Tucked into a deep ravine of the forgotten province of Basilicata, way down in the instep of Italy’s boot, the ancient city of Matera in not an easy place to get to.
I leave the northern metropolis of Milan on an early morning high-speed train that propels me southward through Bologna, Florence, Rome and Naples before ending six hours and 800 kilometers (500 miles) later in Salerno, on shore of the Tyrrhenian Sea. From here, it’s a 200-kilometer (125-mile), three-hour bus ride back in time through the rugged rural landscape of the Basilicata province to one of the oldest living cities in the world, the Sassi (or stones) of Matera.
A Living Troglodyte City
The bisque-colored honeycomb city is anchored to the face of two natural amphitheaters, Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso, within a towering ravine carved from the limestone plateau by the once powerful Gravina River. These Sassi have been inhabited since Palaeolitic times, but what makes Matera’s Città Sotterranea (Underground City) different from other cave settlements around the Mediterranean Basin is that the descendants of these early settlers never left. Rather, they dug in. By the Bronze Age (second millennium BCE), newly equipped with rudimentary metal tools, they began digging the myriad natural caves. And here they remained, a rural community gradually burrowing deeper. The Sassi developed in layers, through waves from Greek, Roman and Byzantine to Medieval and Renaissance invaders.
Roman High Grounds
The Romans, as was their wont, constructed defensive walls around the original nucleus of la Civita (city) on the highest ground between the two Sassi. Theirs became the core of the institutional, religious and commercial district that expanded along the Piano (plateau) that had until then been used for agriculture and water collection. This modern city would be barely noticeable today, if not for its 13th century Romanesque cathedral towering over the skyline.
By the 8th century, Matera began to overshoot its fortified boundaries and the occupation of the caverns intensified. Digging began in earnest. Over time the inhabitants began using the excavated material to build structures that jutted outward from the subterranean rooms with facades that looked much like that of traditional houses. Thus began the stacked cityscape we know today. Winding narrow lanes, alleys and stairways can be the roof of the houses below as well as the entryway of the one above. Seen from the outside, the homes seem small, until you step in. Then the space can vary from a simple room to a warren of vast spaces on multiple levels linked together by passageways.
Since the entire face of the ravine is pitted with caves, neighborhoods clustered around their own rock-hewn church. Some of these still dominate the Sassi. In Sasso Barisano, the bi-level complex of the Chiesa di Madonna Delle Virtù and San Nicola dei Greci is noted for its lovely 11th and 12th century frescoes. And Santa Maria de Idris, carved into a rock pinnacle overhanging the ravine, dominates Sasso Caveoso. Its few remaining frescoes are quite damaged, but a narrow passage to the left of the altar leads down to the crypt of San Giovanni in Monterone and its better-preserved artwork.
By the 8th century, the barren western wall of the Murgia Plateau across the ravine, became a refuge for Basilian (Orthodox Christian) monks fleeing persecutions in Asia Minor. They excavated a number of rupestrian churches, and decorated them with frescoes. The most famous is the majestic cavern known as the Crypt of Original Sin, considered one of the finest examples of ruspestrian art in Italy for its 9th century cycle of Byzantine frescoes depicting the story of Creation and the veneration of the Virgin.
Into the Abyss
Little changes for centuries in the Sassi where people live in primordial simplicity, working the fields, raising livestock and seeing to domestic chores. Until one of the many reshufflings of history makes Matera a provincial capital (1663-1806). Increased prestige and activity cause a rise in population. The wealthier Materani move up, literally, to the newer town on the Piano, leaving subsistence farmers and artisans behind. By the early 20th century, the population of the caves is estimated at well over 15,000.
Overcrowding in the Sassi and the ongoing development of the Piano cause the collapse of the ancient rain and spring water collection system that until now has brought water to the homes and small hanging gardens. With less farmland available, the lifestyle of the Sassi increasingly lags behind that of the rest of the world. Large families are living in squalid conditions alongside their livestock in crowded caves with no running water, sewage or electricity. Dysentery and malaria are rife. Infant mortality tops 50 percent.
