The Caves of Matera

28 Apr

Many thanks to all who sent Len well wishes for a speedy recovery. While he got much better, his cold travelled far and found me in the caves of Matera, the next stop on our adventure.

Matera is in Basilicata and the drive there was filled with hills of lush green wheat fields and bright yellow flowers.


But the view would soon change. I once read that nothing quite prepares you for your first sighting of the caves in ancient Matera,


especially knowing these were human dwellings. Well, it literally took my breath away. My first thought was of Juda Ben Hur’s visit to the Valley of the Lepers searching for his mother and sister.


The Sassi di Matera are divided into two districts, Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano, and are thought to be among the first human settlements in Italy. There is evidence that people were living there as early as 7000 BC.


Sassi are houses dug into the calcarenitic rock itself, locally called tufo (not volcanic tufa) which is characteristic of the area.


The ancient town grew up on one slope of the ravine created by a river that is now a small stream. The ravine is known locally as “la Gravina”.


Below is an interesting description provided  “Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd”. Photos are my own.

The Miracle of Matera:
from city of poverty and squalor to hip hub for cave-dwellers

One of Italy’s most deprived cities – so lacking hope that God was said to keep well away – is now an Airbnb hotspot and set to be European capital of culture.

There is a sense of shame as Luigi Plasmati, 89, recollects growing up amid chronic poverty in a crammed cave in Matera, an ancient, bruised city in Italy’s southern Basilicata region.


“It was brutal,” he said. “There were families of maybe nine or 10 children, sleeping next to mules and pigs. We were dying of hunger.”

Less than 70 years ago some 15,000 people, mostly peasants and farmers, were still living in grottoes carved out of limestone that dated back to Matera’s prehistoric era: dank dwellings with no natural light, ventilation, running water or electricity. Disease, particularly malaria, cholera and typhoid, was rampant. Bed space was scarce, with children squeezed with their parents into bunks that were deliberately built with space beneath for chickens. Coveted animals were kept indoors in case they were stolen. Large families would gather around a small table once a day to share a simple meal of bread with pasta or pulses.

The child mortality rate was high and Plasmati lost one of his five siblings. Those who survived grew up illiterate.

“I was working from the age of six, going out early in the morning to cut grain in the fields,” he said. “You’d try to sell the odd cigarette here and there to make some money, but there was never any money to spend.”

In the most extraordinary way, that history of squalor and poverty is now proving to be the making of Matera in the 21st century. A report last week by the University of Siena said that more than 25% of Matera’s housing stock is available to rent on Airbnb, more than anywhere else in Italy.


On top of enjoying a remarkable tourist boom, Matera will also be 2019’s European capital of culture. The impoverished cave dwellings of the Sassi – literally “the stones” – are providing the economic platform for a more prosperous future.

“Airbnbs, bars, restaurants … this is the natural evolution of the Sassi right now,” said Nicola Taddonio, a local tour guide. “These changes have helped connect people back to the Sassi. Even though we lost that connection for some time, our souls are back there.”


The extent of the squalid conditions in the Sassi only came to international attention when writer Carlo Levi was exiled by Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime to a town close to Matera in 1935. 


In his book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, published in 1945, Levi described the horror he witnessed – the paltry furniture, children either naked or in rags, bodies ravaged by disease – and concluded: “I have never seen in all my life such a picture of poverty.”  For more of this article, see link below*.

In the 1950s, the Italian government forcefully relocated most of the population of the Sassi to areas of the developing modern city. Riddled with malaria, the unhealthy living conditions were considered an affront to the new Italian Republic of Prime Minister De Gasperi.



However, some people continued to live in the Sassi, as it was the only life they had ever known. Until the late 1980s, this was still considered an area of poverty since many of these houses were, and in some cases still are, uninhabitable. The current local administration, however, has become more tourism-oriented and has promoted the regeneration of the Sassi with the aid of the EU, the government, and UNESCO.


As you might expect, our dinner was in a cave – of course clean and totally repurposed .

© (travel buddies Susan and Ray)

Of particular note is the Pane di Matera, bread that obtained the IGP (Protected ID) label in 2004 and is made exclusively from fine durum wheat semolina cultivated on the Matera hills and highlands.


Although I had booked a cave room, I found it a bit too dark and damp, especially with a cold, so I opted for a more traditional room with windows, lots of light and interesting views.



Visiting Matera provided me such an incredible look into the long ago past of a people, culture and area I knew little about. If some of these sites look familiar, or you want to see more of Matera, many movies have used Matera as a setting: Christ Stopped at Eboli (1978); Three Brothers (1981); I’m Not Scared (2002); and The Passion of the Christ (2004).

Whether viewing Matera’s ancient and “modern” areas from across the gorge,


or from high above,


it’s still so hard to get my head around the fact that people not only lived for generations in these caves, but that natives can still live in the same “houses” of their ancestors from 9,000 years ago.

Note: Click on any photo to enlarge

12 Responses to “The Caves of Matera”

  1. jeanfromcalifornia April 28, 2018 at 1:15 PM #

    Wow! Judy that’s wonderful. I came across an article on these caves a few years ago in a tech magazine and put them on my list. Many thanks for illustrating it with such great pictures.
    I think I shall do South Italy next year before I head for Cortona. I’ll discuss that with you later as you are the expert!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. bestson808 April 28, 2018 at 3:16 PM #

    Aloha Judy,

    Boy these caves go back a long, long time. That’s what Europe is all about. The OLD country. I toured these Cliff dwellings a few years ago in Arizona on our drive to Flagstaff,


    Liked by 1 person

    • blogginginitaly April 28, 2018 at 3:23 PM #

      Thanks, Charles, I didn’t know about the Arizona caves, but I’m not surprised. Thanks for sharing.


  3. Ishita April 28, 2018 at 3:19 PM #

    Gorgeous! I’ve never been to this region of Italy but the raw images of these towns entice me! Matera is wow!! Great pictures 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. karenincalabria April 28, 2018 at 5:29 PM #

    Nice sharp photos and good description. I’ve been there a couple of times and it’s a unique place. Interesting statistic with regard to the number of airbnbs. My feeling is that it’s starting to get a little too touristy, but I can understand everyone wanting to cash in. And all the visitors do need a place to stay…

    Liked by 1 person

    • blogginginitaly April 29, 2018 at 1:48 AM #

      I agree, very unique and also touristy, but then it is so worth seeing and hopefully good for the local economy. Thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Royce Larsen April 28, 2018 at 11:11 PM #

    Another great adventure
    Glad to be along
    Len has some make up assignments
    To do
    Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Deb F. April 29, 2018 at 8:00 AM #

    Never heard of Matera – great piece, Judy! Wonderful photos too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • blogginginitaly April 29, 2018 at 8:55 AM #

      Thanks, Deb. So happy to introduce you to a unique piece of Italia!


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