Italy is not all high fashion and fast cars!It’s hard to believe that up till as late as the 1970s there were cave dwellers in Italy, a country with a reputation for high fashion and sleek fast cars. In the southern spur of Italy is the town of Matera whose citizens used to live in dwellings scooped out of rock cliffs.
Matera, a southern province of Basilicata, is perched on the edge of a deep ravine. The town is divided into a bustling upper district and the quieter lower Sassi district. The caves of the Sassi district is the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, which is why it gained UNESCO World Heritage listing in 1993. The first inhabited zone dates from the Palaeolithic, while later settlements illustrate a number of significant stages in human history.
It is believed that such caves provided refuge for the monks from Eastern Anatolia from the 8th – 13th centuries. They were taken over by peasants in the 15th century, but by the 18th century some of these caves had evolved into fairly grand mansions and convents. Unfortunately, by the 1950s the Sassi district went into decline and was overtaken by squalor and poverty.
Between the 1950s and the 1970s, when Sassi district’s 15,000 inhabitants were forcibly relocated in public housing developments on the outskirts of town, the cave dwellings were entirely without modern conveniences. Italy was undergoing its postwar economic boom phase at the time, and the image of agricultural labourers living in caves and without sanitation did not sit well with the country’s new sense of propriety.
By the mid-1990s, however, local activists were pressing for a review of Matera’s underground heritage. There was a realization of the value of the warren of abandoned dwellings, as well as the numerous rock-hewn churches, many of them decorated with Byzantine paintings. When the Sassi district gained World Heritage listing, opportunistic people started buying up abandoned buildings and their caves, or restoring what they found beneath their own homes.
Today the district is humming with life again. Small hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, wine bars and restaurants as well as an impressive Museum of Contemporary Sculpture have sprung up in great settings. Caves have been immaculately cleaned out and furnished but still maintaining its archaic mystery. A prime example of this is the La Casa di Lucio Hotel. Comprising ten rooms and two suites in east-facing caves, their innermost reaches must once have been the sanctum of burial chambers.
Matera is a fascinating place and certainly worth a visit.