Land of Caves

Matera (5 June 2013)

It was only on the way back to Bari from Aberobello that I got time to think properly about what was happening to me.

First of all, I was back in Italy. This would be the only return visit to a country during my 1 year break. But I was definitely looking forward to seeing all the great works of art in that country.

Secondly, I was sorry that I was missing out on Bari even though that was my port of entry into Italy. E and I had intended to spend a day in Bari but we had to give up on that plan because there was no ferry from Dubrovnik to Bari at the time we wanted. We also did not want to give up on either Alberobello or Matera. But of course we did not regret spending that extra day in Dubrovnik instead.

We reached Matera from Bari on the night of 4 June, with a little help from someone who led us to the right platform to catch our connecting train. We did not even have much difficulty finding our booked accommodation for the night. What luck! We were staying at the Residence San Pietro Barisano which offered cave rooms.

E got a real cave and she complained that it was damp. My room was a short distance away up a flight of stairs away from the Residence’s ‘main office’. The Residence operated a restaurant as well and its cashier doubled as hotel reception. The room allocated to me was really a standalone apartment with a small kitchen and a mezzanine for the bed. It was comfortable and private. But it was the view from the balcony that blew me away.

Night view of Matera from my apartment (wish I had a better camera!)

I do believe that I can live in that apartment for a long long time, if they could fix the bathroom since it did not seem capable of handling a shower and got quite flooded after I had one. Unfortunately I only had a night in Matera. I almost did not want to leave in the morning!

My apartment

View from my balcony

Panoramic view from my apartment

Where I slept that night was in one of the Sassi (singular Sasso) of Matera. To be precise I was in the Sasso Barisano. The other older Sasso is the Sasso Caveoso. The two Sassi can be said to be separated by the Civita hill on top of which is the Matera Cathedral. The easiest way to differentiate between the two Sassi is to look out for the large rock the rupestrian churches of Santa Maria de Idris and San Giovanni in Monterrone are dug into and which stands prominently in the middle of the Sasso Caveoso. If you do not see it then you must be in the Sasso Barisano. The other way is to look out for a church dedicated to St Peter and check its name. If it is the Church of San Pietro Barisano then you are in the Sasso Barisano. If it is the Church of San Pietro Caveoso, you are in the Sasso Caveoso.

Sasso Caveoso (churches of San Maria de Idris and San Giovanni in Monterrone on the right)

The Sassi have been used a number of times as a substitute for ancient Jerusalem by filmmakers. Movies like “The Passion of the Christ” and “The Nativity Story” were filmed here. I do admit that the general feel and colour of the Sassi make them resemble somewhat a Middle Eastern city, but the filmmakers probably had to do a lot of editing to ensure authenticity.

I should point out at this juncture that the Sassi do not look like they are full of cave houses at all. The exteriors of the houses are nicely plastered or bricked up so that the Sassi look like any normal town. Also, there are some buildings that are completely built up, like my apartment, and not dug into the rock. I remember walking around the Sassi wondering which ones were caves and which ones not. I came expecting to see a stone age looking city and of course I was wrong.

House with garden in the Sasso Caveoso

We managed to visit the inside of a former cave house turned museum in the Sasso Caveoso. We were quite amazed by how people used to live in this place.

Visiting the Casa Grotta

The Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario is really quite small, the size of an ordinary hotel room. But apparently an entire family used to live here with their animals. Yes, with their animals. At the back of the cave there is a small section for the horse or donkey and maybe a pig. The section also had storage space for hay, manure and whatever else the family wanted to put there. Under the bed would be where they keep the chicken. Another separate section in the house near the entrance was the kitchen.

Casa Grotta

The family horse

The separate section for the animals looked more like a space for the bathroom. But of course in those days they did not have proper sanitation facilities. So how did they go?

The toilet

I really cannot imagine living in a place like this with no proper bathroom facilities and having to live with the animals and their excrement. Not only that, there was no heat or plumbing. It also seems so incredible that an entire family could live in this small enclosure with everyone in each other’s way all the time. Not everyone in the family got to sleep on the one bed in the house of course and I am not sure that the cave floor was a nice or even clean enough place to sleep on.

