Perched high above the instep of the Boot in the eastern extreme of the region of Basilica is a city unlike any other in Italy. What makes Matera unique and marks it as a Southern Italian “must see” are its historic, or rather prehistoric, quarters: the sassi. Literally meaning “the rocks,” Matera’s sassi offer the best example of troglodyte (cave-dwelling) existence anywhere in the Mediterranean. People have inhabited these caves since Paleolithic times (as early as 15,000 B.C.), making Matera one of the world’s oldest continuously settled cities, older than Petra or Byblos.
Matera’s sassi give the impression of a city that’s crumbling, and as little as 50 years ago that impression was accurate. Following WW II and Carlo Levi’s shocking exposé Christ Stopped in Eboli, Matera was considered “the shame of Italy” and residents were forcibly evacuated. Then, in the 80’s, a younger generation, fascinated by the cave dwellings, began inspired restorations and people started moving back in. Artisans set up workshops and galleries while bars, restaurants and boutique hotels sprang up. The UNESCO designation in 1993 and, later, the filming of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ helped put Matera on the map, but tourism only really picked up five years ago when Matera won its bid to become the European Capitol of Culture 2019.
You know tastes have come full circle when travelers clamor to live like troglodytes … at least for a few days!
A special thanks to Frank Yantorno for this stunning slideshow. Frank lives outside of Bolzano and is a spectacular photographer, fine artist and guide with Ciclismo Classico.