In times such as these, where sheltering in place is the norm, and socializing feels like a distant memory, it can feel like we’re living under a rock. There is something to be said for rock-dwelling however…
Just take Matera, Italy: a place where the cliffs and rocks of the surrounding landscape have been transformed into living quarters worthy of many a painting and photograph, and even deemed by Fodor’s travel guide as “one of the most unique landscapes in Europe”. Indeed, as the 1500 or so people living there can attest to, there is a unique charm to be found in homes carved from rock. Something which the many visitors who have travelled there – and marvelled in its beauty – can confirm.
Famed for its ‘sassi’, the two neighbourhoods of stone dwellings carved out of the caves and cliffs of the surrounding landscape, as well as the stunning vistas every which way you turn, Matera hasn’t always been hailed as a place of charm and beauty however.
Inhabited for centuries, the cave homes of Matera, located on the border of Basilicata and Puglia, in southern Italy, were by the early twentieth-century condemned by many and even proclaimed a national scandal. The poverty, squalor, overcrowding and malaria-ridden conditions found in the region were so bad that in the 1950s residents were eventually moved, by law, to modern buildings on the plateau above the cave-pocked cliffs.
Fast forward 30 odd years to the 1980s, and the abandoned caves of Matera found new life – not only as fascinating reminders of the past, but as renovated old cave homes, with well-to-do homebuyers re-inventing the dark, dank caves of yore. Then, 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”.
Ever since, Matera has become more and more popular as a bucket-list destination, with more and more old cave-houses being converted into quirky but comfortable modern homes, hotels, B&Bs and restaurants. (A reinvention no doubt sped up by virtue of Matera’s starring role in Mel Gibson’s divisive 2004 film The Passion of the Christ, with numerous shots showing the sassi and the gorge below.)
So amazing has been Matera’s transformation that it was named the European Capital of Culture for 2019… and even James Bond is rumoured to have made a visit in his latest escapade, to be released later this year.
Bond and other frivolities aside, there is much to be awestruck by in Matera, not least of which being its ‘chiese rupestri’, or rock churches. As well as those to be found in the city itself, be sure to head across the Gravina River to the Park of the Rock Churches, where you will find no less than 150 more carved into the cliffs. It’s certainly a sight to behold and more than validates Matera’s place as a Capital of Culture in any given year, in an official capacity or no.