Yet the situation continues unheeded, until the 1945 release of Carlo Levi’s memoir “Christ stopped at Eboli” brings it to international attention. Levi is a physician, artist and writer from a wealthy northern family, exiled in Basilicata in 1935-1936 for his anti-fascist views. Eboli is a small town of Campania, near the Tyrrhenian coast. The title of the book comes from a local expression implying that the people of this remote corner of Basilica were bypassed by Christianity and by history itself. In the face of public outrage, the government begins to take notice. By 1950 the Sassi are pronounced a “national disgrace “ and a chain of drastic actions are set in motion that will have a swift and dramatic impact on the city and the peoples’ lives. From 1953 to 1968, all the residents of the Sassi are forcibly relocated into modern housing in new suburbs on top of the cliff.
From National Shame to International Fame
The Sassi become state property, and within a couple of decades an archeological no-man’s-land. Some politicians view them as evidence of a shameful past to be erased, going as far as proposing their destruction to prevent them from being reoccupied. Meanwhile, the deteriorating landscape resulting from the collapse of abandoned homes and churches sparks a local grassroots movement to pressure the government to allow the rehabilitation of the caves, focusing on sanitation, urbanization and incentives to repopulate the site. Thanks to this decisive public action, and the recognition in 1993 of the Sassi as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, over 50 percent are now inhabited by over 3,000 residents. Matera is subsequently selected as European Capital of Culture for 2019, making it the host city for a number of cultural events that will raise its profile internationally, and kick further restoration into high gear.
Throughout the City of Stones, and especially in Sasso Barisano, Sassi boutique hotels, bed and breakfasts, restaurants, artisan shops and galleries now welcome visitors. Big swaths of Sasso Ceveoso, the oldest part of the city, are still untouched, but they afford a compelling insight into the past.
It’s not only UNESCO that considers Matera “the most outstanding intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region.” The international movie industry has long found the Sassi an ideal stand-in for ancient Jerusalem in its biblical-time films. Christ has finally come to Matera, at least a half-dozen times by now, most famously in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” (1964), Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (2004), and the recently released Garth Davis’ “Mary Magdalene” (2018).
Good to Know
- Getting there – Matera is not the easiest place to reach (but well worth a bit of extra effort). By Plane – the nearest major airport is Naples, 300 kilometers (185 miles) to the northeast. Bari, with its small regional airport is 60 kilometers (25 miles) to the west. From there, bus is the best option. By train – Bari and Salerno are the two stations closest to Matera. There are two major rail service companies operating within Italy. Bari is served by Trenitalia, and Salerno by Italo. Note – from Salerno, Italo provides its dedicated Italobus service to connect the Salerno train station to Matera’s main bus station, on a schedule synchronized with train arrivals. By Bus – Several major bus lines link Matera to most major cities in Italy (and smaller ones in-between), with departures throughout the day. Check with the Matera Tourism office or your hotel reception for the one that best fits your schedule and destination.
- Getting around – The only way to get around Matera is on foot. Non-resident cars are prohibited from the historic center, and aside from a couple of narrow roads at the periphery of the Sassi where cab can pick up or drop off, come prepared to walk up and down, wherever you are going.
- Staying – Since most of the places of interest in Matera are within the relatively compact historic center, the best way to experience the city is to stay in a cave. Over the past decade, with Matera now an established tourist destination, a number of boutique hotels and bed and breakfasts at all price-points have opened throughout the Sassi. I stayed at the Hotel Residence San Giorgio Via Fiorentini 259, 75100 Matera, in the easily accessible lower part of Sasso Barisano. My spacious vaulted “cave” with its private entrance and small terrace, consisted of a living and dining area with a well-appointed kitchenette and a modern bedroom loft over the bathroom. The suite was serviced daily and all the complimentary breakfast staples, including a fresh fruit basket, replenished. There was reliable WiFi service throughout the cave. The reception office was located two minutes away, opened from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm. The staff could not have been more helpful and gracious. Definitely a keeper! Contact: tel. +39 0835 33 45 83, email firstname.lastname@example.org
- Visiting – Wear comfortable shoes, open your eyes and keep walking. A tourist guidebook should be sufficient to help you get your bearings and point you in the general direction of the main attractions. Then it’s perfectly safe and easy to explore the city independently. Should you prefer a guided tour, there are various organizations and individuals on the Piano offering tours in English. On the western side of the ravine, the Crypt of the Original Sin is located in Contrada Perrapenta, 14 kilometers (8.5 miles) south of Matera. Visit is by advanced reservation only; guides and shuttle services are available from agencies on the Piano.