I’ve wanted to visit Matera for several years, especially after reading more about the city. We left Ostuni and drove up to Matera, parked in the new part of town, and walked over to our hotel in Piazza Sedile.
An ancient settlement that had a succession of rulers, Matera developed an impressive system of cisterns and water supply for the homes built into and around caves, called Sassi. Rock churches were built around the ravines between the 8th and 13th centuries, the population and fortuns of the city ebbed and flowed with economic changes and for a short time it was the capital of the province. More and more people crowded into the Sassi in the 19th and 20th enturies. Carlo Levi’s “Christ Stopped at Eboli” describes the poverty and illness suffered by the residents, with his sister recalling starving children begging for quinine from passerby to help the ever-present Malaria. Large families lived with their animals in one-room Sassi, with the only ventilation coming from the entry.In the 1950’s, infant mortality was near 50%. After an outcry, Italy forcibly relocated the 15,000 residents to housing on the outskirts. From what I’ve read, the results were mixed–although health conditions were improved by the move, the social impact on families was less positive.In the 80’s, the Sassi were declaided a UNESCO site, money was available for restoration, and tourism discovered the city. Restaurants, bars, and B&B’s now inhabit many of the caves, with some residents as well. Our guide told us his father thinks people are crazy to want to live in the Sassi again.
The Sassi are divided into two areas, Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso. Barisano is the area where most of the restoration has taken place, with Sasso Caveoso more reflective of the hardscrapple past. Across a large ravine is the area peppered with rock churches and caves dug by nomadic monks.
In any case, it’s a fascinating place to visit. The Sassi are eerie and give a fascinating glimpse into history, and the more modern city above is lively and engaging. We went on a walk with a guide from Ferula Viaggi, which was extremely helpful in orienting us in the Sassi and getting a deeper understanding. It’s a challenging place to walk around, with steep stone steps, and “streets” that are the top of rock homes. We also visited one of the rock churches that had wonderful mosaics from the 10th and 16th centuries ( no photos allowed) and a small museum set up with furnishings from when the Sassi were last inhabited.
We chanced into a place for lunch that turned into one of the best meals of our trip. We had a fantastic plate of mixed antipasti–fried zucchini, figs stuffed with ricotta, the best suppli I’ve ever had, faro salad, marinated zucchini, mozzarella, polenta. After that we shared a plate of a regional specialty, Pasta Con Peperoni Cruschi , Mollica Fritta. e Pancetta (pasta with fried hot peppers, bread crumbs and pancetta). Great stuff. Stano Ristorante, via Santa Cesaria, Matera.
The evening passagiata was great fun, with the streets and piazzas in the upper town busy with people chatting and having an aperativo. People kept going into the night, with the balcony of our hotel room giving a great view. We had a late dinner at Le Botteghe, which I must admit was disappointing, with rather bland and oily orecchiette and dried-out lamb.
The Sassi were particularly evocative at night. Rather ironic, as at the time the residents were relocated, there wasn’t electricity in the Sassi.