A trip to the Sassi in Matera in Italy’s southern region of Basilicata, will transport you into a stunning old town perched on the rocky hillside. Seeing the old town of Matera with its charming cobbled streets, winding pathways, and vibrant piazzas is every bit as magical as the mythical worlds Narnia or Middle Earth.
The cubist homes here rise up from the hillside, closely packed together and boasting a variety of levels and storeys so intricate it’s often compared to a maze. Walking through the town is full of surprises, with many hidden corners and pathways winding through blocks of age-old architecture that seem to defy the rules of gravity. It is one of the oldest settlements in Italy and its streets tell the stories of generations past through the stacks of stone and mortar.
Life here, the locals will tell you, is good. People have what they need, enjoying the beauty of the countryside, the bounty of the harvest, and great company. The landscape around Matera is arid and dry – one of the dryest in Italy – with few trees and more rock and dirt than vegetation. The locals cultivate olive trees and potted plants or cheerful flowers in window boxes that are hardy enough to withstand the hot, dry climate. Restaurants delight visitors and locals alike with fresh, whole foods harvested from the surrounding areas and incorporated into tantalizing Mediterranean dishes.
In the center of Matera you’ll find the Sassi (the “stones”), spectacular gravity-defying homes that were originally caves that were carved into the stone back in medieval times. There is evidence that people lived here dating back to the Palaeolithic period. In the 1950s many of the homes were declared uninhabitable and the residents were relocated to another part of Matera. The government realized that these unique clusters of cave homes were a treasure of sorts. Restoration efforts were undertaken and with some truly creative craftsmanship, the Sassi were upgraded and converted into inspired living spaces.
The Sassi straddle two worlds, combining elements that stay authentic to their origin as humble cave dwellings yet transform them into hospitable and beautiful shops, restaurants, homes, and other facilities – even a concert hall.
Some of the caves have been cleverly remodelled, combined into larger and incredibly stylish private family residences or chic and trendy boutiques and hotels. Modern inhabitants enjoy the Sassi for their newfound comfort and style, but also for their rich history and beauty.
Not only are they beautiful to explore, their cultural importance was recognized and the Sassi and the Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993. Travelers here can delve into history, enjoy breath-taking views, relax and explore the local shops and restaurants, or take in the local arts and music scene. A visit to the Sassi and the Rupestrian Churches is a must for anyone who wants an authentic experience of this region of the Mediterranean. The artwork and architectural embellishments are awe-inspiring.