Join us, dear Reader, as William and I venture into Italy’s deep south to explore the ancient stone city of Matera. Located in the remote and humble Basilicata region, Matera has long been known as one of the most impoverished towns in all of Europe and, up until fairly recently, was denounced as the “shame of Italy.” The town’s paleolithic cave dwellings and startlingly unsanitary living conditions were made infamous by Carlo Levi’s book, Christ Stopped at Eboli. Now, rather paradoxically, this subterranean ghetto boasts a UNESCO World Heritage Site title and is home to a bevy of luxury hotels and restaurants. Quite a renaissance, no?
About That Book…
In preparation for our trip, I planned to read Carlo Levi’s book – an account of his exile to Matera in 1935. Desperate for a quick copy, I download my very first digital book. Sure, it syncs on all of my devices, it’s “convenient,” but after a few miserable hours of swiping left, I capitulate and flee to the library in search of a hard copy. A kindly librarian, and fellow Luddite, understands my dilemma – and the urgency of the situation! – and consults the card catalog (with actual cards) in search of my book. I leave happy, with Levi’s thoughts loosely bound on musty, yellowed pages under my arm.
The next morning, much to my delight, Billy and I awake to the sound of thunder – perfect weather for exploring a cave town! Armed with a sack of snacks, we begin our four hour drive to Matera. (The GPS says 3 hours but we know better than to trust it by now, don’t we, dear Reader)? With the traffic of Napoli in the rearview, the Italian countryside begins to unfold before us. For all the hype about Tuscany, Southern Italy also offers picturesque olive groves, rolling hills, and quiet farmland. There are hardly any other vehicles on the road and the few we do encounter are transporting horses or large pieces of stone.
Billy inquires about my book and I tell him just what I’ll tell you… Matera is perched high above a ravine and almost 10,000 years ago, people began living along the sides of the ravine in the natural caves called sassi (literally, “stones”). Living in caves is nothing new, but what’s fascinating about Matera is that people were still living in these caves, along with their children and livestock, well into the 1950s.
Levi’s memoir describes the vile living conditions: 15,000 peasants crowded into the sassi without proper sanitation or infrastructure. It was a community teeming with malaria, typhoid, trachoma and lord knows what else. Infant mortality rates were 50% and if you were literate, you were in the minority indeed. While the modern world surged ahead, Matera remained frozen in time, forgotten and ignorant of the world that had forsaken it. Levi’s account of the peasants’ poverty humiliated the Italian government, spurring a mandatory evacuation of the sassi in the 1950s.
Troglodytes, Yes. But FANCY Troglodytes!
Finally, we come to a fork in the road: pointing to the left is a sign for Matera and to the right, “le tutti direzioni” (“all of the directions”). And so we forge on, in the opposite direction of… well, everything else. Soon after we find ourselves on a beautiful medieval road with the ravine to our left and the many nooks and crannies of Sasso Barisano rising above us to our right. The clouds hang low and a light rain falls as I peer curiously from the passenger-side window – the stony maze before me is a pale, worn whitish-grey.
Almost accidentally we spot a small red sign for our hotel, Le Grotte delle Civita. This luxury hotel is “luxurious” in the sense that it provides the unique experience of sleeping in a cave – HD TVs, minibars, and cocktail lounges are nowhere to be found. The hotel is a Sextantio Project, meaning it allows visitors to experience the sassi while also preserving their historical integrity. The rooms are scattered throughout the hillside, some almost invisible to the random passerby. In other words, we shelled out some extra cash to live like peasants for the weekend (The irony does not escape me).
We check in at reception, also a cave, and follow the porter back outside and to our room located several flights of stairs further up the hill. The porter hands over our key, it is large and iron. After a bit of fumbling with the small wooden door, we enter our cave. It is lit almost entirely by candles and is sparsely furnished. From the entrance we have a stunning view of the caves across the ravine, their openings dark, gaping back at us like hollow eye sockets.
The silence of Matera envelopes us like a blanket. Maybe the stillness can be attributed to the rain, maybe to riposo time. There’s a feeling I get occasionally when I travel, a feeling of being “tucked away” in some far corner of the map – a place where no one would think to look for me. Here in Matera, in this cave, safe from the rain and with Billy napping next to me, there is nowhere else I need to be.
Into The Labyrinth
After our riposo, William and I prepare to do a little sightseeing before dinner. Within mere minutes of leaving our hotel, we are lost. Matera is the first place I have been to that is truly labyrinthine. Serpentine paths lead up stairways that crumble away to nothing, sealed archways make for abrupt stops where the map (now soggy from the evening drizzle) promised a throughway. As far as you can see, the turn to the left looks exactly like the turn to the right. Courtyards, sudden panoramas, and eerily abandoned caves continue to confound us. We exit a piazza at the top of the hill and march down endless flights of stairs only to return – completely befuddled – to the same piazza. How we managed to get up by only going down is a mystery indeed!
Eventually, we enjoy a delicious dinner in Sasso Caveoso – Matera’s second sassi district – followed by a quiet passeggiata. The tourists have left Italy along with the last of the summer sun and, in truth, I can’t say I miss either one. We make our way home easily, perhaps owing to our the earlier expedition.
Hand in hand, Billy and I turn a corner and are stopped dead in our tracks. My heart beats the slightest bit faster. There, as the stairs turn down towards the ravine, is nothing; we are faced with a wall of sheer darkness. It takes a moment for our eyes to adjust, for us to make out the remaining stairs and the faint outline of the ridge across the ravine. If only in this brief moment, we understand the isolation and darkness of Levi’s wild and cursed Matera.