The underground beauty of Matera
August, 12 2019
Ever heard of Matera? This unique southern Italian city is a fascinating destination for your next city break. Matera has been chosen as one of the two European Cultural Capitals for 2019. And rightly so, because a visit to Matera is a unique experience! We want to tell you why. Get to know the city where some people live in 9,000-year old homes!
What makes Matera so special, is that it partly consists of cave dwellings, known as ‘Sassi’. The inhabitants of this region have carved houses in to the rocks since prehistoric times. The cave dwellings are located on the steep slopes of the ‘Gravina di Matera’ ravine. The old Sassi remained inhabited for thousands of years. Often because the residents simply couldn’t afford other houses. This makes Matera one of the oldest cities that has been permanently inhabited. The simplest homes were often little more than a hole in the ground. Other homes used carved stone to create a beautiful facade. Even complete churches, monasteries and homes for the nobility were created in the rocks. Not as strange as it may seem, as the cave houses remain nice and cool inside. And – as you’ll experience for yourself if you walk the steep streets on a hot summer’s day – this is an absolute necessity.
By the 1950s though, many of the Sassi had turned into slums. Hygiene was poor and there was a lot of poverty and illness. People lived in small rooms that they sometimes had to share with their cattle. Many homes were in fact uninhabitable by twentieth-century standards. By 1952, the Italian government decided that this was no longer acceptable. The inhabitants of the Sassi were forced to relocate, and the cave dwellings fell into disrepair. During a tour or a guided walk, you can see for yourself how the poorest residents used to live here. It is quite shocking.
The rediscovery of the Sassi
Have you ever slept in a cave dwelling? In Matera you can, because many of the old cave dwellings now have a new purpose – they’re hotels. The switch from slum to cultural attraction began in the late 1990s. In 1993, the Sassi were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After that, there was increasing interest in the old houses and structures. New residents were allowed to move in, provided they renovated their new houses. Many of the cave dwellings were renovated, and then turned into galleries, cafes, hotels or bars. These days, the residents of the Sassi are no longer poor. The neighbourhoods with the cave dwellings have transformed: from being ‘Italy’s Shame’ to a unique place to visit. So it’s not all that surprising that many of the old houses became tourist destinations – from souvenir shops to five star hotels.
Wander through alleyways and cave churches
A voyage of discovery through the Sassi is best done on foot. This is the best way to experience the maze of streets, alleyways and houses, with the roof of one house often serving as the floor of the house above. So make sure you wear a pair of shoes that are comfortable to walk in, and in which you can easily climb up and down. Save the high heels for a short walk to a restaurant or terrace! Keep in mind that some of the steep roads and stairs can get slippery when it rains. It can also get very hot when the sun is out, making all the climbing even more tiring.
There are two Sassi neighbourhoods: the Sassi Caveoso and the Sassi Barisano – there’s enough to see in both of them. You can wander around on your own taking it all in, or decide to take a guided walk. Here are a few things you should definitely try to find if you want to fully experience the beauty and history of Matera.
• Casa Noha: this museum was once the home of the noble Noha family. You can admire some of the original rooms, and there’s a multimedia exhibition about the history of the Sassi.
• Enjoy the view: part of the city was built against the walls of the gorge, so there are many differences in height. And that ensures fantastic views. You can visit the San Pietro Caveoso church. From the square you can see out over the ravine. Another viewpoint is at the Belvedere Piazetta Pascoli which offers a wonderful view over the two Sassi neighbourhoods. Just outside of the city you can enjoy a fantastic view of Matera from the Belvedere di Murgia Timone. In reality, the entire city is very photogenic! So keep your camera ready.
• Rock churches: a visit to Matera is not complete without admiring the impressive rock churches. You can visit the Greek Orthodox church, Madonna dell’Idrise and the crypt of San Giovanni. Here you view the old frescoes. The other cave churches are the Santa Lucia alle Malve and the San Pietro Barisano.
Even more to see in Matera
• The Cathedral on the Piazza del Duomo: this thirteenth-century cathedral (for a change, built entirely above ground) was built in the Roman style. Be sure to go inside to admire the baroque interior.
• The underground water reservoir of Palombaro Lungo: this large, fairytale-like structure is located under a square. You can visit it as part of a guided tour. Tip: there are a limited number of English-language excursions each day, so be sure to book in time if you want to participate.
• The Museo della Scultura Contemporanea Matera (Musma): here you will find modern sculptures exhibited in an ancient cave dwelling. A remarkable combination indeed!