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Matera, Italy: A Step Back in Time



Above is a video / slideshow with a collection of images from our visit to the charming and ancient town of Matera, in southern Italy.



Matera is a unique and fascinating town of 60,000 people in southern Italy’s Basilicata region – almost in the heel of Italy’s boot. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world and the oldest in Italy and Europe.



The oldest period in human history is the “Paleolithic Period” and dates to around 15,000 B.C. This is when the last ice age was winding down and woolly mammoths roamed the earth. It’s also when the first people settled in Matera. What’s so unique about Matera is that those inhabitants and their ancestors never left. During the Iron and Bronze ages – with the advent of metal tools – these settlers dug their homes and cisterns from the soft and porous volcanic stone that formed the landscape of this area.



Amazingly, the people of Matera remained in their cave dwellings until the 1950’s when the Italian government relocated them to new housing, and their descendants are still living there today. For perspective, Rome is typically referred to as an ancient city - at 3,000 years old – and it rightfully deserves that label. Matera, on the other hand, makes Rome look modern.



Most of the cave dwellings don’t look like traditional caves from the outside. Some of the earlier Paleolithic caves that are located across the ravine from the city center are more what we typically imagine a cave dwelling to look like - carved into the side of a mountain. But most of the dwellings were carved into rock and look like homes stacked on top of one another as if there was a giant rock spill from the sky. The interiors of the caves, however, are still very much cave-like in their appearance.



The two main quarters in Matera were built this way . . . and they are what’s known as the two Sassi – from the Latin word Saxum, meaning a hill, rock, or great stone. The streets in some parts of the Sassi often run on top of other houses. This design was quite innovative when it came to sharing water, since water would be gathered on the plateau above the town and then flow down so that the entire community could share it. The city’s system of water collection was revolutionary for its time. The people dug a very sophisticated network of tunnels and cisterns that branched throughout the community. They collected rainwater and snow and funneled water from a nearby spring.



From Paleolithic times up until the 1950’s, the people of Matera called these caves home – often living in extreme poverty with no running water, no electricity, or sewage systems. By 1952, the situation became untenable in Matera - families and their donkeys were sharing the same space (often a one-room cave), malaria was running wild through the village, there was high infant mortality, and conditions were so bad that the government of Italy passed a law forcing the people of Matera out of their old quarters and into new, modern buildings. This updated version of Matera is up the hill from the Sassi, and it’s where most of Matera’s residents live today.



The residents of the caves never wanted to leave their dwellings and they pleaded to return, primarily because they missed the sense community they felt when they lived in the caves and were forced to rely on each other. Finally, in 1986, those who agreed to restore the Sassi (mostly the wealthier inhabitants) with their own money were allowed to do so. And, in 1993 Matera was designated a UNESCO World Heritage. UNESCO described it as the “most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region.”



Several of the cave houses have been renovated and serve as cultural museums. There are also hotels, bars, and restaurants that emerged from the “ashes” of these ancient cave dwellings. Ironically, many of the lodgings offer luxury cave accommodations . . . a far cry from the poverty and squalor endured by the residents for so many millennia.



Matera has earned the nickname “The Second Bethlehem” and it’s easy to see why. It’s been used as the setting for several movies wanting an appropriate representation of Jerusalem. It was also featured in the latest James Bond movie, “No Time to Die”.



As Carla and I walked the streets of Matera we could not help but be moved by the history of this ancient city. But more than the history of the place, it was the struggle and endurance of the people that truly moved us. It’s easy to only see Matera through the eyes of how it appears today, with its old-world charm and romance. Viewing it through that lens would be to miss the struggles, the endurance, and the brilliant ingenuity of a people that have survived since the Paleolithic era. What they accomplished is truly remarkable. And no matter how bad the conditions were before the Sassi’s came to an end, these “cave dwellers” should be celebrated, honored, and revered – their perseverance and ingenuity is an inspiration to the capability, drive, and endurance of the human spirit.



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14 Yorum


Misafir
27 Eki 2023

Your photos are incredible and I always learn a lot from your amazing sense of history. As much as I love to travel, I AM enjoying these special places --especially since I don't have to keep packing and unpacking! Thank you for sharing your incredible adventures! Jan

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Simcha
Simcha
29 Eki 2023
Şu kişiye cevap veriliyor:

Hi Jan . . . and thank you. I'm so glad you're enjoying the photos as well as our stories about our adventures. We are happy to spare you the hassle of packing and unpacking - something we know about all too well. Thanks for following along on our blog.

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Scott
Scott
27 Eki 2023

What a beautiful and unique place!! Thanks for sharing your wonderful photos. I've wanted to visit since the town was featured in the James Bond movie.


Also, I know you wanted to visit Croatia when you thought it was outside the Schengen area, so you may want to consider Montenegro (across the Adriatic from Matera) -- it's also got a beautiful amalgam of blue sea and soaring mountains, and it's not in the Schengen! I recently spent another month in Croatia, and really enjoyed my visit to Kotor, Montenegro while there. That region is one I hope to explore further in the future. /Scott


https://majormeander.com/2023/10/15/montenegro/

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Simcha
Simcha
27 Eki 2023
Şu kişiye cevap veriliyor:

Greetings Scott . . . so nice to hear from you and thank you for the kind words.. And absolutely, Matera is such a unique and fascinating place. I'm glad you made it back to Croatia. Kotor has been on our radar for quite some time and it's nice to hear how much you liked it. That pretty well confirms what we thought. The Montenegro Bay looks unbelievably stunning! I hope you are doing well.


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Misafir
26 Eki 2023

What an interesting background you gave us to really “see” your images. So very interesting. Judy

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Simcha
Simcha
26 Eki 2023
Şu kişiye cevap veriliyor:

Thanks Judy.


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Misafir
26 Eki 2023

We spent 4 days in this beautiful place. You captured it all wonderfully. Artisans and food are part of my memor.

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Simcha
Simcha
26 Eki 2023
Şu kişiye cevap veriliyor:

Thank you, and how fortunate for you - 4 days in Matera. I would love to have enjoyed a longer visit - we just did it as a day trip. As you could see from the photos, it was a pretty gray day and I'm sure I would have enjoyed this fascinating town on a beautiful, sunny day.

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Amazing! As I get older, this incredibly simple lifestyle becomes more appealing. Living in a cave seems incredibly fun and one never has to worry about painting or maintenance - well, basically ever! Love the blog and I look forward to it each week. It gives me an opportunity to escape everyday life.

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Simcha
Simcha
26 Eki 2023
Şu kişiye cevap veriliyor:

Hi Ron - and nice to hear from you. Definitely the appeal of a simple lifestyle is very alluring . . . although as with our cave dwellers . . . minus the poverty and disease. Thanks for the kind words about the blog. I'm glad you're enjoying it, and happy to be a source of escape for you.

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