If there is one place in Italy that made the greatest impression on us I would have to say it was The Sassi of Matera. Matera is at the crook of the heel of the boot when you look at a map of Italy.
After we left the Amalfi Coast we decided to go south, away from the beaten path, and explore a little. Up to this point everywhere we had been in Italy there was always the safety of a mass of tourists around. It was a beautiful bright morning and the beginning of another hot sunny day while we waited for our bus and it wasn’t long before we noticed that almost everyone was getting on the north-bound buses and no tourists other than the two of us were heading south.
We boarded our bus. Pretty soon the landscape became dry and bare and outside the bus window we passed by worn-down apartments and ugly industrial towns, even worse, as we went further south the intense heat became almost unbearable. It’s all ok though, right? We love adventure and now this felt like one!
A few hours later we reached our bus stop to board the next bus heading east. All of a sudden we were in the middle of nowhere and no one we met spoke English. The signs around us meant nothing to us, all we had to go by was our Lonely Planet, somehow through sign language, by sheer luck, and because of the kind and generous people we met along the way we ended up on the right bus. (Here you can repeat the same story several times over. Each time we panic a little, then breathe deeply, wipe the sweat off, grab our backpacks and somehow find a way to communicate and end up on the right train/bus).
When we finally arrived in Matera, sweaty and tired, it was getting near evening and to our Canadian eyes the area looked, hmmm…well, “rough”. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to use a pay phone in Italy but even making a simple phone call here was a huge challenge for Mark and I, but we worked it out. When a few minutes later Vincenzo, the owner of our B & B picked us up at the bus stop it was a huge relief and we could finally relax.
Our story should end here but really, this is where our real adventure of discovering this ancient town started.
Unless you go there (and you should!) you can only imagine what it felt like as Vincenzo drove us right into the heart of the Sassi. We hadn’t realized that we would be sleeping right in the middle of the ancient stone city and when he stopped there and we got out of the car we could hardly believe it! A twisted town made of light-coloured-rocks with thousands of natural caves, some empty, inhabited only by noisy birds and hawks, and others used as homes, hotels and restaurants. This was our first sight of the Sassi in Matera, one of the first human settlements in Italy and as Vincenzo puts it ‘kind of an open-air history textbook’. The Sassi are “houses” or caves dug into the rock itself. In the 1950s, the government of Italy forcefully relocated most of the malaria ridden population of the Sassi because of health concerns and extreme poverty but recently the town was designated as a UNESCO world heritage site and it is slowly being repopulated and opened up for tourism. Vincenzo and Carla are some of the trail blazers of Matera and run “La Dulce Vita”. They are a kind, sweet French-Italian couple who passionately fell in love with Matera’s Sassi. During our stay they made us feel welcome, safe and completely at home in our room built right into the rock!
To start off, you should see the photos of our sweet B&B. Ours is, the one on the left; pretty, comfortable and also naturally air conditioned! The one on the right is an abandoned cave, little freaky but also super cool! (Please, please LIKE La Dolce Vita on Facebook, share their Page and if you happen to go, stay there! V + C are sweet, kind and awesome! You can see their website at www.ladolcevitamatera.it/en/ )
The back and front door of La Dolce Vita.
And once we ventured outside…we walked and walked and followed every stairway and every path until I had blisters (even between my toes) we just could not stop!
We could have walked for hours (and we did!) and always a crook in the road, another corner to explore…
Matera at night was eerie… and beautiful, and we could tell so many more stories. Someday, I hope we’ll go back.
If you’re interested here’s more information about Matera I found online.
“Matera is one of the most interesting, unusual and memorable tourist destinations in Italy. In the remote southern region of Basilicata (also called Lucania), still little-visited by foreign travellers, it is a town famous for its extensive cave-dwelling districts, the sassi.
The caves of Matera had been inhabited for centuries; some humble and some smarter residences, but by the early twentieth-century the area was a by-word for poverty. Until the 1950s hundreds of families were still living crowded into cave-houses here. The squalor and malaria-ridden conditions became a national scandal and finally the cave residents were moved – by law – to modern buildings on the plateau above. By the 1980s the abandoned caves of Matera were no longer scandalous, but fascinating reminders of the past. A few rather more well-to-do residents moved back and renovated old cave houses. In 1993 the town was made a UNESCO World Heritage site, for being “the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem”. And ever since, Matera has become steadily more popular as an off-the-beaten-track tourist destination. More and more old cave-houses are being converted into comfortable modern dwellings, into hotels, B&Bs and restaurants.
And one more link: http://www.transitionsabroad.com/publications/magazine/0411/the_ancient_stones_of_matera_italy.shtml