Sneak Peak: Matera, Southern Italy's "Cave'' City, named European Culture Capital for 2019

The "Cave'' city of Matera in Southern Italy 

Here's a reason to get to Southern Italy sooner rather than later. The Italian city of Matera in Basilicata, one of the poorest and least-visited regions, has been named the European Culture Capital for 2019. This is a well-deserved honor that's expected to boost tourism in an overlooked corner of the country. But preparations leading up to it could mean that the best time to visit might be now. 

Cultural Capital designations are usually preceded by major building and restoration booms that turn the cities into construction sites for several years prior to the big day. Once the date arrives, so do the bus loads of tourists.  Marseille is a good example. The port city in Southern France was the Culture Capital in 2013. The designation sparked a major facelift. Everything - from buses to hotels to museums, restored palaces, pedestrian walkways around the Old Port or Vieux Port - is new. It's a great city to visit now, but that wasn't the case in the two or three years leading up to 2013 when most everything was under scaffolding and reconstruction.

Matera is one of the most fascinating cities in Southern Italy. I visited several years ago on a trip through Basilicata, Apulia and Campagna. Now seems a good time to dig into the archives and republish a report that appeared on my blog and in The Seattle Times. Best advice: Get there soon!

Nicola Rizzi

MATERA, Italy — Nicola Rizzi stands in front of his boyhood home where chickens and ducks used to wander, closes his eyes and smells bean soup and tomato sauce boiling on pots heated by wood fires.

He was 11, a survivor in a neighborhood of windowless caves and damp walls, where animals and humans slept side-by-side and half the children born there died, among them three of his brothers and sisters.

Mostly though, Rizzi remembers the smell of baking bread over olive-wood fires. His father owned a communal oven where people would bring their dough for him to bake into fat loaves big enough to last a week.

"It's a smell," says Rizzi, taking a deep breath, "that I still have in my mind."

It was the smell of home, a home that his family and 17,000 others, mostly poor peasant farmers, were forced by the government to evacuate in the early 1950s after Italian artist and writer Carlo Levi published an account of the squalid living conditions where they lived, not in regular houses, but in thousands-of-years-old cave dwellings called the sassi.

"Christ never came this far, nor did time, nor the individual soul, nor hope," Levi wrote in "Christ Stopped at Eboli," a book he authored during his political exile to the rural southern region of Basilicata in the mid-1930s. The title refers to the town of Eboli in neighboring Campania, suggesting that not even Christ could have ventured into an area so desolate as Basilicata, and certainly not to Matera.

"The houses were open on account of the heat, and as I went by I could see into the caves, whose only light came in through the front door ... On the floor lay dogs, sheep, goats and pigs. Most families have just one cave to live in and there they sleep all together; men, women, children and animals." Matera, Levi wrote, was a "schoolboy's idea of Dante's Inferno."

In striped vest and bow tie, Agostino Tataranni dispenses some of the best pastries and cappuccino in Italy from behind the bar at Caffè Tripoli on Piazza Vittorio Veneto, Matera's marbled main square.

Men gather here to talk politics, and couples walk each evening during a community stroll called the passeggiata. There's a university nearby with a lively arts scene. Elegant baroque-style buildings painted in faded pink and yellow line the streets and squares.

Modern Matera
Perched on the edge of a deep ravine, this is modern Matera, a bustling upper town that overlooks the neighborhoods of Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano, the ancient sassi, which are spread out below on the slopes of a deep, rocky ravine.

Dug into the stone cliffs are hundreds of sand-colored caverns carved out of soft volcanic tufa stone, some with built-up brick fronts and elaborate facades and doorways that make them hard to distinguish from ordinary houses.

Layered one on top of the other so that the terraces of some are roofs for others, they're connected not by real streets but by a maze of winding stone passageways starting a few steps away from the edges of the upper town.

My husband and I drove here from Rome with a hunch that we had arrived in one of the world's most unusual cities.

We weren't surprised then that the first person we met was Dorothy Zinn, a social anthropologist from San Antonio, Texas.

Abandoned for more than a quarter century after the government relocated the residents to public housing following publication of Levi's book in 1947, the sassi (Italian for stones) again are drawing attention from writers. This time the stories are focused on the art treasures uncovered in ancient rock churches and the transformation of the caves into luxury hotels, bed and breakfasts, cafes, restaurants and offices for high-tech companies.

Zinn welcomed us to the Locanda di San Martino, a hotel and conference center that she and her Italian husband Antonio Panetta opened three years ago in the sassi after the government began offering long-term leases and subsidies to investors.

Locanda di San Martino

A family of six and one animal used to live in what is now the San Martino's lobby. Chiseled out of stone are rooms on five levels connected to each other by an outdoor network of stone passageways.

An elevator goes to the first two floors, but we climbed the 75 steps to our fifth-floor room. It was a cozy Flintstones-meet-the-future cave with curvy stone ceilings and all the mod-cons, including TV, heat and air conditioning. Three small windows were chiseled out of the bare rock walls, and there were slippers for walking on the bare terra-cotta floors.

