Matera: La Città Nella Roccia—The Town Carved Out of the Rock
Victoria De Maio
Nestled in the “arch” of the boot between Puglia and Campania, Basilicata was, until recently, a lesser known much 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.
Approaching Matera, you are immediately struck by the distinctive Sassi di Matera which, even from a distance, are a remarkable and dramatic sight.
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 the Sassi district is a fascinating maze to explore on foot.
The Sassi, which means stones, 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 soft tufa rock over thousands and thousands of years into the sides of the gorge. Additional digging and quarrying resulted in the cave-dwelling lifestyle characterized by a complex system of underground dwellings, churches, cisterns, and tombs.
In 1952, the combination of overcrowding of both humans and their animals, as well as the extreme poverty and appalling conditions, were judged to be unhealthy by the Italian government. 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 home. Called “C’era Una Volta” (Once Upon a Time), casa grotta is furnished with antique furniture and sculptures They have faithfully recreated and portrayed l’antica casa grotta, the cave-dwelling life of the people in Matera up until the end of the 60’s. In addition, taking 3 years to complete, Eustachio created an exact miniature replica of the Sassi di Matera. A visit to both is certainly a must when you visit Matera.
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.