Italy’s ancient cave city with a total rags-to-riches backstory.
Last, but definitely not least, from our conference trip in Bari in June 2023, my coworkers and I managed to go for a weekend visit to Matera, another really unique UNESCO heritage site. Much like Vardzia in Georgia, Matera is a fascinating cave city complex, which was built straight into the calcearous rock typical for the Basilicata and Puglia regions.
Matera is hailed as “the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region” and the area is believed to be one of the oldest continually inhabited regions in the world, as there is evidence of human settlement from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic era, which is roughly about 9,000 years ago. For centuries Matera was a successful trading town, which was relatively hidden on the slope on one side of a deep ravine simply called la Gravina, formed by a river that is now no more than a small stream. Due to its defensive position, it changed hands quite often throughout history like the rest of Southern Italy, until it became the central city of today’s Matera province.
The ancient part of Matera consists of two sassi (stones) called Barisano and Caveoso, which are basically large cliff formations that were dug out to create the rock dwellings. The inhabitation of sassi started in the natural caves that were later expanded into a whole cave city complex of dwellings and underground water cisterns, joined by the fortified Civita town above during the Roman times, which became the home of the wealthy. Piano is the most modern part of Matera’s historical centre, dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries.
Unfortunately, Matera later became the great shame of Italy, as the people continued to live in the rock dwellings in unsanitary conditions without plumbing or electricity well into the 20th century. As the situation gained publicity, the Italian government decided to build new public housing in the modern part of the city and forcefully relocated about 20,000 people out of the rock dwellings in 1954. For a while, the ancient rock city stood empty and became the province of hippy squatters, drug users and delinquents, until it became famous through Pasolini’s film The Gospel According to Matthew, and the local population petitioned the government to restore the sassi to their former glory. Thus began the restoration of Matera in the 1980s, which was successful enough that the area obtained the UNESCO heritage protection in 1993 and even became the European culture capital in 2019.
Nowadays Matera is considered a national treasure and is a highly popular tourist destination, but you can still find abandoned buildings full of trash, rubble and obvious evidence of squatting even during a cursory walk through the city. They are just there, right in the historical centre, amidst restored luxury B&Bs and beautiful terrace restaurants, so Matera’s past as a slum is still very much at the forefront. It is an important reminder of what can happen if we do not take proper care to maintain our cultural heritage and just how vulnerable such sites are.
Impressions of Matera
Besides walking around the central sassi di Matera area, you can visit 5 churches and a convent, as well as all the shops and restaurants located inside the rock dwellings. One of the more notable places in the city is a small traditional Matera dwelling in Casa Grotta where you can see how the people used to live in the 19th century. The dwellings of peasants mainly consisted of one central space with a kitchen alcove and another for storage, and any farm animals were kept indoors as well. The whole city had an intricate cavern system for fresh water management and they even developed a special “fridge” cavern to preserve snow for as long as possible, so it was fascinating to learn about it from an engineering perspective.
In fact, Matera’s rock dwellings have been hailed as one of the most efficient examples of urban ecology, as they were well adapted to both the cold, moist winters and the hot, dry summers, and the whole community was more or less self-sustainable. We can learn several sustainability lessons from them and you can read more on that here + there are several other museums around Matera if you want to go more in-depth. Also, the entry prices for the city attractions were not very steep, ~ 5 – 8€.
A Typical Matera dwelling
If you are staying for more than a day, you can also explore the Murgia National Park on the other side of the ravine and its 156 Rupestrian churches inside the caves, which were created by a community of Benedictine monks around 700 – 800 A.D. and are supposed to be full of interesting frescoes. There is also the Crypt of the Original Sin a bit further away, which is hailed as the local Sistine chapel for its sacral art. I only managed to see two of the rock churches inside the city and the frescoes in the Church of Santa Lucia alle Malve were definitely worth seeing.
While we were exploring Matera, we came across a funeral procession where the casket of the deceased was being carried down the street. We did not think much of it at the time and had respectfully moved away. Then a couple of days later, as my collegaue was watching a German culinary travel documentary on the TV, he realised that it had been shot in Matera in 2019 and featured the very head of the Sigillino family whose mourners had passed us by. We had even taken a photo of the local obituary notice board in front of the church with his name on it (may he rest in peace) and it just goes to show how full of coincidences our world really is.
All in all, Matera is one of those places where you could just sit in one spot for an hour and still wouldn’t manage to observe and absorb all the interesting little details around. One of my favourite quirky details were the artistic air vents made of the volcanic tuff stone that the whole city is built on. Since humidity is a large problem for stone dwellings, they’d come up with a fancy way to cover up the vent holes and I bought one as a souvenir to take home – we already have a plan for how we are going to build it into the walls of our future bedroom.
Although there are many viewpoints around the city, you will see that there is something new to notice no matter where you go, so you don’t necessarily need to check out all the officially marked spots. However, I would recommend cafe Zipa for its lovely setting and the beautiful view over the canyon if you want to stop for a drink.
The details of Matera
Know before you go: Matera is easily accessible by train from most of the nearby cities, but you’ll want to make sure you have good walking shoes. There are a lot of stairs and the stone streets have been worn smooth throughout the long years, so they are really slippery even if there is no rain. We got caught in a huge hailstorm on the way back and the whole old part of the town essentially became a slide. Also, do try the gelato at Pasthello, it’s right on the way from the Matera Centrale train station.