A mere stone's throw from Puglia, under an hour by car, is one of southern Italy’s most intriguing destinations. The town of Matera offers visitors an opportunity to time travel through the ages. Recognized as a Unesco World Heritage Site Matera’s cave dwellings harken back to prehistoric times.
The Sassi di Matera (sassi is Italian for stone) is a literal complex of caves used for dwelling by civilizations both ancient and modern day. Formed by nature, with some help from rudimentary tools of the time, these cliffside caves are nestled above ancient canyons of the Gravina River, The Sassi di Matera is recognized as the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world.
Early occupants took up residence, it is believed, some 10,000 years ago. Today these cave dwellings are considered a hip and fun travel destination.
Paleolithic to Peasant to Posh
But life in the Sassi hasn’t always held the attraction it does today. 15,000 impoverished and desperate residents called these caves home until about 75 years ago. The limestone grottoes provided only natural light, and very little of that, no running water, electricity or ventilation. Disease was rampant, and what precious space that was available typically housed large families along with their livestock.
In 1950 plans were made to evacuate these abhorrent living conditions and relocate the families to more modern day homes along the outer area of the Sassi. The caves sat vacant for a bit but cleaned up well. In the 1970’s they became a haven for mid-century counter culture arts and artisans.
Soon Hollywood came a-calling. The unique landscape provided an excellent place to film such epic movies as The Passion of The Christ and 2016’s Ben Hur.
In addition to Matera Sassi being recognized as a UNESCO Site the area also holds the distinction of being a European Capital of Culture, awarded in 2019. The dwellings lend themselves to being the ideal tourist destination.
Experience the Transformation
Matera feels indescribably surreal as you walk the ancient streets, The churches are awe-inspiring, considering many of these naturally formed sites served pagans as well as Christians.
In keeping with tradition the food in Matera is based on many of the local peasant dishes. Menus celebrate local and fresh, homemade fare, simple in nature but oh so palate pleasing. And as you might imagine, there are plenty of wine caves offering regional selections.
Matera embraces preservation of the culture of this ancient city, and all of her dynamic eras. Museums provide a glimpse of the ancient and modern day regional paintings, sculptures, and the like. Artisans offer examples of traditional crafts, small-batch food, and gather for a central market once a week.
Alas, time-travel is not yet an option. However a visit to Matera will truly make you feel as though you’ve transported back to prehistoric times, but with better food options!