Our day in Matera has to go down as a visit to one of the most unique places in Europe. Put in more cinematic terms, to walk around in Citte Sotterenea, as the old town is called, is to feel like you’ve time-traveled back to an early Christian town in the Holy Land.
Located in the rocky inland region of Basilicata in the heel of Italy’s boot, about 70 kilometers from the Adriatic coast, Matera is said to have started as a prehistoric troglodyte cave-dwelling village. Credited with being the first human settlement in Italy, the sassi, the ravine neighborhood of stone and cave dwellings (altogether there are 3000 habitable caves), is one of the oldest towns on earth, with continuous human habitation going back 9000 years (to 7000 B. C. E.). Much of old town is perched on the steep-sided, pinched ravine known as the Gravina gorge. Stone-paved walkways and gray-rock facades were added in the late Middle Ages. The interiors were lightless, vent-less, damp, over-crowded: a typical household averaged six kids, plus the mules, chickens, and pigs bedded down with them. The problem of water supply was solved by digging a series of canals connected to underground spring-fed cisterns and from cauldrons carved out of the relatively soft tufa and limestone. In the 1930s, Matera was turned into a UNESCO site. Exposed to the attention of the wider world, this city of stone became an attractive location for filming movies that depicted stories requiring a Biblical setting, including Pier Paulo Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” and Mel Gibson’s “The Passion,” and a re-make of “Ben Hur.”
The problem that wasn’t solved was how to get rid of the standing water that offered a fertile breeding ground for mosquitoes. In 1956, when forced relocation of the locals began, half of the Matera population still lived in the sassi, which had become malaria infested. The child mortality rate was 50 %. In his memoir, Christ Stopped at Eboli, Carlo Ponti describes children in the sassi begging passersby for quinine. By 1968, urban planners had moved 15,000 people out of the sassi and up onto the plateau and into planned housing. In the 1980s, renovation began. Plumbing, electricity, and sewer drainage systems were added. Most of the families chose not to move back into the sassi. What you find there now are hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns and eating establishments and empty dwellings. The narrow, steep stone-paved roads, often including stairs, are just more suitable to mules. People today want cars.
To find Hotel Sassi, our cave accommodation for the night, and, as far as we know, the place where we will pick up our bicycles, requires a ten-minute walk from the train station through the modern town to Piazza San Giovanni, where we begin our descent into the Gravina gorge. Cars are only allowed in the gorge on Via Fiorentini, a street that winds through the bottom from the northwest. We don’t have to worry about traffic but we do have to worry about tripping on rough stones on the hike down. Our room appears to have been carved into the cliff side. Outwardly covered by a façade with a door and window, inside, the room’s cave walls and arched ceiling are covered with lumpy plaster, the floor paved with stone tiles. The mounted flat screen TV has satellite hookup; later that evening we watch a soccer match in our cave room. The walls sweat damp. There is no air ventilation unless you prop open the door. The bedding smells of vinegar, a solution needed to battle the mold and mildew.
After spending much of the afternoon hiking up and down the sassi, we discover, behind Piazza San Pietro Caveoso on the north perimeter of the gorge (the church here by the same name is the only church in the sassi not carved out of the tufa), a wall-lined avenue with views looking down into Torrente Gravina , the gorge that bends around the village. The limestone caves etched into the rocky upslope on the opposite side of the ravine, a few graced with stone facades, give us a pretty good view of what life must have been like in Matera before improvements: strenuous climbs more suitable to mules and goats would have been required to access the stream at the ravine bottom, or any crops planted above; safety from marauders and predation would have been the trade-off.
At the cliff edge, behind the church, we come upon Storica Casa Grotto, a cave home restored to early 18th Century comforts. It looks pretty upscale by comparison to the caves we just saw. Walls and animal-stall partitions were built inside with stone bricks. The cave walls and ceiling were plastered, giving them the cratered look of a lunar landscape. The bathroom, a tiny closet at the back of the cave, employed a chamber pot that had to be hauled. Beside it the manger held feed and leavings from the mules and goats. With so many kids, families had a built-in labor force to help draw water in buckets from a shaft dug down to the underground cistern that filled with crystal clear water in a pool at a depth of several meters. They had a loom. A kitchen nook with a tiled, wood-burning, cast-iron oven. In winter, the cave home was warmed by burning relatively smokeless coal embers, kept glowing in a round, cast-iron device that resembled a blackened wok.
We tried to imagine trading our life for this life. The entire family cozying together in the one big bed, chickens sleeping underneath. Goats bedding down in a low crib mere steps away. And pigs. It occurred to me that hundreds of generations of herders and farmers would have considered this home the apex of luxury. That night, in our own cave room, smelling the vinegar, sweating along with the sweating walls, we considered our good fortune at having electricity and modern plumbing. But just looking at the walls’ textured landscape you could not forget how thin a veneer civilization is, how close to the bedrock elements we have lived for most of human history.
When the eight o’clock dinner hour finally arrives that night, we give over any pretense at life returning to the baser elements and opt for Oi Mari, a ristorante just off Via Fiorentini, a ground-level cellar carved out of a system of caves in the ravine bottom. The sliced zucchini antipasto veggie dish, followed by crisp, thin-crusted pizza Napoletana—your choice of meats include prosciutto or tuna—is served at white-linen covered tables with candlelight; no cave-dwelling fare here.
After that wonderful dinner, to enjoy the view, we climb winding paths up the ravine to the walled piazza fronting the Duomo and look down in awe. The first thing you notice is no street lights or traffic lights or neon signs. Yes, thanks to the 80s reconstruction what you do see is an elaborate necklace of porch lights. Looked down on from above, the sassi buildings, which line every visible wrinkle in the ravine, seem jammed together like gray-stone Mind Craft blocks. Oh, and you can’t help but notice the quiet. The barrage of white noise that is never ending in a modern urban area is here an absence that is so profoundly palpable it startles you into noticing.
It rains, later. Hard. The kind of pounding rain that blows inland off the sea. Gratefully back in our sanctuary when the rain starts, we watch soccer and wait for that profound quiet to return.
Tomorrow our bike journey begins.