The Italian government tried to relocate all the residents of the Sassi in the 1950s because the conditions there were simply too squalid and unsanitary. The Sassi had become a hotbed of diseases, particularly malaria apparently. But many refused to budge and continued to live there in abject poverty.

One local E and I had met at the train station when we were going to catch our bus to Florence told us that Matera was the only place on earth where people had lived continuously for more than 10,000 years. I did not know enough to agree with or refute him but it was obvious that he was proud of his city’s heritage. I have to say that it is a heritage that is fascinating to a foreigner like me.

It is probably unfair but I kept hearing the Flintstones theme song in my head when I was in Matera, starting from my visit to the Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario.

Memories of people living in the cave

When in Matera, it is a must to visit some of the rupestrian churches in the Sassi. These are churches carved into rocks, cave churches really, and those that I visited were all quite special.

The most prominent one is the Church of Santa Maria de Idris, standing tall and looming over Sassi Caveoso. It is really hard to miss. The same rock also houses the Church of St Giovanni in Monterrone which was used a crypt in the later part of its existence. This church is accessible by a small passage in the Santa Maria de Idris itself.

Church of Santa Maria de Idris overlooking the Sasso

Church of Santa Maria de Idris

There are some frescoes happily fading away in the 2 churches and I hope that enough is being done to protect them. The more beautiful and better preserved ones in my opinion are in the San Giovanni in Monterrone. It was a pity that, as with the other rupestrian churches we visited, photography was not allowed inside.

The view from the rock was as expected quite spectacular.

View from the Church of Santa Maria de Idris

Across la Gravina, the ravine separating the Sassi from the homes of the real cavemen (the holes at the top of the hill on the right)

Another rupestrian church that we visited was the Santa Lucia alle Malve. It is quite easy to miss this church because of its nondescript façade. There are also frescoes inside the church.

Church of Santa Lucia alle Malve

We also visited the Church of San Pietro Barisano, another rupestrian church and the namesake of our accommodations the previous night. From its exterior, it looks like any ordinary church. But it is of course a different story inside since it is after all a cave.

Church of San Pietro Barisano

Burial niches in the crypt

I was most fascinated by the crypt under the church. There are burial niches in there where the dead are placed in sitting position to drain dry. I wonder what the place looked like when the niches were still used. I wonder what the place used to smell like.

With all these unique cave churches in the city, I wonder if anyone would bother visiting the other ‘normal’ churches which in comparison might appear run of the mill. We could not find our way into the cathedral (which looked too ‘normal’ and a little uninteresting to me) but we did get to visit a ‘normal’ church right in the Sassi. The Church of San Pietro Caveoso is not a cave but still charming. The interior in particular was really quite pretty, especially the ceiling.

Painted ceiling of San Pietro Caveoso

San Pietro Caveoso altar

San Pietro Caveoso baptismal font

Church of San Pietro Caveoso by the ravine

Matera Cathedral (area appeared to be under restoration at time of visit)

With the amazing Sassi it is very easy to forget that there is another part of old Matera that is worth exploring. I think it is referred to as either the old city or the Plain District and it looks more gentrified than the Sassi. It does not fascinate as much as the Sassi but does have its own charms.

Piazza Vittorio Veneto

Church of San Francesco d’Assisi

Pedestrian street in the old city

Church of San Giovanni Battista

Wheel of life on Church of San Domenico

The geography of the Sassi can make exploring them somewhat difficult for a person as unfit as I am with its million stairs to climb. Nevertheless, I did enjoy my visit in such a fascinating urban landscape. Having seen Alberobello and then Matera, I cannot help but wonder how much more southern Italy has to offer. If I ever return to Italy I must make it a point to spend more time in the south to do the region justice.

I also have to make mention of the people in the south who seem to be friendlier and more down to earth than the northerners. E and I were invited by these 2 workers to chat while they worked on turning this room into a bar. They spoke only a little more English than we did Italian but we managed to have a little conversation. That was how we found out that they were creating a bar. The friendliness of the people we encountered in southern Italy also felt more genuine. It went beyond just an attempt to look polite or worse get our money. They seemed more sincerely interested in who we were and what we thought and had to say about their homeland.

But it was time to go and we had an overnight bus to catch to get to Florence. We were going back to jostling with the tourist crowds and E would be going home soon.

Shrine outside Matera Villa Longo station

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