Visit: 23rd July 2015
After what had been a relatively unexciting trip to Castel del Monte and a second night in Bari, Natalie and I drove from the eastern coast of southern Italy inland, toward the region of Basilicata and the mysterious hilltop town of Matera.
This was the destination I had most been looking forward to on this week-long holiday. The word rupestrian means ‘(of art) done on rock or cave walls’. This town is a rare European example of a community where people lived in rock-hewn dwellings and worshipped in cave churches. This has always been a poor region of Italy, and it was until the 1960s that the last inhabitants were evicted from their rock houses and resettled in modern apartment blocks.
The houses are known in Italian as Sassi. Nowadays tourists can stay in converted Sassi and others are shops or restaurants. But most stand empty, making the district quite eery when you find yourself in a quiet area. It is a popular tourist attraction in southern Italy, but it does not feel overrun – probably because Basilicata is not on most tourists’ itineraries in the first place.
There are numerous small churches and preserved dwellings you can go in to, but they all charge a separate entry fee – so visiting them all would be costly. We went inside several, such as this house, below. This small one-room cave would have housed a family of six, plus their domestic animals. The white-washed walls make it feel quite homely – it doesn’t really feel like being in a cave, although it would certainly have been a squeeze to live in.
Most impressive are the churches, complete with ancient frescoes from a distant past. Look at the photo below and remind yourself that the columns are not built from brick, but are carved from rock that had always stood there. Although they look like your typical supporting column in a church, they are actually the only part of the church that has not been excavated. Instead of starting with an empty space and building something up, you are starting with a block of material and whittling it down to create a space.
Matera will be the European Capital of Culture in 2019, a title that has previously been held by that other World Heritage Site, Liverpool – although the two could hardly be more different.
We went for lunch in a place that offered ‘typical’ Basilicata food. It turned out to include a very satisfying-looking selection of vegetables and cheeses, including my favourite, buffalo mozzarella.
People have lived in the area for thousands of years. Christian monks first moved here in the 8th century, creating houses and a monastery. Although rather less interesting than what I’ve talked about so far, one of the things that UNESCO thinks is best about Matera is the innovative water supply system that was created throughout the hillside town.
Water was not in short supply on the day we visited – at least, not in the vicinity. As you can see behind me, there was an ominously grey sky, which – although it didn’t rain on Matera – shot out thunderbolts in a manner that made it feel pretty Biblical. So Biblical, in fact, that Matera was used by Mel Gibson for the filming of his epic, The Passion of the Christ. The town is said to resemble Jerusalem circa two thousand years ago, and it has the advantage of being safer and easier to shoot movies in than Jerusalem today.
The Monterrone rocky outcrop, above, dominates one half of the town. Inside is the church of Santa Maria de Idris.
We stayed in a pleasant apartment in the new town for one night, then the next morning it was time to move on, back into Puglia for the final WHS of this trip: the conical-roofed houses in the town of Alberobello.