Altamura, Italy — I could imagine the ghosts of Capuchin monks looking down on me from the upper floor of the weathered building as we drove into the courtyard. The historic dwelling, known as Cappuccini for the monks who lived here in the 16th century, would be my home for the next two weeks.
I had come to the hilltop city of Altamura in southeastern Italy for a working vacation. It turned out to provide more historical and cultural enrichment than a month of guided tours.
I would be working with the grass-roots nonprofit organization Sinergie, a group of young Altamurans -- archeologists, artists and musicians -- dedicated to revitalizing historic sites in Puglia, a province on the Adriatic coast.
The group, with government and museum backing, sponsors cultural exchanges. Volunteers travel to Altamura to work on restoration projects, paying a minimal fee of $630 for 12 days in return for room, board and occasional sightseeing and educational tours.
The group's first international working camp, Eutropia, was formed in 1995 and brought together dozens of volunteers from many parts of the world. Camps have been conducted twice yearly since. I attended a 12-day July session two years ago.
Much of the Puglia region, like neighboring Basilicata, is pockmarked with caves formed in the porous rock strata known as tufo beneath the gently rolling farmland that extends down into the heel of the boot that is Italy. Under the softer tufo lies hardened limestone that formed about 2 million years ago and provided paving and building blocks for the hilltop cities and fortified farms in ancient and medieval times.
One of our group's field trips was to nearby Matera, where over the centuries, houses were built atop caves originally inhabited during prehistoric times. Today, Matera has more than 100 rock-hewn churches.
Many of the region's caves were used for shelter and later became burial places or were used through the centuries for storage or religious purposes. Early Christian frescoes, deteriorating from the salt and moisture in the soil, can still be seen in some of them. The ravages of time and neglect also have left many majestic farm structures and fortifications crumbling.
My fellow Eutropians hailed mainly from Europe, trickling in over a 24-hour period from various places. There were 17 men and women from the Netherlands, England, Scotland, France, Germany, Slovakia and Sweden, and eight from the U.S. We were multinational and multigenerational.
At 77, I was by far the senior member. Shona McLaren, a 17-year-old from Edinburgh, Scotland, was the youngest. A variety of native tongues was represented, with English our common language, much to the relief of us provincial Americans.
We were assigned rooms in groups of two or three, divided by gender. Cappuccini has been updated with modern facilities, so it was much like living in a coed dormitory. We ate together in the large dining hall on the main floor. Everyone took turns helping to prepare and clean up after meals supervised by no-nonsense cook Lucia.
On our first morning, Tonio Creanza, the project director, and geologist Giovanni Ragone, our team leader, outlined our 12-day program. Activities were divided between work sessions and free time, which included conducted tours and occasional evening parties.
Some days, we would have a work session in the morning; other days, in the afternoon. On two of the days, work camps were scheduled morning and afternoon, with lunch brought to the site. Some days, no work was scheduled, and we were on our own. But every day included a two- to three-hour after-lunch siesta.
The first day, we visited our project: Masseria Jesce (the Jesce farmhouse), about six miles from Altamura, which once was a medieval agricultural center. The massive stone structure, fortified to defend the surrounding countryside, was built in stages between 1400 and 1550. Nearby, a modern highway follows the route of the Roman Via Appia, the ancient trade route leading to Brindisi, port of departure to Greece and the eastern Mediterranean.
Masseria Jesce and the surrounding property are owned by the city of Altamura, which values its archeological significance not only for its place in history, but also for its tourism potential. The restored structure, courtyards and frescoed caves could be useful for housing seminars, exhibitions and festivals.
The work begins
WHEN we started work at Jesce, we were loosely divided into groups with specific tasks: rebuilding a rock wall, digging out an overgrown yard enclosure, shoring up an ancient cistern, cleaning and rebuilding a stone goat house. This was pick-and-shovel, sledgehammer and wheelbarrow work.
Team leader Ragone emphasized that no one was keeping score; there were no time cards. If you didn't like what you were doing, you could do something else or do nothing. But given the hard work everyone else was doing, I never felt completely comfortable sitting down -- even when I was pooped.