Sixty years ago, Matera was Italy’s national disgrace, “la vergogna
Today, Matera is the 2019 European Capital of Culture, its once filthy cave dwellings turned into elegant, even luxurious accommodations, restaurants, art galleries, and spas. Once, Matera was synonymous with poverty, now it is a radical Cinderella story if ever there was one.
HISTORY OF MATERA
Located in the arch of Italy’s boot, in the province of Basilicata (also known as Lucerna), Matera sits just across the border from Puglia. Matera’s geology is the key to understanding the city. It sits on a ridge with deep canyons and river gorges on either side. Caves in soft limestone and volcanic rock (known as tufa), riddle the flanks. Easy to dig out and hidden away, the area provided shelter and security to early inhabitants.
Apart from Petra in Jordan, Matera is the oldest, continuously inhabited location in the world. Nomad populations first settled in caves about 15,000 BCE during the Paleolithic through the Neolithic Ages.
Occupation of the caves increased in the 8th century CE when the city outgrew its space inside the defensive walls built by the Romans and spread onto the hillside called the Civita. Here, the rich and nobles built themselves ornate palazzi while the peasants and farmers (or Troglodytes, as they call themselves) had to make do with the cave dwellings in the Sassi, where they lived with their animals, barely eking out a living.
Various waves of invaders included Byzantines, Lombards, Normans, Spaniards, and finally, the French in the person of Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, appointed as governor of the area.
He began Matera’s downward spiral by transferring the province’s headquarters to Potenza, some 60 miles away. The decline intensified after Italy’s reunification in 1861 when the creation of the new nation-state virtually overlooked the south of the country.
As poverty deepened, thousands of Materans chose emigration over despair, depopulating the region. Agriculture, the mainstay of the economy, faltered.
THE LEGACY OF CARLO LEVI AND MATERA
It took one man, Carlo Levi, and his book, CHRIST STOPPED AT EBOLI, to put Matera on the map of Italy’s conscience. In 1935, Mussolini exiled Levi (an author, artist, and doctor) to a town near Matera for his anti-Fascist views.
Levi’s descriptions of the town and its poor superstition-driven people resembled a journey through Dante’s circles of hell. As the title of his book suggests, Christianity and civilization stopped at Eboli (a town near Naples) and never made it as far south as Matera.
In the 1950s, based on Levi’s book, the Italian Government decided to address the situation, forcibly removing the 16,000 inhabitants to new housing projects farther up the hill. Until the 1990s only a few hardy souls and many ghosts remained in the old abandoned town.
UNESCO’s 1993 selection of Matera as a world heritage site, in part, catalyzed the town’s rehabilitation. Today, Matera consists of two parts, the more “modern” part of the city on top of the hill and the ancient Sassi districts below.
Many visitors are under the impression that Matera’s cave dwellings are called “Sassi.” However, the name (which means ‘rocks’ in Italian) refers to two neighborhoods of stone dwellings in the town — Sasso Caveoso (the name of a mountain) and Sasso Barisano (a name for the north wind).
As you look down on the Sassi from any one of the vantage points above, the stone dwellings spread out ahead of you higgledy-piggledy. It is a humbling sight.
The 1,500 dwellings do not always look like caves, especially if they have been enhanced with walls and doors leading into the depths. Carved into the soft strata, they are
Old stone staircases, small courtyards, and piazzas fill every nook and cranny. Apart from a few potted plants and some green pear cacti, not a single blade of grass or tree is in sight in the Sassi.
In winter, snow, and ice encrust the golden yellow structures making them look like giant frosted cakes.
Several cave museums provide a sense of what it must have been like to live here. Inside, the typical cave dwelling consists of a living area where the family slept all together, the “kitchen” nothing more than a circle of stones and a pot hanging over the fire.
As you move further back into the depths of the sloping cave, you find the stable where the animals lived. They provided the warmth in the frigid winters. Tool implements that look as if they came from the Stone Age hang on the walls.
While the museums provide striking visuals, with bright lights illuminating the displays, it is impossible to imagine the smells, sounds and feeling of living in the dark.
THE CHURCHES OF MATERA
Throughout history, men have killed each other over their religions. As gods replaced gods, places of worship for one religion were converted to reflect new ideas. For example, when Byzantine monks escaped from Turkey in the 8th and 9th centuries to avoid having to convert or be executed, they settled near Matera.
While many of the old caves became their homes and their places of worship, others were hand-carved by the monks. In some, tiny crosses are etched into the wall. The monks continued to dig them out after every mass. You can see how old they are by the depths of the tiny crosses. The deeper the carving, the more masses were celebrated.
