Caves to Culture
In southern Italy, Matera is one of the oldest inhabited communities on earth. Some of its distinctive troglodyte caverns are being bought back to life as eateries and hotels whilst the mediaeval and baroque parts are perfect to explore on foot
Article by Mark Nicholls
The breeze is laden with the scent of thyme, brushed off the plants growing beside the footpath and swirled into the air to lightly perfume our advance. We were on foot, walking towards the ancient city of Matera across the Murgia di Timone, which takes its name from the herb which grows all around. Ahead is the Gravina, the name of the ravine and the river which flows through it.
From a distance, cave homes pock the gorge side – once home to thousands of families – as the soaring tower of St Eustachio’s Cathedral rises above, acting as a beacon, drawing us closer as we meander along the trail. Approaching the citadel on foot across the rocky plateau, the Baroque buildings are dominant. Yet while the 16th century squares, the alleys, courtyards and cobbled paved streets, churches and cathedrals, draw the eye, it is the ancient ‘sassi’ of Sasso Barisano and Sasso di Caveoso tumbling away below that command curiosity.
A UNESCO-listed troglodyte quarter with origins dating back to the prehistoric era, ‘sassi’ means stones – not just caves but houses constructed from the caves – and show why Matera is one of the oldest inhabited communities on earth. Its residents lived in the damp, unhealthy caverns for several millennia until the 1950s when the Italian government declared them unfit for human habitation. Abandoned, they lay derelict for decades as citizens were re-homed in modern, some may argue characterless, apartments but some of these cave dwellings have now been brought back to life again as homes, cafes and hotels.
The view across the Gravina is a spectacular introduction to Matera, a city in the Basilicata region of southern Italy, just above the better-known Puglia.
It is, however, a city that will gain resonance in the months ahead as it prepares to take on the mantle of European Capital of Culture 2019 (along with Plovdiv in Bulgaria).
You can continue the walk towards Matera and descend into the gorge and climb up the other side into the city, though note that the route is not always open, so you may have to drive some of the way. But don’t be too despondent; you won’t be disappointed once you arrive in this ancient enclave where crafted, intricate Baroque architecture and rock-hewn cave dwellings stand incongruously side by side.
Once inside Matera – also known as “la città Sotterranea” (the Subterranean City) because of the houses carved out from the rock – it is a maze of wonderful baroque and mediaeval squares, narrow passageways and courtyards, restaurants, ice cream parlours and shops, sitting above the sassi. The pallor of the stone is mesmerising; pale and warm, unlike the dampness of the cave homes that you can still enter and experience, and then begin to understand just how unhealthy they were to live in.
Some have been modernised and created into hotels like the 35-room Hotel Sassi, which we checked in to. I have to say, the view across Sasso Barisano from my window toward the cathedral was marvellous. Bleached in orange with the lights of evening, it is equally mesmerising at dawn across the pallid stone and moss-covered roof tiles below.
The newer, 16th century part of the city – the capital of Basilicata – is dominated by the cathedral and fortress and is perfect for exploring on foot. Renowned for films made here from Wonder Woman to Mel Gibson’s controversial depiction of Christ, we wandered through alleys and passages and explored some of the sassi. Ushered by our guide into the Crypt of St Andrew’s burrowed into the ravine down 13 metres, the rock-hewn church dates from the 12th century and is one of some 150 churches in the town, the Murgia and surrounding plateau.
The courtyards – vicinato – are typical of the neighbourhoods where people lived close together. Nearby, a cave house is replicated. Inside it is damp; place your hand on the bedsheets and you feel the moisture, moisture that would seep into the bones of its inhabitants, affecting their health and longevity. No wonder life expectancy and wellbeing were so low in this part of the community.
The square of Piazzo del Sedile, from the 15th century, overlooks Sasso Barisano and the Monastery of St Agostino, while Piazza Duomo is older and hosts the 13th century cathedral dedicated to Madonna della Beaune and Santi Eustachio. The main square of Piazza Vittoria Veneto is more recent, dating from the 18th century. Meanwhile, the Cistern Palomboro Lungo is the second biggest in Europe after Istanbul and contained five million litres of water which served the community until the 1920s.
It is this fantastic architecture that will form the backdrop to the numerous events Matera will host as a 2019 European Capital of Culture, with a full programme of cultural events and activities set to be announced.
Southern Italy is an area growing in popularity as a must-go destination. Below Basilicata is Puglia, a rolling landscape of white-washed towns, and ancient Massimo (fortified farmhouses) dotted amid thousands of acres of olive trees, and a rugged coastline. It is also famed for its iconic trulli buildings – traditional dry stone huts with a conical roof – particularly in the town of Alberobello.
Matera Capital of Culture: www.matera-basilicata2019.it/en/
Mark visited southern Italy through Explore, which specialises in small group holidays, on an eight-day Taste of Puglia trip. From £1,295 per person including flights, transfers and some meals, the trip includes pasta making, olive oil and wine tastings, and visits bakers and cheese farms, features walks of between one and three hours on five of the days.
Hotel Sassi: www.hotelsassi.it