Matera, the most famous city of Basilicata, known for its ‘Sassi’ houses carved into the cave, is one of the oldest and most fascinating cities in Italy dating back as far as the Palaeolithic times.
The Sassi town of Matera is now a popular spot for tourists and archeologists alike, boasting hundreds of ancient caves, rock churches, delicious local cuisine and luxurious boutique hotels. And since the old town of Matera was included into UNESCO world heritage list and the 2019 European Capital of Culture, it now attracts even more interest. Matera is also known for being a film location with films such as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) making use of its distinctive feel which is reminiscent of Biblical times.
The Sassi of Matera
The Civita district is the oldest and highest group of Sassi buildings, with The Cathedral of Matera, built in 1270 dominating the skyline. After Matera was taken over by Roman Empire, the town started expanding, and Civita took its place in between two new areas – Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano. These three areas together form the Sassi di Matera – the old town. The town of Sassi is carved out of ‘tufo stone’ – calcareous rock, and resembles an anthill of houses built on top of each other in an entanglement of streets, stairs and terraces. The little buildings and dwellings are all connected by underground mazes and labyrinths of caves that form a stunning view.
Due to the complicacy of the town, the inhabitants had to come up with a unique water collection system that required digging trenches and the cisterns underground. It’s the simple yet effective system of connecting different vessels, which keeps the water fresh and clean even in the hot seasons. Each house was equipped with water collection tanks, which collected not only rain and snow, but also dew. Each cistern had its own filtration system and made water easily accessible from the house. Thanks to this, the citizens of Matera not only supplied their household with water, but also kept the area green – with trees and small vegetable gardens.
The crisis of Sassi
Today it is hard to imagine how people actually lived in those caves, though the population of Sassi grew up to 15 000 people. The living conditions became extremely tough – on average, a family had to share one small room for about 10 people, adults and children all slept together. All pets and animals like cats, dogs, chickens, rabbits, and sometimes sheep or pigs also stayed inside the same house. Some families had their mules in the house as well, as they were needed for fieldwork and there was no other place to keep them. Not to mention, the electricity came to Sassi only in the 1930. The insanitary conditions and dirt led to the extremely high mortality level, which by the middle of 20th century was twice as high as average in the country.
The government was brought to attention only after World War II, thanks to the publication of the book ‘Christ stopped at Eboli’ by Carlo Levi, where he describes all the struggles of life in Matera. The book and then later a movie caused an uproar for it felt unlikely that in such a developed country in the 20th century people still lived like their ancestors, hundreds of years ago. Finally, in 1953 a new law was implemented, providing new accommodation for all inhabitants of Sassi in the modern part of Matera. However, some people refused to move out and walls had to be put up blocking entrance to the caves. The move from Sassi to new town was gradual and lasted about 20 years – the last inhabitants of Sassi were pushed out of caves in the 70s.
After the move
After the population of Sassi moved to the new Matera, the caves stayed empty for a while. But In 1993, the unique system of caves and water collection trenches was added to the world heritage list of UNESCO, and restored into an open-air museum. Some caved were turned into showrooms exhibiting what life there was like. Some caves even function as authentic hotels and restaurants with terraces overlooking the amazing view of Matera.
Matera – travel tips
When plannin your visit, consider an overnight stay – the night view of Sassi and a walking tour in the cave streets is an unforgettable experience. There are a lot of bars and restaurants in the city center and Sassi itself is quite a busy area in the evening. There are a number of agencies offering guided tours. Most people living and working in Matera today are the children (or grandchildren) of the generation that actually lived in Sassi, therefore it’s likely that your guide can tell you some personal real life family stories. If you don’t feel like taking a guided tour, you can still enjoy a walk in Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano, and the highlight – the main Cathedral Cattedrale della madonna della Bruna e di Sant’Eustachio, located in the highest point of Civita. One of the three Palombaro– the underground water storages, is accessible from Piazza Vittorio Veneto, the main square of Matera. Here you can relax, have some gelato or take a walk in via del Corso – the main shopping street in city. This street will lead you to Belvedere Piazzetta Pascoli, where you catch one of the panoramic views of the Sassi. Here you also find the Museum of Medieval and Modern arts of Basilicata, which is located in Palazzo Lanfranchi, built in the 17th century is the first Baroque palace in city.