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Thursday, October 10, 2013


You wake up on your first day in Matera in a soft bed  and surrounded by plush pillows. You stretch leisurely and stare up at rough stone walls and a high curved ceiling. The golden light of early morning filters in through a high grate high above your bed, illuminating the irregular shapes and rough-hewn archways. Across the room, candles dance in the rays of sunlight next to a basket of fruit.

Where are you? You blink. Then you remember.

Wow! You've been sleeping in a luxury cave in one of the many small hotels in the Sassi of Matera, Italy, which may look like this on the inside...and the outside.



Sometimes called "the town that Italy forgot", Matera is no longer forgotten. It's a small city of around 60,000 inhabitants located on the Adriatic side of the Apennine mountains that runs down the spine of Italy.
And it is no longer forgotten for a number of reasons, including the 1993 designation of "The Sassi" as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Do I have your attention now? 


The word sasso in Italian mean stone; Sassi stones. But the World Heritage designation isn't about the rocky location.

The Sassi of Matera are the tufa walls of deep chasms in the Murgia Plain in southeast Italy. The natural caves in these chasm walls have been occupied by humans since prehistoric times. Over thousands of years, these caves have been enhanced and the result is cave homes piled on top of each other along the sides of the chasms. The first signs of human occupancy [human skeletal remains] date back to 250,000 years ago. Finding in the Grotta dei pipistrello--a Neolithic burial site--identified settlements in the area from about 7,000 BC forward.

According t6o Fodor's guide, "Matera is the only place in the world where people can boast to be still living in the same houses of their ancestors of 9,000 years ago."
The two ancient rock-hewn quarters of the city are Sassi Caveoso and Sassi Barisano. They house about 20,000 [1/3] of the residents of the now-modern city of Matera. The Sassi are unique and outstanding examples of a prehistoric cave (troglodyte) settlements perfectly adapted to the terrain and ecosystem.

The area was listed by UNESCO because archeological finds give it the distinction of being the oldest continuously occupied site of human habitation in the Mediterranean region. The photo below shows the terrain. The other photo shows how the houses are piled one on top of the next.

The cave dwellings are cut out one above the other in a seemingly chaotic way until you realize the caves are really a labyrinth of houses.

Occupied for thousands of years, the caves required little upkeep and were cool in the summer. They accommodated livestock in the winter, and when the occupants needed more room, they just dug out more caves in the tufa, a form of limestone. And they provided for good defense against enemies.

The roof of one house may appear as a road, a stairway, a garden or as the floor of yet another house. Walking through the old city, many chimneys sprout out of the road, and you find yourself walking on the roofs of other houses. Distinguishing the natural rock formations and the architecture created by the ancient inhabitants is often impossible.


The city contains a plethora of churches dating from Medieval times, which are constructed independent of caves. Below is the Duomo built 1230-1270 AD.

San Nicola dei Greci – 10th and 11th century

I'm not sure what constitutes "modern history" when dealing with a place that's been occupied for over 9,000 years. Nonetheless, we'll fast forward from the 3rd century BC, when the city was founded by the Romans and named Matheola, through centuries of growth and conquest. 

In 1941, an anti-Fascist activist named Carlo Levi was exiled to a small town in southern Italy. There he encountered a level of poverty unknown to the more prosperous north. He was appalled. When he wrote the book entitled "Christ Stopped At Eboli", he described scenes like children begging passers-by for quinine to stave off deadly malaria. 
Still, it wasn't until after a visit to the area in 1951 by Prime Minister De Gasperi, when the existence in the Sassi and the lack of sanitary conditions became so severe that it made front page news as "The Shame of the Nation."

At that time, half the population of Matera lived in the Sassi. The average family had six children and sometimes animals sharing the cave dwelling. There was no electricity or gas, no sanitary facilities or water. The infant mortality rate was fifty percent.

In 1952, the government began evacuating the Sassi and moving the population to the newer city. It wasn't until 1986, with the implementation of a law to preserve and recover the ancient cave dwellings, that the abandoned caves were restored as houses, businesses, and cultural centers.

That, and the UNESCO designation in 1993, have served to transform the Sassi into viable and charming communities which attract many tourists.


Because of the unique and primitive setting, the Sassi districts have been the filming locations for a number of movies. The three most recent include:
The Omen (2006)
Catherine Hardwicke's – The Nativity Story (2006)
Mel Gibson's – The Passion of the Christ (2004)


Tina Donahue said...

I'd LOVE to go to all those places. Wow. :)

Suzanne Rock said...

Wow - that looks amazing! I've always wanted to go to Italy, but have yet to make it there. My dh promised me one day we'll make it...perhaps for our 25th wedding anniversary. :)

Great blog post. The plot bunnies are now running around in my head. :)

Paris said...


What a lovely and charming place. The history is fascinating and this is definitely a place I'd like to visit!

Sandy said...

I love the history. It would be a wonderful place to see. I'm going to send this to my hubby to see if I can entice him to go sometime.

Melissa Keir said...

What a beautiful place! My hubby's parents were just in Italy and never really even heard of this. The history is right around you. I'm glad that the people of Italy are working to preserve the history.

Thanks for sharing!

Marianne Stephens said...

Never heard of it but you give a detailed description and it sounds like a great place to visit for historical information. Nice job!

Rose Anderson said...

Fascinating! Thanks for sharing.

Janet Wellington said...

GREAT article, Ann! Just shared on my FB page JanetWellingtonBooks. Mary Leo and I were in Matera a year ago when we spoke on a panel at the Women's Fiction fun! We even took a cooking class in a modernized cave house with a gourmet kitchen. Walking around at night was spookily wonderful...thanks for sharing your experience!

Gemma Juliana said...

Ann, What a fascinating article. I'm definitely adding this location to my wish list! Maybe someday... thanks for sharing!

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