Hiking Parco dei Monaci (Monks Park) in Southern Italy in July isn’t the smartest thing to do. The woodsy landscape is beautiful in Basilicata, but we almost die from the heat. Our hike begins after disembarking from the local bus that connects Matera with Montescaglioso. The park is located 5 km south of Matera. We trek through the little town to a gate that reveals farmlands and the Parco dei Monaci. In the distance, we can see the ancient city of Matera. The Sassi and the Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Materas are an UNESCO World Heritage site. The prehistoric Sassi caves and sandstone homes are stacked along the cliffs.
Down below the cultivated fields are baking in the morning sun. It is nearly 90 degrees by 9:30 am at Parco dei Monaci. Suddenly I hear the sound of bleating sheep. Down below a pack of sheep are driven down a little country lane. I see a horse at the back of the pack. I hear the shepherd’s shouts. Time seems to turn backward reminding me of Italy’s rural history. Our group heads down a gravel path leading towards the parkland. Clods of dirt and pebbles make it tricky to place my hiking boots. I lose my grip and quickly take a fall. Across the fields, we can still view Matera. It is southern Italy’s canyon city.
We will walk for the next six hours through farmers’ tilled fields and grasslands dyed to straw. As we meander through the park, we find forest paths lined with prickly creeping vines and weeds. The day’s destination at Parco dei Monaci is a lunch spot near the river where we can find respite from the blistering Italian sun.
“This rock habitat, wind-blown day and night, is an unspoiled landscape of great beauty.”Tenuta Parco dei Monaci
A common sight enroute is a pear tree, its limbs hanging low with tiny green pears. A slight rosy yellow blush reveals where the pears turn toward the sun. But the fruit feels hard to the touch. It is about eight weeks shy of its peak. Occasionally we seek shelter under a wide brimmed pear tree that blocks the sun. Only then can we remove our straw hats that shield our faces.
When a breeze blows over our faces, it is sweet. At one point we stop to devour a bag of saffron yellow plums bought at the farmer’s outdoor market. In Matera, this outdoor market opens at 5 a.m. The farmers bring their boxes of fruits and vegetables to set up at stalls. A cornucopia of fruits-white and yellow peaches, apples, purple and green grapes, and yellow plums-plus all variety of vegetables are sold. The cherry tomatoes are as sweet as fruit. They burst open in your mouth and spray hot sticky juice on your face.
We quickly get dehydrated by the oppressive heat. Our bodies crave water. We are told to bring 1.5-2 liters of water. Most of us run out of water before our walk is completed. The worst part is the water turns so hot; it is not refreshing. Our group begins to break down from the heat, causing many to lag behind and walk slower. By noon the sun is high in the sky and it is brutal. The air feels acrid at Parco dei Monaci . The only respite is to pull a leaf from the wild herbs that grow near the tree roots. The wild thyme and oregano are pungent, perfuming the air. Our leader Marcella urges us forward. We are like the flock of sheep that lumbered along the skinny road.
We have to wind our way down the trail to reach an area to picnic. The old oak brings shade for us. Marcella sets up the stone fence as a picnic table. We cover it with a plastic table cloth. Out of our backpacks comes fresh mozzarella, hard cheese, prosciutto ham, pepperoni, and a bag of homemade bread. Jars of artichokes, pickled peppers, and tapenade are opened up. We use napkins as plates. Our country Italian bread is lined with cheese and meat. We pop cherry tomatoes, hot from their plastic bag, into our mouths. We chase it with a bite of creamy mozzarella. It is a feast for us. Then Marcella cuts open a cantaloupe with her Swiss Army knife. Dessert is a slice of melon. Its rind curves up into a smile. And this is also how we end our Italian picnic, beaming.