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Category: Italy

THE SASSI DI MATERA – from national shame to cultural showcase

If you want to see a city reinventing itself, then now is the time to visit Materia – especially the revitalisation of the Sassi di Matera. Matera’s Sassi has a…

If you want to see a city reinventing itself, then now is the time to visit Materia – especially the revitalisation of the Sassi di Matera. Matera’s Sassi has a colourful history that has seen it go from the earliest inhabited city in Italy, to a place of national humiliation, to Italy’s pride. This history, all of which is still visible today, makes the Sassi di Matera a matchless tourist destination. Matera’s Sassi has been reborn and now is the time to witness that rebirth while Matera celebrates its recognition as a city of culture.

A brief history – from shame to gain

Italy’s southern city of Matera (along with Bulgaria’s, Plovdiv) is the 2019 European Capital of Culture. For this honour, Matera receives hundreds of millions of euros to develop infrastructure and present year-long cultural and art activities; activities designed to improve the quality of life in the city and to strengthen a sense of community. It is expected that being a European Capital of Culture will bring fresh life to the city and will enhance Matera’s cultural, social and economic development. It is an opportunity for Matera to showcase itself internationally and to boost tourism. An opportunity Matera needs in order to reclaim its dignity and credibility in the eyes of Italy and the world.

This is a chance for Matera to leave behind its reputation as the “Shame of Italy”. The object of this shame is the Sassi di Matera (literal translation from Italian, “Stones of Matera”). The Sassi are a prehistoric troglodyte settlement and people have lived in these cave dwellings since 7000 BC.

In his book, Christ Stopped at Eboli (published 1945), Carlo Levi put the Sassi di Matera on the world map when he highlighted the poor living conditions. He painted a picture of abject poverty. Malaria, cholera and typhoid were rampant in the Sassi. Families and their animals were living together under the same roof in dwellings with no natural light or ventilation, no electricity, water or sewers and there was a high infant mortality rate.

The Sassi became an embarrassment for the Italian Government. So much so that in 1950 the Prime Minister declared a state of emergency, and plans were put in place to move the Sassi’s inhabitants out. By 1952 the Sassi was empty; abandoned through forced removal.

After sitting dormant for a couple of decades, the Sassi started to go through a transformation; starting in the 1970s with artists and hippies rediscovering Matera’s Sassi. This urban renewal, and a younger generation expressing their desire to have the caves brought back to life, led the Italian Government to pass a law in 1986 to repopulate the Sassi; connecting water and electricity and subsidising restoration work in order to encourage the Sassi’s revival.

And the people did come – restoring caves as homes, hotels, restaurants and bars. But many are still uninhabitable.

The Sassi di Matera’s revival was further cemented in 1993 when listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for being “the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region”.

A new image of the Sassi is forming and the tourists are coming. The Sassi di Matera have been transformed and Matera is the 2019 European Capital of Culture.

My visit to the Sassi di Matera

The Sassi are carved into the limestone cliffs of a ravine gauged out by the Gravina River. My first sighting of the Sassi di Matera was from across the ravine. What I saw from this vantage point was a mass of caves clinging to the steep slope. On top of these caves is the new city of Matera – a unique juxtaposition.

My hotel room

My hotel room – a restored cave in Le Grotte della Civita

My second introduction to the Sassi was my hotel, Le Grotte della Civita. Sitting on the edge of the ravine in the most ancient Sassi area, Le Grotte della Civita consists of 18 rooms. All the rooms are individual caves that have been beautifully restored whilst retaining their original features. The furnishings are simple but tasteful, with much of the lighting provided by candles. Breakfast, served in a reclaimed cave that was a church, was typical of Southern Italy – breads, cakes, pastries, James, meats and cheeses. This was truly a memorable place to stay.

Church of Purgatory's facade

Carving on the facade of the Church of Purgatory

Church of Purgatory's door

Skulls decorate the Church of Purgatory doors

Matera has 180 churches; 40 of which are in the Sassi, including the Cathedral and the rock-cut Church of Santa Maria di Idris. My favourite was the Church of Purgatory. Completed in 1747, its recurring and only theme is that of death. The baroque façade of the church and its doors are covered with carvings of skulls, skeletons and crossbones. While a church focusing on death might seem a bit Grim Reaper-ish, it was actually fashionable at the time of construction, as death was not seen as the end but as the beginning of a new life.

