I spent my summer vacation in a cave, wearing a headlamp and scraping saints.

Let me explain.

I’m a frequent and enthusiastic traveler to Italy. My father grew up in the seaside town of Gaeta, and I still have relatives in Rome. My maternal grandparents came from a village on one of those distant hilltops in Basilicata, a southern region largely untouched by tourists.

 The hill town of Gravina in the Puglia region of Italy.
The hill town of Gravina in the Puglia region of Italy.

I have had a decades-long quest to learn everything I can about the place, the culture, the language. I first went with my parents in 1965, when I was 12, and then not again until my honeymoon, more than 20 years later, when my husband, Ben, and I rented a car and rambled around for three weeks, stopping for the night in towns that piqued our interest.

In the years since, we’ve been probably 20 more times, sometimes with our daughters or friends, doing things as varied as welcoming the new year in Sicily, seeing the pope at the Vatican, attending a Bruce Springsteen concert in Milan, walking across Lake Iseo on Christo’s Floating Piers, and relaxing on Serapo Beach with my Italian cousins in my father’s hometown.

I even write a blog about the country, Gigisitalia.wordpress.com. I seem to have a limitless store of observations and reflections to share.

A decade ago, I happened upon some young women hard at work restoring frescoes in an ancient church on the bank of Lake Como. “I’d like to do that someday,” I said to myself.

 The group in the fresco-making workshop at Messors Art Restoration and Conservation Workshop, in Puglia, a southern region that makes up the heel of Italy’s boot.
The group in the fresco-making workshop at Messors Art Restoration and Conservation Workshop, in Puglia, a southern region that makes up the heel of Italy’s boot.

This year, the urge hit for real, and Google yielded Messors Art Restoration and Conservation Workshop in Puglia, a southern region that makes up the heel of Italy’s boot. And pretty much sight unseen, with no reviews or past participants to reassure us and no credentials of our own to offer, Ben and I signed up.

The workshop was founded and led by Tonio Creanza, a Puglia native whose life passion is to preserve the culture, art, and food of the region. He and his wife, Jennifer Bell; their 9-year-old son, August; and Tonio’s extended family trained us, cooked for us, supervised us, and drove us on excursions to see ancient sites.

Together with 12 other participants from around the world, ranging in age from 11 to 65 (me!), we lived and ate our amazing communal meals in a palazzo (basically a very large townhouse) in the town of Gravina, heard lectures on history and art restoration techniques, and spent 16 days hard at work. Most of the participants, who came from all corners of the globe, lived in shared rooms and baths of three, although one married couple got their own double room.

It seems Ben and I got special “senior citizen” considerations, as we were assigned our own room and bath in a charming bed-and-breakfast on the top floor.

The writer's husband, Ben Yagoda, up on a scaffold, uncovering hidden angels.
The writer's husband, Ben Yagoda, up on a scaffold, uncovering hidden angels.

At work, we used surgical scalpels to remove limestone deposits from the walls of 1,000-year-old caves, cleaned worm carcasses from the backs of 500-year-old paintings, filled in gaps that had eroded in walls constructed in the Renaissance. We had no expertise, or even talent for this kind of work, but the need is so urgent and the quantity so vast, Jennifer told us, that anything we could do would help. The art would literally disintegrate without attention, so there was no way we could make things worse.

There were three main projects at hand: restoring frescoes from the walls of ancient cave churches, repairing and uncovering paintings on the walls in a 16th-century structure at Jesce, and reversing the damage on centuries-old paintings in a studio in town.

A typical day would start about 7:30 with breakfast of local cheese and fruit and pastries and bread from a bakery in town. Then, after a half-hour drive to the work sites, we had three hours of morning and late-afternoon work.

As time went on, participants gravitated toward their favored projects. I didn’t care for the painting repair work – it required too much precision – but some of the others chose it over and over again. My favorite was working in the cave church, wearing my headlamp, scraping calcification from a 12th-century depiction of the Virgin Mary.

Surprisingly, the caves were pleasant and cool, with a large sunlit opening always visible, so there was no possibility of claustrophobia or anxiety about getting lost. Though several of our fellow participants had some level of experience or a professional interest in art conservation, Ben and I tried to position ourselves in locations where we could do the least harm. Even so, I managed to uncover a painting of a bird in the Campertino cave, and a fellow participant found a hidden angel on the ceiling of the structure at Jesce.

The 16 days were not all work, however. The program included field trips to nearby Matera, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the 2019 European Culture Capital, and an overnight to Naples and Pompeii. We sipped prosecco on the beautiful beach at San Teodoro, stopped to buy pecorino cheese directly from the shepherd whose sheep produced the milk, hunted for pottery shards dating from 200 B.C., and painted our own frescoes at a masseria, or farm estate, out in the countryside. Tonio led an olive oil tasting; his family’s olive trees have produced oil for five generations.

Best of all, we were in Gravina long enough to be a part of the daily routine in the town, seeing the rhythms of life, starting from the morning cafe to the evening passeggiata, with people of literally all ages promenading through the streets.

 Participants in the Messors Art Restoration and Conservation Workshop eat lunch at a masseria, or farm estate, in the southern Italian countryside.
Participants in the Messors Art Restoration and Conservation Workshop eat lunch at a masseria, or farm estate, in the southern Italian countryside.

And, of course, we were able to enjoy the food. Whether it was our home-cooked family-style meals at the end of a long day of work, a picnic lunch overlooking the sea, a buffet set up in a cave, or a chance to sample a restaurant in town – every meal was particular to that region and made with ingredients that were local, pure, and often picked that day. And served on real china with real silverware, no matter how rustic the setting.

It took a leap of faith for me to push myself out of my comfort zone to do this program. I knew we would be with strangers 20 years my junior and performing work for which I had no talent or experience. I did not have the comfort of TripAdvisor reviews or all the usual reassurances that we include in our travel planning.

But it turned out to be the most gratifying and absorbing vacation I’ve ever had. I am so happy I pushed myself to do it, and to have been able to give a little bit back to a country that I love.

Gigi Simeone writes from Swarthmore.

Messors (messors.com) offers three workshops next summer: Art Restoration and Conservation (June 28-July 12; $3,420), Fornello Sustainable Preservation Project (Aug. 7-18; $2,000), and Shepherds and Food Culture (Aug. 23-30; $2,800).

Travel from Philadelphia to Rome, followed by a four-hour Trenitalia train to Bari ($60), or to Naples, with a four-hour Marinobus across “the boot” to Altamura. Someone from the program will meet you at either station.

General information: viaggiareinpuglia.it/hp/en

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