Matera, just across the border from Puglia, in the region of Basilicata, but we have is included as an itinerary in our guide because being 2 hours drive from our Villas it makes a fascinating excursion.

Gouged through soft Tufa bedrock, the impressive gorge below the town of Matera, is riddled with natural gullies and caves, used as human shelter since pre-historic Neolithic times.

In ancient history, pressures of population, lack of available land and the colonising Greeks forced the original inhabitants off the more productive lowlands by the Gulf of Taranto, ever further up into the rugged uplands towards Basilicata.

Poor and comparatively unproductive throughout its history, Matera was largely ignored by invaders and conquerors alike, as its inhabitants created “i Sassi” by digging out new caves and expanding old ones. Original cave entrances were often extended with walls and a doorway – the roofs of the extensions becoming the access roadways to the terraces of caves above, slowly the whole gorge side became honeycombed with ascending layers of cave dwellings.

Mainly by-passed by events throughout history, and lacking the importance of Lecce, the majesty of Otranto and with neither Alberobello’s charm nor Ostuni’s splendour, Matera languished in poverty. Deprivation, malaria and unsanitary conditions created frightful mortality rates amongst its inhabitants throughout its existence.

The majority of the population existed in squalor, just the lucky few, the administration and those prosperous enough to afford houses lived on the summit above the Sassi below.

Livestock lived with their owners, sharing rainwater ingeniously gathered through culverts and drains. Mosquitoes bred in the stagnant below-floor cisterns as the water was husbanded during dry summers. Cave houses were extended as families grew, each generation adding to the over-crowding.

Masses and prayers were conducted in subterranean chapels and churches, hewn into the rock and decorated with frescoes and icons. This troglodyte existence ended in the 1950’s, as the central government commenced a programme of re-settlement into the growing town above.

Families were evacuated, their cave homes barricaded to stop their return, as settlement of 20,000 residents became dark, quiet and deserted for the first time in its history of many millennia.

Today this brooding presence in being transformed into chic dwellings whilst stylish hotels are being created from interlinking cave systems. Tour guides steer visitors through dwellings restored to their past, allowing a glimpse into lives lived before.

Armed with a guide book, you can follow alone the well sign-posted trail, as it twists through the Sassi maze leading to new and compelling sights around every corner, interspersed with stunning views of the gorge and the river far below.

Half of Matera lived on the earths surface, as the Sassi developed below, so did the buildings above. So don’t ignore the Old Town above, containing pleasant squares, and throughout tree-lined streets there are Pre-Romaneque and Baroque churches, museums attractions galore along with the usual profusion of street cafes, ristoranti and ice cream parlours.

Recommended restaurants

  • Ristorante Baccanti (local cuisine) – 58-61 via Sant’ Angelo. – Located in the Rioni Sassi system
  • Ristorante il Cantuccio (local cuisine) – 33, via delle Beccherie