Matera: A Stroll Through Italy’s Stone Age City

I have discovered a new Pan Tone; Magenta di Matera. It relates to the colour of my face after scaling the Gravina gorge to the ancient City of Matera in a temperature of 28°C (83°F).

“You can’t take a photo of that. You took a picture of it the other day, and it is still the same.”

From our campsite at Masseria Radogna, we walked to the Belvedere, where Christ was crucified in Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of The Christ. From there, we clambered down steps carved into the limestone to the church of Sant’Agnese, one of around 150 rupestrian (cave painted) churches in the Parco Murgia.

Every footstep released the scent of wild thyme, and the steep canyon walls acted like an amphitheatre to a chorus of frogs in the Gravina river, hundreds of feet below. On the way down, we explored some of the caverns. Mark admonished me when I stopped to take photographs,

“You can’t take a photo of that. You took a picture of it the other day, and it is still the same.”

“No, it’s not,” I argued. “The light is different!”

Later, when we paused to give the dogs a drink, I berated Mark as he sat and took in the view.

“You can’t look at that. You looked at it the other day, and it’s still the same.”

Touché!

“You can’t look at that. You looked at it the other day, and it’s still the same!”

We traversed the Gravina via a rope-and-plank Tibetan bridge, although the water level was so low that we could have crossed on foot. The Pawsome Foursome demonstrated this on our return trip by diving in to cool down, amid a flurry of frogs leaping like a room full of mouse traps. The pups all emerged slick with mud. They were not keen on the bridge, which swayed with every footstep. Mark and I carried them across in relays.

Mark carries Rosie accross the swaying Tibetan Bridge

Matera is laid out in three principal districts of different ages. The pathway deposited us in the Civita, the oldest part of the town of Matera, albeit significantly younger than the nine-thousand-year-old cave dwellings in the cliffs, known as the Sassi (Sassi is Italian for ‘rocks’).

The Sassi, which literally dates to the dawn of human civilisation, comprises two distinct areas: Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano. In the 15th century, Albanian refugees fleeing Ottoman invasions excavated further homes in the Casalnuovo neighborhood to the south-east of Sasso Caveoso. Today, the Sassi contains around 1,500 troglodyte residences.

The newest district of the old town is the 17th and 18th century Piano, which is home to grand piazze (squares), Count Tramontano’s unfinished Aragonese Castle, and stately Rococo-style palaces, many of which now house museums.

Matera – a city of spellbinding views!

Although we had a map marked up with various walking tours around the main sights, we chose to get lost. Meandering in Matera is the perfect way to appreciate the medieval maze of cobbled alleyways, stone steps, and stumble upon spellbinding views. We discovered places off the tourist track, avoided the crowds, and found wonderful little details, such as carvings of cave dwellings in cornerstones of the buildings and stone air vents in the shape of flowers.

Matera’s millennia of history is an incredible riches, to rags, to riches story.

In its early days, Matera was the epitome of a a completely self-sufficient and sustainable city. Its UNESCO listing describes it as, “the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem.”

Imagine you’re a Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer who happened upon Matera. You would have found ready-made real estate in the form of natural caves in a concealed and protected cliff face, which could be kept warm in the winter, but stayed refreshingly cool throughout the hot, arid summers. You had fresh water nearby, from hillside springs and the Gravina river, plus a plentiful supply of wild game. As if that wasn’t Palaeolithic perfection, the soft calcarenite rock that formed the caverns was as easy to work as wood, so you could expand your cave easily to create further accommodation, food storage spaces, and water cisterns. Then, the rubble you excavated provided a source of construction material to build protective walls around your abode.

What’s not to like?

As the civilisation developed, the city remained self-sufficient. Residents recycled manure and wastewater to grow produce on the rooftops of dwellings below them, while a sophisticated system of gutters and pipes channelled spring- and rainwater into storage cisterns to ensure a reliable year-round supply. The surrounding parkland supported livestock, and Matera became important in the wool trade.

In the 12th century, geographer El Idrisi, labelled Matera ‘Magnificent and splendid’, yet as centuries passed, the Sassi’s fortunes changed. It sank so far into desperate poverty and squalor that by the mid-twentieth century, it was declared la vergogna nazionale – the nation’s shame.

So, what happened?

“Magnificent and splendid.” Matera viewed from a cave on the Murgia Timone side of the Gravina Gorge

In the instep of Italy’s ‘boot’, geography and its own self-sufficiency isolated Matera for millennia. With little need for transportation links or extensive contact with the outside world, the city remained frozen in time. In the 18th century, that changed. An influx of outsiders swelled the population of the Sassi. As pressure on resources increased, the sustainable systems of food, water, sanitation and waste management collapsed, with the poorest forced to live in storage areas within the caves, or even in the cisterns. Livestock was so valuable, farmers kept animals inside their living spaces to prevent them from being stolen.

Photo of the resident with his donkey inside a Sassi cave dwelling, from the Casa Cisterna house which we visted on our second trip into Matera

Over time, the Sassi became a diabolical slum in a forgotten part of Italy. It was a political activist, exiled by Mussolini to nearby Aliano for his anti-fascist activities, who drew attention to the Sassi’s plight.

In his famous 1945 memoir, Cristo si è fermato ad Eboli (Christ stopped at Eboli – a town near Naples), Carlo Levi documents how residents, their bodies wasted to skeletons, lived in dark holes alongside dogs, pigs, cattle and chickens. The population was so riddled with malaria that, instead of asking for money or treats, children begged in the streets for quinine. Levi claimed he had never seen a more complete picture of poverty, and described living conditions there as something akin to Dante’s Inferno.  

Photo of a Sassi resident from the Casa Cisterna cave hosue

His declaration that, “Christ never came this far, nor did time, nor the individual soul, nor hope,” led to Matera’s branding as ‘The Shame of Italy’. This sparked a public outcry and a political scandal sufficient to galvanise the Italian government into action. Prime Minister Alcide di Gasperi visited Matera in 1950, and subsequently passed legislation which forcibly evacuated all of the Sassi’s 16,000 residents. They were re-homed in a ‘new town’ of faceless boxes, built on the cliff top.

The Sassi old & new

The move was financed via America’s European Recovery Program. This was also known as the Marshall Plan, named after the US Secretary of State who instituted the the $13 billion investment (equivalent of approximately $115 billion today). America’s fear was that poverty and unemployment in a continent devastated by war would drive the spread of communism. Their aim was to stabilise Europe sufficiently to allow the economies – and democracy – to flourish.

Cave dwelling Casa Cisterna, viewed from the area where the animals were kept

The Sassi’s abandoned and derelict caves became the province of squatters, criminals, and drug dealers, although a group of enlightened individuals, including Carlo Levi, never lost sight of the area’s historical significance. Levi declared the Sassi an architectural treasure “on a par with the Grand Canal of Venice”. One rock church, The Crypt of Original Sin, is filled with such magnificent Byzantine frescoes it is dubbed ‘Southern Italy’s Sistine Chapel’.

For 9,000 years, the Sassi had a proud and sustainable history. The group realised that its problems stemmed not from its fundamental nature or form, but from overcrowding and chronic poverty. Supported by Carlo Levi, who was elected to the Italian Senate in the 1960s, they lobbied for funding.

Views like this are becoming less common as Matera is renovated and brought back to life

In the 1980s, the government passed a law to protect the Sassi, subsidise restoration, and allow people to move back into the caves. The city authorities offered inexpensive leases to those prepared to undertake supervised renovation. Now, skips, cranes, and pneumatic drills are a testament to the ongoing renewal of the Sassi, which is developing into a thriving neighbourhood; filled with artisans, galleries, swish cafés, boutique hotels, and museums.

Matera’s transformation from shame to fame took an immense leap forward in 1993 when the Sassi gained UNESCO World Heritage status. Who would have thought that in 2019, along with Plovdiv in Bulgaria, ‘The Shame of Italy’ would be named joint European Capital of Culture?

Mark and Kai on the terrace of a café in the Sassi

After our exhausting clamber up the canyon, we refuelled with coffee and cake on the terrace of a rock-hewn café. In Italy, when you order a caffe latte macchiato, you never quite know what you’ll get. On a good day, a lovely long, strong creamy coffee might appear, topped with a cloud of frothed milk. Equally, the same request can turn up a thimble-sized espresso containing a quantity of milk detectable only by mass spectrometry.

Today, we had wandered into true hipster territory, by which I mean we had entered the thimble-half-empty zone, which also offered up a strange designer cake that was more ice cream bombe than traditional torta. A cat lounged on the wall and quietly wound up The Fab Four, which wound up a thimble-half-empty English woman on the next table. In a skilful and well-honed multitask, she fixed us with an unblinking death stare to make sure we knew she didn’t approve of our dogs, while maintaining a never-ending litany of complaints to her partner,

“What’s this?” she said, poking at a delicious-looking bruschetta laden with juicy cherry tomatoes and a glistening slick of olive oil. “I’ll ask the waiter – if he ever comes back, that is. Honestly. They don’t know what service is here!”

I grinned at Mark and said, “jumbo jet.”

It’s our code word for Whingeing Pom, which originated with a joke I heard many times while backpacking around Australia.

“What’s the difference between a Pom and a jumbo jet?”

“At least a jumbo jet stops whining at the airport.”

The Ozzies have a point!

(Pom is short for pomegranate, or perhaps an apple (pomme), and is a derogatory reference to British faces burnished by the Antipodean sun until they resemble one!)

The Casalnuovo district of the Sassi, with Matera behind

Later, our aimless wanderings led to Monastero Casalnuovo, Francesco Paulo Festa’s ancestral home in the Sassi, which he has turned into a museum. While Mark waited outside with The Fab Four, Francesco gave me a personal guided tour. He proudly showed me a 17th-Century religious fresco on the wall, the outdoor wood-fired kitchen range, and a collection of fossilised scallop shells, which he said sometimes fell out of the ceilings while the family ate dinner!

The Sassi was a true community – something that was lost when the families were relocated. People lived outdoors, sharing streets, courtyards, and communal bread ovens.

Today, the huge one- or two-kilogramme (two- or four-pound), conical Pane di Matera loaves, shaped to reflect the surrounding Murgia mountains, are not only a geographically-protected delicacy, but a living form of archaeology. True Pane di Matera is baked from Senatore Cappelli, an ancient, local durum wheat, milled into semolina grains. Like a sourdough, it is proved with natural yeasts cultured by fermenting mashed grapes or figs in spring water. This ‘starter’ is kept and re-used several times.

The bread itself is also fermented and left to rise slowly in the cool and constant temperatures provided by the caves. Once cooked, the result is a thick brown crust with a tangy, golden interior, laced with an irregular network of holes, reminiscent of the caves.

Francesco pointed out his family’s metal stamp, used to mark their initials on the bread, so they could identify their loaves in the shared ovens.

The Sassi is like an iceberg – 70% of it is hidden. Deeper inside Francesco’s cave, staircases led down to workshops, wine cellars and, of course, a water cistern to supply the family. Francesco didn’t charge admission; he simply asked for a donation. I had no change, so I gave him a €10 note. He looked incredibly pleased, and when I visited Casa Cisterna, the cistern house he recommended, I realised why. There, the admission was €2! However, the personal tour of his family home was a privilege, and as the cafés and boutique hotels take over, I don’t resent a cent that goes towards keeping an original and authentic part of Matera’s fascinating history alive.

Francesco Paulo Festa’s ancestral home in the Sassi

You can’t see Matera in a day, so we made several trips. On our second visit, we explored the squares and churches of the Piano, and met another Jumbo Jet.

“I don’t have any change!” the shrill woman in front of me almost screamed at the man. He hadn’t said a word. He simply stood silent and impassive at one side of the entrance of the church of San Giovanni Battista, holding a plastic cup. Perhaps her anger stemmed from guilt. She had enough cash to fly to Italy, and stay in a hotel, but couldn’t spare the price of a coffee for someone in need.

“I don’t have any change,” I told him. “But I will come back and give you some money.” I made sure I did.

San Giovanni Battista, the square where we met Kevi

I always give to the homeless. I feel so lucky that I can live my dream. That by an accident of birth, I was able to save enough to give up work and travel the world – an occupation that often brings you into contact with those to whom life has not been so kind. Yet, aside from the obvious fact of finance, I like to engage if for no other reason than to make sure that the person feels seen. We are all fellow humans, after all, but the privileged and entitled tend to look through those who are less fortunate. They pretend they are not there, and justify their choices with, “If we give to them, it will only encourage them and make things worse.”

How can helping someone make things worse?

That was how we met Kevi, an ebullient Nigerian, patrolling the square with a huge and infectious smile.

We beckoned him over to chat while we had a coffee and asked him his story. It broke my heart.

“I left Nigeria because of persecution, crossed the desert, spent a year in Libya, then came to Italy on a boat that capsized. Many of my companions died of starvation, dehydration, or drowning. Some of them just sat down and gave up.

“My family is still in Nigeria. I want to go back with enough money to set up a business to support them, although the corruption will make that difficult.”

He didn’t tell us any of this for sympathy, he was completely matter-of-fact. Just a person trying to get through the challenging circumstances he’d been born into as best he could.

Occasions like this are the only times I wish I had money. A bit of cash shared out more fairly could go a long way towards resolving so many problems in the world. It wouldn’t solve everything, but had I been able, I would have given Kevi what he needed.

How could anyone not have sympathy with Kevi and others like him? Who would put themselves through such trials if they had other choices? And even if they do have other choices, what is wrong with being aspirational? Isn’t that what drove the human race forward – the desire for a bigger cave, a faster horse, a more comfortable life?

Later, I pointed out to Mark, “I am an economic migrant. I moved to London from the north of England!”

My mind drifted back to the sea-soaked puffer jacket we’d found on the beach at Gaeta. Thankfully, my choice to improve my prospects didn’t force me to risk death, or hand over my life’s savings to ruthless gangs of people traffickers with no regard for the safety of their human cargo.

