Matera has long been known as the Subterranean City. No massive prizes for guessing why, but more on that later.
Located in southern Italy, in the region of Basilicata, Matera has been declared Italian host of European Capital of Culture for 2019. It’s a beautiful spot, and somewhere I was lucky enough to spend a couple of nights back in 2014.
Arriving in the late afternoon, and only able to explore once the sun had gone down, Matera appeared a labyrinth of small, dark corridors. It was slightly unnerving to set out upon it’s cobbled streets, but there was also beauty in the mass of small christmas tree esq lights that lit the way throughout the city, and most importantly towards the centre of the Sassi – a World Heritage Site by UNESCO since 1993.
The caves of Matera are old, real old! These subterranean dwellings are thought to be among the first ever human settlements in what is now Italy. According to the English Fodor’s guide …
Matera is the only place in the world where people can boast to be still living in the same houses of their ancestors of 9,000 years ago.
As recently as the 1980’s, the Sassi was seen as an area of poverty, a slum if you will. It actually known as ‘The Shame of Italy’. Ouch!
In the 30’s the caves were home to roughly 20,000 people. By the 50’s that number had dropped slightly to around 15,000, the caves still had no heat, no light or sanitation. Families and their livestock all crammed into their allotted ,tiny spaces while diseases such as trachoma, cholera, typhoid and malnutrition became rife. Illiteracy stood at 90 per cent, infant mortality at 50 per cent. It was at this point that the Italian Government moved to relocate most of the population of the Sassi to areas of the developing modern city – a similar relocation took place not far down the road at Craco just a few years later. Craco is now a ghost town.
So that was just a taste of modern day Matera. But how? What or who happened to make Matera this incredible?
… squatters, squatters were effectively the saviours of Matera. They moved in at some point during the 70’s, and while the state tried (in vain) to encourage people the development of the city and breath new life into its caves, there were just no takers. Eventually they gave in and made the squatters legal residents, connecting them to the town’s utility services and hoping for the best. What followed for a slow burner, but it all worked out. It started with the odd little cafe springing up, then a gallery. Word spread and the artists and writers of the world started to hear whispers of Matera, and over time it grew, both in reputation and beauty.
Sleeping in a cave
While visiting Matera I was lucky enough to be hosted by the good people of the Corte San Pietro. I was plush to say the least, a real treat. Sleeping in a cave was always going to be fun, but I never imagined the level of luxury that would be on offer. Even though I had the smallest room/cave (the photo below is of a different room/cave), it was a far cry from the dorm rooms I had become used to.
Even cooler still was the possibility to explore the cisterns and passageways below the Corte San Pietro. Check out the video below as I went for a little wander underground.
The Rupestrian Churches of Matera
So I already detailed that Matera is a UNESCO site, but the Sassi isn’t the only reason for such an award. The Rupestrian ((of art) done on rock or cave walls.) Churches littered (in a nice way) throughout the cobbled streets are also part of the reason.
These Churches cut in part into the rocky hillsides of Matera, were mostly the work of monks who were fleeing the persecution. The churches often contain faded frescoes in the Byzantine style, but some area also sadly kept locked. Where that is the case you just have to admire them from the outside, but there’s a lot of admiring to do. As per below, some of them are quite aesthetically appealing.
A Matera Sunset
Matera is stunning, that’s a given, but of course golden hour can make anything which is beautiful look out of this world. If you’re ever fortunate enough to find yourself exploring the Subterranean City, but sure to come up for air and head/climb to the highest point you can find in time for sunset. You will not regret it.
Matera – Where in the world?