Matera, known as “la Città Sotterranea” (the Subterranean City), is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, having been inhabited since the 10th millennium BC. It has gained international fame for its ancient town, the “Sassi di Matera”. The Sassi originated in a prehistoric settlement, and these dwellings are thought to be among the first ever human settlements in what is now Italy. The Sassi are habitations dug into the calcareous rock itself. Many of them are really little more than caverns, and in some parts of the Sassi a street lies on top of another group of dwellings. The ancient town grew up on one slope of the rocky ravine created by a river that is now a small stream, and this ravine is known locally as “la Gravina”.
Our tour guide told us how people here lived and it was very sad. The 14th picture shows a typical house where a couple and their probably 10 – 12 children lived. Their animals stayed inside their home also. There was very little food and very little room. There was one meal a day and the food was given based on how much work the person did. The first bite went to the mother, then the father, then the ones that worked in the fields. Smaller children might spend the whole day in the bed (because there was no where else for them to go) and when it came time for them to eat, if there was no food, the attitude was you have done nothing all day but lay in the bed, so no food. If you are strong, you will survive. They did not have enough clothes for all the children, and in the winter, the youngest had no clothes but underwear and again, if you are strong you will survive. The mother, father and all children above 7 would go out into the fields to work and stay for 4 days. They would use pink poppies to drug the children 6 and under. It would normally keep them drugged for the 4 days. No food, no water, no protection and again, if you are strong, you will survive. This was not some ancient civilization, people lived like this in the 1900s. The Italian government tried to get them to change their way of life, but they refused. In the 1940s, the government burned all the pink poppies in the area so they would not drug the children. In the 1950s, the government used force to relocate most of the population of the Sassi to areas of the developing modern city.
Until the late 1980s the Sassi was considered an area of poverty, since its dwellings were, and in most cases still are, uninhabitable. The present local administration, however, has become more tourism-oriented, and it has promoted the regeneration of the Sassi with the aid of the Italian government, UNESCO, and Hollywood. Sassi is frequently used in movies to represent Jerusalem as parts of it look like Jerusalem and it is a safe place to shoot a movie. Some of the more well-known ones are “Ben-Hur” (2016 remake), the recent “Wonder Woman” (the beginning of the movie), and Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ”.
The bus was not allowed to drive into Matera so we had to walk. We were walking through this bustling city and wondering where the caves were. We went down some stairs and walked through a tunnel and found ourselves in a whole other world. It is quite beautiful. We stayed in a hotel that has converted some of the Sassi houses into rooms. The next to the last picture shows our room. We also had some amazing local appetizers – cauliflower soufflé, zucchini stuffed with mushrooms, marinated mushrooms, faro and corn salad and some wonderful onions. Matera is a truly magical place, but it has a very sad history.