Every year, a different town or region constructs the nativity scene (presepio) in the Piazza outside St. Peter’s Basilica and it is usually designed to reflect some aspect of the region. A few years ago, the city of Matera, which is between Naples and Bari, made the Presepio featuring the town as a backdrop. It was so beautiful that ever since then, I have been wanting to visit it. When my sister and brother-in-law were here, I persuaded them to join me on a trip there.
Matera was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993 and and voted the European Capital of Culture for 2019. Dating back to Paleolithic times, it is perched on the edge of a deep ravine. The caves and dwellings on the hillside, occupy two areas called Sassi, the upper Sasso Barisano and the lower Sasso Caveoso. The original dwellings were scooped out of the rock. Over the years houses were built on top of the caves and now there seem to be houses on top of houses which looks quaint until you try to get to one of them and have to climb numerous steep and winding stairs.
Across the ravine which is now a National Park, Parco della Murgia, you see caves dotting the hillside. Some used to be dwellings and many were churches since it was a refuge for monks from the Byzantine Empire from the 8th to 13th centuries. The park is full of wild life. As we were walking along the road on the edge of the town, we looked over and saw wild boar who had taken up residence in one of the caves and were sitting at the mouth enjoying the sun.
In the town, churches carved out of the rock (Rupestrian churches) abound. Newer churches have been built on top of a few of them precariously clinging to the edge of the hillside. Inside the Rupestrian churches, there are Byzantine frescoes many of which have unfortunately faded and fallen into disrepair despite attempts to preserve them.
Walking around the Sassi felt like being in Biblical times. Matera went through many sieges and colonizations and suffered a long period of extreme poverty which was written about by Carlo Levi in the book ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’ (Eboli is a nearby town). People were crammed together in the caves often with sheep and other animals in the same space. Life was hard. In the 1950s, the government tried to remedy the situation by building apartment blocks close by and rehousing the people in these so there is also the new town of Matera. The Sassi themselves have become a bit of a tourist showcase though people still come to gather in the larger piazzas.
It was the day before Lent when we were there and lots of people with little children all dressed up in costumes gathered in one of the larger Piazzas to listen to music. However, the next day, it was only the older men who came to the Piazza. I guess the women were at home either fasting or cooking.
We tried some of the regional foods including a type of wild onion called lampascioni which, being a seasonal onion, used to be associated with lent. It didn’t look or taste like an onion but was interesting to try.
The local wines, Aglianico and Primitivo, were good and we had no trouble tasting them with a tagliere, basically a tray of cured meats, local cheeses and other nibbles. There was no need for dinner after one of these.
I was glad to have had an opportunity to see Matera and I hope its designation as a cultural capital for this year brings money to the city without it becoming even more of a tourist showcase.