One of Italy’s most extraordinary cities tempts Christine Smallwood to return, as she looks forward to its year as European Capital of Culture.
However much you read about Matera in southern Italy, seeing the sassi in real life for the first time always elicits an exclamation – or several. It is the otherworldliness of these stone dwellings, seemingly carved into the hillside, that prompts hyperbole.
Matera, in the region of Basilicata, is said to have been inhabited since prehistoric times, and the sassi (stones) were homes to thousands of people up until the 1950s. The city came to international attention in 2004 when the Mel Gibson film The Passion Of The Christ was shot there; its setting was considered to be the perfect evocation of Jerusalem centuries earlier. Still today, parts of it are often described as “biblical-looking”.
But before Hollywood arrived, Carlo Levi wrote of the city in his book, Christ Stopped At Eboli. Published in 1945, it included a devastating description of the squalor in Matera. The city was subsequently known as ‘vergogne nazionale’, or ‘Italy’s shame’.
That embarrassment eventually resulted in a clear out of the primitive, cramped homes in the sassi, where families lived without heating, running water or sanitation. It’s hard to imagine today, especially because so many of the caves have been transformed into swanky tourist accommodation. A few moments spent in a reconstructed dwelling gives a brief glimpse into the past and helps visitors to appreciate how different life was just a few decades ago. Furnished simply with very basic equipment and, with the presence of a life-size model donkey, it becomes clear how crowded these ancient homes were, with humans and livestock sleeping – literally – side by side. In the height of summer the caves certainly provide welcome respite from the heat, yet the challenges of living here remain evident.
Of course, it’s not just the individual caves that have changed. Matera has benefitted both from being declared a Unesco World Heritage Site (in 1993) and from the surge of interest in the neighbouring region of Puglia. Flying into Bari and then driving west across the Murgia to the ravine on which the city sits is the most popular route from the UK. Once there, comfortably shod feet are the best transport.
The main attraction
Recently, the residents of Matera (known as the Materani) have had a spring in their steps as they prepare for the city’s tenure as European Capital of Culture in 2019, and the predicted steep increase in visitor numbers. The year will start in style on January 19 with an opening ceremony that promises to kick things off with a bang. Or rather a toot, an oompah and a fanfare of brass instruments, as the launch party begins with 54 marching bands from around the region of Basilicata, as well as from other European Culture Capitals. Two thousand musicians are certain to set the fun in motion. From then, for the next 48 weeks, 117 artists and curators will be involved in an extensive programme of events including collaborative initiatives with Plovdiv in Bulgaria, which will be sharing the European Capital of Culture title. There promises to be something for everyone including, for the first time, a community opera, performed in the sassi.
Although the sassi are undoubtedly the reason why most visitors make the journey to Matera, the newer city has its merits and it is worth dedicating some time to wander around. With an ever-increasing number
of stylish bars and restaurants it’s easy to feel on holiday and relax whether travelling solo, as a couple, with a group of friends or with children. There are plenty of opportunities for exploring, from learning about the handsome churches to admiring the piazzas.
There’s also the enjoyment of the regular day-to-day of the city, including a lively pre-dinner passeggiata and, often, the unparalleled cityscape is enhanced by the light of a spectacular sunset. Aside from the programme of cultural events in 2019, keep an eye out for goods made from terracotta and papier-mâché, which are enduringly popular and sometimes sold directly by the chatty artisans themselves.
The gastronomic specialities are far too numerous to mention here, but include the local bread (pane di Matera IGP), as well as arguably the region’s most famous food product, lucanica, a spiced sausage (note that there are many variant spellings). Or, sit and take in the views with a glass of the acclaimed local wine, Aglianico del Vulture and reflect on how those past, shameful days are well and truly over.
Matera may not currently be near the top of many bucket lists, but that could soon change. The visual excitement of first seeing the idiosyncratic sassi stays with travellers forever. It won’t just be that sight, but doubtless the cultural activities lined up in this most extraordinary of settings that will have people talking for a long time to come.