First Glance Same Old, Same Old
At first glance, Matera resembled an average Italian city: a piazza where both modern and ancient architecture abut; ancient churches next to government buildings; restaurants and gelaterias selling the most amazing smelling and tasting delicacies; and sculpted artworks highlighting an important point in the city’s history.
A Most Pleasant Surprise
I started to wonder, what made this city an important stop on my tour. And then I started to wander. Past this beautiful sculpture that looks like a black tear frozen in time, was a terrace. As I approached this terrace, a wonderful image of a city carved in stone came into view.
From this plateau, I could see homes built into the side of a cliff bisected by a cavernous cliff with a river running through it. There were also many cave openings in the sides of cliffs and holes in the ground, where cisterns were probably stored to collect rain water. This wondrous site is known as the “Sasso Caveoso” and it is located in the historic Sassi district in Matera.
Matera is one of the oldest, continuously used cities in the world. It is believe that people have occupied these dwellings (caves and modern structures) since the Paleolithic Age. Initially just a series of caves, the peasants and artisans of the classical and medieval eras began to burrow deeper into the limestone to expand their living space. Eventually, modern homes were built into the cliff side. As time progressed, the area became known as “the shame of Italy” due to the dismal poverty of its residents. In the 1950s, the Italian government decided to relocate all the remaining tenants, mostly farmers and peasants, to new Italian housing projects. This left the city completely destitute of life except for wolves which began to roam the deserted area. This is how the Sassi remained until around the 1990s, when Italian citizens began to restore, renovate and move back into these structures. This action spurred on the urban renewal of the area. Life had returned to the Sassi of Matera.
To truly understand how these caves dwellings were utilized, we visited the “Casa Grotta di vico Solitario.” This “museum” was decorated with authentic furniture and tools that were used at the time when it was inhabited. All manner of living took place in this home: parents and children slept in the general living area, animals (i.e. cattle) were kept in a corner of the home, textiles were loomed, and meals were cooked and consumed. Every possible way and action of life was performed in this communal living space.
A Love Story
As I left the “museum” and continued exploring the area, I pondered whether or not I would have survived living in a traditional Sassi home.
I could see traces of how these homes originally were built and used. I noticed the level of detail applied to communal (the streets and stairs) and private (individual homes) spaces. I noticed the level of care being taken to restore and renovate these structures for modern living.
On introspection, all I can think of is that my first opinion about Matera was totally off; this is not typical Italian city. This is a city steeped in history only rivaled and surpassed by that of the Cradle of Civilization.
After being awestruck at the ancient marvel that is the Sassi di Matera, it was time to recharge before leaving Matera. For my main course, I had the spaghetti alla carbonara from L’Arco Osteria Caffeteria. The spaghetti was perfectly al dente and the combination of the saltiness of the ham and the creaminess of the egg made this dish outstanding. My sweet treat was sweet for two reasons: it was bought for my friend and me by our tour guide and it was absolutely amaze-balls delicious. I had the sponge cake with liqueur gelato and my friend had a gelato that was made with fruit and red wine from I Vizi degli Angeli Laboratorio di Gelateria Artigianale.
As I was saying goodbye to Matera, my only regret was not buying the little owl stuffed animal in this store’s window before the store closed for a “siesta.”
My final thoughts and feelings about this city was: “Matera, you are a jewel city in my fascinating love story with Italy and I love you.”