Matera, in Basilicata, southern Italy, was a weird and wonderful trip. It’s one of the oldest human settlements in the world and as such, the city is comparable to the sandstone city of Petra in Jordan.
Matera is stupendous: a timeless, mystical place that has been nicknamed “Little Jerusalem” for its resemblance to a middle-eastern city.
Matera is famous in Italy for its “Sassi”, windowless dwellings carved out of rock that date back to prehistoric times which were inhabited consistently up to the 20th century. It’s thought that Italy’s first human settlers, a troglodyte community, lived in the Sassi of Matera.
“Sassi” on one side of Matera’s deep ravine:
Matera brought shame and scandal to Italy in 1945, when Carlo Levi exposed the living conditions in the Sassi. Levi wrote of extended families living in airless “black holes” together with sheep, goats and pigs, the children naked or in rags, prematurely wrinkled and skeletal. With its widespread misery, filth and disease, this forgotten backwater resembled “a city hit by the plague”.
Inhabitants of the old Sassi:
Below: walking near the vertical ravine, “La Gravina”, above which lies the city and its Sassi. The views from the signposted “punto panoramico” at the other side of this chasm (a short drive out of town) are incredible.
An old “Sasso”:
Matera was known in the following decades as “the embarrassment of Italy”. The inhabitants of the Sassi had to be forcibly rehoused as the endemic malaria and other diseases of the slum were eradicated.
Now, in a very modern reversal of fortunes, Matera is set to be European City of Culture in 2019, and some of its Sassi – once the dark caves of Levi’s wizened children, their fly-blown eyes blinded by trachoma – are luxury boutique hotels.
Church carved out of the rock face, Matera:
View of Matera across the ravine:
Matera from one of the many vantage points around the city:
Below: Church of Sant’Agostino
Below: where does the rock end and the city begin?
Below: Chiesa San Pietro Caveoso
There are brilliant walks along the opposite side of La Gravina:
Inside the city:
Church door in Matera:
There are endless panoramic routes, walkways and photo opportunities around the city:
View of Matera:
Facing the mysterious Chiesa di Santa Maria De Idris, carved into a rocky cluster at the top of the city and dating from at least 300 AD. These ancient “rock” churches are known as “Chiese rupestri”:
Looking towards the old Sassi:
View from outside the city:
From across the ravine:
The city at night:
Matera became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993 and since then has become steadily more popular.
It was still rough around the edges when we visited in 2005. Looking to try a local wine in a restaurant, my Italian companion asked for a wine list and our (approximately) 12-year-old waitress replied: “What’s that?”. It wasn’t your average snooty Italian city at all.
The local food is hearty and healthy: lots of very fresh tomato sauces and olive oil. Matera is proud of its connections with the film industry and the chef of Antica Trattoria Lucana has immortalized Mel Gibson, who filmed The Passion of the Christ in Matera, in one of his pasta dishes:
We ate at Antica Trattoria Lucana, I can recommend it (I didn’t have their Mel Gibson dish though).
I would love to return to Matera and stay in the renovated Sassi in the heart of the city – there wasn’t much available in 2005: we stayed in a private room in the house of a strange chap who lived outside the main city, I can’t even remember how we found it.
Fly to Bari then rent a car or take a train or bus to Matera. Go now, before prices rise in anticipation of the city’s stint as Capital of Culture in 2019. Stay in a Sasso.
It’s weird and wonderful and not quite like anything else in Italy.
Mel Gibson being un-Christlike in Matera: