Way down south, in Italy’s farthest regions lies something totally unexpected. Matera is many things, a small hill town of ancient cave dwellers, an up and coming cultural tourist destination, and its own modern small city. Forgotten for many years, abandoned for a time, Matera is finally having its moment which could hinder as much as help the charm of this laid back outpost. One thing is for sure, it is not like anywhere else in Italy and worth the effort to go and see before others discover it.
The town of the Sassi
Small dusty stone houses clinging on the side of the hill, Matera’s main attraction is its enchanted ancient town of the Sassi, old homes build into caves that are at once enthralling as well as a little bit haunting. They are almost mystical these Sassi dwellings and the quiet little village is almost a bit eerie in its silence, yet bright and filled with light making the narrow streets glow. The Sassi village is right in the centre of the town with the rest of the modern world surrounding it but never invading it or bothering its simple life. Stillness is only broken by the occasional wandering tourist here and there, an perhaps one of the local residents, but for the most part one can roam through the labyrinth of old world streets without feeling rushed or pushed or stepped upon. Most impressive are the cave churches with old, decaying frescos that really reflect the secretive society of living that modern life forgot. These tiny dark churches in themselves are treasures hidden away that become breathtakingly exciting to see when found and looked upon.
In a way, Matera is very much like Venice, not in its appearance, but rather in its uniqueness that like Venice, Matera could only exist as it is due to its surroundings. It grew here, just as Venice did, survival and a need to make a life outside of the normal conditions have made Matera what is and given it a sense of mystery. One must walk everywhere, through narrow streets and down cascading steps, becoming lost, then found. And Matera is a town of stairs, lots of steps, steep, jagged, uneven steps everywhere leading through times long past. Up the hill, and back down to the centre, they are endless. Even from the town’s historical center, one enters the ancient Sassi area through an almost rabbit hole… arches leading to steps below and to the magical world of another time. Its sometimes feels forbidding to walk past these portholes, at the same time it is exciting, like Matera itself.
Matera is more than just the Sassi. Surprisingly, and much less advertised is an elegant historic centre of open piazzas, decorative churches, and sparkling clean roads. The historical center forms a crescent shape overlooking the Sassi part of town below and in its own way creates a boarder of its own two worlds. Up here there are people who take part in the afternoon passeggiata, or evening walk, a community that lingers in the streets, and like many Southern Italian towns, a life of laid back afternoons, closed businesses in the middle of the day, and small cafes. One could almost say there are two towns in one, two totally different destinations in one space, but even up here, one looks right down onto the village of the Sassi and you realize that they are one. It is best to spend a day or two so as to enjoy Matera in the evening with flickering golden lights all along the hill and through the shallow valley below. The city sparkles at night, and the light comes from the tiny houses of the Sassi.