14-16 May, 2011
I caught a morning train from Salerno to Potenza, capital of the Basilicata region (90 minutes), the capital with the highest elevation in Italy, then an early afternoon bus to Matera (another 90 minutes). The journey was very pretty, through rolling hills (literally, sometimes there were tunnels) and beside babbling brooks. My first glimpse of the sassi in Matera that I had come to see was astonishing. The sassi are the caves carved out of the soft sandstone (called tufa), and used as dwellings since pre-historic times. There are a couple of valleys (the Barisano and the Caveoso) filled with these places in the old city centre. The south of Italy has historically been more impoverished than the north, and suffered from more diseases (particularly typhoid and malaria) and a high infant mortality rate. In the 1950s population pressure meant that many unsuitable sassi (without light or plumbing) were used for human habitation. A book by Carlo Levi (Christ stopped at Eboli) was responsible for bringing the plight of the people (which was dubbed “Italy’s shame”) in Matera, Basilicata and the Mezzogiorno (Italy’s south, literally “mid-day”) to the attention of the rest of Italy. New accommodation was built outside the sassi areas and people were forcibly relocated. Ironically, many of the sassi have in recent years been refurbished and converted to hotels, bars and restaurants and are a major tourist attraction now. Mel Gibson filmed “Passion of the Christ” here because it seemed to look a bit like Ancient Roman-era Palestine.
Despite costing four times the price of my dorm bed in Salerno, my private single room here at Hotel Sassi is good value. I have a front-and-centre seat (on my private balcony) to view the valley of the sassi below and all around and up sides of the cliff to the cathedral on the other side (the highest point in the town).
I mentioned to the hotel receptionist (Vivian) that I was going to take a walk in the sassi and that I might get lost. She replied along the lines of: “That’s the point. If you don’t get lost you’re not doing it right.”
Matera is really a unique place, with a fairy-tale, dream-like feel. In that way sort of like Venice but without the cruise ships and tourist hordes. Here are 2 pics, from each side of the Sasso Barisano (one from the church on the hill and one from my room). Can you spot my hotel room? I draped a green shirt over the back of a white chair on one side of the balcony and my backpack on the other side.