A City Reborn: The New Dawn of Matera, the “Shame of Italy”

A City Reborn: The New Dawn of Matera, the “Shame of Italy”

Once dubbed the “shame of Italy”, Matera is quietly casting off its dismal past. As this rock-hewn Basilicatan city – the 2019 European Capital of Culture – embraces a new dawn, we explore its labyrinthine streets before they become overrun by tourists

at the mouth of a cave, we watched as evening
descended. Stretched before us was a scene of dilapidated beauty.
The last of the day’s light bathed a honeycomb of dwellings that
draped over the flanks of a ravine, its golden glow picking out a
patina of sandstone, muted terracotta and flaking peach. A gentle
sawing of crickets began to chorus. All else in the backstreets was
quiet. As the cool night air drew in, lights flickered like
fireflies in the maze of buildings below us. Three years had passed
since I first heard the story of Matera. Finally, I had made it
here. I was utterly enchanted.

Matera was the first stop on our road
through southern Italy, and the two nights carved out of
our itinerary here were the real reason for the whole trip. Despite
being just over an hour’s drive from Bari, southern Italy’s second
largest city and a regional airport hub, Matera has stayed off the
tourist trail. While Puglia
has become a hotpot – the curiously conical dwellings of
Alberobello and the sparkling white city of Ostuni heave with
visitors each summer – Basilicata, Puglia’s neighbouring region and
the home of Matera, is yet to catch on.

Visit Matera now and you’ll find the ancient city blissfully
quiet, its authenticity unadulterated. It’s mostly only Italians
that visit here, the sing-song energy of their conversation the
soundtrack that hums through the city’s streets.

Matera may not be on the tourist map yet but the lure of its
story – one of the most dramatic tales of rebirth in Europe – is
irresistible. As one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on
earth, the city is characterised by a maze-like network of ancient
cave dwellings – sassi – that have been inhabited since the
Paleolithic era. Less than 70 years ago, around 15,000 people were
still living in these caves; large families and their livestock
squeezed together in dark dwellings with no natural light,
electricity or water. Matera was overcrowded, riddled with disease
and crippled by poverty. In 1945 Carlo Levi’s book Christ Stopped
at Eboli threw light on life in Matera and a wave of political
attention followed: the Italian Prime Minister denounced it as the
“shame of Italy” and a mass evacuation of the sassi took place,
leaving a vast abandoned city in its wake.

Fast-forward to today and the tide has turned once again for
Matera. Boosted by its Unesco heritage status and the attentions of
various filmmakers, the city has received an increasing interest in
its restoration. A wave of entrepreneurs have breathed life back
into the sassi, transforming its cave dwellings into boutique
hotels, stylish restaurants, artists’ workshops and galleries. The
shame of Italy no more, Matera was crowned as Europe’s Capital of
Culture 2019.

With Matera’s story entrenched in our minds and darkness having
fully fallen, we headed into our cave – a lovingly restored
dwelling that would be our home for the next two nights. Part of
Locanda di San Martino, our room
was set apart from the main hotel, tucked down a narrow backstreet
that placed it right in the heart of the sassi. Inside, the
pared-back design allowed the beauty of the cave to speak for
itself: rock-hewn vaulted ceilings, bare sandstone walls and a rain
shower taking centre stage in the main room, its glass encasing
blending elegantly with the surroundings.

The next day we were woken by the sound of church bells ringing
out across the ravine as a soft morning light seeped through a
small porthole window into the dark cave. Shaking off the night’s
hibernation, we set off, eager to explore the city. We headed first
to Casa Noha, a restored
cave-home-turned-museum, where a series of rooms have been
elegantly repurposed to tell the fascinating tale of the rise and
fall – and now rebirth – of the city.

Inspired by Casa Noha, we explored the city with fresh eyes.
Reaching the rock church of San Pietro Barisano, we stepped out of
the midday heat into its cool interior – a quietly beautiful space
with rough arching walls painted with faded frescoes in muted
shades of mustard, terracotta and sky blue. Rock-hewn statues lined
the perimeter of the main room, at the centre of which a vast,
empty frame suspended between pillars took the place of the missing
altar. In the space below the church a series of small underground
vaults linked by narrow tunnels were carved with little niches
where corpses were once drained.

Blinking back into the sunlight, we wandered on, our path soon
skirting the city’s edge. The road meandered along the border where
the crumbling sassi surrender to the rocky ravine, the opposite
mountainside forming a rugged slope pockmarked with caves. As the
path swerved back towards the city, we spotted a suntrap terrace
and stopped for lunch. Kiev Café may not sound authentic, but its
flavours were: chewy mozzarella-laced parmigiana, a caprese salad
bursting with fresh tomatoes, and hunks of Matera’s bread – the
city’s pride and joy.

As afternoon shadows cast across the street, we started making
our way back to our hotel, lured by the promise of a visit to its
spa. We surrendered ourselves to the labyrinthine sassi en route.
In some areas, nature had reclaimed long-forgotten backstreets:
little nests wedged their way into cracked walls while vines
straddled alleyways, green tendrils inching along disused telephone
wires. In other streets, wrought iron balconies, sea-green shutters
and heavy bougainvillea broke up the neutral palette of the houses.
Every now and then we stumbled across a viewpoint – striking vistas
unannounced by the normal fanfare of selfie sticks and camera
touting tourists.

Back at the hotel we headed for the spa. Housed in a converted
cave dwelling, the spa‘s
sauna, steam room and relaxation spaces were dotted around an
atmospheric collection of vaulted rooms. The pool,
however, was the unrivalled focal point: its illuminated waters
flowing through a series of interconnecting chambers, reflections
of ripples dancing on the sandstone walls.

Fully relaxed, we went out in search of dinner. The sun was
going down and locals now filled the main square: elderly men
donning farmers’ caps clustered in sunny patches on low walls,
children darting to and fro, old ladies, deep in conversation,
shuffling past arm in arm.

We headed to Osteria San Francesco, a fantastic
restaurant run by a husband-and-wife team. The minimalist style of
the space – a white arched stone ceiling, simple furniture, the
noise of the open kitchen muted behind a glass wall – allowed the
food to speak for itself. We kicked things off with poached eggs
adorned with shavings of truffle and parmesan. Tender wine-soaked
veal cheek followed, as did an unforgettable

The next morning – our last in Matera – we woke early to catch
the sunrise. We stumbled from the inky cave in time to see the
sun’s glowing orb breech the horizon and bathe the sassi in a soft,
peachy glow. We ran through the streets, racing the rising sun to
reach our favourite viewpoint, our eager footsteps echoing along
the cobbles. Aside from a man balancing a tray of freshly baked
bread on his shoulders, the streets were utterly deserted.

We settled down at the viewpoint to take it all in, watching as
a gathering of starlings undulated above the sleeping city. The
sunrise said all: a frail moment of magic and transformation before
the real world kicks in. Matera too – long-forgotten and once cast
aside – has been quietly transforming itself as modern life has
crashed on elsewhere. Now, as the city prepares itself for a new
dawn, is the moment to visit Matera. A city that’s busy unravelling
its own mesmerising story of transformation as it slips back into
the consciousness of the world.

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