Matera in Basilicata, Italy

It must be one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever visited: an ancient town named Matera in Italian region of Basilicata, occupying the arch of the Italian foot, bordering the southernmost regions of Italian peninsula: Campania, Puglia and Calabria.

The coulds gathered over Matera emphasizing the dreariness of the times past
Matera in Basilicata bathing in the grey

Now, as I’m writing this, contemplating the travels past on a rainy evening, I’ve poured myself a glass of red wine to keep the meandering thoughts going, and it must be more than a coincidence that the wine is a superb Primitivo di Manduria, the one we fell in love with during our holiday to Apulia last summer. A holiday when we devoted a day to visit Matera in the neighbouring Basilicata.

All the photos of Matera you can find online are perfectly fine but trust me nothing can actually prepare you for the real thing. I thought I knew what to expect but I was stunned and speechless.

View of Matera: it sits above a steep gorge: where there’s water there’s green
Matera sits above a steep gorge: where there’s water there’s green

As mentioned, we made it a daytrip from Lecce to see Matera, the once shameful, dreary town of impoverished inhabitants who used to live in dwellings carved into rock well into the 1950s when they were finally (some of them forcibly) evicted.

The view of the living area in the sasso (rock carved cave) with a typical smear of green on the walls
The living area in the sasso (rock carved cave) with a typical smear of green on the walls

The trip from Salento proved a bit longer lasting than anticipated. The distances that seem rather short on the map turn out to be quite a challenge in real time. Plus, the more we were leaving the coastal area behind the duller the countryside was becoming. On top of it, the weather was threatening to let us down (it’s an issue when travelling on the motorbike) – it was heavily clouded on the verge of raining. My man was quite agitated when we finally reached Matera. I, on the other hand, did rather enjoy the views over the citrus orchards lining the roads well inland from the Ionian coast.

The view of the deeper lying cave: from the living area which was for the obvious reasons located just at the entrance, the deeper carved “rooms” where used for storage
From the living area which was for the obvious reasons located just at the entrance, the deeper carved “rooms” where used for storage

As much as his anxiety had been growing and approaching the near boiling point, when we at last parked in the upper part of town and dismounted the bike, my man was abruptly tamed the same minute we approached the first viewing point and laid our eyes on the real thing. Matera is breathtaking. First of all, it is much bigger than any photo can prepare you for. Secondly, we found the weather was suiting it perfectly: heavy dark clouds just seemed to contribute to the image of how tough and difficult the people who used to live there had it.

In the end the clouds over Matera retreated
In the end the clouds over Matera retreated

The caves in which people made their homes were carved in the rocks for tens of meters in depth. Everybody lived there together, sometimes even 10 people in one room, cave that is, the families with numerous children and livestock and chickens, the lot. There they slept, cooked, ate, made love, kept their food, water, everything. Only later in history, the entrances where built resembling proper houses, so at first it just looks like a regular (more or less deserted) village. Don’t let the entrances fool you though: once you enter, anything rectangular (apart from the furniture) vanishes. In a modern 21st century language it’s all organic-formed. They had invented an ingenious water supply system using rainwater but of course there was no electricity and the overall living conditions were very poor.

The view of the inside glitz of the Duomo in Matera with all the gold ornaments
The contrast between the gold ornaments in the Duomo and the desolate grey of the village is almost palpable

I remember resenting the sumptuous glitz of the Duomo that marked the end of our visit to Matera. It seemed rather out of place after we had witnessed the lodgings of the ordinary people. Thank God, the today’s inhabitants (yes, from what I’ve read it’s a matter of prestige to be living there now. I guess it makes for the ultimate hipster location.) have all the luxuries at hand. The wi-fi included of course.

 

Related:

Matera and its sassi, the Unesco heritage site

A memoir of life in the poor Lucania (the old name for Basilicata): Christ Stopped at Eboli written by Carlo Levi. It’s on my reading list.

BBC’s short documentary on Matera (the Brits certainly know a thing or two about documentary making):

 

It’s no wonder that Matera made it to many a film, most notably the classic Pasolini’s

The most surprisingly (from the outside it looks just like another tourist trap store) delicious focaccia was the one with cherry tomatoes and flakes of sea salt we grabbed to go at this bakery: Forno nei sassi in Matera

wikipedia on Matera