Day 77 Matera, Basilicata

Yesterday, our plans changed. Originally we had booked a campsite about an hour north of Messina in Calabria. However, the extraordinary efficiency of the Sicilian ferry system meant that we reached the mainland much earlier than expected. Since I was still feeling under par, and coughing like a trooper, Howard decided that we may as well just keep heading northwards, and treat ourselves to a couple of nights in a real bed. So just at the turn off to our campsite, Howard googled accommodation, and found somewhere in Matera. We had planned to come here for the following night in any case, in order to facilitate an oil change for Oscar. Matera had been recommended by a friend as an amazing destination, and she was spot on. As we drove in to the old town last night, the lights were twinkling, and the town looked like something out of ‘Oh Little Town of Bethlehem’. Howard, in his haste, had not really clocked that the accommodation that he had booked was right in the middle of the old town. We managed to negotiate our way through the winding streets, and arrived at reception with ten minutes to spare. The charming Italian instantly organised someone to come and park Oscar in a secure garage, and then led us up a series of narrow twisting steps to our accommodation. We were pretty surprised to find that we were sleeping in a cave for the next couple of nights! But what an amazing cave it was, complete with it’s own kitchenette, with breakfast laid up, a jacuzzi, and even a personal view of the interior of one of the many cave churches in the city. Wow! We were blown away.
This morning, after a good sleep, we set off to explore. This really is the most extraordinary city. Matera is one of the world’s oldest towns, dating back to the Paleolithic Age. It has been continuously inhabited for over 7,000 years, people attracted here by the cave systems that dotted the side of the Gravina gorge, providing protection and water. Over time, more and more cave dwellings were created by tunnelling into the porous Tufo limestone rock, forming a system of ‘sassi’, the cave homes which make this town famous. In times past, this was a prosperous place, with farmers, artisans, clergy and gentry living side by side. But gradually, the wealthy merchants moved out to the suburbs, leaving only the poorer peasants living in the sassi. At the beginning of this century, the city was virtually a slum, with impoverished labourers living in intolerable overcrowded conditions within the caves. It was known as the ‘Shame of Italy’. At one point the infant mortality rate was over 44%. The air-less caves bred infection, the only source of air and light being the small entrances. In many cases, families lived side by side with their animals inside these tiny abodes. In the 1950s, action was finally taken, and all the inhabitants were moved out, and re-located up in the valley in purpose build accommodation. Old Matera became a ghost town.
It’s resurrection came partly as a result of film producers realising it’s amazing potential for a set location. Films such as ‘Passion of the Christ’ starring Mel Gibson, and Ben Hur, put this city back on the map. The reason being that this place is just like stepping back in time, into a Biblical scene.
So gradually, old city slowly undertook a renaissance. It was re-inhabited and gentrified. The old cave dwellings were made into start hotels and restaurants, and today the city is a hive of restoration activity, in preparation for being awarded ‘City of European Culture 2019’. It is indeed, the most amazing place. You can spend hours just wandering through the labyrinth of streets and alleyways, with wonderful vistas at every turn. It has been a brilliant day, and thank you so much Pauline for telling us about it. A real gem!
I do just wonder though, if being brought to live in a cave for two days will do much to improve my lung function!

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