Matera (Italy) and Plovdiv (Bulgaria) are the 2019 European Capitals of Culture, the contest was one of the toughest ever, with 21 initial contenders. Now we are going to introduce you one of the winners, the Sassi di Matera.
Matera, the “Subterranean City”
Matera is the hidden treasure of Southern Italy, a spectacular city with unique atmosphere with a population of 60 000, located in the region of Basilicata. It is known as “la città Sotterranea” (the Subterranean City) because of its cave dwellings. The best-preserved city carved out from the rocks in the Mediterranean region was built on the steep western shore of the Glen of Gravina di Matera, running from north to south. Matera, with its eight thousand-year of history has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993.
The special atmosphere of the city is due to its narrow, winding streets and the houses carved out from the rocks. Walking through the cave houses of the small Italian town feels as if we went back 2000 years in time. It is no coincidence that several directors have been inspired by this mysterious city. Mel Gibson’s film, Passion, about the Life of Jesus, was shot here, as well as the world-famous film of Paolo Pasolini, The Gospel According to St. Matthew. Sassi di Matera, the historic centre, are two well-known districts of the city, famous for their ancient cave dwellings, functioning as the largest open-air museum in Italy.
These caves were already inhabited in prehistoric times. The unified houses built in soft tufa rock walls (locally called “tufo” although it is not volcanic tuff or tufa) look as if they have grown out of rocks. They were often built on top of each other and then joined with labyrinth-like stairs, alleys and streets. From the 8th to the 13th century, the monks who fled from Byzantium sought refuge in the caves here. During the 15th century, the farmers created cave dwellings (“Sassi”).These caves were inhabited by the local poor for centuries.
The cave labyrinths were inhabited by people even in the 1950s with no electricity, water, sewage or sanitation, with terrible hygiene. It used to be one of the largest slums in Italy at the time.
At the beginning of the20th century, Matera used to have about 17,000 inhabitants13,000 of which lived in the historic city centre, in Sassi di Matera.The water supply of the city was then provided by one single city fountain. In fact, the settlement became well-known for the rest of the world when Carlo Levi, an Italian writer, drew the attention in his book, Christ stopped at Eboli, to the fact that the vast majority of Matera’s inhabitants still live in caves together with their animals, without electricity, drinking water and sewage, in terrible hygiene conditions. It was also shocking for the Italian public, that such conditions still exist in the second half of the 20th century, while a few hundred kilometres away everybody was riding his iconic Vespas.
The construction of the new districts and the transfer of the population from the “Sassis” began with a government decree, issued in 1952, aiming to eradicate the “shame of the country”. The Italian government liquidated the cave town which was considered to be the largest slum in the country and moved its inhabitants into the modern districts of the city. We could rightly believe that everybody was enthusiastic about the big change, however, it was not the case. The cave dwellers were not at all pleased with this great change because they would still insist on their old way of life, however, the Italian government, ordered all cave dwellings to be walled up, permanently preventing their resettlement. Then the area became a ghost city for decades. The restoration of ‘Sassis’ began in the 1980s.
Poverty is no longer raging in the city, but its closeness and underdevelopment are still visible compared to the sparkling Italian coastal cities. Difficult circumstances and isolation have always reinforced the desire of the locals for spiritual challenges, so it’s no wonder that many Utopian communities and orders have found their home here. What’s more, people in Matera were the first in the country who revolted against the German Wehrmacht in World War II.
The cave town has been beautifully restored since gaining title of World Heritage Site. The interior of some cave dwellings has been transformed into a museum, giving us an idea of how people lived here at that time. Apartments which have been transformed into modern art museums and unique exhibition halls have been created from the old cave rooms.
Thanks to tourism, shops, bars and hotels have opened in this special area. Today the city has become a luxury travel destination. But there are also many old, magical, abandoned caves in the Sasso Caveoso that we can enter, and which are incredibly impressive and beautiful places.
Today, cave dwellings have been developed for travellers as well, so anyone can easily spend the night in a cave, but of course with the circumstances of a luxury hotel. The narrow streets of the city resemble to a large maze. It is not specific sights, but the atmosphere which is worth spending days here, and it is not a problem if we occasionally get lost in the maze. The entire Basilicata region, where Matera lies, has become more and more popular among Italians as well in the recent years, so we can find a lot of small cafes and restaurants around the world heritage site. Due to centuries of poverty, dishes are very simple, but they are extremely special and delicious.