‘We need to work on your stomach. A stomach needs investment, it needs work. You really need to be eating a lot’
The sexiest words any man has ever said to me.
They came from the mouth of the man sitting next to me at a small, family-run Osteria in Matera, in response to the rather fabulous paunch I was now sporting (the sort which comes only from eating very delicious things, too much wine and a lot of grappa).
I’d stumbled across the restaurant after a morning of getting lost around the Sassi of Matera and, refusing to let me sit by myself, the restauranteur invited me to eat with the family at the back of the restaurant. I spent a few hours in their company, feasting on plates of chialledd (a local dish made of soft bread, eggs and veg), pepperoni friggitelli (sweet chilli peppers) and rolls of manza (beef), drinking a local red wine and getting unashamedly sloshed on grappa.
This experience rather fittingly encapsulates the spirit of Matera; community, hospitality and tradition are still the bedrock of society here today.
A BRIEF BACKGROUND:
You might recognise Matera from big blockbuster movies like Passion of the Christ and the trailer for the upcoming Ben Hur film, though I didn't because, frankly, films starring Kristen Wiig are more up my street. It's not difficult to see why the landscape appeals to film makers; a wild, uncultivated archaeological park nestled next to white-washed ancient grottos dating back to B.C. makes it all feel rather biblical.
Matera sits in the Basilicata region, Italy’s instep, just on the periphery of Puglia. It’s a wild, isolated region dominated by mountains and forest in the North, and large stretches of coast punctuated by Ancient Greek and Roman ruins in the South. Even today, it's one of the least frequented regions by international tourists in the country.
Thanks to Matera's elevation to UNESCO World Heritage Site status in the early 1990s, and the ensuing title of 2019 European Culture Capital, Matera has seen a sharp influx in tourism. Unlike Cinque Terre or Pompei, however, it hasn't become a museum. It’s still a thriving, bustling community.
A BRIEF HISTORY
To really appreciate Matera, you really need to understand its history. The Sassi (literally, ‘stones’) is a district of cave dwellings which have been inhabited for over 7000 years. UNESCO has called it ‘the most outstanding example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean’.
Despite a long, illustrious history, by the early twentieth century, the Sassi had become ‘the slum of Italy’. The cave dwellings were mostly inhabited by landless peasants, who lived crammed into the grottos amongst their livestock, without light, electricity, and sanitation. Malaria, cholera, and malnutrition were rife. In the 1930s Carlo Levi was exiled here by the fascist government and it took his novel, Christ Stopped at Eboli, which described the impoverished locality as 'Dante's Inferno', to kick-start the State into action.
In 1952, shamed into action, the state instigated a mass relocation project, using money poured in from the Marshal Plan. A mass exodus to new apartment complexes on the flatter plains of Matera quickly rendered Sassi a ghost-town. Humiliated by their history of dismal poverty, Materan Officials even suggested the city be walled up and forgotten.
It wasn't until the early 1980s that (like every great story of gentrification) the writers, artists and hippies moved in and slowly began to ‘fix-up’ some of the grottos, determined to revive the lost traditions of the Sassi through the establishment of a culture club called Circolo la Scaletta. The Sassi, which the Renaissance had bypassed hundreds of years previous, thus experienced its own rebirth in the 1980s.
The Sassi occupy two districts: Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveso. The Sasso Barisano is the newer of the two districts and is now brimming with boutique hotels, restaurants, and bars, as well as an underground 'cave' swimming pool. The Sasso Caveso is the older part of town and, even today, most of the dwellings are still largely uninhabited.
Here's a quick list (because let's face it, we all just want lists nowadays), of five reasons to visit this hauntingly beautiful city.
1. YOU CAN SNOOP AROUND OLD-FASHIONED SASSI
For those who like to snoop (and for those who are partial to a National Heritage site and a period drama), a few Casa Grotto have opened up their doors and replicated the interior of bygone years. Casa Noha is the most famous and comprises a few rooms set in a 16th Century dwelling, as well as an insightful twenty-minute presentation documenting the painful history of the Sassi.
2. A LOT OF MATERA IS UNDERGROUND
Given that Matera is also called 'La Citta Sotterrane' (Underground City) it comes as no surprise that there's a wealth of sites to see below the surface, as well as above it. Even the churches are underground. San Giorgio al Paradiso, Santa Barbara, San Pietro Caveoso and Madonna de Idris are all accessed via a tunnel in the ancient crypt of San Giovanni . Inside the Palombaro Lungo you can discover the underground channel of cisterns which once brought water into the city, whilst the Museo della Scultura Contemporanea di Matera houses the only cave-museum in the world.
3. WHERE ELSE CAN YOU FIND CHURCHES CARVED INTO ROCKS?
The Parco Della Acheologico Stoico - Naturale delle Chiese Rupestri del Materano (catchy), or 'Park of the Rupestrian Churches' covers over 8000 hectares, encompassing cliffs, waterfalls, ravines, natural caves and at least 150 rock churches, including the Grotto dei Centro Santi which houses some rather impressive frescoes from the 9th Century. Santa Lucia alle Malve, which was built in the 8th Century to house a Benedictine Convent, is home to number of twelfth and thirteenth-century frescoes, whilst the Convicinio di Sant' Antonio, encompasses four cave churches, each carved into the rocks sometime during fourteenth century.
4. ... AND THEN FEAST ON PLATES OF PASTA, MEATS AND FRESH VEG.
A long history of poverty and isolation has cultivated a diet rich in produce from the earth. Typical dishes in Matera include chialledd (a local dish made of soft bread, eggs and veg), dried peppers and Lucanica Sausages, made with pork and fennel seeds. Matera is also renowned for a its bread, which is shaped into a horn and baked to encourage large pockets of air, which allow it to last longer.
6. The Centro Storico
Piazza V. Venuto sits at the heat of the city. A large square, lined with shops, gelatria, paneteria, and old people on benches, it's the perfect place to take a passeagata, have a drink and listen to some music in the evenings. Palazzo Langfranchi, a big, beautiful baroque beast of a building is home to the Museo Nationale d'Arte Medievale e Moderna della Basilicata, as well as a lovely cafe which offers a beautiful view over the Sassi.
It's hard to believe that Matera was once 'the shame' of Italy, but then, that's just part and parcel of what makes it so beautiful. Whilst the history of the Sassi is a harrowing and humiliating one, of poverty, shame and a classic tale of the upper echelons of society needing to 'save' indigenous peoples from themselves, recent endeavours to reclaim and resuscitate a long, proud history of one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world are finally coming to the fore.
It is one of the weirdest and most wonderful places I've ever visited.
For more information visit http://discoverbasilicata.com