Italy's southern region of Basilicata is home to one of the country's most distinctive towns: Matera. It's a fascinating place, not least for its unique topography and intriguing history as a Mediterranean troglodyte settlement. Thanks to its biblical, otherworldly feel, it's been used as the setting for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ too. Rough Guides writer Kiki Deere went to discover more about Matera’s caves and their inhabitants.
The area around Matera has been inhabited since the Paleolithic period, and to this day it retains an age old, nearly Jurassic feel, with vast tracts of verdant land breaking off into harsh rocky limestone ravines. Matera’s main attractions are its Sassi (rocks), old cavernous dwellings that to this day remain inhabited. A myriad of monochrome stone buildings overhang a deep gorge, perching unequally on top of one another, like a messy ensemble of vintage Lego pieces. The caves spring out of a rocky area that forms part of a limestone gully, taking on a ramshackle Flintstones-esque feel.
I quickly got lost in the city's winding alleys, which converge into small squares and then branch off into a maze of twisting streets. Stone steps climb or spiral in different directions, snaking their way through age-old properties that overlap one another.
I soon met Eustachio Rizzi, a septuagenarian grandfather who was brought up in the Sassi. Eustachio spent three years building a miniature model of the Sassi, constructing the town from childhood memory. He longs for Matera’s history not to be forgotten and is keen to act as a mouthpiece for its long and complex history.
The early morning sun lit a quarter of the pastel cream buildings, yet most still remained veiled by a cool haze of shade. Eustachio’s sunken eyes seemed to travel back in time, as he explained how parts of the town were built: "The caves have been here since time immemorial, and a great part of what is around us today was built by hand.
“The poor lived in the lower part of the city, and used pickaxes to dig into the stone. People would dig and dig, making sure to carve a concave shape into the rock, so that the weight rested on the arches on the sides, otherwise the structure would collapse. If a baby was born and a family needed more space, they would dig farther into the rock. Sometimes they would start hammering with their pickaxe and suddenly realise they were digging into another person's home, so then they would start digging in the opposite direction". The result is a unique city where streets, stony alleyways, uneven pavements and winding steps often coincide with the roofs of the houses that lie below.
© Camillo Cinelli/Shutterstock
When Eustachio lived here just a few decades ago, houses had no running water and the city streets served as open sewers. Infant mortality hovered at 50% and illiteracy was rife. Families were large, often with six to ten members living in a damp room measuring little more than 50 square metres where the only form of light and ventilation was a little window giving onto the street.
Hens and their chicks nestled below a double bed, which was no more than an iron stand with wooden planks and a paillasse. Often, a drawer containing linen and clothes was pulled out and used as a baby's cot. The kitchen was no more than a stove with a copper cauldron, while the facilities were limited to a chamber pot that was placed by the bed, or behind a little curtain for privacy. At the very back of the cave a mule provided heat to the rest of the house, and elsewhere a dug out cavity was used to store manure.
The cramped housing structures, lack of sanitation and inadequate living conditions of Matera's urban poor reached such appalling levels that a scheme was eventually put in place to restore and renovate the Sassi. In 1952 over 15,000 inhabitants were evicted – albeit never forcefully – and relocated to purpose-built council houses on the outskirts, in what is now the 'new town'.
Yet, many refused to leave. Eustachio told me: "At first most were reluctant to relocate, to leave their houses... the place they were brought up in, and where they had always lived. It was hard for all of us, but slowly people started to understand that living conditions in the new housing estates were better. There was running water, a heating system, toilets.”
Image courtesy of Kiki Deere
By providing the inhabitants with new accommodation, their former homes became state property and, to this day, 70% of the Sassi is still publicly owned. The town was thereafter entirely renovated and it wasn't until the early 1980s that the inhabitants began to return. Yet most preferred to stay in their well-equipped modern houses, some even refusing to visit "that filth where we once lived". Ironically, many of these former slum homes have now become high-end hotels, some charging up to 700 euros a night for the experience of sleeping in such unique cavernous accommodation.
Today Matera attracts a fair share of Italian holiday goers, although for foreign tourists it still remains off the beaten track largely due to its poor public transport links. Yet no doubt partly because of this, southern Italy's gem retains a true environmental and social feel, veiled by an aura of magic and underlying mysticism. As I later peered out over a stone balustrade to the Sassi that spread out into the distance, the town visibly took on a biblical dimension. A flock of black birds took flight over the town, mournfully hovering over the bewitching cluster of tumbledown dwellings below.
Explore more of Italy with our Rough Guide to Italy. Featured image courtesy of Kiki Deere.