A walking tour of the instep of Italy's boot throws up a world of underground delights and more than a little religious enlightenment
The steep road leading up to Matera over bony, scrub-covered hills gave little away. On first glimpse the town appeared elegant, its buildings ash grey and pale gold, topped by a cathedral. It was only when we walked to the main square that its fantastical aspect became visible. Perched below the rim of a yawning ravine, Matera is a town of cave-houses. It was like walking into an Escher engraving.
On the other side of the huge geological gash, the cliff-face is pocked by more dark caves. This honeycomb of caverns looks like somewhere Jesus might have chosen to hole away for 40 days and 40 nights. Indeed, the biblical scenery made it a natural location for the gospel according to Mel (Gibson): the 2004 movie The Passion of the Christ was filmed here.
Hollywood has come and gone, but Matera still feels off the beaten track. It’s less than an hour’s drive from Puglia’s Bari airport, yet the town retains its remote, isolated character. It’s in Basilicata, the instep of the Italian boot, a little-known region wedged between the plains of Puglia and the mountains of Calabria.
When we arrived, the town had barely woken up: the scent of the first coffee of the day hung in the air; the buildings were honey tinted by the morning sun; washing lines, flapping with Y-fronts, connected the streets.
We rang a local B&B in Sasso Caveoso. Sassi is the term given to the areas of houses dug into the tufa rock – Caveoso is the older, wilder quarter; the other, larger district is Sasso Barisano, which feels more ordered. But both are confusing and higgledy-piggledy, their serpentine lanes like a tangle of spaghetti.
The owner said it was too difficult to describe the way to his house and so arranged to meet us at a bar. He offered us a coffee, adding a splash of grappa to his own – a caffè corretto (a ‘corrected’ coffee). We plumped for an uncorrected espresso: it was 10am, after all. He then led us to the B&B, which was perfect, the breakfast room a cave filled with knick-knacks.
A friend of ours, Nicoletta, was back in Matera for the holidays. Like many young locals, she has emigrated to work in the north but she showed us around the town with evident pride. “In the eighth and ninth centuries, Byzantine monks fled here from persecution,” she explained. “They turned caves into churches, painting frescoes. The town and nearby plateau are riddled with them.”
Seeking out the churches was like a treasure hunt. As we walked, Nicoletta told us more: “Matera was once really prosperous – it was Basilicata’s capital in the 17th century, until Potenza took over. It was only in the 20th century that problems began. The population grew quickly and unsuitable caves were used.”
I mentioned that I had read about it in Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli. This account of the author’s exile to Basilicata during the Fascist period put the region on the map, yet provided it with a stereotype that’s been hard to shake.
“Yes, but it’s true,” Nicoletta told us. “When Levi’s sister came through the town, he wrote that the children followed her asking not for money, but for quinine, against malaria. The poverty here became a national scandal. But things have really changed. It’s ironic – nowadays the caves contain Basilicata’s best hotels and it’s a Unesco World Heritage site.”
As she spoke we entered Matera’s most important site, the Madonna delle Virtù and San Nicola dei Greci, a subterranean monastic complex with caves over two floors. We fell silent; it was impossible not to be moved by these hollowed-out caverns with their simple altars, worn frescoes and carved columns. The Passion’s Last Supper scene was filmed here.
That evening we ate at Il Convivio, a cave-restaurant hewn deep into the cliff. Its busy, barrel-shaped rooms were serviced by a lone waiter brandishing a single menu. Luca, my husband, grew grumpy about the slow unfurling of the meal, but I revelled in the intermittent plates of local salami, crumbly mountain cheeses, creamy fave e cicoria (bean purée with greens) and jugfuls of robust red wine.
The next day we went to meet Michele Cappiello from Matera Turismo, a superb tourist cooperative that arranges adventurous trips in and around Matera. We decided to take the five-hour Cristo La Selva walk, which winds through the Rock Church Park, via caves and villages.
The trail began in the countryside towards the deep gorge in which the sassi are built. We walked across barren, epic terrain pitted with caves, where shepherds once lived with their animals.
Caves fronted by ornate porticos signalled churches. Following the craggy canyon, the first place we reached was the Grotta dei Pipistrelli (Bat’s Cave), a deep, natural cavern. The bats are long gone, but we peered into its inky blackness, 200m deep.
Next stop was the village of Lamaquacchiola, where Michele showed us the caciolaio, a cave where shepherds used to heat milk over a fire to make cheese. We ran our hands over the walls blackened by ancient smoke.
“You can see the stone has been used for everything: to repair the caves, to build canals to the cisterns, to construct churches, stairs, mangers – everything!” Michele explained.
After the village, the landscape changed; we crossed an olive grove, the scent of thyme and oregano in the air. We were approaching Cristo La Selva (Christ of the forest), a spectacular ninth-century rock church, whose porticoes and arches seem to morph from the scrub-covered rock face.
It’s named after the fresco within, but it’s privately owned and usually locked, so we looked longingly through the gate. It was a mystical place, the only sounds the water in the canyon, the birds, the wind and the frogs.
When we returned to Matera it felt strange after the wilds of the day. As dusk fell, we wandered up to Piazza Vittorio Veneto – where we were stopped in our tracks by an incredible crowd. The square thronged with thousands of people, who’d brushed up and headed out for an ice cream on the town passeggiata (evening stroll).
The hubbub was a million miles away from our day in the gorge. But it was also a million miles away from the chill nights and boringly above-ground streets of back home. It seemed on a short weekend we’d managed to visit another world.