Once past the treacherous mountain roads, the drive from Vieste to Matera wound peacefully from the Puglia to Basilicata region through fields carpeted in brilliant poppies and wildflowers, an ocassional ancient wooden farmhouse or crumbling stone building dotting the hills. But as we neared Matera, the landscape became more urban, full of worn homes and roadsides covered in debris, until we finally entered a bleak modern city located on a rocky outcrop. Balanced atop one side of a large gorge, modern Matera’s barren streets belie the beauty of old Matera, an 11,000 year old settlement of grottoes (Sassi) carved out of limestone, quietly concealed in the rock underneath. Named 2019’s European capital of culture, Matera is experiencing a renascence after a turbulent history over the past 70 years. It first captured the nation’s attention in 1935 when writer Carlo Levi was exiled to a nearby town by Mussolini’s fascist regime and wrote about the squalid conditions he discovered in his book, Christ Stopped at Eboli. Here, Levi described the incredible poverty he witnessed: dank dwellings with no natural light, ventilation, running water or electricity; children either naked or in rags; families and animals sleeping together with their waste; bodies ravaged by disease.
It took a visit from the Italian prime minister, who declared the Sassi “a national disgrace”, to propel the government to action. In 1952, using funds from the postwar Marshall plan, the a plan was enacted to evacuate all of Matera’s 15,000 inhabitants, mostly peasants and farmers, and move them to what is now modern Matera, a set of newly built homes in the outer areas above the Sassi.
The road curved sharply and dropped down below the modern buildings of new Matera and into the old city. It was as if we had suddenly been transported back to the ancient Holy Land. Not surprisingly, old Matera is often used by Hollywood for biblical scenes, including The Passion of the Christ.
Our hotel, the stunning Corte San Pietro, lay just inside the old city on the main road. We handed over our keys to the valet and were given a tour of the grounds, a network of converted Sassis congregating around an inner courtyard blooming with lavender and bright flowers, before being shown to our own authentic cave. Using a large iron key, we opened a thick wooden door to reveal a minimalistic but beautifully renovated stone room, complete with a plumbed bathroom, loft, and large candles everywhere to set the mood.
The locals compare Matera’s Sassi to Swiss Cheese – 30% is visible from the outside but 70% is hidden underneath. We spent the rest of the day wandering the incredible maze of tiny streets and caves carved into the stone, marveling as each turn uncovered new secret doors and alleyways, rock-hewn churches from the 13th century, and cave hotels and restaurants. The Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario museum provided a good overview of Matera’s history, with examples of period furniture and artist tools.
For dinner, our hosts recommended the neighboring Baccanti, a cozy Italian restaurant featuring dishes of the region. Like most businesses in town, the restaurant was set in a converted Sassi, its raw stone walls and curved ceiling lending to a relaxed and romantic ambiance. Two of the dishes we ordered now rank among the top foods we have ever eaten. The first was a savory aged parmesan flan topped with crumbled local lamb sausage ragout. The second was a simple homemade thick pasta in incredibly bright, fresh tomato sauce with basil.
The food at Baccanti was so good in fact, that we went back again the next day for lunch. But first we took a tour of the 5 million liter cisterns (the second largest in the world) lying under the main square, previously used to collect rain water. Impressively carved in the shape of long winding corridors, like a labyrinth, with high ceilings above and dark green water below, the light and acoustics created some eerily beautiful effects. Across from the exit we ducked into the quintessential Italian espresso shop: a tiny cafe run by two elderly white-haired gentlemen in matching red and white striped shirts who served espresso to the adults and ice cream cones to the children with a twinkle in their eye; our new role models for retirement.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Matera is one of the most beautiful cities we have ever been to, which made it especially difficult to leave for Arberobello, the last stop on our trip. However, a new direct bus service from Naples will soon be starting, making it easy for us, and the rest of the world, to return to this magnificent town.