Zinn, a university professor who met her husband while doing research on youth unemployment in his hometown, sent us to dinner at a candle-lit cave restaurant called La Talpa.

We sat at a table tucked into a stone alcove and ate the local pasta with asparagus and fresh ricotta cheese. Afterwards, we climbed the stairs back to our room, listening to church bells ringing and dogs barking, the nighttime sounds of a town where people get around mostly by walking.

Looking for Jerusalem

Mel Gibson scouted the world for a place that looked like ancient Jerusalem when he filmed "The Passion of the Christ," and settled on the sassi (recruiting the locals as extras and eating nightly at Antica Trattoria Lucana, where fettuccine alla Mel Gibson is still on the menu).

Locals don't always agree about the various new uses (the latest addition is a swank wine bar with an 18-hole-putting green in the bottom of a public cistern), but the revival of the sassi has been an economic boost to one of Italy's poorest regions and transformed the city an Italian prime minister once labeled a national shame.

Life in the caves, originally dug out by torrents of water, dates back 9,000 years to prehistoric times, making Matera one of the oldest cities in the world. From the eighth to the 13th century, monks used them as refuges, digging out tiny chapels and elaborate churches, leaving behind delicate frescos.

Later, whole neighborhoods evolved with churches, convents, shops and homes with intricate hydraulic systems to keep the water fresh and cool year-round. Healthy and prosperous, the sassi began to decay as the upper town developed, finally becoming homes for poor peasants who used the churches and other dwellings for homes, barns and stables.

"For two or three centuries, people didn't realize the value of the place," said Rizzi, a historian who now heads Circolo La Scaletta, a cultural organization that pushed to have the sassi declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993.

Many, including his father, wanted to see them torn down.

"He looked at me, and said, 'You are a university student. How is it possible that you can defend something so ugly as the houses in the sassi?' "

But where others saw abandoned dwellings, Rizzi remembered a community where his family knew their neighbors, not always by name, but by the smell of the one-of-a-kind yeast each used to make their bread.

"The national shame included not only the houses, but also the inhabitants," he says. Even as an 11-year-old boy, "I started asking myself, why should I be ashamed of where I live?"

Caves go high-tech

"Sixty years ago, if you visited, you would have found horses and chickens in here," says Angelo Tosto, president of Datacontact, the sassi's largest employer.

With 3,000 people back living in the sassi and property values rising, Tosto is one who is looking ahead more than he's looking back.

Faced with the need to find new office space for 750 workers in his company's expanding call-center business, Tosto, whose father was born in the sassi, acquired one of the long-term leases.

Call center in a cave

He installed 2,800 phone lines and a $3 million computer system in a series of former cave dwellings. Workers sit behind computers pushed up against stone walls as they talk to clients in South America and other parts of Europe.

Around the corner is the rock church of Madonna delle Virtu, where La Scaletta volunteers discovered rooms filled with 12th-century frescos after clearing out piles of straw. Gibson shot his Last Supper scene here, and community groups use the spaces for modern art and sculpture exhibitions.

In between visits to cave potters and olive-oil tastings, tourists can take a self-guided walking tour of some of the ancient cave churches, among them the ninth-century Madonna de Idris, a giant hilltop rock formation decorated inside with colorful frescos.

Frescos inside a cave churche

Except for the wine bar and putting green, Rizzi says he's mostly satisfied with what's become of his old neighborhood, and his boyhood home, now offices for a software company.

"We are proud of Matera now," he says. "The idea is that our roots are more important than building new houses." As for Carlo Levi's theory that Christ ignored Basilicata by going no farther than Eboli, the children growing up in Matera in the 21st century have a different perspective.

Tacked to a paper-mâché parade float on display in the public library recently was a child's drawing of a round stone building with a cross planted on top.

"Gesù nasce in una grotta," the child had written. "Jesus was born in a cave."


Explore the sassi on your own with maps provided by the tourist office, or on a guided walk.

The tourist office sells tickets for a self-guided tour of a half-dozen or so rock churches in the sassi. More are scattered around in parks in the nearby countryside and can be visited by car. Matera Turismo offers a variety of walking tours and day trips. Bascilicata's regional tourist agency has maps and English brochures. 

Explore the modern upper town for its shops, art galleries and excellent food shops, such as Samuele Olivieri's Il Buongustaio, which stocks local specialties such as dried red peppers and ear-shaped orecchiette pasta. The local art museum houses some of Carlo Levi's paintings.

Stroll with the locals during the evening passeggiata starting at Piazza Vittorio Veneto. Have a coffee at the Caffè Tripoli, and see photos and news clippings from Mel Gibson's filming of "The Passion of the Christ."


  1. Ah yes, Matera was a wonder to visit. Our hotel room was in a cave and part of the floor was glass where we could see into the cave. It was both beautiful and restful. The restaurants in which we ate were also caves. Again, it was beautiful. However, living there without the basic amenities was primitive and uncomfortable. Upon our arrival I could not find the hotel [it's just there] and I asked, in my poor Italian where was the hotel and said it was by the church. The response was "There are churches everywhere; which church?". Being in the town of Matera was a pleasure.

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