“La Città Nella Roccia”—The Town Carved Out of RockNestled in the “arch” of the boot between Puglia and Campania, Basilicata was, until recently, a lesser known and less visited region of Italy. However, with the surge in popularity of Matera and its unique Sassi di Matera this region is is being “discovered” for its uniqueness and rich history.
While part of the town of Matera spreads out across the Murgia Plateau, the Sassi district is undeniably the main attraction and for good reason. With its complex network of caves, cisterns, rock-cut houses and churches separated and connected by alleyways, archways, terraces, overlapping streets on top of dwellings and steep flights of steps (and I do mean steep!) the Sassi is a fascinating maze to explore on foot.
The Sassi, which means stone, are believed to be among the first human settlements in Italy. A perfect natural fortress, as early as 7000 BC, nomadic peoples sought refuge in these caves and they have been continuously inhabited ever since.
The caves are the result of water eroding the tufa rock over thousands and thousands of years into the sides of the Gravina Gorge. Additional digging and quarrying of the soft tufa resulted in the troglodytic (cave-dwelling) lifestyle characterized by a complex system of underground dwellings, churches, cisterns, and tombs.
Divided into two sections, Sasso Caveoso to the south and the Sasso Barisano to the north, what was once a productive settlement declined into what Carlo Levi referred to in his 1945 novel, Christ Stopped at Eboli, as “a symbol of the misery of the peasant” in southern Italy. When he first set eyes on Matera, he wrote: “No one can see Matera and remain unmoved by its expressive, touching, painful beauty.”
They decided to relocate inhabitants to the more modern areas city although many chose to continue living in what was considered uninhabitable conditions.
After the decision to move the inhabitants out, work began in the late 50’s – early 60’s to restore the old houses and rock cut churches. This resurgence in re-development and investment has transformed many of the dwellings into cave hotels, private homes, restaurants, and shops.
Dedicated to preserving its unique heritage, both the ancient dwellings as well as new museums and tourist services are faithfully restored to enhance their original features.
Thanks to Eustachio Rizzi and his sons you can visit a typical Sassi casa grotta. Called “C’era Una Volta” (Once Upon a Time), the cave home is furnished with antique furniture and sculptures. They have faithfully recreated and portrayed l’antica casa grotta and the cave-dwelling life of the people in Matera up until the end of the 60’s.
Described as the “most ancient living city in the world”, in 1993 the Sassi became a Unesco World Heritage Site and in October, 2014, Matera was awarded the title of the 2019 European Capital of Culture, the fourth Italian city to garner this honor.
The Commissioner predicted, ”I am convinced that the title will bring Matera and its surrounding area significant long-term cultural, economic and social benefits, as we have seen with previous European Capitals…”
This recognition, along with the infusion of millions of euros, being featured prominently featured in travel journals and magazines, and the rise in tourism, will doubtless usher Matera into a new era.Need some travel tips for Italy? I have the perfect book for you! Mine!
Available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle!