Everything in Matera starts with its caves. To understand them, you have to understand the geology. The town sits on a ridge with deep canyons to either side. The top of the ridge consists of clay. The sides of the canyons, by contrast, contain exposed layers of softer, sandier rock. At least 9,000 years ago, and probably much earlier, humans settled in natural caves in the canyon walls, extending them until thousands of grottoes honeycombed the town. The caves make up Italy’s oldest continually inhabited dwellings and, in the words of Unesco, “the most outstanding example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean”.
Caves were all well and good for Palaeolithic and later peoples. They proved less acceptable for 20th-century inhabitants. By the Thirties, 20,000 people, mostly landless peasants, were crammed into the sassi, literally the “stones”, as the town’s two main cave districts, the Barisano and Caveoso, are known. They had no heat, light or sanitation. Men, women, children and animals slept together. Illiteracy stood at 90 per cent, infant mortality at 50 per cent. Malaria, trachoma, cholera, typhoid and malnutrition were rife.
In the last 9,000 years not much has changed in Sassi di Matera, Italy. This ancient city was home to over 1,000 cave dwellings carved out of the rocky ravine overlooking a large river. The caved houses are believed to be one of the oldest human settlements in the Mediterranean, dating back to the Palaeolithic era.
Throughout the millenniums, the caves were continuously inhabited. Although, as early as the 1950’s people lived in extreme poverty with no running water, electricity or sewage facility nearby. This prompted the government to evacuate its residents. It was not until 1993 when UNESCO named Matera a World Heritage site that things changed. Today, this cave city has had a makeover with hotels and restaurants catering to tourists visiting from all over the world.
It dates back to the stone age and forms one of the earliest human settlements in Italy – and is still inhabited.
Looking like a scene from the Flintstones cartoon, Sassi di Matera, which teeters on the edge of a steep ravine in the country’s south, dates back 9,000 years and is believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited cave city in the world.
The Unesco-protected Sassi district is part of Matera city and has been carved into the rock of a towering gorge that was formed by a large river.
This ancient city has also appeared in place of biblical locations in Hollywood films like The Passion of Christ, The Nativity Story, and King David.
Scientists have discovered statues, coins, and ceramics dating back thousands of years.
At first glance the Sassi sprawl appears as a jumble of stone huts that seamlessly merge with the stunning landscape – but behind the picturesque dwellings are tales of struggle.
Until the late 20th century people living there had no access to running water and there was a lack of electricity or proper sewage facilities.
Dwellers took advantage of every bit of rock they could and many of the layered homes feature labyrinthine alleys and stairways.
Over the years new holes were continuously carved out to make room for the ever-increasing population but inhabitants desperately needed basic supplies as there were no shops within easy access.
After WWII, cave residents were reluctantly moved from their crumbling homes into more modern abodes in the Matera town on the cliff.
While many of the ancient chambers lie abandoned and forgotten, the settlement’s prospects were hugely boosted by Unesco naming it a World Heritage site in 1993.
Several caves have been given a new lease of life and transformed into cozy homes, and hotels and restaurants to cater for waves of inquisitive tourists, eager to find out why Unesco was so impressed.
Set in Maters, in the famous Sassi – which literally translates as rocks – the hotel is part of an area of buildings carved right into the mountainside.
Poverty-stricken locals have long lived out their lives using local materials as far as possible, with churches and even palaces carved into various caves.
This unique cave hotel will have you sleeping between a rock and a hard place. But don’t worry, you’ll still be staying in the lap of luxury.
The ancient, abandoned caves of Basilicata village in Southern Italy have been painstakingly turned into a boutique hotel – a project which took 10 years to complete.
Designated part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the spectacular Sextantio Le Grotte Della Civita hotel is set right in the rock face in a series of 18 caves.
Hotel Sassi (www.hotelsassi.it) is said to be one of the first of the renovators. On its website it says guests “will enjoy the view and tranquility of the Sassi and you can also see the twirl of the lesser kestrel, a bird of particular rarity” — starting at €70 (Dh288) for a single and rising to €160 for a junior suite.
More conventional accommodation is provided by the Hotel San Domenico (www.hotelsandomenico.it) on the Via Roma, a short walk to the Piazza Vittorio Veneto where locals congregate on warm nights to talk and walk and rekindle the communal spirit that thrived in the close-knit quarters of the Sassi.
On the square, the “salumeria” il Buongustaio Matera stocks local delicacies while the Kappador restaurant has decent food, good service and a terrace with a spectacular view of the Sassi and the ravine (www.kappador.it).
It would be easy to spend an entire holiday in Matera but that would be a mistake. A drive 50km south brings you to the ancient Greek settlement of Metaponto, with its ruins, including a temple dedicated to Hera, the wife and sister of Zeus, and a superb archaeological museum.
On the way, reserve to take a tour (€8 per person) of the “rupestrian”, or rock cave, churches, sometimes described as “the Sistine Chapel” of the region (www.cryptoforiginalsin.it).