It is also called “the second Bethlehem“: a little bit away from the main touristic roads, Matera is nonetheless listed as a World Heritage site, because of its “Sassi“, hollowed out in the tuff by the water of the Galvina river, by time and by men.
For a long time, Basilicata was an isolated, poverty-stricken region, and one of the only deserts in Europe. There, the fascist regime sent its opponents into exile – Carlo Levi, in 1935, was one of them. His exile in Basilicata inspired him with a novel that made Matera famous in Italy and abroad: Christ stopped at Eboli (Cristo si è fermato a Eboli), published in 1945.
The Sassi di Matera are like an open wound in the heart of the city. For a long time, they were considered the disgrace of Italy, this web of troglodytic houses dating back to the paleolithic era was emptied in 1950s. 20.000 people lived in these holes: men, women, children, old men, cattle. The poorest and the most derelict population in Italy spent most of its time outside and a strong social life developed on the little squares of the Sassi. No water, no electricity, a window – sometimes.
Until after the war, the town of Matera stood for the darkest misery, the one that struck Southern Italian populations, plagued by insalubrity, poverty and malaria. Afterwards, the population of the Sassi was relocated in new buildings, with a view on the tuff crater.
Still, the Sassi, land of winds and shabby cats, stayed the same until 1993, when the city was listed as a World Heritage site. After that, the Sassi became a symbol of the revival of the city – they were renovated by stone buffs and some yuppies who started opening confidential luxury hotels in a minimalist style (claustrophobes, stay away). Since 2005, a new bill extended to foreigners the right to take part in the revival of the Sassi, once the privilege of its inhabitants.
Matera attracts history lovers and environment enthusiasts. The Sassi are a unique example of an ancient way of life that maintaied a harmonious relationship with the environment, especially as far as water supply and management are concerned.
I shortly followed and went to Matera in 2006, when the Sassi were still by and large abandoned: 350 households. I walked around what looked like a creche, scattered on the slopes of a steep ravine, with an unfinished fortress, a rupestrian byzantine church and its monumental cross towering over the cliff. You pass by smashed doors, shut for the last time half a century ago, with a piece of iron. What I remember most is the silence.
Enjoy the lively modern part of the city and take a break for lunch at the Trattoria Lucana to make sure that the memory of the shooting of The Passion of the Christ is still alive! The chef, Gigi, keeps the flame alive by carpeting the walls (and the menus) with pictures of him and Mel Gibson, whose team went to the trattoria regularly. This traditional restaurant offers a simple and efficient cuisine (and yes, there are “fettucine alla Mel Gibson“…), antipasti mezzé-size (ricotta soufflés, chicory and smashed broad beans, stuffed peppers…). You’ll be able to skip dinner after that!
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