Matera: Once the “Shame” of Italy is Now its Best Kept Secret
Posted on: January 15, 2019, by Deanna Byck
I read about Matera, Italy twice last year; once in the New York Times Magazine in October and then again in the New York Times 52 places to visit in 2018. The times urged its readers to “hurry before the secret gets out”. The deal was cinched when a friend of mine went with her family over the Christmas holidays. She came back and told me, “You HAVE to go to Matera before everyone discovers it.”
Naturally, when my husband proposed, “Do you want to go somewhere for five days… maybe do some biking?” I jumped on it and probably had tickets to Italy before he even finished the question. We were planning a trip to Sweden in Early April for a Freestyle ski event but we had five days on the front end to do some exploring. Yeah, I know, Italy is pretty far from Sweden – but hey – they are both in Europe.
I called Jill Murwin at Chasing Atlas – my “go to” for travel.
“Do you think you can arrange a cycling trip for the two of us in early April? The only requirement for us is that we spend a couple of days in Matera.”
“You are going to LOVE Matera! Its right up your alley,” she told me.
“Wait, you know about it?” I asked incredulously.
“Ha! We started doing trips in Puglia in the last couple of years. Our clients love Matera!” she told me.
“Wait, other people know about it, too?” I asked. I guess the secret is getting out.
“Give me a couple of days, and I will put something together for you,” she promised.
Matera, in the Basilicata Region, lies in the arch of the boot of Italy and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. People have lived in the caves (Sassi meaning stone) since the 10th millennium BC – over 18,000 years since the Paleolithic era.
The city is divided by a ravine cut by the Gravina River far below. On one side lies empty ancient caves, on the other, a labyrinth of caves and churches seemingly built on top of itself. Apparently, only about 30 % of the city is visible. The rest lies within the deep dark caverns. Contained within is an Archeologist’s dream: hundreds of millennium-old churches, frescos, and thousands of artifacts date it back to the earliest known civilizations. But the cultural history is more recent with many inhabitants living in the same fashion as they have for thousands of years.
After the unification of Italy in 1870, Matera fell into desperate poverty. The town’s prehistoric cave dwellings had by then become “dark holes” – the inhabitants shared their small spaces with their barnyard animals and the city of caves was riddled with filth and disease including malaria, dysentery, and rampant infection. Water was hard to come by and families collected rainwater and stored it in either shared or single shallow stagnant cisterns. The more well-to-do families added fish to keep the water moving, the poorer families used snakes. The entire population of roughly 16,000 farmers and peasants were relocated to new housing projects a few miles away in the 1950s after Matera was deemed the “shame of Italy” for its dismal conditions. They were given homes with stables outside for their animals. From many families, it was their first experience with running water and toilets.
With an incentive from the government, people started fixing up the caves in the 1980s. Prior to that some of the empty dwellings were ridden with crime – used for drug deals and prostitution. The new “repurposing” has been creative and inventive with many of the caves turned into art studios, restaurants, galleries, museums, and even hotels.
In 1993 Matera has deemed a Unesco World Heritage Site. This past October, the European Commission named Matera one of its two capitals of European culture for 2019.
To this day, Matera feels like a secret with much to be discovered. The hotel where we stayed, Sextantio Le Grotte, in the older part of the “Sassi” (Stone Neighborhood), is a small yet beautiful property with 18 lofty “cave” rooms with an ancient church used for the common area and spectacular breakfasts. There is no plastic on the property, and the furnishings are simple wood. With the intent for minimal intervention, every room and the common area is lit only by hidden lights in crevices or by candlelight. When you stay there, you feel as if you are transported back in time, except of course for the welcomed radiant heated floors.
Staying in Matera is like going through a portal to a distant past. While there are now modern conveniences like great restaurants, galleries, comfortable and luxurious lodging oh and running water and toilets, you are able to experience what it must have been like 1,000 years ago. Hopefully, as more people discover it, the charm of the distant past will not be left behind.
Author: Deanna Byck.