In 2018, I visited Matera in southern Italy. It was honored as the 2019 Cultural Capital of Europe. Visiting Matera in the year before its nomination was lucky because I avoided the crowds that would flock to see this ancient Italian city.
But it wasn’t smart visiting Matera in July during a heatwave. I stayed in a hotel that included caves as guest rooms. The air conditioning didn’t work.
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Leaning over my Hotel Sassi balcony, I gazed down at the steeped limestone houses built into the craggy canyon. I saw a sea of sandstone dwellings. If you fear heights, this panoramic view will give you vertigo.
Matera is an ancient cave-dwelling city in the province of Matera in the Basilicata region of southern Italy. This cliff town was carved out by the Gravina di Picciano River.
The Italian government abandoned Old Matera, a prehistoric village, in the 1950s. It is now its pride. Sassi di Matera is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Smithsonian Magazine describes Matera as a slum which is now a hidden gem:
“Once the ‘shame of Italy,’ the ancient warren of natural caves in Matera may be Europe’s most dramatic story of rebirth.”Smithsonian Magazine
European Cultural Capital
In 2019, Matera was named a European Cultural Capital. The goal of this initiative is to put “culture at the heart of European cities with EU support for yearlong festivals of art and culture,” according to Europeana.
Tourists flocked to Matera to see the natural caves which were first occupied in the Paleolithic Age. Across the city, stores and homes were being restored.
“The terrain around Matera, so evocative as to earn the nickname ‘The Second Bethlehem,’ has impressed writers, artists and directors for centuries.”Italia.it
A new roundabout was built near the train station. The eyes of Europe were on this little town in southern Italy. Matera is an ancient civilization. It can boast some of the oldest habitations in the world.
I visited Matera as part of an Exodus Travel group that comprised hikers from England, France, Scotland, Wales, and the United States. We explored the “boot” of Italy, visiting national parks as well as white-washed towns, like Ostuni (White City on a Hill) and Locorotondo (Puglia’s prettiest town).
We climbed cliffs, trekked ravines, and explored rock churches dating back to the Middle Ages. Benedictine monks burrowed in their caves to meditate and pray.
There are over 150 rock churches in Sassi di Matera. Translated “Sassi” means stone in Italian.
At one shrine, I observed a calico cat approach the Shrine of Virgin Mary. It slipped between the rocks and trees. Slowly it walked up the path to the shrine, stopping to pay homage. Then it walked away.
We walked for hours until the sun became unbearable. It was time for an afternoon nap.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Sassi and the Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“This is the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem.”UNESCO
The first inhabited zone dates from the Palaeolithic, while later settlements illustrate a number of significant stages in human history. Matera is in the southern region of Basilicata,” according to the website.
The Sassi and the Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera comprises a complex of houses, churches, monasteries and hermitages built into the natural caves of the Murgia.
Our first church is a shrine to the Virgin Mary. It is a tiny dwelling that squats low to the ground and is less than five feet tall.
A fresco of the blue-clad Madonna holding baby Jesus lines a rocky wall. The infant is dressed in a vibrant rose robe. Mary is clad in her deep blue robe.
Their faces have been erased by the harsh environmental conditions but you can still see Jesus’ halo and Mary’s hand. The painting is more beautiful than any Rembrandt viewed in an art gallery.
We are stopped from touching the fresco by a fence that blocks access. The rock church and painting of the Madonna with Child are in proverbial jail. The room can only be entered with a key. Scrub and desert orchids are the only flowers at the altar.
We are definitely worshipping in the Church of the Wild. Centuries ago, monks lived in these caves. It was a solitary existence. Their religious icons were the steep boulders and craters surrounding the caves. There are over 1,500 cave dwellings scattered across the ravine.
“The sites of worship that, in part, compose the Park of Rupestrian Churches of Matera, are many and are dispersed throughout the surrounding territory, within the Communes of Matera and Montescaglioso.”Italia.it
In the 1950s, the Italian government declared Matera was a slum. Peasants who lived in these caves were barely surviving. There was no electricity or freshwater. Illnesses devastated the community. It would become Italy’s shame. Over 16,000 people were forced to move out of the Sassi and relocate to new housing projects. The warren of caves was left empty.
Now less than 80 years later, Matera is recognized as a cultural gem. Tourists from around the world will pay to stay in the renovated caves-turned-hotels. Today Matera puts the past into soft focus.
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