Italy – Matera: a city with no urban planning

How shall I describe Matera? This city overwhelmed us. We were not prepared for such beauty and uniqueness. I’ve heard some people making a reference to Cappadocia in Turkey: absolutely not the same, it would be like comparing strawberries and turnips.

Matera is in the region of Basilicata. If you look at the boot formed by Italy, Matera would be where you have the bone of your ankle. The town lies in a small canyon, which has been eroded during the course of the years by a small stream, the Gravina. Matera has been registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993 and has been chosen to be the European Capital of Culture in 2019. Matera was chosen by Mel Gibson to film The Passion of the Christ in 2004 and he didn’t have much Photoshop to do after filming. This is the positive side which came after much shame thrown at it earlier in the century.

Matera is also known since Carlo Levi wrote his autobiography in 1945, Christ stopped at Eboli (Cristo si è fermato a Eboli), which became a film in 1979. Eboli is south of Naples, and north of Matera. The expression ‘Christ stopped at Eboli’ meant that the people living in the very south of the country were not Christians, they had been forgotten even by Christ. When young doctor Carlo Levi was exiled by the fascists to the Basilicata region (then called Lucania) in the 1930s he discovered an extremely poor region where squalor and insalubrity led to malaria being a common fate for the population. Matera and the entire region became the shame of the country.

Matera is famous for people living in sasso houses (sassi in plural) – sasso means stone in Italian. First occupied in the Paleolithic Age, then settled by the Romans, Matera has always been inhabited. People would hew their houses in the rocks, soft limestone and tufa, and essentially live like troglodytes. Eventually they built facades to their caves. Thousands of caves. Until the 1950s less than 3% of these ‘houses’ had running water and there was no sewage system. To add to the insalubrity most families lived with their animals in the same cave – not pets but donkeys, cows or goats!

The poor sanitation was so alarming that in the 1950s, the government of Italy forcefully relocated most of the population of the Sassi, about 20,000 people, to areas outside the city. Finally in the 1980s the right plan was adopted: repatriation and gentrification and eventually development of tourism. The city invested in drainage and electricity and gave important incentives to inhabitants to rebuild their houses– up to 50% of their investment was tax deductible. About 60,000 people now live in Matera which is nothing less than an open air museum, a living museum.

We arrived on a Saturday night, the sun had set and multiple little lights made Matera look like a nativity scene. Our B&B host Franco introduced us to our new home for three days: a cave house, a real grotto where nothing was flat nor square but the floor. Walls and ceiling undulated, high enough for us not to feel claustrophobic. Although a bit tired we ventured outside after unpacking. The magical view of Matera by night gave us enough energy to start losing ourselves in the intricate maze of the city where we had to stop at every corner to fill our eyes and take photo after photo.

To be continued …

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