We were unprepared for the effect that Matera would have on us. As one of the oldest cities in the world, its life’s breath has risen and fallen. However, the rest of the world was oblivious to the gradual suffocation of the ‘Sassi’. Death, disease, and horrific deprivation brought this once fine-tuned, prosperous city of Matera to within a hair’s breadth of certain death.
First Glance of Matera
Looking for camper stops on our route from Bari to Naples, Matera came up as a good option. After some brief research we learnt that there were some interesting cave dwellings there. Little did we know of Matera’s amazing story.
Our first views of the city were from Murgia National Park, on the opposite side of the ravine. Our camper site, at Masseria Radogna, was near a panoramic viewpoint, Belvedere di Murgia Timone, so we decided to stop and have a quick look. The view of Matera across the ravine was spectacular. Seeing it in its entirety from afar was fantastic as the intricate network of caves really stood out. So not only was the view great but the panoramic viewpoint had a large car park, which is music to your ears if you are driving a large campervan.
Our Camper Stop Near Matera
The camper stop was in the Murgia National park and was run by the Parco della Murgia Materana. A visitor and Environmental Education Centre was also on the site, supervised by an extremely knowledgeable, friendly and helpful guy called Paolo. From this centre, visitors could get maps and details of the many trails in the area. The trails offer panoramic views across the ravines and lead you to explore the rock churches and pre-historic villages. There was also a small museum and the possibility to watch short films about Matera and the Rupestrian Churches. As the roads in Matera are extremely narrow, and our van wasn’t, it was very fortunate that Paolo also offers a lift into the city at 9am and a pick up at 3pm, all at €3 per person.
Matera in Brief
In the region of Basilicata, in Southern Italy, lies the city of Matera. A city whose history dates back over 9000 years to pre-historic times. Matera, once the proud, prosperous capital of Basilicata, was at one time, known as the ‘Shame of Italy’. However, this once destitute city has been reborn. It has risen from the depths of poverty, desperation and misery and is still progressing. In 2014, the European Union awarded Matera the coveted title of European Cultural Capital of 2019.
We visited this exceptional city in January 2018 and works were already in full swing to have it completely ready for the spotlight and influx of tourism by 2019. Whether these changes alter the rawness of the ambience and the emotional empathy Matera elicits today … That story is still to be told.
The city of Matera itself, is built on a rocky outcrop above the vast limestone ravine known as the ‘Gravina of Matera’. There are three main sections to the ancient part of the city. Civita, the central part, Sasso Caveosa and Sasso Barisano. The old quarters of the town consist of a labyrinth of cave dwellings (Sassi) built into the soft limestone rock. The roofs of some becoming the foundations for the next.
On the day of our visit, the mist filled the ravine. We wandered through the winding small lanes, alleys and stairways of this eerily haunting place.The crumbling facades and cramped cave dwellings, together with its history of poverty, evoked a sadness, only enhanced by the faded, monochromatic colours of the buildings.
Murgia National Park
The landscape around Matera, in the Murgia National Park, is characterised by deep ravines and vast highland plateaus. Hidden within the nooks and crannies of this wild landscape are ancient caves, rock churches, fortified farmhouses and shepherd tracks, all providing rich evidence of the traditional human settlement that evolved alongside the natural environment.
Within the Murgia National Park, is the Park of the Rupestrian Churches, where there are over 150 ancient rock churches, with origins mainly from the Middle Ages. Through out the centuries some of the churches have also been used as homes or animal shelters
In 1993, UNESCO added both the Sassi and the Park of the Rupestrian Churches to the World Heritage List.
Walking across this rugged landscape with the view across to the pale, almost sepia looking buildings evoked a biblical feel. It is hardly surprising that the filming of the controversial movie, ‘The Passion of Christ’ took place here.
Typical Cave Dwelling in Matera
In a typical cave dwelling, a family, with on-average six children, lived with their animals. In a small alcove of the cave would be the animal stall. This often contained a mule or horse, pigs, chickens and other farm animals. There were no toilet facilities, only a ‘cantero’, a terracotta pot with a wooden lid kept by the bed.
The Cave Dwelling of Vico Solitario, a museum within one of the caves, displays typical period furnishings and artisan tools. It provides an interesting insight into the peasant way of life within these dark, cramped caves.
History of Matera
We would recommend a visit to ‘Casa Noha’ to absorb a real historical sense of Matera. Through films displayed on the walls of this donated, old home the viewer is taken through an extraordinary journey of the history of Matera. Each of the three rooms presents a different perspective and focus.
Here you learn that over time, Matera evolved into a well-balanced, insular and self-sufficient town. It was in harmony with its environment. In the 18th century however, things changed. Trading increased, many new immigrants arrived and as a result, over time Matera became overpopulated. This resulted in the breakdown of its sustainability. This story of prosperity to poverty portrayed an emotionally evoking recount of Matera’s rich history.
Matera – ‘The Shame of Italy’
By the 1940’s many thousands of people were living in atrocious conditions in the Sassi. We watched harrowing footage at Casa Noha, showing families cramped together with their animals. Disease was rife and there was no running water or heating. The infant mortality rate was 50% .
Luckily, in the early 1950’s, Matera’s plight became public. This was largely due to the influential writings of Carlo Levi. He had visited the Sassi and was horrified at the living conditions. This sparked a reaction within the media and Matera became known as ‘The Shame of Italy’. Politicians now took an interest in the plight of the Sassi.
In 1952, the government ordered that the Sassi homes were unfit for human habitation. They moved about 15,000 of the population to new quarters, in the more modern part of the city.
The abandonment of the area lead to further degradation of the Sassi but in the 1980’s people started to return. A group of young people were lobbying for the restoration of the Sassi. They had found abandoned archeological treasures, including the ancient rock churches and believed that this city should not become forgotten. Eventually their determination and persistence won through. The new Matera was about to be reborn.
The Future of Matera
For Matera, a city that has worn the strains of humanity, its future shape is still yet to unfold. The award of the European Culture Capital for 2019 will breathe new life into the city. It will likely aid the regeneration further, boost tourism and raise its international profile. Matera has already been listed as one of the top ten cities to visit in 2018 by Lonely Planet.
Matera is emerging from its cocoon, so it is worth visiting before the rest of the world finds out about it!
After finishing my Law Degree I decided to become a teacher. I am passionate about teaching, learning and most of all, about inspiring others. Now, as a writer and blogger, I love sharing our travels and our musings on life’s journey. I hope, through these, we can play a part in inspiring you to do whatever ‘satisfies your soul’.