I visit Italy’s Matera, which will be the 2019 Cultural Capital of Europe, in 2018. This is lucky because I know the crowds will flock to see this ancient Italian city next year. What isn’t smart is visiting in July during a heat wave. I am staying in a hotel that includes caves as guest rooms.
Leaning over my Hotel Sassi balcony, I gaze down at the steeped limestone houses built into the craggy canyon. It is 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.
Old Matera, a prehistoric village abandoned in the 1950s by the Italian government, now is its pride. Sassi di Matera is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Smithsonian Magazine describes Matera as an ancient civilization turned into a slum but 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.”
In 2019, Matera will represent Italy as the European Cultural Capital. The goal of this initiative it “putting culture at the heart of European cities with EU support for yearlong festivals of art and culture.” The goal is to highlight the richness and diversity of cultures.
Tourists flock to Matera to see the natural caves which were first occupied in the Paleolithic Age. Across the city, stores and homes are being restored. A new roundabout will be built near the train and bus station. The eyes of Europe will be on a little town in Southern Italy that is recognized as one of oldest habitations in the world.
I am visiting Matera as part of an Exodus Travel group that comprises hikers from England, France, Scotland, Wales and the United States. We will explore 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).
On Sunday morning, we pack into our van by 8:30 am to drive to the park. With the desert sun making the afternoon heat unbearable, we must hike in the early morning. We need a minimum of 1.5 liters of water to stay hydrated. The sun is unmerciful.
We will be climbing cliffs, trekking ravines and exploring 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.
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. 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.”
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. It is a painting for adoration and contemplation.
We are stopped from touching the fresco by a fence that blocks access. The rock church and painting of the Madonna with Child is 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 would come to live in the caves. It was a solitary existence. With the exception of the frescoes painted on the gnarly walls of the caves, their religious icons were the steep boulders and craters surrounding the caves. There are over 1,500 cave dwellings that are scattered across the ravine.
In the 1950s, Matera was declared a slum. Peasants were barely surviving living in the caves without electricity or fresh water. Disease devastated the community. It would become Italy’s shame. Over 16,000 people were forced to move out of the Sassi and relocate in new housing projects. The warren of caves were 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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