There’s a strange noise in the air in Matera. Chip, bang, whir. Chip, bang, whir. Building sounds wouldn’t usually be remarkable, of course, but in Matera – a city as quiet as the countryside – they stand out.
But then, Matera is a city unlike any other. Instead of streets, it spins its houses down the sides of two canyons; sometimes stacked one on top of the other, sometimes sculpted straight from the rockface.
There’s only one drivable road in the Sassi, or “rocks”, as the two districts of cave houses – Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso – are called. It snakes around the bottom of town, clinging to the edge of the chasm. Though the lack of cars isn’t the only reason it’s so quiet.
Last month, along with Plovdiv in Bulgaria, Matera – in southern Italy’s Basilicata region –was inducted as one of 2019’s two European Capitals of Culture. A tourist influx is enough to get the builders in anywhere, but in Matera, the to-do list isn’t just tarting up hotels; it’s rebuilding houses that have spent the past seven decades uninhabited.
A ‘shameful’ past
There used to be another name for Matera. “The shame of Italy,” politicians called it in 1954 as they evicted people from their cave houses. Really, the whole of southern Italy was living in shameful poverty, but the TV crews had found Matera, where malaria was rife, the infant mortality rate was 44 per cent, and families of 12 lived in stifling caves, alongside their livestock.
Today, you can see how they lived at the Casa Grotta in Vico Solitario: the dresser where the children slept, the straw-matted corner for the donkeys, and the kitchen, gouged from the soft tufa rock. Faced with a PR disaster, the government boarded up the caves. The Sassi stagnated. Then came the rebirth – first as a movie location (think The Passion of the Christ) and then as a tourist destination, its cave houses becoming hotels. Now, its Capital of Culture status has flipped it on to multiple 2019 must-visit lists.
Not everyone is happy. “We don’t want tourists,” the mayor has said, and as I pick my way down an absurdly photogenic cobbled staircase that cuts through the Sasso Barisano, prettily decaying cave houses either side, I come face to face with some graffiti. “Turisti di merda, via!” it says. Shitty tourists, bugger off.
Nothing, though, can detract from the appeal of this will-o’-the-wisp, hovering over the abyss. Up close, there’s an eerie beauty as you pass shells of buildings and steel doors sealing the abandoned caves. But from afar, it looks like the imposing city it once was. Back in the day, part of the kingdom of Naples, Matera coined it in as a trade hub. Florid baroque palazzi mushroomed along the top of the city bluff; churches squared off against each other across the Sassi. Then came the crash. In 1806, Potenza became the capital of Basilicata. Global trade dragged prices down. The Neapolitans moved out. The rest is history.
Matera’s riches-to-rags tale is told via a hi-tech sound and light show at Casa Noha, a house overlooking the Sasso Caveoso. It’s continued at the Palazzo Lanfranchi art gallery, through 42 works by Carlo Levi, who singlehandedly changed Matera’s fate. An artist and intellectual exiled to Basilicata by the fascists in 1935, he published a book about his experience a decade later. Comparing Matera to Dante’s hell, Christ Stopped at Eboli scandalised the country and forced the politicians to act. Today, his portraits of coal-eyed urchins hang upstairs, while the ground floor houses his masterwork, Lucania 61: a 10ft high, 60ft long visceral punch. Mothers mourn their dead sons, 15 children cling to a bed, families ride donkeys through the parched canyons. Think Guernica for the horrors of poverty.
Past meets present
Of course, in 2019, Matera is looking forward, not back. A Dalí exhibition sprawls across two of its 12th-century sculpted cave churches, Madonna delle Virtù and San Nicola dei Greci. Downstairs, a holographic Dalí appears in the alcove where Pope John Paul II once prayed and a brassy angel twirls in a scooped-out niche. Up above, in frescoed 14th-century chapels open to the elements, sits Venus as a giraffe, mere feet from the ravine.
To be busy in Matera, though, is to do it wrong. This is a place to wander – past the Duomo, where the piazza melts into the Sasso Caveoso, cleaved in two by its canyon. Through the barely populated Sasso Barisano, spilling over the next ridge, where amid the windowless, bramble-filled houses, a lone chimney puffs bravely. Along the Via Muro, which doubles as a viewing platform for that nameless canyon where the city falls away.
“You’ll hear the ghosts at night,” a friend had said about Matera. So on my last night, I went walking along the edge of the Sasso Barisano.
I heard the trickle of water at the bottom of the canyon. I heard the beating of birds’ wings, swooping up from the abyss. I heard the soft footsteps of a man walking his dog in the freezing December air. I heard absolutely nothing else. And that, in 2019, is the magic of Matera.
When to go
Matera is bitterly cold but dramatically beautiful in winter, not too hot in summer, and perfect in between. Steer clear of the big Capital of Culture events if you want to avoid the crowds.
How to get there
Fly to Bari, an hour’s drive away. Ryanair, easyJet and Wizz Air fly from Stansted, Gatwick and Luton respectively. Ryanair also flies from Liverpool seasonally.
Where to stay
Le Grotte della Civita, a ‘scattered hotel’, with each room a sensitive restoration of a cave house, is the best place in town. Doubles from £138, B&B (legrottedellacivita.sextantio.it), or Kirker Holidays has three nights with flights and car hire from £598 (kirkerholidays.com). Slightly more modern is the lovely L’Hotel in Pietra with smart rock-based rooms. Doubles from £99, B&B (hotelinpietra.it).
Where to eat
Osteria Al Casale is a swish, laidback restaurant in a whitewashed cave. Try the pizza (osterialcasale.it).
What to see
A 20-minute drive down the hillside is the Cripta del Peccato Originale (Crypt of Original Sin). The ninth-century chapel, carved from a natural cave in a small canyon, was part of a cave monastery. Its bright, Byzantine-inspired frescoes are some of the oldest in Puglia – and curiously feminist, with the “light of the world” represented as a dancing woman.
Drive back via the Belvedere Timone lookout point in the Parco della Murgia Materano – it has jawdropping views of the city.
In the Sassi, artisans include woodturner Massimo Casiello, who handcrafts traditional wooden bread stamps (to brand your dough), and Materia, where Lela Campitelli and Michele Ascoli make striking jewellery and art from reclaimed objects. The baroque, livelier part of town is also beautiful to wander.
Ask a local: Massimo Casiello
“What to do in Matera? You need to go out with a map and lose yourself in alleyways of the Sassi. Allow yourself to be guided by your instinct and curiosity. As for eating, to try really traditional dishes inside a cave, I always like the Trattoria del Caveoso.”