It’s probably ten years since I’ve watched Fellini’s Roma, but one scene that always stayed with me finds workers at the laboriously slow task of digging underground train lines for the city. Every few metres they will hit another bit of Ancient Rome, and labour grinds to a halt for 18 months while the archaeologists get in there. The workmen drill through a wall and find they have opened up a huge Roman house, sealed for millennia. There are statues and mosaic floors. Every wall is lined with beautiful frescoes depicting scenes from Roman life in the boldest, most vibrant colours. They walk around shining their torches and looking stupefied, as well they might. As they do so the air from outside makes contact with the frescoes, all of which fade and dissolve before their eyes. They get around two minutes with these magnificent treasures, then they are gone forever. Matera reminded me of that scene.
Matera is a special case. You can travel around Italy and you will probably experience greater diversity in a relatively small place than you would anywhere else on earth, but Matera is totally unique, as distinct as Venice in its own way. Discovering Matera is a bittersweet pleasure. When you find out about this town, you’re desperate to get there and see; but the mere act of visiting it as a tourist erodes a little bit more of its uniqueness to the point where it is going to end up like everywhere else. The process is, no doubt, well under way already. It’s weird to arrive at a town that was a forgotten backwater and a byword for the most appalling poverty, and find Swarovski shops and five-star hotels popping up everywhere.
When people go to see Matera, they’re going to see the Sassi. The area has been continuously inhabited since Paleolithic times, making Matera as old as Aleppo. The rock is soft, sandy tufa and the city was not built, it was carved. The Sassi look like normal buildings but they are all caves, hewn out of the rock. From valley to hilltop, they sit on top of each other so one person’s ceiling will be another’s front porch. Complex drain systems collected communal water and it all worked rather well for several millennia. If people have heard of Matera, the one fact they’ll probably know is that both Pasolini and Mel Gibson used it as a stand-in for Jerusalem in their films about the life of Christ. The population gradually increased, Matera was forgotten when the regional capital was shifted to Potenza, and by the C20th entire families would be living in one cave, livestock and all. The few people with money would build palazzi in the new part of town which turned their backs on the Sassi.
Basilicata, the province between Puglia and Campania that is the arch of the boot, is a remote and isolated place that was left to its own devices for much of its history. There are said to be a couple of villages where the dialect spoken is still C10th Albanian, and which Albanian linguists visit to see what their language was like before the Ottoman Empire. Italy only became fully aware of Matera when Mussolini used Basilicata as sort of Siberia for dissidents and Carlo Levi, a doctor in exile from Turin, wrote about the poverty he saw; bellies swollen from malnutrition, the children of Matera would follow visitors and beg for quinine.
The Sassi were declared a national disgrace, and the people moved out to new-build flats in new-build towns outside Matera. The Sassi were cordoned off with a view to demolition. A few local people thought “Hang on, these caves served us perfectly well for millennia”, and tried to keep the flame alive. At a time when only junkies and prostitutes were slipping under the wire fence to frequent the Sassi, this group opposed their demolition. They began squatting in the buildings and slowly, carefully restoring them. Fast forward thirty years, and the Sassi are now a tourist destination in which people are opening hip bars and restaurants. BBC4 will routinely turn up with Francesco da Mosto or Andrew Graham-Dixon. They are attracting people like me, God help them. Matera has just been named European City of Culture for 2019; if it is to be opened up to the Easyjet roster and become another Bruges or Prague, it will need to be done gently and with sensitivity. From what I saw, Materans know very well what they’ve got and will treasure it.
It’s hard to get to Matera at the moment, but they are clamouring to make it easier. Its remoteness seems to keep away the day-trippers on package tours. After centuries of hardship Matera is fully entitled to make some money from tourism, but perhaps they should be careful what they wish for in this respect. Right now the only good public transport connection is a 90-minute train from Bari, stopping at Altamura, on another of those private little train lines, Ferrovia Appulo Lucane. This service turns out to be more swish, brand new and beautiful trains that trump most Trenitalia ones. Signs onboard indicate that this is the EU throwing money at its poorer inhabitants. The fare is very cheap too.
The train drops you off in the new town, with shops, a market, a park, offices and cafés. It’s a short walk to Piazza Vittorio Veneto, a broad saucer of a piazza that contains crumbly arches, fountains, churches and palaces that seem to date from the last thing resembling a heyday, the C18th. Teenage boys play mass football games which bambini on tricycles drive right through nonchalantly. Girls gather and gossip around the excavated well at the centre and the balcony looking onto the Sassi. People with golf buggies accost anyone who looks foreign, and offer “panoramic views”. This is the frontier between the “normal” town on its high plateau, and the vertical plunge into the sassi.
From this point on, orientation is wishful thinking. You can follow a 2-D paper map of the Sassi with painstaking care, then realise that the road you’re trying to get to is actually three or four levels below the road that you’re on, and the way to get there was actually to walk away from it for ten minutes and follow the descending steps. This is disorientating, labyrinthine, and felt quite situationist. Nothing is as it seems here. Like Venice again, it’s best experienced by just diving in and accepting that you will get lost. The Sassi are on two steep slopes, facing one another; the Sasso Barsiano and the Sasso Caveoso. There are two main roads -Via D’Addozio and Via Fiorentini- that squiggle from the top of either end to the very foot of the valley, where they meet each other, and which are just wide enough for a car to squeeze down. Working your way down from one of these roads feels like descending into hell.
