Just above the heel of Italy, in the southern region of Basilicata, is one of Europe’s oldest and most remarkable settlements. For centuries, many inhabitants of Matera lived in simple cave dwellings, sharing their homes with chickens and horses – until a 1950s programme of resettlement left these amazing spaces empty.
From the 1960s, however, artists and other bohemian pathfinders have moved in, drawn by free alternative accommodation in a sunny land. Filmmakers added to Matera’s rebirth, glorying in its Biblical-era atmosphere. Legendary Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini filmed much of The Gospel According to St Matthew here in 1964. He was followed by at least 20 other directors – including Mel Gibson, who came to shoot key scenes of his 2004 film The Passion of the Christ.
Matera’s UNESCO-listed cave district is known as I Sassi (The Rocks), spreading over one side of a gorge by today’s modern town. Several troglodyte houses have been reconstructed to give visitors an insight into how their former inhabitants lived. Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario is a fine example.
Then there are the Sassi’s unique Byzantine rock churches. Known as chiese rupestri (Rupestrian churches), these were carved from the earth by 8th- and 9th-century monks, and decorated with evocative frescoes – such as images of angels and Adam and Eve adorning the gorgeous Crypt of Original Sin. There are museums too, from the 2,000 years of history at Museo Archeologico Nazionale Domenico Ridola to the mix of mediaeval and contemporary art in Palazzo Lanfranchi.
Or you can soak up the Sassi’s unique ambience. Quiet alleys and mysterious stairs merge into the rock like a giant puzzle, while majestic birds of prey such as red kites and vultures glide overhead. This truly is a town like no other.
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.