Cave Chronicles from Southern Italy
By Bobbie Leigh
Gouged out of soft stone, the cave dwellings in the steep, craggy cliffs of Matera are without a doubt the most unusual in all of Italy. There's probably nothing like their chaotic, troglodyte "spontaneous architecture" in the rest of Europe either. Anyone traveling to Puglia, Naples, or beyond should consider a visit to Matera for at least three days. Stay in one of two remarkable "cave" hotels, walk the stone steps of a town at least as old as Rome, visit baroque and Renaissance churches, and above all, get lost wandering around a surreal landscape.
Think Jerusalem embalmed, but less golden, not sandstone, but chalky limestone, so soft and pliable that cave dwellings were the only sensible solution to family living.Today, there are hundreds of caves stacked one on top of another, some empty, others owned by wealthy families, trattoria, art galleries, and B&Bs. From a distance, Matera looks like a huge white anthill with hundreds of black gaping holes. These are the so-called "doors" to the cave dwellings which are being gentrified at a rapid pace. The buzz is that people from Naples and as far as Rome (four hours away by car) have discovered the artsy, folkloric ambiance of Matera. They have the deep pockets to transform the caves into huge, pricey apartments with all the up-to-the-minute amenities of a Tuscan villa.
Located in the Basilicata region of southern Italy, about an hour from the Bari airport, the sassi or stone dwellings of Matera have been occupied since Paleolithic times (fully documented in the town's Museo Nazionale Ridola), but not continuously inhabited. Like much of Southern Italy, invaders conquered one by one —Greeks, Romans, Saracens, Normans, German emperors, Bourbons, and the Germans again in 1943.
That was the year that Carlo Levi published "Christ Stopped at Eboli," an account of the extreme conditions in the Matera region he observed a decade earlier. Mussolini exiled Levi to the poorest section of Southern Italy because of his anti-fascist views. He stayed a year, until the end of the war with Abyssinia. In his memoir, Levi writes about children naked and in rags with bodies bloated from starvation, faces yellow with malaria, eyes blinded by trachoma. Comparing Matera to a plague-struck city, he wrote, "I have never in all my life seen such a picture of poverty."
By 1950, the town of 20,000 was unlivable. Reports of extreme poverty and overpopulation — families living with the animals under the bed, parents and children in the bed, and babies swung from cradles above it — became a national disgrace. Caves have no windows so there was no ventilation, no sanitation, and no water. Life was as hardscrabble as it gets.
Eventually the Italian government stepped in and forced the population to move to newly built areas in the town's suburbs. By the 1980s the historical center of Matera was a ghost town. Yet because Matera resembles biblical Jerusalem, film directors like Pier Paolo Pasolini and more recently Mel Gibson (The Passion of the Christ) among others filmed there. The grotto facing the town was also a setting for John Moore's 2006 remake of the horror classic The Omen. Almost 200 films have been shot there and certainly, the film directors and crews along with UNESCO which made Matera a World Heritage site in 1993 pumped new life into the town. The local administration was also willing to jump on the tourism bandwagon with major improvements.
Today, English-speaking guides roam the village square eager to accompany visitors on a walking tour of the sassi (cave-dwelling districts). Not to be missed is the restored Casa Grotto di Vico Solitario, a reconstructed cave dwelling, that typifies the dire living conditions of the last century. You walk down steep stairs and at the center of the cave is the kitchen stove, a too small table for a large family, a stable with a manger, and various household implements. A couple of films and photographs are almost too painful to watch. Even today, with electric lights, the cave seems dank, dark, and damp. Several of the more than 100 rock-hewn churches are also well worth a visit. Many were occupied by monks and hermits from the Turkey and beyond who sought refuge from religious conflicts between the 8th and 12th centuries. The regional park across from the town — a treacherous hike down a valley, across a stream, and up some shaky stones — can be avoided by going on a more convenient route with a guide and car. You will still need to wear sturdy shoes to get to the string of caves there that served as churches and monks' retreats. Some have fairly recognizable Byzantine frescoes.
Matera is coming of tourist age with two splendid hotels, both created from ancient cave dwellings, but now with stone floors, plastered white walls, and classic antique furnishings. The Albergo Sassi de Matera (above) has 18 individually furnished rooms, with stone basins, floors, and tubs to match. Be sure to book a hike with Michele Zasa.
The Hotel Sant'Angelo has about 21 restored historic dwellings. The reception area doubles as a modern art gallery while one of the terraces is an ideal sunset bar. An excellent continental breakfast is served in double arched twin rooms. The affable English-speaking concierge can arrange hikes, trips to nearby beaches, and picnics at a national park as well as the services of Anna Tamburrino, an English-speaking guide. The largest and most beguiling cave suite is Number 44 (below).
As tourism is becoming big business, trattorias, restaurants, cafes, and artisan shops now dot the town. One of the best places for dinner is the family run Le Botteghe, which specializes in local homemade pasta, grilled meats, and simple regional specialties. Another is the Trattoria del Caveoso. The more upscale Shibuya is a caf‚ near the museum featuring music that attracts a young local crowd. Keep in mind that summers are hot. The best times to visit are spring and fall.