Matera, i Sassi patrimonio UNESCO

Matera is ancient; a difficult-to-reach, isolated town heavily influenced by its earthy roots and the succession of passing races and cultures. History lies in thick layers on the surface of the land - Neolithic settlements, ancient Greek and Roman artefacts and abandoned limestone caves in the Murgia bedrock - but the most impressive layer of history is the city itself.

In Matera, the ash-grey sassi - the famous cave-and-stone houses inhabited since the Palaeolithic Age - sprawl below the rim of a yawning ravine like a giant nativity scene, its 21st-century makeover highlighting its austere beauty. It was these same caves that in the 8th to 9th centuries attracted Byzantine monks seeking refuge from persecution (p23). Painting coloured frescoes on the walls, they transformed the dank, dark cells into places of worship.

These chiese rupestri (rock churches) are scattered throughout the sassi and the scrubby rock-strewn countryside of the Murgia plateau. Once past the ravine the landscape changes markedly, the Matera Murgia smoothing into undulating wheatfields and olive groves that sweep around the pretty medieval hilltop town of Montescaglioso and into nearby Puglia, while only 60km to the south are the long sandy beaches of the Ionian Coast.

Matera has some of Basilicata's best hotels and is a good starting place from which to explore the region, but be warned that public transport is severely limited and a car is highly recommended.

Matera is unique. In no other city do you come face to face with such powerful images of Italy's lost peasant culture. Its famous sassi tell of a poverty now difficult to imagine in a developed European country, a cliched image of rudimentary human civilisation that made it Mel Gibson's location of choice for the film The Passion of the Christ.

 

 
 
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