redditi Delle Personne Fisiche might not be one of the easiest places to deal with and I was right. Italy has fairly punitive rates of tax on all worldwide income especially when compared to say Cyprus’s 5% rate and the systems are laborious, allowances are complicated, refunds if your lucky enough to get one can take 7 years plus there are municipal and town taxes to add on . Eventually the Commercialista said in English let me ask you just one question now you are retired do you really have to spend more than 183 days in Italy ? No I said. Then don’t he said  and we left his office. I should add that he also said that the world was getting smaller, income tax officials especially in the E.U. and America were sharing more personal information with computers talking to each other faster and more easily so the old idea of head below the parapet and hope no one notices you were fast disappearing.

So imagine my surprise when I received an E mail the other day from another Commercialista announcing changes to the Italian Tax rates for foreign nationals thinking of moving to Southern Italy and I quote ” the lure of Southern Italy has just got that much greater for people thinking of retiring to somewhere in the sun provided they are in receipt of a pension from abroad .” Basically a flat tax rate of 7% has been introduced in the 2019 budget for such persons provided they :

The individual hasn’t been resident in Italy in the past 5 years

Their pension is paid by a foreign entity

The Country from which it is paid must have an administrative cooperation agreement with Italy .

The person must choose to be a resident in a town within the designated regions ( Sicily, Sardinia, Campania, Basilicata, Abruzzo, Molise or Puglia )   with a maximum of 20,000 existing residents.

The new goverment’s thinking is that pensioners are an ideal group to target with low tax and they aren’t wrong. We aren’t a burden on the State but spend money in shops  bars and restaurants as well as buy houses .

All I have to do is move from Martina Franca ( pop. 49,000) to Ceglia Messapica (pop.19,833 and ban all births there) or Villa Castelli pop. 9,845 both of which annoyingly  are nearer my house anyway .

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That’s Done Then

Two Easter’s in 10 days is enough for anyone, first the Catholic one and the next weekend the Orthodox one . Feeling “Eastered” out now but can finally get back to blogging.

The Greek Orthodox Easter in Cyprus is very much centred on the fact that many have given up meat for Lent and eagerly await Easter Sunday when they can gorge on meat for the first time in 40 days and gorge they do with BBQs being lighted across the island and kilos and kilos of meat being cooked. Apparently the E.R. departments go onto red alert as people over eat and arrive with chest pains ( indigestion normally) from the platefuls of pork and lamb.


All this meat got me thinking about which is the healthiest Country in the world. Well should I be surprised it’s Italy according to the Bloomberg Health Index . Canada is 17th the UK 23rd and the USA 34th. Italy in total is greatly helped to its Numero Uno placing by Southern Italy and the Cucina Povera . Consider the photo above and the one below


and I guess the message is fairly clear.

Mind you Italians love their pasta 25% of them eat it each day and over 90% have pasta three times a week but they, of course, don’t shovel in  boatloads of it at a single setting unlike the fellow in the photo.

Pasta 2


An average portion is 3.5 ounces or 100 grams . However the guys that formulate the Healthiest Country list reckon other factors come into play as well. 70% of Italians eat meals as a family seated around a table and certainly in the South the main meal is eaten at lunchtime where the day is always split by a lengthy break of several hours from work to enable people to get home eat and then have a few zzzs before heading back to the office or shop to work till about 8 p.m. The other key is that over 70% of Italians consider eating at home or in a restaurant as a social event where the food, though it has to be good, is secondary to chatting and interacting rather than as a period to simply take onboard fuel to get you through the day. Only 30% of Brits and Americans think the same way Italians do  unfortunately as they sit tray upon knee watching Netflix !!

And talking of eating out Nitrates, MSG , and Aspartame ( the worlds most used artificial sweetener ) are all banned from use in Italian restaurants and hotels. Even McDonald’s had to open salad bars and pasta dishes to get a toehold in the Italian marketing we still only have 14 in the whole of Puglia.

My own favourite Cucina Povera dish is one I do  for a summer lunch . You literally just chop tomatoes and some cucumber and toss in a bowl with lashings of extra virgin olive oil then sprinkle on oregano, salt and pepper and chill in the fridge. When ready to eat break up some stale Ciabatta bread rub some a garlic onto the bread, then wet lightly with water. Toss it into the bowl of toms and cucumber give it all a good stir and serve. Simple, tasty, easy to make and really refreshing on a hot day especially in Puglia where you are buying such incredible tomatoes and of course using olive oil from olives you harvested by hitting the tree with a stick and took to the olive press yourself.



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