The Secluded Splendour of Italy's Matera


Perched atop a limestone ridge in Southern Italy like a weary pigeon on a fence, Matera has silently observed the changing world for millennia. This ancient city, entrenched in history and overflowing with stories, is one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities. With its stunning sassi (cave dwellings) and picturesque churches carved into the rock face, the city of Matera has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as the European Capital of Culture for 2019. The city, however, still remains largely unspoiled by the trampling feet of tourists. So, if you are seeking solace and looking to journey through time without the worrisome jostling of fellow travelers, this is your chance to enjoy the mesmerizing beauty of Matera.

A City Carved in Stone

Imagine a city carved into the side of a mountain by Nature herself, and you have Matera. The sassi, or caves, were originally formed by the ceaseless trickle of water flowing over limestone, slowly chiseling the rock into a series of dwellings that bear the weight of history on their stooped shoulders. Walking through the winding, narrow streets of Matera, you can almost hear the whispers of the past echoing off the walls, telling tales of a city that has seen the rise and fall of empires, welcomed travelers and explorers, and survived countless wars and plagues.

A Storied Past

The history of Matera stretches back to the Paleolithic era when caves provided the perfect natural shelter from predators and the elements. Over the millennia, the inhabitants expanded the caves, carving out more rooms and chambers, and adding intricate facades. The city thrived thanks to fertile lands and a bountiful water supply, becoming an important trading post between the Greek and Roman Empires. However, Matera also experienced its share of turmoil and strife. At various points in history, the city was invaded by the Byzantines, the Lombards, and the Saracens, each leaving their unique architectural mark on the cityscape.

Matera's tumultuous past culminated in the 1950s when the living conditions within the sassi had become so dire that the Italian government stepped in, forcing the inhabitants to abandon their ancestral homes and move into modern housing. The sassi were left empty and forgotten until the late 1980s, when people started to appreciate their historical and cultural significance. Today, these caves have been transformed into boutique hotels, restaurants, and museums, allowing visitors to experience the unique charm and atmosphere of the ancient city without having to forgo twenty-first-century comforts.

Exploring Matera

Exploring Matera is akin to meandering through a geological wonderland, where the past and present collide in a harmonious cacophony of architecture, art, and culture. Start your journey at the Piazza Vittorio Veneto, the city's pulsating heart, lined with cafes and shops offering local delicacies and handicrafts. From there, venture into the Sasso Caveoso, the oldest part of the city, where you will find the Church of Santa Maria de Idris, a stunning example of a rock-hewn church. Inside, you will be greeted by a treasure trove of frescoes depicting biblical scenes and saints, their colors faded but their beauty undiminished by the passage of time.

Matera's Churches: A Testament to Faith

Matera is home to a staggering number of churches - over 150, to be precise - each one a testament to the enduring faith of its inhabitants. The most famous of these is the Cathedral of Matera, a magnificent structure built in the Romanesque-Apulian style that dominates the skyline. Another must-visit religious site is the Church of San Pietro Caveoso, a 13th-century cave church with an elaborately-decorated altar and stunning frescoes.

Delving into the Depths: The Crypt of Original Sin

No visit to Matera would be complete without exploring the Crypt of Original Sin, an underground treasure trove located a few kilometers outside the city. Known as the "Sistine Chapel of the Rupestrian Art," this cave church boasts some of the most well-preserved and exquisite frescoes in the region, dating back to the 8th century. The crypt's walls depict scenes from the Old and New Testaments, as well as the lives of saints, making it one of the most significant and awe-inspiring religious sites in Southern Italy.

Practical Advice

  • When planning your visit to Matera, be sure to pack comfortable walking shoes, as the city is best explored on foot.
  • While the city has plenty of cafes and restaurants offering traditional Italian fare, don't miss the opportunity to sample local Materan delicacies such as bread, cheese, and wine.
  • Consider hiring a local guide to help you navigate the labyrinthine streets of Matera and gain a deeper understanding of the city's history and culture.
So, if you find yourself yearning for adventure beyond the well-trodden path, heed the siren call of Matera and journey to a city where the past is lovingly preserved in every stone, where the walls are alive with history, and where the air is thick with the whispers of a thousand stories waiting to be discovered.

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