Caves look like houses

The house-like facades are a deception as they ‘front’ caves

While the Sassi look like a mass of houses, the house-like facades are only that, as the ‘houses’ are dug well into the rock, thereby forming the caves Matera is famous for.

"Stacks on the mill"

Sassi caves on caves and roads on cave roofs

Houses in the Sassi are often built on top of other houses and many of the streets are built on the roofs of houses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One would be forgiven for thinking the Sassi are a place of shadow and crampedness. But not so. The squares in the Sassi are sun-drenched open spaces flanked by cafes, shops, churches and restaurants. And great for people watching.

I took a walking tour with a local guide in the morning to get acquainted with the Sassi. This included learning the history of the Sassi di Matera, visiting a cave dwelling for a glimpse into past life and viewing one of the ancient Rupestrian Churches that date back to the Middle Ages. However, what I enjoyed most of all was just walking around on my own – exploring narrow ‘streets’, talking to the locals, checking out their cafes, and having all the time I wanted to take photos. You will need comfortable shoes to walk around the Sassi. And don’t forget, the Sassi are built on the side of a ravine. So, there are lots of steep steps.

Timeline:

2019: Matera is one of the European Capitals of Culture for 2019

2014: Tourism starts to take off. Most likely due to Matera being announced as one of the European Capitals of Culture for 2019. Matera has 4 years to prepare …

1993: The Sassi of Matera is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site

1986: Change in Italian law and people are encouraged to return to the Sassi

1952: Abandonment of the Sassi through the Italian Government’s forced removal of its inhabitants

Prehistory: (approximately 9,000 years ago) People first inhabited the Sassi

A bit of trivia for you: Mel Gibson’s controversial movie, “The Passion of the Christ”(2004) was filmed in the Sassi di Matera as too was Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St Matthew”. It would seem Matera’s Sassi makes for a great ancient Jerusalem.

  • Are you going to Galway (Ireland) or Rijeka (Croatia) in 2020? They are the European Capitals of Culture for 2020.

 

Want to take a self-guided walking tour around Venice?…

A Venetian Walkabout

5 Comments on THE SASSI DI MATERA – from national shame to cultural showcase

A VENETIAN WALKABOUT

It is possible not to get lost in Venice if you allow yourself to just wander, with the very occasional “Where am I?” moments. The secret being that Venice has…

It is possible not to get lost in Venice if you allow yourself to just wander, with the very occasional “Where am I?” moments. The secret being that Venice has got wise and everywhere you go there are strategically placed signs pointing the way to St Mark’s Square and/or to Rialto Bridge, both major landmarks.

Venice is flat. The best way to see it is to just walk. With my camera slung over my shoulder, my favourite walking shoes on, and my trusty guide book in hand, I let my feet and curiosity find the direction.

Over four days my feet lead me to some wonderful experiences as I amble through and explore four of Central Venice’s six districts.

Come walk with me.

Day 1: San Marco

Leaving my hotel

in San Marco district, I wander down alleys, cross some of Venice’s 400 unique bridges and watch the waters of the canals lap the doorsteps of antique buildings in various states of glorious decay. Over a coffee in Campo Santa Maria Formosa, I see canal barges loading the linen from hotels and learn from the waiter it is taken off the islands to the mainland for laundering so as not to pollute the canals. Taking in my surroundings from one bridge, I witness a gondola traffic jam and am thankful I am not playing tourist. Everywhere I turn I see evidence of Venice’s unstable foundations, with lopsided arches and leaning church bell towers. So much to photograph. I have fallen in love with Venice.

Venturing down a very narrow alley near Campo Manin, requiring me to manoeuver through crab-like, I come across an unusual building with the most elegant external multi-arch spiral staircase – the gothic Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo. The staircase, with its ascending rows of round-headed arches, is the only one of its kind found in Venice today. Closed to the public, I let my camera do the sightseeing.

Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo

Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo

Stumbling across Piazza San Marco for the third time within half an hour, I know it is time to experience a coffee at Café Florian, the oldest café in Venice. At a cost of €15 for my coffee, I know it is an experience not to be repeated.

As I wander around Basilica San Marco, marvelling at the brilliant mosaics, I wonder at the story of St Mark’s body being stolen by two merchants from Alexandria in Egypt and brought back to Venice, and of the miracle of his body reappearing after being destroyed by fire.

I experience a sense of excitement as I watch an ambulance race down the Grand Canal and disappear into a side canal. The excitement doesn’t come from the errand the ambulance is on but from the alien sight of an ambulance being a boat and not a van.

Day 2: San Polo

Wandering around Rialto Market and chatting to the stallholders, I learn much about the humble tomato; that there are 25 varieties of tomatoes in Italy and no self-discerning stallholder will sell you tomatoes until it is known what is being cooked. This is very important because the stallholder must advise on just the right type of tomato to use as they all have a different taste and must accompany the right dish. I have to admit my palate is definitely not up to Venetian standards.

Walking past San Giacomo di Rialto’s 15th century 24-hour clock and through Campo San Polo, I find the shop Tragicomica on Calle dei Nomboli, which my research at home before leaving for Italy told me it sold traditional Venetian masks. The shop is crowded – with masks – and I wonder how I am ever going to find that special mask with my name on it. After a lengthy chat with the artisan Mask Maker about the different types of masks and how they are made, I buy an authentic Venetian, papier mâché plague doctor mask, with its long beak-like nose.

Sitting in a café opposite Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, A huge Gothic church, I spend a pleasant hour just people watching.

Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

Day 3: Cannaregio

Walking the length of Strada Nova, and more, I make my way to Campo di Ghetto Nuovo, the Jewish Ghetto. This small square is distinguished by very tall buildings unique in Venice. Confined to a very small area, as the Jewish population grew and needed housing, the only way was up. The Ghetto’s five synagogues, unrecognisable from the square, date back to the 16th century. Through the Jewish museum’s guided tour, the only way possible to see these hidden treasures, I discover three of the five synagogues on the top floors of buildings – the French, German and Levantine, each representing a different ‘school’.

Back in Campo di Ghetto Nuovo, I contemplate the Holocaust memorials depicting Nazi brutality to the Jews.

Before the long walk back to my hotel I have lunch at Gam Gam at the entrance to the Jewish ghetto; leisurely eating my way through kosher antipasto with falafel and delicious Italian bread.

With my feet crying ‘enough’, I take a traghetto (pedestrian transport) across the Grand Canal, alighting near Rialto Market. In a traghetto, it is traditional to stand as you are rowed across the Canal. Do I save any walking distance? Probably not but for about 6 minutes there I feel like a true local and know I have experienced something few tourists can share.

Holocaust memorials, San Polo, Venice

Holocaust memorials, San Polo, Venice

Day 4: Castello

Dominating Castello is the Arsenale, the old naval shipyard. Whilst largely disused today and closed to the public, the gateway remains guarded by large lion statues.

Heading back towards Piazza San Marco, as I cross Ponte Canonica, I see for the first time Venice’s most famous and only covered bridge, the Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri). This little Baroque bridge spans the canal, Rio di Palazzo, between the New Prison and Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace). From Ponte Canonica I have an uninterrupted view of the Bridge of Sighs for my camera to record the moment.

After a coffee and people watching on Riva degli Schiavoni, Venice’s most famous promenade, I take a tour that incorporates crossing the Bridge of Sighs. Walking across the Bridge, I sigh, just as the prisoners are supposed to have done when they crossed the Bridge from the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace to the New Prison, knowing they would never walk back the other way. I learn Casanova is the most famous person to have crossed the Bridge of Sighs on his way to prison, from which he later escaped.

Bridge of Sighs, Venice

Bridge of Sighs, Venice

Venice beckons again. I need to finish my walk.

Where will your feet take you?

For more on Italy, read: “The Sassi di Matera – from national shame to cultural showcase”

18 Comments on A VENETIAN WALKABOUT

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