Who would have believed that the squalid damp cave dwellings of the past would make Matera a major tourist attraction, a Unesco World Heritage site (1993) and even more than that, the European Capital of Culture in 2019.
Major restoration work is underway and as the EU indicates “the experience is an excellent opportunity to regenerate the city and breathe new life into the city’s culture and boost tourism.
Matera is tucked away in the corner of the little known region of Basilicata next to Puglia, so for us it was an easy 2hr drive across from our ‘trullo’ in Puglia. I had heard about these cave dwellings for years and the extraordinary beauty of the place through the Women’s Fiction Festival held for the past 12 years and from my artist friend Enrico Paolucci after his exhibition there in 2006.
Eager to understand more about the history of this amazing place I booked a fantastic local guide, Marta, who lead us through the Baroque Upper town to the panoramic site overlooking ‘i sassi’. The view was spectacular, an expanse of buildings crammed on top of each other in a maze of little alleyways and we were yet to appreciate that they were in fact built into the rocks.
Marta explained the ancient beginnings, from the 6th century BC through the middle ages when each civilisation, and monastic orders from Benedictine to Byzantine built on the past using the natural rock caves as early lodgings, stables, cellars later carving out churches, chapels and convents. By the 1800’s most of the cave areas were only used as stables or deposits and better accommodation was built above ground. In that period Matera held a certain prestige, being the Capital of the Province from the late 1600’s till 1806.
But with the removal of the Capital to Potenza and recurrent agricultural crisis the city slid into a long period of decay. The degradation was so serious that the poorest of the population were forced to use the caves as dwellings, accommodating both families and their animals until 1952. On our tour with Marta we were taken into one of these dank dark cave houses, hardly able to imagine the sufferance these families had experienced in such cramped unhygienic conditions.
Life was hard and depended on communal living as testify the communal oven that baked the enormous weekly loaf that is still baked to this day.
It was not until the 1950’s that the Government decided to move the 15,000 families to new residential quarters, not an easy task and despite associated criticisms and delays over the new housing the families were relocated. The area of ‘i sassi’ remained abandoned until the 1980’s when new funds were made available for the recuperation of this ancient site. Now the properties can be leased for 99years and the city has seen a boom in tourism ever since. Some of the ancient cave dwellings are even available for rent on Airbnb with a decidedly improved look, although they still retain the physical aspects of the past, with rarely more than one window and/or entrance so definitely not appropriate for anyone with claustrophobia!
Wandering the alleyways and hearing the history and developments of the place was fascinating, visiting the ancient Rupestrian church had me spellbound. The squalor of the past was now an inviting stone paved road to alleyways lined with creamy architecture cut into and over the rock. The ‘Stone Age’ restaurant tempts us with “panzarotti fritti’ (typical half moon pasta fried and filled with delicious mozzarella) and fresh pomegranate juice but we continue the tour
The upper town is beautifully Baroque in style, reminiscent of our time in Lecce.
Concave churches, and as many cherubs and menacing skeletons decorating the facades, together with mega cisterns still visitable below street level. There was hardly time to explore it all, an absolutely fascinating city that will merit its title of European Capital of Culture.
With tummies full and the threat of rain we headed back to our trullo, knowing full well that I will be back again, sooner or later, to explore in depth ‘i sassi’ of Matera, as well as the extensive list of places that Marta had suggested to visit next time in the Basilicata region.