Exploring Caves in Matera

After four days of climbing in Statte we needed a rest, or to be more specific, the skin on our fingers needed a rest. So we headed out to explore two unique towns in the Puglia region: Matera and Alberobello (more on Alberobello later).

Matera is a town characterised by its cave dwellings. Caves which naturally formed along the edge of a limestone ravine were moulded by people and for many centuries were used as homes, shelters and churches. This continued uninterrupted until the 1950’s when a government program aided the relocation of 15,000 inhabitants of the caves into modern accommodation out of the “Sassi”.  The caves were then left abandoned for many years until a redevelopment scheme started in the 1990’s which encouraged artists and entrepreneurs to turn the poverty stricken history of the Sassi into a modern success story.  The result is a stunning historical area full of hotels and restaurants which are nestled into the bedrock and tumble in a chaotic cascade down the side of the ravine. The intertwining staircases lead in every direction so that somehow you never quite find the intended route, and end up exploring new alleyways, and finding unexpected corners where a door becomes visible in a vertical slab of natural rock. 

Looking at the old town of Matera from the reserve on the other side of the ravine, the incredible number of layers becomes apparent. Often seven or more cave entrances are visible on terraces stacked on top of each other. It does make you wonder how much of the hill is hollow, empty space! 

The habitable caves have a unique atmosphere. An unheated cave is like a damp fridge – living in one must have been very tough, especially in the winter. We stayed in a cave that had three interconnected chambers and even with a modern air circulation system the humidity was very noticeable. It felt really calming to be in a room where the walls and ceiling were primarily natural rock, with limestone blocks creating divisions and supports where needed (and hiding the modern additions such as ventilation, wiring, and plumbing!).

The open caves in the reserve opposite the town give an indication of the starting point of what are now mostly small but sophisticated dwellings in the town itself. Wide entrances and irregular floors, but with a symmetry formed by man’s desire to make the most of what is available.  There are numerous churches and chapels amongst the caves in the reserve, many of which still contain traces of the frescoes which date back to the 11th century.  Elegant art in the chapels, practical architecture in the caves and the water cisterns used to store rain water demonstrates that these early inhabitants were more than just surviving, they had a culture and a sustainable way of life.

Matera is a city where you can easily spend a couple of days getting lost among the narrow streets and exploring the alleyways, shops and osterias. Not to mention the reserve where numerous paths and trails lead to different outcrops and caves. Unfortunately, when we were there the rope bridge across the river was blocked off so we could not take full advantage of the paths on both sides, but on a summers day when the river is low you could probably walk across without too much difficulty.

Not only is Matera a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is also the 2019 European city of Culture, something that the local residents are very supportive of, and their pride in the city was evident whenever we talked with them. Matera has transformed itself into a desirable destination that draws on its history and its unique architecture without becoming a theme park, it is still a real town.

I loved our stay in Matera, I could happily have stayed longer and spent more time exploring. My legs however, are quite glad we left after one day – there are an awful lot of steps in Matera!

–Gaynor

Enjoying the sunshine down by the river

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