Matera was the best surprise of our trip to Puglia and Southern Italy with Go Ahead Tours. How had two such amazingly well-informed (and stunningly attractive) travelers as ourselves never heard of this place? We still don’t know the answer to that but want you to know about it because it’s interesting on several levels (in retrospect you will see that that is a pun).
As the third oldest continually inhabited city in the world (after Aleppo and Jericho) Matera must have more stories to tell than even your elderly aunt after too many martinis.
For over 9,000 years people have lived in Matera. The Romans founded the city in the third century BC and a Who’s Who of invaders conquered and ruled it over the thousands of years since.
From its beginning, people inhabited “sassi” in Matera. Sassi are buildings and caves carved from stone and cliffs. The roof of one building is often the floor of another (is that earlier pun making sense now?).
Many historical accounts refer to sassi as”troglodyte settlements “ which sounds odd and judgey to us.
Life in Matera in the past
Families of as many as 10 people and their animals would live together in one of the cave structures. People were so poor that at times when they could not afford to feed their children they would drug them with poppies so they would sleep for a couple days. Starvation was a constant threat to life in the area and hygiene was less than ideal.
However, the residents did devise a system of rainwater channels and cisterns dug beneath homes. It was in part this ingenious water system that earned Matera a place on Unesco’s World Heritage list in 1993.
Go Ahead Tours provided us with an interesting and knowledgeable local guide. Her parents and grandparents had lived in Matera before a government program, begun in the 1950s, forced all inhabitants out to live in government provided modern apartment buildings. At the time Matera had been declared the “shame of Italy” because of its unhygienic living conditions and extreme poverty.
We were able to tour, with our guide, a former cave home and see how people lived. We’re quite sure it smelled a lot better now than it did when it was inhabited.
Matera has been the site of several films including Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ because the city looks (or so we’re told) like ancient Jerusalem. It was also the home base for the Amazons in the recent movie Wonder Woman but the waterfalls they added in the movie don’t exist. (The Amazons totally exist!)
Life in Matera now
Matera was deserted after the inhabitants were resettled. But in the late 1970s artisans began to come back to the area and over the years a group of young professionals and others spearheaded the restoration of the city.
Today many of Matera’s sassi have been restored and are used as homes, small hotels, restaurants, and shops. Because Matera is a UNESCO World Heritage site the restorations have to meet strict criteria to maintain historical integrity. The government still owns 70% of the land but they grant long-term leases to those willing to invest in restoration.
Our guide took us to a small store stocked with high quality, locally made products. We were so impressed that we risked getting home with our clothes coated in pesto from the jars we ended up checking in our luggage.
On the flat above the scassi is the “Civita” – the highest and most prominent area where the richer people lived (upstream in both senses). Matera’s Cathedral which was completed in 1270 is located there as are quite a few restaurants and some shops.
At lunchtime, our guide recommended ordering an “appertivo completo” if we were in a hurry for lunch. (“In a hurry” in Italy means getting some food in under an hour. and a half.) If you order a drink and an appertivo completo you get a tray with all kinds of food.
It was like clowns getting out of a VW Beetle as they brought out more and more food. We also enjoyed some fascinating people watching with our lunch.
Matera – You’ve Come a Long Way Baby
In the last 70 years Matera has gone from being the “shame of Italy” to being reclaimed as a place representative of a long and proud history. People who once denied having ever lived there now have celebrity status.
In 2019 Matera will be the European Capital of Culture city; an honor unimaginable in the 1950s. It isn’t only America that loves second acts!
Disclosure: We were guests of Go Ahead Tours and, surprisingly enough, they’re still being nice to us!