A long drive across the Italian peninsula on Tuesday brought us to Matera, an ancient town in Basilicata now noted for its sassi – dwellings excavated from the limestone caves dotting a deeply etched canyon.
It’s an otherworldly sight, unlike anywhere we’ve been before.
Evoking ancient ways with stone pathways creating a labyrinth of alleys, and winding stairs, it’s not too hard to imagine people living here long ago. An echo of poverty and reminder of terrible conditions exists, too; the 15, 000+ people who were forcibly removed from the sassi in the early 1950’s for ‘decent’ housing apparently were living by that time in disease-ridden and squalid conditions, according to our guidebooks.
Matera’s sassi are now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and are being rehabilitated by affluent residents, peopled by hotels and cafes, and signposted for tourists like us.
On a gray, overcast day, however, when the pathways were largely empty, it was easy to think of the people who had lived here over the centuries, dependent on an elaborate systems of water catchment and cisterns, caves that incorporated living space, work areas, and space for animals, after excavating the soft tufa rock. Overpopulation in the 18th and 19th centuries overwhelmed the capacity of cave dwellings, expansion into poorly ventilated areas resulting in poor living conditions by the mid 20th century.
We stayed in a lovely hotel—Caveoso Hotel, a renovated cluster of sassi near the San Pietro Caveoso square. Fueled by a delicious breakfast of croissants with custard, chocolate, or nutella fillings, slices of eggy Matera bread, Matera foccacia, and for me, a couple of delicious mugs of cappuccino, we decided to stay a second night, and headed out for a foggy day’s exploration. Last night’s dinner encouraged another night, too. A delicious antipasto of eggplant , a carrot/potato cake with crisped pepper, a mushroom tar, marinated zucchini was followed by homemade pasta with great sauces. Il Cantuccio seemed to be a place that locals were enjoying celebrations; a large business-oriented group and a mixed local/foreigner group had lively dinners.