Matera, the town of the “Sassi”

Matera, the town of the “Sassi”, today is a perfect mix between culture and fun, so it is an ideal place to live in. You can easily move on foot to different areas of the town; the temperament of the people of Matera is welcoming and hearty and the cost of living is not high, if compared to other cities.

Over the years, tourism in Matera has changed a lot and nowadays more than a mass tourism, in Matera there is a cultural tourism.

The “Sassi” represent the old part of the city: they developed around the “civita” and they form an entire town, made of cave-houses dug in the calcareous rock itself (the rock is locally called “Tufo”): it represents an articulated housing system, perched on the slopes of a deep valley, called “Gravina”. Elegant and articulate structures alternate with underground labyrinths and cavernous mazes, creating a unique landscape of great effect.

Once a heart of the peasant civilization, today the “Sassi” – restored and furnished – come back to life and the leave you breathless, especially at night, when the small lights from the houses, restaurants and workshops, make them look like a papier-mâché nativity scene.

The “Sassi” are made up of 2 main areas: “Sasso Barisano” and “Sasso Caveoso“, divided in the centre by the “Colle della Vita”, the oldest settlement of the town of Matera and the heart of the medieval urbanization.

“Sasso Caveoso” is characterized by an ancient look: it is mainly made of old houses dug in the rocks and basically remained untouched. The square, which has the same name of the area, with the Church of San Pietro Caveoso, allows people to admire the amazing panorama of the Gravina and the row of houses and caves clung one above the other.

Walking along Via Madonna delle Virtù, passing by the Gravina, you can reach “Sasso Barisano”, so called because it looks towards the city of Bari (placed in region Apulia). If in “Sasso Caveoso” you can mainly see houses, “Sasso Barisano” is currently almost fully restored and it is mainly characterized by lovely restaurants and hotels, together with tourist attractions like a miniature of the “Sassi” and the Museum of the Peasant Civilization. This area is placed North-West to the “civita” and, with its 2 parishes (San Pietro Barisano and Sant’Agostino), it had a population comparable to that of “Sasso Caveoso”, although “Sasso Barisano” is definitely smaller.

Our trip in Matera (actually we went 3 times, because every time we travel South, we can’t help stopping by!) which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993, started from Piazza Vittorio Veneto, where after visiting the Church of San Domenico, we lean to the terrace to overlook an amazing preview of what we are going to see in detail: very narrow alleys, with steep staircases made of stones, amongst a labyrinth of houses in “tufo” stone, all extremely close to each other in a harmonious disorder, balconies and hanging terraces. In front of all this, the Cathedral dominates.

We start walking through Via San Biagio, where buildings from the XVII century stand. We come across the first churches and we stop by the medieval Church of San Giovanni Battista. We continue our walk downhill towards the Monastery of Sant’Agostino, from which you can clearly see the spur, where the Duomo stands. We further walk dowhill, walking beside the Gravina: this panoramic road, leads to the “Sasso Caveoso”, the more primitive one. This path gives us a great vision of all the caves, once inhabited by eremites, and of the small churches dug in the rock, which are spread here and there along the ridge, where Mel Gibson decided to shoot the movie, which won the Oscar, “The Passion”.

After this relaxing walk, which fills our eyes and heart with emotions, which are hard to be described, we reach Piazza di San Pietro Caveoso, with its church clung on the side of the Gravina. From here, it is possible to admire, from one side, the houses, which are set in an amphitheatre shape, sloping down; from the other side you can see houses, which seem to be set one over the other and, right in the middle, a spur of rock which embraces a church.

We walk through an arch and we find a world, which is even older and mysterious, an unreal town, which developed secretly. Luckily, we have the chance to visit a “Casa-Grotta”. It is a typical house dug in the rock of “Tufo”, which has been totally furnished as it used to be originally. The cave-house consists of 2 rooms only, where 11 people + animals used to live in, in hygienic and sanitary conditions really unbelievable. Everything was made in the house: they ate, slept, cooked and worked; kids used to sleep inside the furniture drawers and the bed was very high, so that hens could sleep below. At the bottom of the cave-house, there is a further room, where other animals, donkeys mainly, were kept. It is a great example of organization and frugal living, but this is also the reason why, during the ‘60s, the Italian Government forced families to get out of the caves and move into proper houses.

Walking up the staircase, we reach the top of Monterrone, where an amazing cave-church is placed. It’s name is Chiesa Santa Maria di Idris, it is almost completely dug inside the rock and it contains another hypogeal church, with amazing Byzantine frescoes (XII-XV century). From the top of the “Sasso”, we look at the marvellous panorama, with all the cave-houses in an irregular row, sloping down deep. A writer from the 1500s described the “Sassi” as an upside down world, because at night people used to light their lamps, so those who were looking from above could see a starry sky below their feet!

We go on walking down, through the labyrinth of alleys and we come across a series of terraces, which in the past were courtyards, hanging gardens or sometimes cemeteries. Today they belong to the many hotels and B&Bs, which have wisely maintained the old structures, characteristics and atmosphere.

While we meander in the town centre during the sunset, Matera gives its best: yellow and warm lights are turned on all around the town, creating a charming, romantic and breathtaking landscape. We walk up to the Duomo (which is currently closed for renovations) and from the terrace where it stands, we are enchanted, looking at the “Sasso Barisano” all lit up, below us.

So we think at how it could be in the past, when there was only candles and lamps to light the town and the call of the animals to break the silence.

Hotel Sextantio: Le Grotte della Civita
Street: Via Civita, 28
Tel.: +39 0835 332744
Website | Maps & Directions

If you are willing to experience a 5 stars holiday in Matera, Hotel Sextantio is your one stop place!

