A Unique History: Matera

It is easy to get lost in the beauty and winding streets of the Sassi, so come prepared with a camera. There are very few roads in the Sassi district that allow vehicles, so it’s best to park in the more modern neighborhood. Explore the paths on foot, as there are many that become narrow, go through archways, down steps, or just slowly fade away.

Matera is believed to be one of the oldest towns in the world, said to be inhabited for over 7,000 years, originating in Paleolithic times. A small town in Southern Italy, in the region Basilicata, known for it’s ancient cave dwellings. Known at the Sassi, they are habitations dug into the rocky cliff side. The caves have house-like facades built over them, and they are nearly stacked on top of each other. The roof of one could be a street or the entrance to another dwelling. Although there are many that are uninhabitable, there are still quite a few residents as well as ones that have been turned into cafes and hotels. But there are more than just cave dwellings, there are quite a few churches that were carved into the rock. My favorite and most stunning being Church of Santa Maria de Idris. Such a beautiful sight to see, and as you are making your way towards it, it stands alone at the top of a little hill. Inside are original chalk frescos that you can only see in person, so be sure not to miss it! The oldest of the Sassi caves are in view just behind the church with la Gravina separating the two areas. You can hike over the caves and explore what was inhabited until as late as 1950. With such poor living conditions and riddled with malaria, the Italian government moved the residents to newer construction when author Carlo Levi published his memoir Christ Stopped at Eboli. The book talked about the severe poverty in Matera and unhealthy conditions which is said to have brought shame to Italy, so the government worked quickly to remedy the situation. After the caves were vacated the city became nearly a ghost town as it was considered a disgrace to the country. Crime was high and city officials talked about walling off the historic areas and just leaving it all int he past. Luckily curiosity got the best of some travelers, so wanted to see the unusual cave town. UNESCO later made the Sassi a world heritage site and the city thrives off tourism. The interesting history and unique architecture draws everyone in!

This ancient city is just a short drive from Puglia and is worth the trip. Spend the day wandering the streets, museums and churches and get lost in the old “holy land”. By the way, Passion of the Christ was filmed here, and is also known as the second Bethlehem. It’s truly hard to describe stepping out onto an overlook and seeing the city for the first time. If there is every a way to feel transported back in time, I firmly believe this is it. The stone streets are quiet and have a sense of mystery to them, that just makes you want to peak around the corner silently to see what else is there. If you ever get a chance to go, don’t hesitate.


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