Rome, Florence, Milan, Naples… Italy rings a bell to everyone, and rare are the ones who come back untouched by its utter beauty (writes Julia Ossena). The old saying “To see Venice and die” says it all. However after a month travelling from Genoa down the country’s western coast, I was starting to feel trapped in some kind of living museum.
Art and refinement were everywhere, from exquisite statues on street corners to classical music relentlessly played in churches. Trying to escape to the countryside in order to give my brain a rest, I would come across the most sumptuous rolling hills of Tuscan vineyards or the most typical villages that gave me once again the impression I had just stepped into a postcard.
So it’s in a state of cerebral overload that I was introduced to Matera while rushing to Brindisi, where I was hoping to escape to Greece by boat. At first it was the landscape that caught my attention. The Plateau of Murge is a large and rugged area partly planted with olive trees and partly dedicated to sheep farming. It’s a dry and rough environment during the colder months but pleasantly green as soon as spring arrives. The local natural beauty is emphasised by limestone erosion that creates the grandeur residing in its windswept hills and disheveled trees. With its fantastic opportunities of hiking and caving, it felt to me like a breath of fresh air, a gush of freedom leaving me with the impression of having explored the moon.
Take a stroll through history
And then came the town… Gripped on the edge of a deep ravine, the troglodytic aspect of Matera seems out of this world. Houses carved into the pale rock crumble on top of each other to form the sassi, an intricate maze of narrow cobbled streets dangerously bordering the cliff, listed since 1993 as a Unesco World Heritage site. The river sings deep down the gorge sculpting the limits of the town. It’s been snaking and digging for millenniums, creating this hallucinatory landscape with the help of rain and erosion. The site welcomed the first Neolithic Men in the heart of what wasn’t yet called Italy. Many generations came and went, finding shelter in these protective caves that people have called home for over 9,000 years.
After its evacuation in 1952 for health and safety reasons, the town was left derelict for decades. However Matera shines nowadays as the rough diamond of south Italy. Its spectacular location has brought back a permanent population of 3,000 people and has attracted companies proud to contribute to the town’s rebirth. Affordable B&B hidden in traditional habitats give you the opportunity to experience a troglodytic sleep, and if you’re lucky to pick the perfect location you’ll enjoy breakfast with a plunging view over the ravine.
A simple walk around town will lead you up and down from Sasso Barisano (upper district) to Sasso Caveoso (lower district), through an amazing architecture lesson: from small squares to cul-de-sacs, you are instantly transported from the Neolithic period to Ancient Rome, then from mediaeval to Baroque style. It’s an extraordinary and moving site, a fascinating historical shortcut that takes you back in time at each corner to help you imagine life in the sassi.
Architecture and cinema
There are various itineraries you can follow, each with a different theme suiting your range of interest. These discovery tours are mostly organised by the tourism office where you can buy the pass for your sassi experience. With or without a local guide, this ticket will allow you entrance to entirely restored and preserved traditional habitats as well as splendid rock churches. In the heart of a deeply religious country, Matera has always clung onto its faith, building itself a heritage of churches – most of them dug into the rock – painted with stunning frescoes that offer an atmosphere of simple devotion able to bring the most cold-hearted anticlerical to tears. Santa Maria Idris is the most emblematic of all, rising above the architectural chaos, its doorway carved into a massive boulder.
What a contrast with the distinguished nearby Sant’Agostino and Romanesque cathedral! Another itinerary you might want to follow is one inspired by a more recent type of art: cinema. Matera’s scarred landscape and rustic architectural beauty has attracted the attention of famous directors: Mel Gibson came here to shoot his Passion of Christ in 2003, 39 years after Pier Paolo Pasolini and his Gospel according to St. Matthew (1964). Overwhelmed by the town’s atmospheric cobbled maze, Gibson declared: “Some parts of the city are two thousand years old, and they resemble the landscape that probably existed in the Judea. The architecture, the rocks and the surrounding landscape have furnished us an exceptional background... The first time I saw Matera, I lost my head, because it was simply perfect!"
Following a difficult past and decades of dereliction, Matera now has everything to offer those ready to get away from the heavier-travelled Italian road. Its great outdoors lead to exhilarating adventure up and down natural caves, and most of all the sassi will provide you with one of the finest and oddest views over some of the country’s most secret heritage.
About the author
Julia Ossena is a French freelance travel journalist living in London. She has traveled extensively around Asia and Europe, and describes herself of being most proud of her year-long camping trip around the "old continent".