In the last few years, Scattered Hotels (Hotel Diffuso in Italian) is the new trend and Sextantio is a perfect example of this new kind of accomodation. This amazing hotel will give you the possibility to spend some days in a cave, just like people from Matera used to do, but with all the comforts you may need and being cuddled by an excellent staff.

Hotel Sextantio is placed in the Sasso Barisano and its location is convenient also if you arrive by car, because just 300 mts away there is a free parking in Via Madonna delle Virtù, and another one in Piazza San Pietro Caveoso (500 mts).

The hotel is the result of the total renovation of an area, formerly inhabited by people and their animals. The restoration has been conservative, so you can still see the original doors and other elements like tables, table clothes and other furniture. The key of our bedroom was a “huge” key from a former stable!

The first room you will enter is probably the lobby, which has been obtained by a former cell of a Benedectine Monastery.  Being excavated in the rock, you’ll get the first idea of how the whole hotel is “designed”.

All the rooms, anyway are originally excavated in the rock and they show their orignal shape: being a UNESCO heritage site and protected by the commission for the cultural heritage, it’s not possible to structurally modify the rooms. So, all the rooms are open space as they used to be in the past. No doors in the bathroom, so we recommend to share your room with your partner or somebody you do not feel ashamed! Sometimes the bathtub is IN the bedroom. After all, this is one of the aspects, that make this hotel really unique and this is your chance to live as Materans did!

Hotel Sextantio offers you  different kinds of stay: basic rooms, from 35 to 80 sqm, with shower or bathtub; over 100 sqm suites; a honey moon room, the only one on 2 floors, with bathtub inside a small and romantic cave with fireplace and an amazing view over the Parco della Murgia.

All the rooms are lit with candles, for a warm and cozy atmosphere. For the guests comfort, a Wi-Fi connection is available in all rooms. Air conditioning is also available in all rooms and it is important not only to give you relief during the hottest nights, but also because it helps with humidity: don’t forget that you are staying in a cave and there is no way to get rid of humidity. So, please, do not complain with the staff for this matter: it’s all part of the game.

The breakfast room has been placed in a former church from the XIII century, so you can admire the naves excavated in the rock. Probably this part will surprise you as well: all the tables are original, as well as the linen table clothes. You can even see some mended holes on the clothes! Breakfast is something more similar to a lunch: a long wood table is full of home made food: from cakes, jam and yoghurt, to cold cuts, focaccia ,mozzarella, burrata, ricotta cheese and other delicacies. Maybe you won’t be able to try all in one day, but there is enough food to jump your lunch and go straight to dinner!

As we were saying this hotel is simply perfect for a luxury vacation. Maybe it’s not a hotel for everybody, being the price range quite high, but it’s worth all the money you spend, especially if you are staying there for your honey moon or to celebrate a special event. Once in a life, at least, we can get cuddled!

Our tip: if you decie to spend your holiday at Sextantio, we recommend you to change your idea and vision of hotels: this is not an accomodation to sleep by, but it is a place to live in. You should appreciate it for its high standard comforts, as well as for it original features, although sometimes they may appear not adequate to our modern standards.

Matera: the “Sassi “ and life in the caves

Matera is one of the oldest cities in the world.

From the Neolithic to present days, in fact, for about 7000 years the human story took place, without interruption, in the same place. The ancient city was founded in a rocky area, next to a big rift, called the “Gravina di Matera” and developed on the rock. At that time, even caves were used as a dwelling. With the civilization, using blocks of tufo from the Murgia Materana, the city “out of the land” was built.

The original site of the city of Matera (called Civita) was built, in the center of Rione Sassi. Today, on top stands a cathedral from the XIII century. In the Roman period the Civita was fortified by walls, below which there were open spaces with numerous caves and large stones, which represent the reason why the two old districts were called Sassi (stones, rocks), which over the years got the names of Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano.

There was a time when the caves had a great functional importance: all begins from the seventh century. A.D. with the massive presence of the Benedictine and greek-bizantine monastic communities. Chapels, churches, basilicas excavated in the rocks were thus built, as well as other buildings for common life and prayers. Basically, however, the inhabitants of the Sassi, as long as the economic conditions allowed, were building “above ground”, using the caves as stores, cellars and stables. In 1663 Matera became the capital of region Basilicata until 1806, when the capital was moved to Potenza. This was the best time for the city. This is confirmed by a number of notable civil and religious buildings including the Baroque churches and monasteries, now home of numerous public and cultural institutions. From the first decade of the 1800s until 1952, the city experienced a long period of decline due both to the recurrent crises in the agricultural economy and the loss of political and administrative power. The decay was so hard to force poor people to use the caves as dwellings, where to recover animals, too.

After World War II, the public opinion showed an increasing interest in the life conditions of the inhabitants of the Sassi. On the 17th of May 1952, after visiting Matera, President Alcide De Gasperi decided to sign Law no. 619, asking for the restoration of the Sassi, the construction of new districts and he ordered that people living in the caves, should move to the new and modern houses, in order to preserve both their health and the image of Italy outside the Country. Anyway, although the life conditions where very hard and the igienic situation extremely noxious, it was difficult to force all the people to move from what they called their own homes; the last small group of people, was convinced to move in the late 1960s.

Once all the inhabitants were moved to the new homes, it remained to determine the use of a historical center of 30 hectares, now completely empty. With the law n. 771 of the 11th of November 1986, after almost twenty years of complete abandon, the restoration of the Sassi was funded and it is still in progress.

In 1993 the Sassi were declared a UNESCO “World Heritage Site”, along with the park of the Rupestrian Churches overlooking the town. The reason is that Matera represents ” the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem. The first inhabited zone dates from the Palaeolithic, while later settlements illustrate a number of significant stages in human history”. The city of Matera is a candidate to become in 2019 “European Capital of Culture.”