Sassi-Town: GO NOW!
April 25, 2017
Sassi-town. Cave-town. City of stones. I was astounded by the interest in Italy’s sexy “new” cave-city, Matera, at the huge travel trade show “BIT” a couple of weeks ago in Milan. I kept coming back to the Basilicata stand, inexorably drawn to a region that a few short years ago would have held no interest for me.
Located in the remote southern region of Basilicata, Matera is a cave-town unknown to many tourists and adventurers. If you’re curious, you can come stay in caves and wander along cliffs located throughout the city, as well as learn about its extensive history. Although poverty was high in the region during the early 1900s, in 1993, the town was made a UNESCO World Heritage site, being called “the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem”. About 9,000 years ago, many believe that humans first began to settle in and develop the caves. Now, visitors can enjoy a luxurious experience with a unique story they can find nowhere else.
Although the caves worked for prehistoric people, by the time the 20th century rolled around, Matera was a horrible blight on the Italian peninsula. Malaria, cholera and other diseases ran rampant, almost everyone was illiterate, and half the babies born didn’t survive. The caves were so impoverished that in 1958, Italy re-located almost all of its residents. The old caves, or sassi, were boarded up. But eventually, artists and writers, as well as small businesses, ventured to the area. Richard Gere starred in King David, filmed there in 1985. Once The Passion of Christ was filmed in Matera in 2004, the region started to blossom. Visitors arrived and trailblazers began to settle. Small hotels (most of them luxurious) popped up, such as Le Grotte della Civita, a boutique hotel dispersed in the caves. Guests here forego the pool and cable TV for an immersion experience beyond imagination. Old trinkets, such as copper pots and animal troughs, have been tastefully transformed into furniture and decor. We are working on a small group tour next year that will include Matera. I’m so excited!
Other than meandering among the sassi of Matera, guests can enjoy many festivals, museums, and concerts, especially in summertime. The cathedral, on top of the hill, has been there since the 8th century, and is adorned with mullioned windows, as well as a 52 foot bell tower. The Musma Museum (contemporary sculpure museum) is famous for drawings, jewelry, prints, pottery and metal, all artfully placed among the city’s stones. Once you finish exploring the attractions, local food favorites are offered at many of the restaurants. Cucina povera reigns here. Cialledda is a dish made with bread, vegetables, potatoes, herbs and eggs, which is popular all over the region. Pignata, a stew made of sheep or lamb, is mixed with vegetables and herbs while being cooked in a clay pot in a wood oven for a distinct flavor. Once defined by the poverty that ruled it, the now-prosperous city is a product of its history.
Matera has arrived. The new Ben Hur was filmed there last year. It’s now been awarded European Cultural Capital for 2019, which will mean hordes of visitors before you can blink. We encourage you to consider visiting Sassi-Town. Now.