Once a national disgrace, the caves of Matera in southern Italy are now a tourist magnet. The city has been named European Capital of Culture 2019.
Until he was 27, Damiano Fontana lived in a hole, one of the caves known as sassi in the old town of Matera. Hewn into the rock a long time ago, it had no windows, no running water and no electricity. “Life was miserable. There were ten of us sharing only two rooms,” he says. “The women slept in one room, the men in the other, and in between we had chickens, goats, sheep, a donkey and lots and lots of insects.” Damiano Fontana, now 88, is not describing a scene from the Middle Ages but one from the mid-20th century.
On Piazza del Sedile square, where the wonderfully ornate music conservatory stands enthroned, Matera looks much like any other small city in the Mezzogiorno, the southern part of Italy: Tourists sit outside cafés, tiny cups of espresso on the tables in front of them, while the fall sunshine warms the paving stones. It’s in the modern part of the city of 60 000, which stands on a high plateau. But if you venture beyond the houses flanking the piazza, you will be overwhelmed by the ancient spectacle that opens up before you like a scene in an enormous amphitheater, a labyrinth of narrow streets and stone houses – a gateway to the past that Fontana has just described.
Thousands of years ago, people took shelter in the natural grottoes that abound in the region and later, they hewed cave dwellings into the porous limestone. Matera has been continuously inhabited ever since, making it one of the oldest cities in the world. During the Middle Ages, the city prospered: Catholic pilgrims from northern Europe stopped here on their way to Jerusalem, and traders laden with cloth and spices from Asia passed through, too. But over the centuries, the city and its inhabitants were forgotten.
Signore Fontana is a small man with lines on his face. He’s wearing a black jacket, dark blue pants and a light blue shirt. His step is firm as he descends the slippery stone steps he has known his whole life, though today, they lead into another world. The house where he lived until 1956 is now the home of strangers, and an art gallery – once unthinkable here – has opened in the grotto across from it.
From the outside, the gallery looks like any other building built up against a cliff: masonry walls covered with gray-white plaster. But when you go inside, you realize why Matera is known as the “hidden city.” From the front room, a cave stretches back 15 meters into the pale-gray rock. Fontana nods to the owner and then takes us on a trip back in time. “They have ventilation now, but back then, the air was heavy with moisture,” he says, walking further into the cave. “The walls were black as pitch.” His mother used to wipe her boys down with rags dipped in kerosene to protect them from bugs. Outside the cave, hygiene standards were appalling: There was no sewage system, so people tipped their waste down the steps into the street.
In the early 1950s, when the physician, artist and author Carlo Levi published his bestselling book Christ stopped at Eboli, roughly half of the city’s inhabitants, about 15 000 people, were living in the caves. His descriptions of the misery and filth gave the city its reputation as the vergogna d’Italia, Italy’s disgrace. Alarmed by Levi’s report, the Italian government had the inhabitants evicted from their homes in the old town and resettled elsewhere. Damiano Fontanta and his wife were given an apartment in a new development, where they still live today. After the evictions, the old town became the largest deserted center of any European city. It was only in the late 1980s that a few local people began to restore some of the caves, putting in power and water lines, installing kitchens and bathrooms. Their efforts were finally recognized In 1993, when UNESCO proclaimed Matera’s sassi a world heritage site. The first tourists began arriving shortly afterwards.
But the real boost came a decade later when Hollywood – in the person of Mel Gibson – arrived in Matera to shoot the historical film The Passion of Christ, which hit the cinemas in 2004. The eccentric producer and his controversial movie provided much food for discussion, but the film served Matera well, creating an awareness of the forgotten city even farther afield than in Rome.
Today, the sassi have become an open-air museum in the heart of the city. The streets are swept and decorated with plants and flowers, colorful signs point the way to the next trattoria or place to sleep. Around 1500 people permanently inhabit the restored caves, some of which have been turned into vacation rentals, many into small hotels. The streets are often very peaceful despite the many visitors, swallows dive and circle, cats slip in and out of view. It only gets loud briefly around early evening, when the bells in the towers of the numerous churches echo from the labyrinth’s stone walls.
Roberto Cristallo, 52, was among those who contributed to the revitalization effort by helping his parents open a hostel. “It offered visitors an opportunity to spend the night in the sassi,” he says, recalling the early days. His family no longer owns that hostel, but Cristallo still enjoys working in the hospitality business and now runs his own hostel, the L’Hotel in Pietra, in a 13th century church. Its nine rooms reflect the original floor plan that was hewn into the rock. Cristallo sits at a wooden table in a large room with a vaulted ceiling supported by two pillars. The former nave is now the center of the hotel, featuring a lobby, a breakfast room and a couple of brightly colored sofas.
Arturo Fabiano, 47, was also involved in building Matera’s future. He and his wife, Monica Lascaro, live in the sassi and operate a small restaurant called L’Arturo on Piazza del Sedile square. “This was a neighborhood grocery selling sausages and milk 14 years ago,” he says, “but the goods we sell now fit on two shelves, and we serve regional specialties.” The dishes are popular with tourists and locals alike, and tables tend to fill up even before noon. A waiter brings two wine glasses and a platter piled high with ham, salami, mozzarella, pecorino cheese and tomatoes. She places a basket of bread on the table: pane di Matera, a durum-wheat bread with a thick, brownish-black crust that’s yellow inside. An English couple passing by sees what we’re eating and promptly grabs the last available table.
“The city is changing rapidly,” says Fabiano. He’s been watching this happen over the past 14 years from the windows of his shop. The piazza is perfect for such observations because it’s the place where the ancient old town and the modern city center converge. As he puts it: “Leaving the sassi was also a good thing because had people stayed, the cave dwellings would not be as well preserved as they are today.” The future of Matera resides within their ancient walls.
Cultural events in 2019
January 19 & 20
The year starts off with bands from around Europe marching through Matera and neighboring villages.
The Gardentopia project highlights community gardens throughout the city.
The Suoni del Futuro Remoto Festival brings concerts and performances to Matera.
Fireworks and processions honor the Madonna della Bruna, Matera’s patron saint.