You can also stay on the upper ridge; from Vittorio Veneto a short Corso leads to a much cosier piazza, Piazza del Sedile, which in turn leads to the Duomo. We were staying in one of the quiet streets that wind downhill around the back of the Duomo. On this other side, there was another valley with a river, and the view was of what looked like actual prehistoric caves out on a wild, rocky mountain. Gaping open black mouths. I don’t know if these were shelter for shepherds, but I’d never seen anything quite like it.
Piazza del Sedile leads out the other side to San Francesco church and Via Ridola, which is effectively the high street of the Sassi. It’s a straight boulevard with a couple of gelaterie, a couple of churches, and at the end an old municipal palace (now a museum) with a balcony to the side offering views of the Sassi. Piazza Sedile was on our main thoroughfare into town, it had a good little supermarket. Piano scales, strings and saxophone doodles wafted from the windows of the music conservatory as you crossed it. By the second night we felt quite at home; you’d recognise all the same people. The friendly guy trying to get gigs as a guide or commissions from his mate’s restaurant by hanging around approaching tourists, the crazy baglady who would invoke the names of all the saints in her quest to get “cinquanta centesime” out of somebody.
Matera looks very different at different times of the day. It feels at its most biblical in the morning sun, when the yellow tufa basks in the brightness and warmth. At night-time, as dusk sets in and the lights begin to twinkle, it feels as if there is magic in the air. On a dark and rainy day, it can feel like the end of the world.
Simply walking around the Sassi is such a big draw that it would be tempting to spend all your time doing so and trying to absorb their strangeness. The main things to see, apart from Matera itself, are the cave churches. These may not be as ancient as they look, but they are primitive and extraordinary. The frescoes are damaged -some of the churches were used for flytipping before people started restoring them- but what is left has a real humanity.
On the highway around the outside edge of the Sassi are two churches from a complex built by Byzantine monks around the year 1000, Madonna delle Virtu and San Nicolo dei Greci. Unfortunately half of Madonna delle Virtu was knocked down to make way for the road; not Mussolini’s first or last blunder. Forget Brunelleschi: this is actually what passes for the roof of a Cathedral nave in Matera.
These were the posh caves that the monks got to live in, so you can imagine what life was like for the peasantry.
We think of Byzantine-style icons as unapproachable, aloof and lacking all the humanism of the Renaissance, but I found these frescoes winning in their modest simplicity, making a straightforward appeal.
Santa Maria de Idris, sitting above the more conventional San Pietro Caveoso, is just a hulking great natural rock with flat wall and door carved along the bottom so that people can enter. It’s C12th, and actually two cave churches connected by a tunnel. The internal one has a low ceiling and you half expect to find the Holy Grail there.
Santa Lucia alle Malve is big, and C8th; the state of the walls shows how the cave churches were abandoned for more recognisable churches up in town. Here are Byzantine favourites, the breastfeeding Virgin and Archangel Michael.
The last cave church we made it to, San Pietro Barisano, seemed to be mostly C18th inside and felt underwhelming. We were just about to move on when we realised that you could get down into a subterranean level. No frescoes down here, but it was probably the most awe-inspiring of the lot. All these little inter-connecting chambers, like honeycomb, and each with little crude pews. The malnourished people must have been about half the size of us fat bastards, from the look of it.
Having done Bari, when it was time to leave Matera we very ambitiously decided to try and travel west to continue our journey. Train-wise, Matera is the end of the line. There is a hilltop village about 40 minutes’ drive away called Ferrandina, and at the bottom of its valley is a Trenitalia station called Ferrandina Scalo. This happens to be a stop on the train to Rome. There are buses from Matera to Ferrandina Scalo at 6am, 7am, and 2pm. To make sure we knew what we were doing, we found a bus ticket office the day before and verified where the bus left from and how we bought tickets.
The next morning, we turn up at the bus stop at 6:50am, buy our tickets from the station master, and wait. He comes outside for a cigarette and gives us a funny look. You do know that the bus left at 6am? There isn’t another until this afternoon. When I mention a 7am bus, I get “No, non esiste. Uno sbagliato”. I keep pressing, and he takes me into his office and points to a timetable which, fair enough, does not include any 7am bus. I’m starting to panic when the 7am bus turns up. AAH, you meant the GRASSANI bus to Potenza? You’re going to Potenza? Why didn’t you say so? Lesson learned: if you’re catching a rural bus, make damn sure you know the name of the company running that bus. He tells the driver we’re going to Potenza, the driver then refuses to believe that we want to get off at Ferrandina Scalo. If I’m hoping to get on a Trenitalia train, I must go all the way to Potenza. I have to be quite insistent, and eventually another passenger on the bus verifies my story. At Ferrandina there’s a one hour wait, but the café waitress was friendly, as were the locals, and we are kept well entertained. Then it’s two hours on a train through wild, rocky Basilicata and you get to see just how isolated it really is. Unfarmed, uninhabited, mountainous terrain with the very occasional village huddling for warmth on a peak, and ranges of peaks and boulders that look like the bloke from The Neverending Story.