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Matera, crafted in stone

Inhabited for millennia, Sassi di Matera was abandoned in the 1950s. Today, it straddles the past and the present

The Sassi di Matera is a Unesco World Heritage Site
The Sassi di Matera is a Unesco World Heritage Site

For centuries Matera was abandoned, now people are coming from all over the world," says Stella, our guide to this historic town in southern Italy’s Basilicata region.

Stella, who hails from Padua in northern Italy, moved to Matera in 2015 because “the quality of life is good here, and people warm". That she is at home here is evident when, while waiting for a bus at the square of the 13th century San Pietro Caveoso church, a car stops and the driver waves to her, offering us a lift. He says some road has been blocked for the filming of the upcoming James Bond movie, No Time To Die, which is being shot in the Sassi area (the historic centre; sassi literally means stone). He would know, since he’s part of the crew.

It’s mid-September and we spot the film crew at various places. Daniel Craig is said to be here, and much as we would have liked to, we do not run into him. Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ (2004) and parts of Wonder Woman (2017) were also filmed here.

The Sassi di Matera, comprising the districts of Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso, along with the Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera, was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1993 for the “most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem".

The ancient cave dwellings and around 150 Rupestrian churches, located on a slope overlooking the Gravina gorge, are carved out of the cream-coloured soft limestone called tufa. The park, where one can explore natural caves and cave churches, some with frescos painted by Byzantine monks, is spread over 8,000 hectares. As we stand in the square of San Pietro Caveoso, which is built on the edge of the ravine, we can see the abandoned grottoes across the gorge, and the Sassi rising in front of us. Along the ravine, cactus plants with striking red and green fruit, called fico d’India or Indian fig, grow wild.

“Scientifically, we were here 10,000 years ago," says Stella. Matera is said to be one of the longest continually inhabited places in the world, dating back to the Palaeolithic age. Over time, people built on these caves. As a result, the houses look like they are piled on top of each other—it was spontaneous architecture. The rich, with bigger dwellings, settled on top, and the poor lived in the subterranean world, in caves.

The Sassi started declining around the 18th century, though it continued to be occupied until 1952. The living conditions were unsanitary, and the child mortality rate high. The cave dwellings were windowless, the door providing the only source of light and air. There was no running water or electricity; families and livestock often lived together. Malaria was rife.

To get a sense of how people lived in these cave houses, we visit the Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario, which was occupied until the early 1950s. The recreated cave has three rooms, with furniture and tools from the time, indicating that it belonged to a well-off family. In the bedroom hangs a picture of the family that last inhabited it.

The plight of Matera came to light in 1945 when Italian painter and writer Carlo Levi, who had been exiled by the fascist regime to the Basilicata region, wrote a book titled Christ Stopped At Eboli, indicating that even God had forsaken this part of southern Italy. In 1950, the then Italian prime minister described the place as the “shame of Italy". In 1952, the government started evacuating over 15,000 people and moving them into modern buildings nearby. The Sassi was abandoned.

Stella says it ended a way of life. She points out how the houses open around a sort of courtyard, where children once played and women and men exchanged food and stories. She tells us about crapiata, a dish of grains and beans cooked at the end of the harvest season. Everybody would contribute ingredients and the soup would be cooked in a huge pot. “Socialization was their strength, everybody was connected, and that was gone," she adds.

In the 1980s, people started moving back into the Sassi, restoring the caves, converting them into restaurants, boutique hotels and B&Bs.

We reach the main square, Piazza Vittorio Veneto, with its cafés and museums. But what catches the eye is a giant sculpture—Salvador Dali’s Space Elephant. Matera is the 2019 European Capital of Culture, with exhibitions and events running through the year. As part of this, the works of Dali are on display in an exhibition called Salvador Dali—The Persistence Of The Opposites. On a terrace in the square, we spot a wall covered with the names of people and recipes. This is the Mammamiaaa project, where anybody with a family recipe and a story behind it can host a meal for friends and relatives. The whole process is documented. The recipe becomes part of a digital archive.

Salvador Dali’s ‘Space Elephant’ on display in the Sassi as part of an exhibition.
Salvador Dali’s ‘Space Elephant’ on display in the Sassi as part of an exhibition.

The square brings the past and present together. Above ground, there is modern art; underground, visitors can explore the Palombaro Lungo, a giant cistern, some sections of which were built 3,000 years ago.

By now we are hungry and flagging. Stella calls a friend who runs a café when we tell her we want to sample local food. The community being largely agrarian, the food comprised bread, tomatoes and olive oil, with beans providing protein. Red peppers were dried, fried, crushed and sprinkled over dishes in place of Parmesan. No piece of bread was ever wasted. An example of this is the cialledda, a dish made with leftover bread soaked in water and tossed with tomatoes, cucumber, peppers and olive oil.

The Matera bread weighs upwards of 1kg
The Matera bread weighs upwards of 1kg

Matera bread has a thick crust and is light and spongy inside. It can last for over a week. Before the Sassi was evacuated, people would bake their bread in shared wood ovens. To identify their loaf, families had their own wood stamp to mark the dough.

Entering the Dulcis in Fundo café off the square, Stella guides us to a window-side table overlooking the Sassi and the 13th century Matera Cathedral. With classical music playing in the background, a cool breeze wafting through the window, it seems like our la dolce vita moment.

Matera is about the architecture, the landscape and its people. Above all, it’s about reclaiming the past. The place is both stark and striking, emerging from and blending with the hilly terrain. You cannot rush through Matera, ticking things off a to-do list—let it unfold leisurely. All you need is a comfortable pair of shoes.


Travel tip

Base yourself in Bari, a 4-hour train ride from Rome, and make day trips to these places in the Puglia region

ALBEROBELLO: The town is famous for its whitewashed trulli, stone houses with a conical roof, which give the place a magical look.

LECCE: Visit the city’s historic centre with its baroque architecture, numerous churches and a Roman amphitheatre. The buildings have a distinct yellow colour from “Lecce stone" or limestone.

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