The New Year has dawned with expectation and anticipation in the historic stone city of Matera, in the far south of Italy. In 2019 Matera is the ‘European City of Culture’. An honour bestowed on this atmospheric, unique and authentic patchwork of caves and alleys, polished stone pathways and haphazard staircases, that has existed for centuries. This city is a brilliantly preserved example of a cave-dwelling community. Here for generations people lived in the caves or ‘sassi’ that formed naturally on the mountain sides. This is the year to visit Matera and walk along the marble terraces inhaling the thousands of years of heritage that belong to this very special place.
When Carlo Levi was exiled to Lucania in the far south of Italy in the 1930s, it was like being sent to a faraway galaxy. It took days to travel from Milan or Turin south into the toe of Italy. It was the back of beyond, the ‘mezzogiorno‘ the land of the mid-day sun. This was an area of subsistence agriculture and grinding poverty. Nowadays the region of Lucania is known as Basilicata and a transformation is taking place. In 2019 Matera, the most important town in the region will celebrate being European City of Culture. This is a transformation that the poor ‘contadini’ struggling to make a living here years ago would never have predicted.
MATERA is unique. For centuries the local people lived in simple, one room dwellings, excavated by hand from the hillsides. These caves known as ‘sassi’ provided shelter for generations. Most people were farmers, growing crops and tending their animals in this arid and inhospitable landscape of stony ground and blistering summer sun. Life here was hard. Water had to be collected from the well or the river. There was no electricity, few schools and no hospitals. For the people of Basilicata the cities of Naples and Rome were a million miles away. Distant, foreign places.
SASSI – The ‘sassi’ were highly practical homes for the local people. The caves offered shelter from the searing heat of the summer months and a naturally insulated environment in the depths of a freezing winter. Cool in the summer and warm and cozy in the winter, perfect for a home. The ‘sassi’ were occupied by local families until the early 1960s, when the Italian government deemed them unfit for human habitation and forced the occupants to move to modern purpose built apartment blocks on the other side of town. On a recent visit to Matera I met a local guide called Maria Teresa, she told me that her grandparents had lived in the ‘sassi’ quite happily. Her grandmother cried for days when she received the official letter announcing that she would have to leave. The official view was that the ‘sassi’ were unfit for human habitation. They lacked sanitation, there were no sewers; no running water and no electricity. They were deemed a health risk and a national disgrace. Through the 1970s and 80s the ‘sassi’ languished, neglected and empty, devoid of life. A sad reminder of this region’s vibrant and powerful spirit. After all the ‘sassi’ were an integral part of Basilicata’s history and heritage.
A MIRACLE – then in the 1990s a miracle happened. Times changed and ideas changed too. Local people started going back to the ‘sassi’ and opening them up. Water and electricity supplies were installed. The ‘sassi’ were cleaned out and modernised. Little by little they were reopened as workshops, studios, shops and small hotels. Visitors started to appear and a tourism industry gradually developed. Tourists were impressed by the polished stone streets, just wide enough for two donkeys to pass. People loved the feel of the stones, the warm embrace of the caves, and the hospitality of the local people. Matera has entered a new age, Matera has become fashionable. In 1993 Matera and its ‘sassi’ were awarded UNESCO world heritage site status. The rest as they say is history.
MATERA – The old town of Matera is perfect for exploring on foot, with the dramatic skyline of the Duomo (cathedral) and Campanile (bell tower) dominating the horizon. Why not consider a trip to Basilicata this year and support Matera and its ‘European City of Culture’ status. The opening ceremony is taking place this Saturday, 19th January. Marching bands from all over the region will participate in a huge parade to celebrate the city. Matera certainly has a unique heritage and status as one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the Mediterranean region. Let’s celebrate our European heritage and explore Matera and Basilicata in 2019.
- I first visited Matera five years ago, I was quite overwhelmed by the natural beauty & atmosphere – I’ve returned each year since with a small group of clients.
- I’ve written several articles about Matera – that you might enjoy:
- Matera – the purchase of a small painting
- Matera, Basilicata UNESCO World Heritage Site
- Mel Gibson was so inspired by Matera – he filmed The Passion of Christ here (2004)
- My friend Mary Lou Peters an artist, was inspired to sketch and paint throughout our stay! www.maryloupeters.com
- Why not join my next tour to Southern Italy & Sicily, April 2019 – join for some or all of the programme: Southern Italy & Sicily with your own private guide
- A short and whimsical film about a day in Matera, Basilicata:
- Carlo Levi wrote a very famous book called ‘Christ stopped at Eboli’ about his exile to Lucania in the 1930s. It is well worth a read, for its brilliant descriptions of peasant life in this region in the early years of the 20th century.
- Written – January 2019
- Published – 17th January, 2019
Matera is located in the instep of Italy, half way between the toe and the heel of the boot!