Cave dwellings in southern Italy

Half of Matera’s population lived in cave dwellings, called Sassi, until the 1950’s. The Sassi have been inhabited since the Paleolithic age and were brought to public attention when Carlo Levi’s book, ‘Christ stopped at Eboli’ was published in 1946. He described the poverty and poor conditions they lived in. The book shamed the authorities and they set out to forcibly relocate all 16,000 people in the late 1950’s. The Sassi were declared a Unesco world heritage site in 1993.

We didn’t have much planned for our 5 days in Southern Italy, but Matera stood out to us, so off we went. We wondered down a pedestrianised road lined with pretty houses; all with colourful shutters and flower boxes. Soon enough we reached a viewpoint over the Sassi.

There are two sassi areas; Barisano is well restored, while Caveoso is fairly run down and much older. They were built atop a gully, with a thin river below. As soon I set eyes on the area it instantly reminded me of Jodhpur in India – otherwise known as the blue city, with lots of tightly packed square houses and flat roofs. Here it was the cream city; the buildings were mainly made of beige bricks, and climbed up the gorge.

In the centre was a large, oddly shaped rock with a doorway leading into a creepy lair…or so I imagined. In the distance was the other side of the gorge which wasn’t half as built up. It had a few visible cave dwellings, which is more what we expected as opposed to them being built with bricks. The roofs of the houses were flat with rustic tiles that curved up slightly.

We followed some steps down into the Sassi. I found it very enchanting, it’s the sort of place you could get lost in for hours with its maze of alleys. Unsurprisingly it’s been the set of a few movies including Mel Gibson’s Passion of Christ (2004). Never seen it mind you.

The Caveoso area was much more rustic, with little doors leading into the rock walls. We really wanted to look inside one, but after seeing an advertisement for ‘Visit the typical cave house furnished with antiques’ we were put off. The photo made it look rather shit; the dummy’s they used for people were terrible, and there was a pathetic horse model that wasn’t very well proportioned, below the horse was a pig model, which would look more at home outside a butchers. Plus the antique furniture made it all look rather nice and homely inside, which makes it hard to imagine why the authorities had to make these people leave their homes due to bad conditions.

We tried to drive up the opposite side of the ravine for sunset. They light the Sassi up at night and its said to look like a nativity set, but sadly the road was closed off as the area was being used for filming an Italian version of fast and furious.

The next day the road was open so we did a walk along the edge passing a few old cave dwellings. Some were really basic, just large open caves that seemed too open to the elements to be lived in. We guessed they housed the animals as the floor was covered in dry, springy cow pat.

Others had entrance ways actually cut through the rock wall and would lead through to a few rooms. Some were elaborate with rock archways and artwork carved into the wall. There are over 100 cave churches in the area and we had a peek in one of them which had a faded painting on the rock wall and dated back to the 12th century.

It was a really fascinating place, especially when you consider people living in caves, in Italy, up until the late 50’s. I wonder if the people would still be there if the book hadn’t been written.

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