Photograpy, Murray Sye
We’re standing in a trance-like state, perched on an elevated plateau. Our eyes scan the tumbling grey stone facade that envelopes us like a backdrop to a movie set. Below us, lies an eerie, urban landscape of some 1,500 cave dwellings that flank a steep ravine, which descends deep below us.
There’s a reason why the movie The Passion of the Christ was filmed here. Matera has played a prominent role in several religious-related films, serving as a stand-in for ancient Jerusalem. It’s hard not to gasp when you first see Matera for yourself – it evokes far-reaching images, and feelings.
We’ve encountered many of Italy’s take-your-breath-away moments during our travels, like Amalfi, Cinque Terre, and Venice, to name a few. But, and I stress the ‘but’, we have never seen anything like Matera.
This medieval town is ensconsed in Italy’s remote southern region of Basilicata – famous for its extensive cave-dwelling districts. Many people think that Matera’s cave dwellings are called ‘sassi’. They’re not. The word sassi literally means ‘stones’, which refers to the two neighborhoods of stone dwellings in this ancient town.
These two districts fill a narrow valley that run along the side of a large gorge. The Sasso Barisano, the heart of the sassi, is on the north side, and a portion of this area has been commercially developed. The Sasso Caveoso, on the south side, is historically interesting. It was once the poorest part of the sassi, and is still largely abandoned. You can wander through uninhabited caves and get a sense of what it was like to live here thousnds of years ago. The streets, in some parts of the sassi, often run on top of other houses.
The once-fortified acropolis of the town, the Civita, rises from the the dividing valleys. You can visit the dome, which as built in the 13th century in Romanesque style, on the Civita hill. The Civita dates back to medieval times and is considered to be the first human settlement in the city. Below the Civita, but above the sassi, is the Piano – the postmedieval Old Town, beyond which stands the contemporary Matera.
If you haven’t heard of Matera, you’re not alone. It’s only since the 1980’s that this historic city has been gaining in popularity due to word-ofmouth, as its off-the-beaten tourist track. In 1993 it became a UNESCO World Heritage site, which has also helped to boost interest.
The best way to see Matera’s sassi, is to wander on foot. Cars are limited in the city, so I’ll caution you now, you’ll do a lot of walking. Climbing up and down stairs are prerequisites to getting anywhere, so be prepared to give your Fitbit a workout. Tight, twisting alleyways, uneven staircases, courtyards and vistas that lead to abrupt about-turns, as well as dead-ends, are a common occurrence.
To say that Matera is picturesque is an understatement. If you’re a photo nut like I am, your camera will be on overdrive. Everywhere you look begs to be captured. A labyrinth of lanes, contorted alleys and stairs wind their way up, and down, through neighborhoods of cave dwellings – many of which are now occupied by B&B’s, luxury hotels, restaurants, boutique shops, museums and beautiful churches.
If Italy is on your bucket list, I’d highly recommend you take a few days to discover this fascinating 15th century relic for yourself.