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Matera, Italy: Ancient Jewel of the Basilicata (video)

Matera, Italy: Ancient Jewel of the Basilicata (video)

Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2011-09-09

A troglodyte city in the south of Italy, Matera boasts one of Europe’s oldest prehistoric sites. Only a half-century ago, its inhabitants lived in deplorable poverty. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, attracting tourists from around the world and offering a luxury hotel truly unlike any other.

Matera may well be the only place in Europe which has been populated uninterruptedly since the Palaeolithic era. People have lived here for thousands of years: first in caves, then in multi-storey dwellings dug out of the rock. At the end of the Second World War, the peasants of Matera continued to live near their livestock, sleeping in beds next to the stables, while rainwater was collected in cisterns dug into the rocks that served as roofs. The ambient poverty and lack of hygiene described in 1945 by the writer Carlo Levi compelled the Italian government to order the evacuation of Matera’s 15,000 inhabitants in 1952, immediately relocating them in newly built council houses.
When you arrive in Matera by the route that comes from Bari, these buildings are the first that you’ll see. To reach the original city - called the Sassi (’Stones’) - you must cross through the town and continue on to the edge of a cliff overlooking a canyon.
The limestone plateau, which ends suddenly in an abrupt precipice, gives an impression of arriving ‘at the very end of something’, as if the modern world has been left behind and one has entered into an alternate dimension of time and space. The Sassi, great cathedral-like stones polished by the elements and sculpted by human hands, rise up from the mists of time and draw one into mysterious parts unknown that are somehow reminiscent of the Judean Desert.
Indeed, forty years apart, Pier PaoloPasolini (in 1964) and Mel Gibson (in 2004) went to Matera to shoot the films that best express their deepest convictions: The Gospel According to Saint Matthew and The Passion of the Christ respectively.
The best way to experience Matera’s otherworldly allure is to circle the city, wander aimlessly within it and visit the sites where filming took place (Via Muro, Via Lombardi,Porta Pistola...). You should also drive to the canyon opposite the city (take the road to Tarente) to enjoy the best possible view of the Sassi and the surrounding countryside. The Murgia Plateau, which covers 4,000 km² of the Puglia and Basilicata regions, is a fascinating area presenting a good many prehistoric caves, rupestrian churches and wild animals. At the foot of the plateau, in Pietrapenta, 14 kilometres from Matera, the Crypt of the Original Sin (Cripta del Peccato Originale) is a 9th century marvel set in a cave on the banks of the Picciano ravine. Its spectacular frescoes depicting Genesis and other scenes from the bible have retained the subtlety and freshness of their original colours.
The great artist of Matera
Born in Matera in 1958, the painter Donato Rizzi is an exceptional artist who has chosen to spend his life here. I strongly encourage you to pay him a visit. ‘Matera has been inhabited for thousands of years,’ he says. ‘Maybe that’s why I’ve always been attracted to the primal arts. This city, created by its natives over the centuries, has an unheard-of architectural complexity; the harmony and sociability that it exudes are extraordinary. Nearly deserted in the recent past, the old city, where I’ve chosen to set up my atelier, is in a state of continual rebirth today. As an artist, I’m especially sensitive to the light here - a light that changes all day long. Matera is a city that can be blue in the morning, white during the afternoon and pink in the evening. If Monet had known Matera, he would surely have fallen in love with it!’
A dream hotel from another time, another place
While visiting the Sassi, I urge you to spend a night in a hotel unlike any other: the Sextantio, just opposite the Murgia Plateau on the edge of the precipice. The hotel project was launched a few years ago by a visionary artist from Berlin, Margaret Berg, who fell in love with Matera when she was 15 years old. Originally considered rather eccentric, this impassioned woman had the idea to rehabilitate the old, abandoned caves by transforming them into a minimalist luxury hotel: bare stone, antique wood furniture, linen sheets, beeswax candles, etc. Ageless wash houses hold washbasins where you take your shower or bath amidst the boulders. To access the guest rooms suggestive of troglodyte churches, you don’t use magnetic cards but large iron keys. This ‘northernly’ sobriety is not to everyone’s taste, but it perfectly suits the site. Breakfast, served in a cave converted into a dining room, is also an exceptional event, with organic products from the Basilicata, fruit tarts and bread baked in a wood-fired oven.
How to get there
Book a flight to Bari, Italy on the Adriatic Sea. The road to Matera (66 km) crosses through the Puglia region as far as Altamura.
Where to stay
Hotel Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita
Who and what to see
Donato Rizzi
Via San Giovanni Vecchio n° 37
75100 Matera
Tel: +39 329 159 2887.
Crypt of the Original Sin
In Pietrapenta, the crypt is located on the property of Dragone Winery, Matera’s foremost vineyard. To visit, you must book ahead by contacting the Artezeta association.
Tel: +39 320 535 0910
Matera Tourist Office
Agenzia di Promozione Territoriale Basilicata
Via De Viti De Marco,
75100 Matera
Tel: +39 0835 331 983
For a guided tour of Matera and the surrounding area in English, French, Italian or German, contact Anne Demay at +39 320 918 6152 – anne@sassiweb.it

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