Everyone has heard of the canals and gondolas of Venice, the Colosseum in Rome, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Surprisingly few people have heard of an ancient town in southern Italy called Matera which is known for its cave dwellings, Roughly 9,000 years ago, a group of Paleolithic settlers built cave dwellings in Matera’s calcium-rich rocks. Human beings have consistently lived in Matera’s caves since they were first built—which makes them some of the oldest continuously occupied cave dwellings in human history.
For much of the 20th century, many residents of Italy considered Matera to be a national embarrassment. Matera was considered an unsophisticated rural outpost that was mired in crushing poverty. Local shepherds allowed sheep, goats, and chickens to crowd inside of their cave dwellings alongside their human family members. Conditions became so squalid that the entire population of Matera’s Sassi—or stone dwellings—were relocated to newly built housing in the 1950s.
Matera’s Sassi were largely abandoned until the 1980s, when history buffs and impassioned Matera citizens decided to band together to renovate the town’s unique stone dwellings. Stylish hotels, restaurants, and cafes started popping up in Sassi which only a few decades earlier were considered unfit for human occupancy. Tourists slowly started to trickle into Matera.
Italians who have explored and renovated the Sassi have encountered many hidden treasures, including several rock-hewn churches which feature impressive murals. The Crypt of Original Sin features a Byzantine mural which is considered to be one of the most impressive rock art murals ever created. If you stay at a Sassi hotel, a local guide will be happy to give you a tour of some of the area’s most striking rock-hewn churches.
Matera has been occupied by countless groups including the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Goths. The Sassi of Matera feature several types of architectural flourishes from different centuries including vaulted ceilings and winding stones steps. Exploring the interior of the Sassi is like stepping into a portal that allows you to witness moments in time which date back 9,000 years.
For those who thrive on adventure, there is a section of Matera called Sasso Caveoso which is home to a sizable number of uninhabited caves. Sasso Caveoso is eerie and a little dangerous, but well worth the trip if you’re yearning to explore some Sassi which are off the beaten path. Please exercise caution in abandoned areas. When surveying Sasso Caveso tread lightly, bring a flashlight, and don’t venture too far away from inhabited areas.
The Sassi of Matera offer visitors ancient and modern thrills. Visitors can attend a concert at a newly renovated natural stone concert hall, or spend the day looking at murals painted by ancient shepherds with no formal art training. Once considered an eyesore and a lost cause, Matera is steadily becoming one of the most vital spots in Italy. There aren’t many other places on Earth where you can spend the night in a newly refurbished luxury cave dwelling which features Wi-Fi and a flatscreen TV.