Italy’s ‘instep’. Basilicata. Also still known locally by its Roman name, Lucania. The only one of Italy’s twenty regions with two separate coastlines: a few token kilometres on the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west and a slightly longer stretch on the Ionian Sea to the south. Still one of the country’s poorest, least developed regions – while also being the site of western Europe’s largest oil field. And where you will find what must count as one of Europe’s most remarkable cities: Matera.
We had never even heard of the place until last year when a student in one of my English classes mentioned that she came from there. “That’s the place with the cave houses, isn’t it” asked a fellow student. “Yes, that’s right,” replied Dora. “I moved away when I went to university, though….” The conversation moved on and I continued with my lesson – on giving directions, if memory serves – but a seed had been sown. And so having found out a bit more about this extraordinary place, we decided to make Matera (which is also 2019’s European Capital of Culture, incidentally) the destination for a New Year mini-break.
Described by the New York Times as ‘Italy’s best-kept secret’ and also known as the Underground City (la Città Sotterranea), Matera is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with evidence of human habitation since 7000 BC. Those early settlements – the sassi – took the form of caves dug into the side of the ravine at the city’s north-eastern edge. And until the late 19th century, the city’s residents continued to carve their homes into and out of the soft, almond-coloured rock, creating a vast honeycomb of caverns, tunnels, alleys and staircases – as well as several full-size churches, complete with Byzantine frescoes.
Gradually, however, the sassi – which had no power, sewerage or running water until well into the 20th century – became synonymous with poverty and disease, and in the 1950s the 15,000 residents of the sassi were forcibly relocated to purpose-built public housing in the modern upper town. It was not until the 1980s, though, that regeneration of the sassi finally got underway when the local government recognised the area’s cultural significance – as well as its potential to draw visitors to this isolated and remote corner of Italy. With the help of the Italian state, the European Union and UNESCO (which awarded them the status of World Heritage Site in 1993) the sassi have been rebuilt, restored, re-purposed, re-inhabited and re-invigorated, and today are enjoying a renaissance not only as private homes but also as shops, bars, restaurants and hotels.
We got to enjoy rather more time in our intimate little cave-hotel deep in the sassi than anticipated, mind you. Our arrival in the town coincided almost exactly with that of a vicious weather front blown down from the Baltic that brought with it unprecedented snowfall and sub-zero temperatures that paralysed the town for most of our stay. Closer to Africa than to Austria, snow is pretty rare this far south in Italy, so the town was simply not equipped to deal with the 20cm that fell in one evening and that made it all but impossible to navigate the winding staircases and steep slopes of its shiny cobbled streets. Happily, however, there were several fabulous restaurants within tottering distance of our cosy cave-room, so at least we were able to enjoy another little-known attraction of the region: its distinctive cuisine. Exceptionally for Italy – and much to Mr Blue-Shirt’s delight – this features a lot of lamb, and the peperoni cruschi (red peppers that have been dried in the sun to a deeply coloured, deeply flavoured crisp) were a deliciously moreish discovery, as was the amazingly flavoursome bread. What’s that saying about clouds and silver linings? And talking of which, the fact that snow stopped play means that we have the ideal excuse to make a return visit to this fascinating, unique city – only in slightly kinder weather…
* Photo taken the morning after the first night’s snowfall of a couple of centimetres, but before a further 20cm or so fell just while we were having dinner later that evening.