When we got back from Matera, our neighbour, asparagus-meister Domenico turned up with a bottle of Aglianico del Vulture wine, the only DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) wine in the Basilicata region. While little known, it is considered to be one of the best reds in Italy. It is also another taste of the past. The Aglianico grape variety is thought to have been imported by Greek settlers around 700 BC. 

At least it was one of the few things redder than my face.

Aloha.

My Magenta di Matera beetroot face!

This is a link to the hike we did, but the other way around – from Matera to the Belvedere!

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AD (After Dogs) - We retired early to tour Europe in a caravan with four dogs. "To boldly go where no van has gone before" - & believe me, we have! BC (Before Canines) - we had adventures on every continent other than Antarctica!

25 thoughts on “Matera: A Stroll Through Italy’s Stone Age City

    1. It would have been rude not to. Just wait until I pluck up courage to share a picture of my lockdown locks!
      Fortunately, I have given up on feeling embarrassed about looking stupid. It happens far to often for me to worry about it!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Once again another fascinating read! Although reading about the change in Sassi’s fortunes and its descent into poverty and squalor did make me question where the U.K. is on its economic trajectory. (Comment made in the week the Tory government decides to solve its financial crisis by giving tax cuts to the rich, the pound then sinks to an all time low and the IMF wade in saying what a shit mess the government is making of things!) Note – a fellow Brit should recognise this as a uniquely British brand of pretty dark humour, rather than a whinge!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely.
      I rather enjoyed the fact that in two days, the new government set out its stall very clearly to those uncertain about their ‘levelling up’ priorities. Tax cuts for the rich and removing the cap on bankers’ bonuses, while tightening up Universal Credit for the poor as inflation soars and we enter a cost of living crisis that predicts the poorest in society will have to choose between eating and heating this winter.
      Luckily, while the pound took its unprecedented but rather predictable plunge in response to unfinanced tax cuts, the already wealthy made even more millions by shorting it.
      It’s a good job we all know that making the rich richer helps the poor directly, because their cash bonanza will eventually trickle down to those lazy goodfornothings who work at two jobs and still can’t make ends meet.
      I might go and find myself a cave right now!

      Like

  2. What a lovely place! I think I’d take multiple photos on different days too 😊 A great story of how things have turned around for the town.
    I’ve never heard the Pom – pomegranate connection tho. We’ve always been told growing up it was an acronym for Prisoners of His Majesty – the inter webs are conflicted on this – but the red face thing makes sense. We noticed lots of Brits would love turning beetroot red on the beaches of Spain too – ouch!! 🥵

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow – that’s yet another POM explanation that I’ve not heard. And from another dyed in the wool Aussie (the pomegranite and apple explanations came from Aussies too!) I wonder which is correct. It’s so difficult to plunge back to the source through etymology.
    Glad you enjoyed the story. Thank you for reading and commenting. 🙂

    Like

    1. Well, I’ve had extra input on the root from SUPChick! It might mean Prisoner of his Majesty, as a hark back to Australia’s colonisation by UK convicts. Etymology is never straightforward!
      Glad you enjoyed the post! Matera is a really special and fascinating place.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What a fascinating history Sassi has, thank you for the story. You are so right about the luck we have being born and growing up where we are and to have what we do, it’s something I am grateful for so often. We are rich in the experiences we can have and are safe, healthy and able to provide for ourselves – so lucky for these simple things that others have to struggle for.
    I love that line, ‘How can helping make things worse’?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. oh wow what a fantastic post – you would think that travel would make us all more empathetic and want to help but I guess that is not always the case. What an amazing place with a fascinating history.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The (many) views of Matera is breathtaking beautiful! And it’s not just the pups that don’t like the swaying bridge … you will have to carry me over as well 😁. Thank you for the history about Matera – that’s so interesting! And the explanation about the word “Pom” … I never knew! I think there are many “Kevi’s” around the world … and their stories are truly sad … it often reminds me just how privilege I am (and we don’t have a lot, but compared to them, we are rich)! I hope the beetroot face recovered quickly 😉 … my grandma always reminded us of hats when we left the house – whether it’s sunny or cloudy (something I recently forgot on a hike and regretted)!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was more the heat and exertion that gave me the beetroot face, although the best one I had was after an airshow at RAF Fairford. It was an overcast day in the UK, but I wore sun shades because of the glare – but hadn’t thought to put on any sunscreen. After a day looking up at aircraft flying over (including my first ever view of the Vulcan bomber!) I looked like a pink owl for a week!
      The Kevis of this world break my heart, particularly when their plight is often a consequence of Western dabbling – in politics, consumption, or empire.
      I don’t view myself as ‘rich’, but I can bet I’m richer than Kevi’s wildest dream.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. ““You can’t take a photo of that. You took a picture of it the other day, and it is still the same.”” Nice. 👌

    You can’t step into the same river twice.

    ♾🕊🤍🪔🦋

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    Liked by 1 person

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