Matera, “la Città Sotterranea”, the underground city. A hundred years ago ignored by a distant government. A rabbit warren of intense poverty, a clot of hardscrabble lives spent sleeping in caves, working in fields far away. The Sassi. Wet, moldy hovels scraped out of limestone with warm blooded animals for heat, cold blooded for annoyance and disease. The shame of Italy.
Broken. All the King’s men and the Dictator’s black shirts couldn’t put it back together again. Christ stopped at Eboli.
So they kicked ‘em all out. Studied scientifically the ideas and successes of relocation. Gave them a place to live a little further on.
And the caves suffered without them. Soft limestone became beach sand. Roofs collapsed.
Then artists came. Squatters. People smoking things.
Revival. Slowly. Evolution is such an overgrown path. History swerves.
Now things have moved along enough that you can live in romantic caves. Expensively. With machines for heat, for de-humidification, machines to heat water, remove waste. Breakfast croissants baked fresh in giant, private, industrial ovens. It’s not nearly like it was.
You can visit hidden, frescoed churches built by priests on the run. You can re-live the times, scrubbed clean, restored for you.
It’s raining darkly. All the better for thinking bleakly. We head for the latest and most expensive Albergo Diffuso: Albergo Sextantio Le Grotte Della Civita, highly rated, at the edge of the city, the river on our right.
We ask to see a room but they’re all occupied. Instead, the breakfast room:
Down the street people are gawking at the frescoes and intricate carvings at the cave church called Madonna delle Virtù e San Nicola dei Greci. (Website and visiting times)
Later, just down the street, we visit what is billed as a typical house. A house where the animals slept ten feet from the adults. Where the bed is high enough for chickens to sleep and scratch below. Where the bathroom is a bedpan and pitcher.
And then there’s the cistern. At one time each house or cluster of houses would have its own cistern. But the big cistern under the Piazza Vittorio Veneto is the second largest after the more ornate version in Istanbul, the Basilica Cistern.
There. In one day you can poke your head into the Swiss cheese of Sassi, cleaned of its dust and mold. Sleep there if you want and ponder why you might think romantically of such a place.
Travel. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
Guide Suggestion: If you really want to know the history and culture of Matera, I can highly recommend Dr. Cosimo Rondinone, the guide we followed on our most recent trip. He’s a local, a resident and speaks perfect English. Contact him by telephone at +39 327 6192580. He is profiled on An Affair with Italy.