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The Sassi are undoubtedly the main attraction of the city. But what are “the Sassi”? Sometimes tourists have a brief knowledge of it, and often even the residents of Matera do not know their city in depth. This guide can give you an idea of what are you going to visit.
Matera is the third oldest city in the world, after Aleppo and Jericho: for 10,000 consecutive years, the men who live this land have crossed the history of humanity. Testimonies of the presence of man since the late Paleolithic are collected in the National Archaeological Museum Domenico Ridola (Via Ridola) and in some archaeological sites located in the Murgia and Timmari area.
In 1993 the Sassi became an Unesco World Heritage Site, thanks also to the recognition of this chaotic urban system as an ingenious machine dedicated to the preservation of water. In a somewhat arid, source-free territory (the Sassi rises on a hard calcarenite block), human genius has captured and preserved rainwater with a collection and storage system in huge tanks stored in the heart hidden of the Sassi. One of these has been recovered and can be visited: the Palombaro Lungo, which is accessed by the central Piazza Vittorio Veneto, offers an evocative and singular atmosphere that makes the idea of how much work, ingenuity, and abilities needed to make it possible the adaptation of man to natural conditions.
It is precisely the concept of “resilience”, that is the ability to adapt himself to the difficulties and changes, that has allowed to Matera to win the title of European Capital of Culture 2019. A prestigious and important appointment for the small center of Lucania region. A quick flash of how Matera’s citizen lived over the centuries, it is possible to catch it by visiting a casa-grotta in the Sassi, recovered and equipped with original instruments and furnishings dating back to the period prior to the displacement.
In fact in1948 PalmiroTogliatti (Secretary of the Italian Communist Praty) visited Matera, denouncing the miserable living conditions of the farmers of Matera, and declaring the Sassi “national shame”. The Govern (De Gasperi law) therefore decreed the emptying and expropriation of the ancient quarters and attributing to families new houses builted in urban agglomerations in the surrounding countryside; this new apartments were builted with an appreciable architectural criterion, also under the guidance of Adriano Olivetti, president of the National Institute of Urbanism.
In truth, the difficult living conditions of the Lucanian people, deaf to the influences of time and history, were denounced by the writer and painter Carlo Levi in the book “Christ stopped at Eboli”, telling the story of his confinement in the province of Matera (Aliano and Grassano) suffered during the Fascist period, which revived the debate on the South Italy problems. The opera of the painter Carlo Levi may be seen visiting a beautiful collection in the Museo Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Medievale di Palazzo Lanfranchi, which also includes a rich collection of paintings of the sixteenth century and works of art from rock churches. In addition to the book, Carlo Levi has also handed over to the memory of this city a visual work, the large panel “Lucania 1961”, from which he narrates from his perspective the life of the people who had hosted him during the confinement with a key reading marked by a thread of severity and resignation, which luckily in the years to come Matera will have the strength to leave behind.
The phase of “national shame” is in fact only a parenthesis of the millennial history of the Sassi of Matera, whose system is also based on the monastic settlements that here excavated magnificent churches in the rock, some recovered and visitable, such as the Convicinio di Sant’Antonio, or the magnificent Cripta del Peccato Originale, called the “Sistine Chapel of Rock Churches” and rises near the San Giuliano Dam, just few minutes outside the city.
In addition to rock Churches, the city offers a varied set of more modern churches, witnessing a profound and ancient spirituality that permeates these places (filmed by many religious themes filmed in the city, from the Gospel According to Matthew of Pier Paolo Pasolini, to the recent The Passion by Mel Gibson), among which we note the severe Chiesa del Purgatorio (Via Ridola) and the singular Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista (via San Biagio), which certainly deserve a visit. We also mention the Convento di Sant’AgostinoBelvedere, that is from the opposite bank of the Gravina, the chasm in which the homonymous torrent. To reach it you need to get out of the city by car and drive along the SS 7 Appia in the direction of Laterza. Access is on the right a couple of kilometers from the city. Otherwise, the more adventurous can go down in the Gravina and go back to the opposite side, but this option is not advisable as the routes are not maintained enough, and it is preferable to contact the local guides to deal with them in complete safety.
This is a summary of the story. But the Sassi are also beauty. A disordered and complex beauty, the result of ingenuity and chance, of the cooperation between the hand of nature and that of man. Nothing is more satisfying than getting lost in the winding alleys of the Sassi to discover details always new, a stairway, a court, an entrance with which men of other times tried to hide and at the same time to sweeten the harsh cave of a cave.
And Matera can also be the starting point for many extraordinary excursions. Within an hour’s drive, it collects around the best of the points of tourist interest of Puglia and Basilicata. We therefore recommend to plan a stay of at least 2/3 days, to fully enjoy all the flavor of a difficult and beautiful land, full of images, smells, and full of flavors and incomparable contrasts.