By Jim Ferri
It was one of the stranger scenes I’d seen in my travels.
Standing on the rim of the ravine I looked out across the sea of buildings before me. They were stone houses, stores, churches and everything else imaginable, all scooped out of the rock for innumerable centuries.
It was both haunting and beautiful, and although it’s not one of the top places in Italy, it’s certainly one of the more bizarre.
A Ready-Made Movie Set
I was in Matera, looking out at the Sassi, an old cave city (the word “sassi” itself means “caves”) in which people have been living since Paleolithic times. It’s in the Basilicata region of southern Italy, about a three-hour drive south of Naples.
Matera is an interesting southern Italian city that is divided into an active upper district typical of many Italian cities, and the lower silent Sassi, where the people of Matera once lived.
Right in the center of Matera, it was once a malaria-ridden slum and one of the most poverty-ridden areas of southern Italy. It became such a national embarrassment in the 1950s and 1960s that the Italian government moved all its residents out to new apartments on the outskirts of Matera.
But because of its historic significance, the Sassi was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Sites in1993 along with the rock-hewn churches of Matera. A decade later the bizarre cityscape began to draw the attention of filmmakers.
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was filmed here, as were scores of other movies. In fact, so many producers and directors have used the Sassi as a location that, says National Geographic Traveler, many now refer to it as “Sassiwood.”
Looking out at the scores of television antennas poking up from the little cave homes in front of me, I thought it also would have been perfect as the location for some of the scenes in Star Wars.
The Sassi Morphs Into a Tourist Attraction
The publicity from the movies and its UNESCO designation drew the interest of travelers as well as some local residents. The opening of the Palazzo Margherita hotel by Francis Ford Coppola in Bernalda, the 19th-century birthplace of his grandfather about 25 miles south, helped draw more recent attention.
Today, while many of the buildings remain crumbled and abandoned, local entrepreneurs have turned others into little bars and restaurants, apartments, cave-hotels, and galleries. It all looks rather bizarre but in a charming way. Dark green shutters on some windows make the place look a bit more comforting.
We walked along the Strada Panoramica dei Sassi in the upper district of Matera, from where you get the best views of the city below. After a short time we came to one of the entrance stairs that went down to the Sassi and after passing a scattering of touts offering their services as guides, went down the steep stairs.
In Another World
We were soon in another world, a place with rocky dwellings strewn chaotically all over the landscape, sometimes one on top of another. It looked so much different than it did from above, and we soon realized we could do nothing but wander its little streets aimlessly, which pretty much was what everyone else was doing.
We walked along a gorge and could see people climbing around the grassy hillside and in caves on the other side. On our side the glare of the summer sun on the bright buildings and rocks seemed near blinding at times.
Along the little streets we soon passed signs for cave-hotels and bars and restaurants, and soon found the places themselves, the Sassolino Bed-and-Breakfast, Ristorante Francesca, and the Kiev Café, where a group of Germans had stopped for lunch.
Many of our fellow explorers appeared to be Germans, since eastern Italy – a fairly straight drive down to the heel of Italy’s boot from Munich – is a favorite vacation spot for them. In fact, when we were visiting there were so many Germans I half-expected to see schnitzel with the pasta on some restaurant menus.
As we walked around the area we also saw a lot of little tourist stands, perhaps too many for an area so small. Everywhere there seemed to be someone selling postcards, ceramics and trinkets and all sorts of little Sassi knickknacks.
As we passed yet another tchotchkes stand, my wife expressed exactly what I had been thinking.
“I just hope they don’t ruin this place,” she said.
If you go:
Italian Government Tourist Office