Night location: Matera, Italy
Today we travelled out of the Puglian trullo area and into the Basilicata region to stay at the fascinating city of Matera. On our way we stopped at Martina Franca which is the highest of all the hilltop towns that we have visited. Amber's parking luck struck again as we were able to pull in to the only available spot in a church square parcheggio, Harry Halliday style. Once again we walked up the pretty winding alleys until we found the main piazza and the 18th century Basilica di San Martino before enjoying a cappuccino in a smaller piazza.
Driving into Matera was mildly terrifying as the roads were narrow with cars and pedestrians seemingly coming from all directions. Fortunately David had used Google street view last night, so he understood that the final turn for the hotel recommended parking garage was easy to miss due to it looking more like a pedestrian laneway than a road. We were relieved to pull in unscathed and feel as though we spent the best 20 Euros of our life to not only park the car overnight, but also be transferred with our luggage down into the heart of the historic Sassi district.
Matera is said to be one of the world's oldest towns dating back to the Paleolithic Age and inhabited continuously for 7000 years. Situated across a ravine that was easy to defend and boasting plentiful water sources, the natural grottoes that dotted the gorge were over time adapted to become the homes of farmers who worked on the surrounding plains. It has a complex and quite sad history however as what was a well balanced society in the Middle Ages became more and more divided until eventually the cave dwellings acted as a slum for peasants, while the wealthy lived in grand palazzos on the plain above the Sassi.
By the mid 20th century, child mortality rates were at almost 50% and malaria was rampant due to overcrowding and no sewage system. Labelled the 'shame of Italy' Matera became a political tool that eventually led to the mass relocation of the 15000 inhabitants to newly constructed apartment blocks on the outskirts of the town. The neglected old town with its labyrinthine alleys, staircases and jumbled cave dwellings has subsequently been used for the set of biblical films like 'The Passion of the Christ' as the town has not been significantly remodelled through the ages.
Named the 2019 European City of Culture, it has certainly come a long way from the state of abandonment in the 1950s and 60s. Our first site visit was to Casa Noha where we learned about the difficult history in a multimedia reconstruction that tracked the city's past from prehistoric times to the present day. Something of note that we learned here was that one side of the Sassi is made up of traditional houses, some with decorative facades, while the other side consists of the poorer and more simplistic cave-houses.
We were not expecting Matera to have such diverse architecture including many grand churches and palazzos built almost on top of or beside an overwhelming mass of smaller dwellings. The views across the city and up to the cathedral offer a fascinating glimpse at urban living while the plummeting gorge and the cave openings on the other side showcase the natural wonders of this settlement.
Due to the span of its habitation the city has some incredible examples of Christian art. The main cathedral was richly decorated with medieval paintings and 17th century artworks in stone. Contrasting this grandeur, the two interconnected churches built into a spur of rock that rises dramatically out of the Sasso Caveoso, we could see frescoes that ranged from the 11th century to the 18th century.
Many of the cave dwellings have been converted into hotels, restaurants and bars that extend down and away from the main entrances. The extent of the city is therefore difficult to fully appreciate as so much of it is subterranean. What can be seen however is a mix of restored buildings and others waiting for renewal.