Of the earth
Once derided and a source of shame, the ancient sassi – or cave dwellings – of Matera are now a source of pride and wonder. Spend a night in an underground boutique hotel and you'll never use 'troglodyte' as an insult again
NADIA SHIRA COHEN/NYT
"Look, you see that little boy there?," says our gruff guide, Francesco Festa, in his strong Basilicata dialect. Festa is about five-foot-six with a head of snow-white hair and weathered skin the shade of a basketball. He's showing two young Neapolitan women and myself a framed family portrait taken in the early fifties. "That's me," he points. "The baby in the front. The best looking, right?" he grins.
I'm in Matera, inside the grotto Festa lived above as a child. These days he uses it as a makeshift museum to give tourists an idea of what it was like to live in a sasso, a rock cave. The cool, dark, dank-smelling cave is crammed haphazardly with an old double bed, table and dresser, large keys, horseshoes, cowbells, a wine press and old photos and newspaper clippings preserved in plastic envelopes. This particular sasso was once the wine cellar, the cantina as Festa calls it, of an old rock-hewn monastery.
"Over here is the well where they drew up the water," Festa says, directing us to a deep stone hole. Since they lived above the cave, Festa's family, which included seven brothers and two sisters, also used this same cistern to collect rainwater.
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Every once in a while he points perfunctorily, with an air of nonchalance, to fossils in the limestone walls, evidence that the sassi date back to the Palaeolithic age. It's also obvious that humans had been worshipping here centuries before his own ancestors lived above the cave. Festa points upward. In the curve of an archway we see a Byzantine-era painting of a sun. "This one I'll allow you take a photo of," he says. "But no flash!"
Holding up an old newspaper clipping he says, "When the reporters came to Matera in the fifties, they claimed they discovered a new cave church – ha!" he snorts derisively. "They didn't discover anything. We've always known about it!"
He's right, of course.
The porous limestone caves of Matera have been inhabited since prehistoric times, making the southern Italian Basilicatan city one of the oldest continually inhabited troglodyte communities in Italy, and among the oldest in the world. In the words of UNESCO, the sassi represent the most outstanding, intact example of a cave-dwelling settlement in the Mediterranean.
NADIA SHIRA COHEN/NYT
Indeed, my first sight of the sassi (divided into Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano) from the terrace at the cave hotel Il Belvedere, where I'm staying, was one of pure awe. I actually gasped when I first laid eyes upon the stark, desert-like beauty of the landscape: To the east, a deep ravine and a steep cliff face so pockmarked with holes the land looked like sea sponges; to the northwest, a tumble of sandstone-coloured caves, serpentine paths and subterranean churches punching through craggy rock faces. So harmoniously integrated into the natural terrain is this warren of caves, stepping into this unique tableau was akin to entering a time machine and being catapulted to Old Testament times. I half expected Moses to step out of a grotto brandishing a stone tablet in each hand.
It comes as no surprise then that Matera has been used again and again as a film set for biblical movies such as King David, Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and, most recently, the remake of Ben Hur, filmed in the sassi last winter.
But Matera's unusual beauty and newfound fame carries with it the bitter taste of tragedy. The sassi were home to a tightly knit community of peasants, shepherds, landowners, artisans and merchants who lived here for centuries, but by the 20th century, when the number of residents reached almost 20,000, overpopulation caused the collapse of the water and sewage systems. Hygiene declined, leading to illness, infant mortality and desperate poverty. Yet it wasn't until Italian artist and writer Carlo Levi's 1945 book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, a memoir of Levi's year in exile in Basilicata under the fascists, in which he compared Matera to Dante's Inferno, that the government began to take notice. In 1953, the sassi were declared a vergogna nazionale, the shame of Italy, and the residents evacuated to apartment houses in modern suburbs. For the next 40 years, the area became the largest completely abandoned historical centre in Italy, evidence of a shameful past to be forgotten.
After leaving Festa's grotto at the top of the Sasso Caveoso, I head down the slippery stone path toward the museum of the Raccolta delle acque – "any other is a fake," says Festa. The museum documents and exhibits an impressive system of water collection and canalization dating back about 1,000 years. The largest cistern, underneath Piazza Vittorio Veneto, has been likened to a "cathedral of water" due to its solid stone pillars and a vault 15 metres high filled with emerald green water. It was in large part thanks to the rediscovery of this sophisticated system that Matera was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1993.
Of course, you can't come to Matera without visiting its celebrated rock churches. To date, 155 of these have been found in the city's archaeological park of rupestrian churches. Over the next few days I make a small dent, visiting four.
