Monday, October 8, 2012

Matera--Città di Sassi

The canyon, the developed cave homes, and modern housing above it all
Matera, on the eastern edge of the beautiful Region of Basilicata, is known as the city of caves. The natural caves have been used since prehistoric times by people for habitation. Some were natural caves that were modified and others were carved out of the tufo once the people learned to use tools to work the softer stone. 

It was a two-night trip in perfectly clear fall weather. We used the GPS app on the iPad for the first time and it worked very well. Doug might give up paper maps someday. It is impressive how they have mapped the world and even include the details of local streets of a small Italian city. Di finally was able to be a good navigator since the GPS could tell her where we were instantly--her navigation Achilles heal. Driving in Basilicata is always a pleasure with its smooth roads, light traffic, and expansive landscapes.

Our Hotel was located at the very edge of the city--with views of the  surrounding hills and undeveloped caves 
There has been a constant evolution of styles and technology in Matera. Centuries of people living in them and modifying them, so that in the last couple centuries, the exterior faces of the caves were finished-off with blocks of tufo in which were formed doors and windows. 

People lived in these places from prehistoric times until the 1950’s when the government decided they should not live in such 'squalor'. They were moved into modern housing and the old caves abandoned. Here is a good link to the history of Matera--if you'd like to learn more.  

Our Hotel Room in a Cave
 Hotel Sextantio Le Grotte della civita 
The hotel we chose was created by Daniele Kihlgren, a Swedish-Italian man dedicated to saving architectural history of Italy. He claims there are 2000 semi-abandoned towns, and 15,000 others that were totally abandoned. Kihlgren is dedicated to save some of them in a modernized way that protects what the places looked like when the inhabitants left. This includes some interesting touches like shampoo in a glass jar and lit candles strewn about.

He did a fine job of this at 'our' hotel with nice indoor plumbing (except no shower) and some electric lighting. The ancient flooring was retained along with most of the original cave carvings and stone block walls. This hotel and one of the restaurants we went to had sophisticated air exchange systems to rid the caves of dampness and bad air. One can only imagine life without plumbing, lights, dry air, etc. We poked our noses into another hotel in the sassi area that was not using caves and had super modern Ikea-like furnishings. There are many options in Matera and at least 8 hotels are pet friendly.

Di opted for breakfast out in the sun after a night in a cave--the breakfast spread was through the doors
in a old monastery--all part of the hotel
Vince preferred his private courtyard--you can see the only natural light into the cave was over the door

Our Walk Around Town and into History
The main things to do in Matera are walk around, eat, and take pictures and that's what we did. Our favorite stop was a museum showing how life in the caves in the late 19th century. The mule lived with the people, there was a toilet near the kitchen with hole leading down--somewhere--and small rooms for children to sleep. Very cozy. Let me count the smells....

Di kinda liked the look of the kitchen--although she's had her fill of wood-stove cooking--
well cooking in general, actually

A less successful stop was an old church and monastery that was used to exhibit some local modern art. The example below was the best of the lot. The rest was horrible--even if you love modern art. We thought the contrast between very old and very new probably sounded like a good idea but to us it was a clash. We were too busy laughing at the art to pay enough attention to the old frescoes, etc.

Di actually liked this piece--it was clever 
We ate at the Baccanti Restaurant--great food, nice cave.  It was probably a church or monastery as it is huge inside
Modern Matera is quite nice. It is a Provincial capital like Cosenza both with about 60,000 people, but it is lacking the sprawl of suburbs and the stressful traffic!  Unlike our area, Matera is an international tourist destination, so English is spoken about everywhere.  The city has done very well with interpretive signing, destination signing, and has some of the best street signing we’ve seen in Italy.


  1. We were there, but didn't stay in a sasso. We also found the ruins of a church in the hill on the outside of town. The only proof that someone else besides us knew about the place was a rusty sign that proclaimed that this was a historic area. I wonder if anything else has been done there.
    When i saw the photo of the "mule" my nose imagined just how strong the smell would be. I've been in a barn.. and barns have air circulation!!! a fun adventure for you guys, thanks

  2. Wow, very interesting! I didn't know people lived in there for so long! Well... I suppose if you don't own a house, you at least have this. Or maybe they didn't think of it this bad. Hm. Was it cold to sleep there?

  3. Michelle, the air system kept the room at 22 while we were there. I would think it might be much hotter in August and much colder in January, but I don't know how strong the air system is. The system in the restaurant featured is much more heavy-duty and likely comfy all year. Guido

  4. Loved this post and the photos -especially the one of Di and Vince. We stayed in a cave as well, but not the same hotel - I have read about the wonderful hotel you stayed in and the man who is restoring different Italian properties...looks like an incredible place.

  5. Mimi T,
    Loved your Calabrian nights post. Thanks for stopping by.

    Hi Laura!


  6. Street signing (what a luxury). It always make things more interesting when there aren't any don't you think? Looks like you had a real good look round and found loads of interesting things. We don't recall seeing half of what you saw, but we were only there an afternoon.

    Best wishes

    John & Toni

  7. Hi John and Tony. We spent a day and a half sightseeing in the town and it was very nice. Worth a visit to those have not been.



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