Walking With History in Matera, Italy

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This article is part of a paid series that I’m writing as a brand ambassador for Michelin Guides.

The Sassi settlement in Matera is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
People have lived in these stone houses and caves since prehistoric times.

On a visit to Matera, Italy, history grabs us by the hand and says, “come walk with me.” And it’s not hard to do. Peering from the edge of the historic center in modern-day Matera, the caves and stone dwellings of the Sassi settlements spread out before visitors, housed in two ravines on either side of the Duomo.

A walk down steep, uneven steps offers evidence of one of the first human communities in Italy, dating back to the troglodyte era of prehistoric times according to Michelin Green Guide Italy. No wonder the area was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.

Our guide, Claudio Fontana, of A La Carte Italy Tours, suggested stopping by this off-the-beaten-path city that borders Basilicata and Puglia as he drove us from Gallipoli to Salerno on the next-to-last day of a trip exploring southern Italy. Alan and I expected it to be something to fill our time and break up the drive. Instead, we discovered a fascinating historical site that deserved more attention than a mere half day.

Roman cistern in Matera, Italy
Catwalk in the Roman cistern.

After purchasing yet another cappuccino at a local café as an excuse to use the facilities (Italy has very few public restrooms), we waded into the All Saints Day holiday crowd in Piazza Vittorio Veneto. At an iron railing, Alan, Claudio and I looked down into the entrance to one of the Roman cisterns used to provide water in earlier times.

To satisfy our curiosity, we walked down the stairs to join a free guided tour being offered that included commentary from an English speaking guide. Footsteps echoed as the group climbed down the stairs and negotiated a catwalk built over the vast cistern. The huge size, along with the knowledge that another civilization much older than ours also knew how to use technology albeit primitive, was humbling.

Exiting the cistern tour, we walked the few short steps to a patio overlooking the Sassi settlements that tumble down the ravines in a jumble of cave and stone dwellings. Steep, stone steps beckoned for us to explore and we obliged. On the way down, the open mouth of a cave revealed faint traces of frescoes still visible on the walls.

A visit to the Sassi sites requires uphill and downhill walking on rough, stone steps and pathways. The journey requires sturdy knees and lungs and would be slippery during the rain. It is not handicap accessible.

The term “Sassi” does not refer to the stone and cave dwellings, as you might expect, but to the two communities that housed them. Humans have lived here continuously since prehistoric times as history, wars and politics evolved around them. And the cave dwellings evolved too, becoming the base for more elaborate structures, one built on top of the other.

A street in the Sassi section of Matera
How many houses can you count?

Poverty flourished in the Sassi settlements during the 1900’s. In his 1945 memoir, Christ Stopped at Eboli, Carlo Levi revealed the less than humane living conditions. The Italian government finally relocated the approximately 20,000 inhabitants to modern day Matera in 1952. The Sassi remained deserted, except for a few hippie residents until 1986, when restorations efforts slowly began.

Ravines of Matera, Italy
The stark and steep landscape of Matera.

Mel Gibson filmed The Passion of the Christ here due to the area’s resemblance to Jerusalem, giving the ancient town of Matera another publicity boost. On our visit, we found restaurants, galleries, local residences and bed and breakfasts scattered about the Sassi.

Want to see more details about our incredible trip through Southern Italy? Check out our entire Italian Heel experience day by day!

After spending 11 days in southern Italy, we were churched out, which was unfortunate, since 155 rupestrian (rock) churches are located in Matera and the surrounding area, many with frescoes. Climbing up and out of one Sassi, we stopped to pose for photos in front of the Duomo (cathedral) before plunging back down into the second settlement.

Antipasti from Lacapgaria
One of the antipasti plates at Lacapagria.

After another climb up, up, up, we arrived at the top of the ravine near Lacapagria on Via D’adozzioThe restaurant was a good place to stop for a late lunch, which turned out to be an outstanding sampling of fresh, local products. Watching the chef carefully arrange the meats and cheeses that made up our plate of antipasti was like watching an artist at work.

Too soon, it was time to continue the drive for an overnight stay in Salerno, Italy

Alan and I would definitely like to return to spend several days in the luxurious Le Grotte della Civita located near Sasso Caveoso. Can you imagine what it would be like to experience the Sassi at night when the tourists have departed or to sleep in a cave as ghosts from the past swirl in your dreams?

Disclosure: Michelin Guides has paid me to write this article as part of my Michelin Ambassador duties.

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