Matera had been on my radar for some time before my family and I went during the Christmas holidays of 2012 and experienced the living nativity, which was truly unique. In recent years, the region of Basilicata has done a good job of promoting this city in which people lived in caves up until half a century ago, around their bid to become the 2019 European Capital of Culture (which they won).

Matera, it turns out, is not as isolated as one might think. It’s just over an hour from Taranto and the Valle d’Itria in Puglia, where we’ve frequently visited relatives (and about which I’ve written a short guide in which I have included Matera). If you wish to make the road more difficult for yourself, you can follow the wrong signs and pass over some very lunar-seeming mountains at the edge of a national park, right by an international space station that must make a few astronauts feel right at home. Otherwise you can take any one of the slightly straighter and larger “strada statali” (state roads) that connect Matera with neighbouring areas.

It is also not nearly as small as one might think: the city has a population of 60,000, and the historical area covers quite a lot of ground. I fully underestimated the size of this town and the number of things to be seen here. Doable as a day trip from the Valle d’Itria, it might also be worth it to also spend the night, incorporating visits to nearby Laterza or Ginosa (both in Puglia).

The modern shopping pedestrian areas
The modern shopping pedestrian areas

Approaching the “Sassi” of Matera – literally the stones, or the prehistoric dwellings – from the tourist parking lot at the edge of the modern city, or from the train station, you find yourself in a typical wealthy Italian small town, nicely repaved, with lovely boutiques and wide piazze populated by young families. Off the main piazza and shopping street, you can look out over one area of the Sassi, and you start to realize that this is a town working on resolving a paleolithic past with a modern future.

sassi matera
View of sassi from loggia off shopping area

Modern living came quickly to Matera, forced onto its populace in 1952 when the Italian government declared that it was unsafe to live in caves carved out of the porous rock that characterizes this valley. People were forcefully moved to newly constructed areas at the edge of the city, abandoning the Sassi that had housed them, their animals, and their dirt-poor ancestors for the previous nine or ten thousand years.

The “Casa Cava” is an artists’ reconstruction of one such dwelling, helpfully narrated by a good English audio system. You enter a space in which the only opening, for air and passage, is the doorway, and that is entirely carved into the soft calcareous tufa rock, crudely shaped into archways that define niches.

Casa Cava

In a home like this, imagine a family of ten or so people – an average of six children, plus the nonna and maybe some other relatives, plus your donkey and hens. No running water, a hearth for cooking, basic multifunctional furniture for sleeping, working, and eating space. Outdoor space and farmland was limited here, due to the unfriendly terrain and harsh weather, so animals were kept inside, and diet was limited.

matera landscape
Matera’s landscape is rather inhospitable

The scene we see might represent life here in 1945 just as in 1900. Life probably wasn’t much different in 1800, just the clothes would have changed. When Carlo Levi wrote Christ stopped at Eboli (1945), Matera was representative of the hard poverty of southern-Italian peasant life.

Did I mention that it’s really cold here?

Another reconstruction of past life that helps us imagine a sanitized version of historic Matera is the presepe vivente, or living nativity, put on annually by people from this and neighbouring towns, that use the Sassi as a natural backdrop. After all, Mel Gibson chose Matera to film The Passion of Christ – there are few places in the world that could offer a troupe scenery like this, but with reliable electricity and hospitality services right around the corner.

Matera’s living nativity reconstructs Bethlehem using the natural features of the city

Conservation and promotion of the Sassi di Matera and the Rupestrian churches in the park that surrounds the town is a relatively recent concern: it was admitted to the UNESCO Heritage list only in 1993. This brought attention and money to the city, which has done a lot in the past two decades to move into the future. Having been voted Capital of Culture in 2019 will hopefully permit Matera to establish and carry out a solid plan towards cultivating creativity and sustainable production in a city that is strongly aware of its stone-age roots. As the dossier presented for the candidature as city of culture says, “our city is betting on culture… culture is the foundation upon which we can work to build a new development model” – something I have been saying all of Italy needs to do.

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