September 23, 2014

The truth about Italy's caves town, Matera

Matera, Italy
Universally known as the city of Rocks ('sassi' in Italian), Matera, a small town in Basilicata, south Italy, has an appealing charm that over the years has inspired artists and writers, from poet Giovanni Pascoli and Carlo Levi, who described the rough and wild nature of these places in his famous work "Christ Stopped at Eboli", up to directors such as Pier Paolo Pasolini and Mel Gibson, who shot here his film The Passion of the Christ.
Why did all them came to this place? It is a unique city in the world, with a modern side and an old one whose architecture gives the traveler an incredible sensation of jumping in a very ancient past.

But I will tell you why this is an incorrect sensation...

In the modern side of Matera there are some buildings of great artistic value, such as the church of San Domenico in which, in spite of the numerous reconstructions, stand still traits of Romanesque style, the church of San Francesco d’Assisi, characterized by splendid decorations in Lecce Baroque style, and Palazzo del Sedile.
While in the old town, the uniqueness of this place lays in the so-called 'sassi'. They are actually stone houses built into the rock face, that have been inhabited for thousands of years.
Matera, Italy

The characteristic houses dug into the tuff are a perfect example of inter-penetration between man and nature, so as to merit the recognition by UNESCO of Archaeological and natural park of the rock civilization and universal art heritage. The original nucleus of Matera is placed on the sides of two natural basins, Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso: here houses, dug into the tufa rock, follow the unevenness of the ground, giving the town an irregular appearance.
When entering the maze of alleys and stairways you can meet baroque palaces, Byzantine churches and a host of cave-dwellings, settlements that date back to Neolithic times. At the top stands the Cathedral, built in the thirteenth century in Romanesque style, which dominates the so-called "Civita", the heart of the ancient city.
The cave-houses are an unparalleled attraction: apparently extravagant, these homes take advantage of the insulating properties of the tuff, keeping temperatures cool in summer and warm in winter. Another characteristic feature of Matera are the rock-hewn churches, which are also carved into the tufa and scattered on the sides of the Gravina and of the secondary valleys: of all them 155 have been surveyed today.

But, while the town has now become a glittering gem of the region of Basilicata and the whole south Italy, it wasn't always this way.
Matera, Italy

The living conditions in these houses were cramped and dire, as 10 or 11 people usually lived a small 'house' (which was more like a cave) and shared their living space with animals. They had no heat or sanitation, and if that situation wasn't bad enough, they also used to conserve the animal excrement to use as fuel.
You may think these rocks are just an attraction that remembers us of a very old time, when these conditions where rather normal for poor people. But here is the mistake: unbelievably, this was the situation till the 1930s and 1940s. This extreme poverty here was finally brought to light during this period and a relocation programme was put into action, with sassi-dwellers being moved to newer parts of Matera.
For a long time the caves remained abandoned, but in the 80s a revival truly began, as some of the stone houses were bought and restructured into bars, restaurants and accommodations for tourists who wanted to live the experience. In fact, in 1993 the town of Matera actually became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

PS. If you are planning a trip to Matera, you may need a car! Click here to check out car rental prices!

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