Like the houses, the churches of Matera are also dug into the pale limestone. There are seven “Rupestrian” churchs (wholly contained or carved in the rock) in Matera with another 150 in the surrounding countryside. These types of churches were a common feature of Paleo-Christianity (the early Christian church) in Basilicata and Puglia. Many still contain the vibrant colorful frescoes typical of the Byzantine era, although many more have been ravaged by time. Unfortunately, most churches forbid photography inside.
TIPS FOR VISITING MATERA
We usually are independent travelers, preferring to research a location and then discover and photograph it on our terms. In Matera, however, we find it exceptionally useful to hire a local guide, Cosimo, whose parents and grandparents lived in the caves until the 1950s. His passion and wealth of knowledge bring the Sassi and their inhabitants to life. As Cosimo says, “The Sassi
He takes us through the two areas, narrating as we go, pointing out significant sites. Then he leaves us to continue on our own before we head up to the historic center on the top of the hill.
There is no better way to explore Matera than on foot, wandering up and down steep, narrow staircases, stopping to visit one of the many churches peeking into some of the cave dwellings. Getting lost is part of the adventure.
Sasso Barisano is the larger of the two Sassi districts. Many of the cave dwellings have already been converted into modern-day hotels, restaurants, etc. Here you will find the Churches of Sant’Agostino, San Pietro Barisano, the Madonna
If you have time only to visit one church, stop at San Pietro Barisano. You walk down to the entrance from above, almost touching the bell tower as you descend. The 16th-century frescos of various saints still retain their color and vibrancy. Inside the church, you can even see the chapel where the corpses of monks were drained and temporarily stored before burial — the Putridarium.
Sasso Caveoso is considered to be the older and wilder area that grew up around the Church of San Pietro Caveoso. The
If you have limited time, don’t miss the Church of Santa Maria de Idris. It is in the center of the Sasso Caveoso, located inside a large mass of limestone rock on top of which stands a metal cross. There is a tiny bell tower on one side. Colorful frescos fill the interior.
One one of the courtyards behind Santa Maria de Idris is the Barbarian Cemetery that Levi cited when he described “the dead are on top of the living.” The remains have been removed for burial elsewhere, leaving only the indentations where the tombs once stood.
THE UPPER CITY
A 16th-century fort/castle, numerous churches, including Matera’s Cathedral, characterize the historic center on the hill. It is worth the climb to the top to visit them.
The recently restored Cathedral dates back to the 13th century, its Romanesque structure (restored in the Baroque era) filled with interesting wooden sculptures and paintings by local artists.
Also of interest is the Church of the Purgatory, its wooden entrance door lined with 36 panels, each with skulls and crossbones, some with crowns or other paraphernalia, to show that all are equal in death.
THE MURGIA NATIONAL PARK
While Matera presents unique photographic opportunities wherever you go, some of the best views of the town are to be found on the other side of the Gravina River. Follow the numerous trails around the hill to the primitive caves and churches. Across the gorge, the city spreads out before you, crowned by the Cathedral bell tower.
If you are driving, take the Taranto-Laterza Road, and follow the signs for the Chiese Rupestri. This road takes you to the Belvedere, the location for the crucifixion in Mel Gibson’s “Passion of Christ,” where Matera was used to depict old Jerusalem.
Be sure to return in the evening as the lights come on in the various dwellings when the city takes on a magical, golden glow.
As the 2019 European Capital of Culture, Matera is sure to become a must-see on the visitor checklist for Italy. The challenge for the city leaders is to avoid turning Matera into another Disneyesque location, like Venice or the Cinque Terre, where tourists outnumber the residents and the sustainability of tourism is at risk.
IF YOU GO
Before you even travel to Matera, be sure to read Carlo Levi’s CHRIST STOPPED AT EBOLI for an understanding of what Matera once was. If you don’t have the time to read the book, then visit Casa Noha, where a 25-minute multimedia exhibit explains the story of the city.
Matera is relatively isolated. There is no airport and only a local train station. Visitors must fly or take the train to Bari, and then rent a car and drive the 30-odd miles across Puglia on winding country roads.
You can also travel from Bari by train from the Bari FAL Station (across the street from the central railroad station). It takes about 1.5 hours to get to Matera. Then walk 15 minutes from the train station to the Sassi.
If you drive, be aware that you will only be able to park in the modern part of the city. There are parking lots near the Fort as well as on the outskirts of town. If you are staying overnight, check with your hotel to see what your parking options might be.
While most visitors come for just a day, spending a night in Matera is a unique experience. If you are not claustrophobic, consider staying in one of the newly renovated “cave” hotels or Bed and Breakfasts. To hire a guide, contact Matera Official Tour Guides. You can opt to join an organized visit or have a private guide take you around the town.
Visit Allegria Photos for more images of Matera.