The town of Matera, situated on the edge of a ravine at the eastern end of Basilicata, dates from the Middle Ages when Byzantine and Benedictine monks built rock-hewn churches and monasteries into what are now called the Sassi – literally “stones” – an intricate series of terraced caves. Later, farmers, seeking safety from invasions, also settled in the Sassi, fashioning their homes, stables and shops out of the rock, creating one of Italy’s oddest townscapes and its most significant troglodyte settlement. During the Spanish Bourbon era, wealthy Sassi dwellers were able to move out of the cave dwellings to the plain above, while the masses were left in squalor below. The area was graphically described in Carlo Levi’s 1945 memoir Christ Stopped at Eboli, in which the Sassi were compared to Dante’s Inferno, with their impoverished, malaria-ridden inhabitants. During the 1950s twenty thousand people were forcibly removed from the Sassi and rehoused in modern districts in the new town.
Today, it’s hard to picture the conditions that previously existed here; EU funds and private investment have poured in, and the area has been cleaned up and repopulated with homes, B&Bs, hotels, restaurants and workshops. In 1993, the city and its grotto-filled outskirts were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in 2003 Mel Gibson filmed his controversial The Passion of the Christ here, and Matera has been declared a European Capital of Culture for 2019.
Apart from Maratea, Matera is the only place in Basilicata where you might have difficulty finding a room for the night – booking a week or so in advance is highly recommended. A lot of new B&Bs and some beautiful hotels have recently opened in the Sassi themselves, which are probably the most atmospheric places to stay – although of course the swish furniture, modern plumbing and decor would be unrecognizable to any former sasso dweller.
Thanks to the surge in tourism, there’s plenty of choice for eating in Matera. In spite of its close proximity to the sea, traditional Materan food is dominated by meat dishes. You’ll find lots of cafés and bars around Piazza San Pietro Caveoso and along Via Buozzi in the Sassi, or in and around Piazza Vittorio and Piazza Sedile in Piano.
Some 14km south of Matera in Contrada Petrapenta, the Cripta del Peccato Originale (Crypt of the Original Sin) is lauded as the “Sistine Chapel of cave churches”. Inside, late eighth-century frescoes depict surprisingly dynamic Old Testament scenes, saints and angels on a white background embellished with tendrils of red flowers. Note that you need to book by phone in order to visit; tours last around an hour.
Top image: Scenic view of the "Sassi" district in Matera, in the region of Basilicata, in Southern Italy © Stefano Valeri/Shutterstock