Despite its monochrome setting and lack of vibrancy, The Sassi of Matera leaves K. PRADEEP mesmerised

We were driving past olive trees, (‘most of them a century old,’ according to Giacomo Giamboi our travel director), lemon trees, wide expanses of green, cows lazing around…and the view was abruptly cut. Our driver, Luigi, veered the bus along a narrow, dusty track. The colours outside changed to dusty brown and the landscape was prominently dotted with boulders of different shapes. The bus stopped at what Giacomo said was the ‘belvedere’ (roughly translated as beautiful sight) of Matera, for an over view of the historical city from a distance, and some time to click photographs from the edge of the canyon.

Matera, in the region of Basilicata, Italy, is a rock-hewn town. The Sassi of Matera (stones of Matera) is an entire city of cave-houses dug out of porous limestone (tufu) that look like human anthills on the unfriendly, rocky hills. What strikes you first is the monochrome dullness of the region. But you are riveted to the sight, the dullness is compelling.

One of the oldest towns in the world, Matera has been inhabited since the Palaeolithic age. Man lived in these caves, the Sassi dwellings, till the modern area of the city was built right on top of it all. Amazingly, these caves, till the 1950s were inhabited in absolute squalor. Matera was considered the shame of Italy. Disease was rampant, poverty was extreme, education nonexistent, life was hopeless. Large families holed up into these with their livestock and cattle. There was no plumbing and electricity. Sewage was dumped into the river below. These unhygienic conditions caused the spread of diseases that claimed a lot of lives. During World War II, the fascist regime sent their political prisoners here because it was worse than any prison. 

 In 1952 the government approved a law whereby construction of new districts, suburbs and renovation of existing houses were undertaken. The inhabitants of the Sassi were rehabilitated till 1956 despite protests.

Today, works and development projects are being carried out in order to complete the improvement and re-evaluation of the historic, artistic and monumental heritage of the Sassi. Many of the caves have been converted into shops, hotels and restaurants. Right now around 4,000 people, mostly youngsters, live in the rehabbed the Sassi. 

On December 19, 1993, UNESCO declared the Sassi of Matera as a world heritage site, the first protected ‘landscape’ in Western Europe. Wealthy Romans, Neapolitans and Milanese are now buying up the old cave dwellings and restoring them as vacation homes.

We drove into the modern part of Matera on a sunny, chilly winter morning. The city was just waking up. At the city square a few men puffed on their cigarettes and chatted. But only men were seen. There’s a tradition in the city, informs Giacomo, that prevents women from spending time at the square or public places in general.

The tour guide led us along the two areas that make up Matera. There is a timeless quality about the narrow, winding streets and the small stone houses. Entering into one the typically furnished cave-dwelling was an experience to learn how people lived in these humid caves till the 50s. Of course, they looked clean as surely they were being spruced up every day unlike the past when animals and humans crowded in unhealthy conditions.

There’s so much to explore in Matera. The rock churches, (there are 155 stone churches) carved out of rock somewhere between the eighth and 14th century have some priceless frescoes. If you have time, hike along the ridge of the ravine on which Matera is built and find some of the other quaint rock churches. At every turn you are bound to stop and take pictures of this otherworldly village in the mountains of Basilicata.

At the heart of the city, east of the Sassi, stand three towers of an incomplete castle. Its history is dour. Only once was Matera under feudal rule. Count Gian Carlo Tramontano who dominated from the end of the 1400s to 1514 was done in by a conspiracy. Viewed as an extravagant tyrant who imposed heavy taxes, the story has it that he was beaten to death one cold December night. The three towers of this castle that loom over the city stand testimony to the Tramontano domination.

In recent times, Matera has become a popular location for filmmakers looking for a Biblical landscape. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew and Bruce Beresford's King David starring Richard Gere were some of the 30 films shot here. Matera became famous when Mel Gibson chose this city for The Passion of Christ. Tourists trek the steep alleys of Sasso Caveoso, where the procession of the cross was filmed, to San Nicola dei Greci where the Last Supper was canned and to the edge of the canyon with The Sassi in the backdrop where the crucifixion scene was shot.

In his memoirs, Christ Stopped at Eboli, Carlo Levi, the Italian doctor and painter who was exiled by Benito Mussolini to Gagliano, a backward village south of Italy, writes about the Sassi caves, the capital of the peasants. He describes the poor living standards and the neglect of the people in Basilicata, during his exile to the area in the 1930s.

The bus slowly moved out of the city. I took a last, lingering look. Matera was certainly amazing, but it also seemed to be expressing something through its long, painful history; a beauty tinged in sorrow.

(The writer was in Matera at the invitation of Trafalgar Tours)