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Matera: from caves to chalets

by M. Carla Glotier — last modified 2008-06-20 15:10

There's nowhere in the world quite like Matera. It's Sassi - the ancient cave dwellings which are now a UNESCO heritage site - were, up until just 50 years ago, hellish slums where the people lived in poverty and disease and, in the near future, could become holiday chalets for people like me and you . . .

SassiMatera is one of Italy's most striking cities. Built on a rocky plateau and sliced in two by the Gravina ravine, the city reminds you of Dante's vision of Hell. The stark landscape made such an impression on the writer and director Pier Paolo Pasolini that he chose it as the backdrop for his moving rendition of "Saint Matthew's Gospel"

History pervades Matera. Its 100 or more rock churches house wonderful Byzantine frescoes and recent archaeological finds show that Matera's cave dwellings were inhabited by man as early as the Palaeolithic era. Indeed these dwellings - known as the Sassi - have become so famous that they are now synonymous with Matera.
Indeed, in 1935 20,000 of Matera's population of 24,000 lived in the Sassi, with no electricity, running water or sewerage system. You can get an idea of what life was like for the residents by visiting the dwelling, near the church of San Pietro Caveoso, which is still furnished in the original style.

The Sassi have been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1993 but the call for commercialisation is strong and the Italian tour operator Valtur is planning to open a holiday village there,converting the caves into comfortable chalets. Despite protests from a number of environmental and cultural associations plans for the village - which will host 150 "well-educated and discerning tourists" - seem to be going ahead.

If you speak Italian - or have an Italian-speaking friend willing to help you - you can sign an online petition to help save the Sassi. In the meantime it's time to get back to Matera and visit the sites before they are turned into hotel rooms. We recommend you start with the churches, many of which are carved into the rock face. Santa Maria de Idriis is probably the oldest while San Pietro Caveoso, dating from 1656, is one of the most spectacular. The Puglian-Romanesque cathedral from 1270 is also worth a look while Baroque enthusiasts won't want to miss the churches of San Carmelo and San Francesco.

Those of you familiar with Carlo Levi's evocative account of life in Matera - Christ Stopped at Eboli - will be relieved to know that since the second world war Matera has been modernised and one-time realities such as maleria and starvation are now things of the past. Plan your visit around the feast day of the Madonna di Bruna (July 2nd) for a feel of some of the traditions Matera is steeped in. The festival dates back to the 1300s and culminates in a procession where the statue of Our Lady is carried in a colourful 'triumphal cart'. As soon as the procession ends and the statue taken back to the cathedral the onlookers charge the cart and literally tear it to pieces. Why, you may ask. There are many theories, but no-one really knows what is the driving force behind this rather bizarre and primeval tradition. Watch this short video and make up your own minds.

Farm holidays - - Farm holidays and country homes in the province of Matera
Christ Stopped at Eboli - - Read Carlo Levi's moving account of life in Basilicata during WW2
Matera's cave dwellings - - Visit one of the

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