Travel has the immense power to transform people. Seeing the world gives one invaluable insights and learnings that may not have been possible to gain in the confines of a classroom. It transports you not only to places but also to the past.
If you ever happen to find yourself in Southern Italy, you will be remiss not to schedule a visit to an old town that stands upon layers and layers of rich history. Do not miss the unique opportunity of taking a glimpse into the historical town of Matera. A place that boasts nine millenniums of constant human habitation.
Situated in the Basilicata region, Matera is globally recognised for its ancient town ‘Sassi di Matera.’ A designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Sassi features cave dwellings dating back to the Palaeolithic era, a prehistoric period of human history.
Meandering in Matera allows one to retrace the steps of the inhabitants that graced the cave dwellings. To say Matera is timeless is an understatement.
The ancient town features two sections— Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano. The cave dwellings are separated by a ridge where Matera’s ancient cathedral sits.
The dwellings are primaeval natural caves that were excavated by hand out of tufo or calcarenite rock by hand. The cave dwellings have improved over time and featured more rooms and more sophisticated exteriors.
Stand in a spot that lends a panoramic view of Matera and you will instantly be treated to an almost cinematic scene in Holy Land. The ancient village on the side of Gravina village displays a breathtaking landscape that has drawn both curious travellers and inspired filmmakers. In fact, the town served as the backdrop for the international film The Passion of Christ, a biblical film that depicts the final twelve hours in Jesus life.
According to the UNESCO, the cave dwellings are the finest example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean. But while this natural settlement proved to be perfect in the Palaeolithic era, they have become less acceptable in modern times. Imagine the poorest of the region are crammed into the sassi. By all means, the people live without access to basic needs such as heat, light or sanitation. Since space is lacking, residents live with animals. There is no surprise that the town had very low illiteracy and mortality rate. The unsanitary place also has high susceptibility to malnutrition, cholera, malaria and other diseases. The sassi surpasses any other standard of any other poverty-stricken province in the south.
In 1952, the local government finally took action. This gave way to the rehousing of some 20,000 residents into modern homes. Since then, the sassi remained derelict, abandoned and bricked up.
Later on, hippies moved in and tried to live in the caves. These illegal settlers, ironically, have jumpstarted the resurgence of Matera. The council made them legal residents and connected them to utility services. Then the gentrification began—small businesses started opening starting from a café, a gallery here, and a shop there.
Meanwhile, the international film shot in Matera brought the place to the limelight. It was only a matter of time before chic hotels, bars, and restaurants started to rise in the area as the atmospheric ancient town welcome more tourists.
Right now, travellers are able to choose from different accommodations in the area including hotels, cottages, bed and breakfasts, apartments and luxury hotels. Some of the structures are at the heart of the sassi, which lends an amazing view of the ancient city. While some are in the modern part of the area.
Perched on top of Civitas hill is cathedral that offers visitors with a phenomenal bird’s eye view of the Sasso Barisano. The cathedral, featuring a Romanesque-Apulian style, was built during the 13th century. In 1967, the structure was dedicated to the protectors of the city—Madonna della Bruna and Sant’Eustachio.
The structure is impressive not only in its resilience to time but also in the treasures it houses. From the intricately decorated portal, the statue of Madona della Bruna stands proudly alongside an impressive rose window and a statue of Michael the archangel.
The monastery also features a bell tower that stands tall at an immense 52-meter height. The interior, which has seen some restoration in the Baroque period, is a sight to behold. Here, you can gaze at the popular stone crib made by Altobello Persio in 1534, a Byzantine fresco of the “Madonna della Bruna and Child”, fragments of a cycle of paintings, a stunning wooden choir carved by John Wee in 1453, and “Virgin and Child with Saints” from the artist Fabrizio Santafede in 1580.
The Basilicata region is characterised by an amalgam of nature, history, and culture. Wherever you look, the flora and fauna are diverse, the natural reserves and parks have boundless cultural value, and the wildlife sanctuaries are inviting.
Matera is home to natural areas such as the Reserve San Giuliano, the Colle Timmar, and the Park of the Murgia. In the Timmari hill, you will find a residential village which is a well-known significant archaeological site. Here, you can observe objects from prehistoric time. If you are exploring around San Guiliano Lake, you can also pass time by observing birds from over 140 species from designated sighting huts.
In the same way, the upland area will give you the gift of discovery. Walking to the area will help you discover remnants of ancient Neolithic villages.
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Charles is a world traveler having lived in 44 states and 11 countries and traveled to dozens more. He and his wife spend time between London, Ireland, Canada, and the Philippines.