Perhaps the most impressive of these is the Crypt of the Original Sin, hidden in a hollow in a ravine about 10 kilometres outside town. With its exquisite frescoes painted in the ninth century by a monk known as the Flower Painter of Matera, the Byzantine church is considered the Sistine Chapel of rupestrian art. Antonio Biscaglia, one of the guides at the Societa Artezeta, tells me how the cave was rediscovered by shepherds in the sixties. After a fascinating documentary, we talk about how the monks found refuge in the sassi to escape persecution, how they learned to paint so beautifully, and whether they would have slept here, in their sacred place, with their animals. According to Biscaglia, there were no strict distinctions back then between sacred and secular. Sleeping with your animals in an ancient rock church – "this was perfectly normal for us," he says. "We did it for centuries."
ANDREW MEDICHINI/The Associated Press
From ancient civilization to national disgrace to national – and international – treasure, Matera has travelled a long road. There are still those among the older generation who are ashamed of having grown up in a cave without electricity, gas or plumbing. For others it's become a badge of honour: If you were a troglodyte and lived to tell the tale, you were tough; you were Materan.
This fierce pride is recognizable all over the sassi. Everywhere I look as I negotiate the labyrinthian stone alleyways lined with newly restored grottoes, I see banners and posters trumpeting Matera's win as European Capital of Culture for 2019. Artisans carve miniature sassi villages out of tufa limestone and sell them in the piazzas. Tour guides motor tourists around in adorable vintage Ape cars. Boutique cave hotels, cafés and bars are doing a brisk business and young architects, artists and Web designers are taking over sassi for office space. The sassi are the place to be.
Festa may not himself have grown up in a cave, having lived in the more comfortable piano, the flat part just above his church cantina in the Sasso Caveoso, but he has always known that he comes from a long and distinguished history. "Io sono Materano," he says with confidence. "I am Materan."
Elizabeth Warkentin/Elizabeth Warkentin
IF YOU GO
Unless you're renting a car, Matera is difficult to reach. There is no airport or Trenitalia railway station, and privately operated trains do not run on Sundays. The closest transport hub is Bari. If you travel to Bari by train, get off at Bari Nord station, from where you can transfer to the Ferrovie Appulo Lucane line. The 70-kilometre journey takes an hour and a half. Make sure to ask to get off at Matera Centrale as there is no sign.
FAL also runs some buses from Bari. From other Italian cities there are two private bus lines: Marino Autolinee and Autolinee Marozzi.
A third option is to take a Trenitalia train to Ferrandina-Pomarico-Miglionico, where you can get a taxi to Matera for about $61.
WHERE TO SLEEP
Sextantio le Grotte della Civita: A once-in-a-lifetime luxury experience, the Grotte della Civita consists of 18 meticulously renovated cave rooms in an unadorned, minimalist style. Few rooms have windows, but the hotel features such thoughtful touches as gnarled wooden doors, candlelit vaulted ceilings, recycled antique wooden furniture, carved crosses, underfloor heating beneath the cobblestoned floors and egg-shaped Phillipe Starck bathtubs. Delicious breakfasts include homemade cakes and jams. Doubles from $230; designhotels.com
Il Belvedere: With its nondescript façade, you would never know that a lovingly restored boutique cave hotel lies within. The wide terrace affords exceptional views of the Sasso Caveoso and is an ideal place to sit in the evening over a glass of wine. Breakfast is plentiful and varied, featuring fresh fruit, focaccia fresh from the bakery and homemade cakes. Some rooms have windows. Double rooms start at $125; hotelbelvedere.matera.it
L'Hotel in Pietra: Located in the Sasso Barisano, L'Hotel Pietra is a converted 12th-century Benedictine church furnished with a mix of French, Italian and Brazilian pieces. Most rooms have extraordinary views. Blessedly quiet doubles start at $120; hotelinpietra.it
WHERE TO EAT
L'Arturo Enogastronomia: Located in a charming piazza that divides the Sasso Caveoso from the Sasso Barisano, this rustic wine bar and delicatessen serving local favourites in a congenial atmosphere is popular with locals, especially music students at the Matera conservatory. The back window offers a breathtaking view of the sassi.
Soul Kitchen: This colourful restaurant has been getting rave reviews since it opened in 2013. Brothers Pietro and Mimmo Marroccoli create a modern twist on Basilicatan cuisine, with Pietro, the chef, usually taking your order himself. Vegetarians will be especially pleased with the six-dish antipasti, three cold and three hot. Also popular are the eggplant pasta and potato ravioli. Bread is gluten-free. istorantesoulkitchen.it
A $9 ticket allows you to visit five of the most famous rupestrian churches (Santa Lucia, Madonna de Idris, San Giovanni in Monterrone, Convicinio di Sant'Antonio, Santa Maria de Armenis, Santa Barbara) or three churches for $7. sassiweb.com
To visit the Crypt of the Original Sin, book a ticket for $12 online ( artezeta.it). You can drive out to the meeting point at the Grifo gas station on the SS7 or arrange for a taxi to take you there for $62 return. cryptoforiginalsin.it