Ever since 1985, Europe has designated one city a year to be the European Capital of Culture. This year, it’s Matera, a city in southern Italy. So, what do you have to see if you go to the capital of the instep of the Italian boot? Hopefully, something more than the same the shoe-related metaphor every writer on the internet uses!
- The Sassi
While good listicle writing etiquette informs us that we should put the juiciest morsels at the end of the article, there’s really no way of avoiding the Sassi when talking about Matera. It is its most important district, that of cave dwellings dating ways back in history. After all, it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in Europe, with someone or the other staying there for since 10,000 BC.
Greeks, Romans, Longobards, Byzantines, Saracens, Swabians, Angevins, Aragonese, Bourbons and probably a few Italians had gone through the spot at some time in history. In the most recent era, the cave dwellings of the Sassi district had been inhabited by the poorest citizens, beset by malaria, crime and squalor. In the 1950s, the government evicted them to the city and the caves had a dire reputation up until the 1980s. But then the mayor and UNESCO got involved, and the rest is tourist history.
Today, the Sassi, previously the home of the poorest of peasants, are cleaned up and opened to the public. You can see bar, restaurants, spas, wineries as well as historical sites, like cave churches. And, of course, the mere act of walking in the Sassi is an experience onto itself – it’s not often that you find the street to also be the roof of someone’s home.
Photo by Iñi Piñi. Provided under CC BY-SA 2.0
- The Churches
First of all, you should see some of the rupestrian (fancy word for “cave”) churches – after all, Matera used to be the seat of the archbishop. Other churches still remain from the prosperous period before Joseph Bonaparte moved the capital of the province to Potenza.
Matera Cathedral is probably the most impressive of the above-ground places of worship. Built in the latter part of the 13th century and dedicated to Santa Maria della Bruna in 1309. It combines the Apulian Romanesque exterior with an interior decorated during an 18th century restoration work.
However, most of the temples will still require you go into the Sassi and delve into the caves. Reclusive monasteries can also be found there, stretching into entire cave complexes where the pious brothers contemplated God without being distracted by windows or the sky.
- The Castle
Gian Carlo Tramontano, Count of Matera, wanted to build the Tramontano castle because that was what people did in the 15th century. However, he was a massively unpopular and greedy man, and he got killed in a riot after visiting the mass on 29th of December, 1514. It appears that the citizens were not fond of his new plan to raise 24,000 ducats to cover his debts.
Only three of the 12 towers of the castle have been completed. However, archaeological digs discovered the footings of another tower, some Roman cisterns, and more. That’s just life of a digger in Matera: wherever you set your shovel, you’re likely poking history.
- The Movie Spots
Matera and the Sassi with its cave dwellings and churches and whatnot already look impressive. It’s also a very stark location, with very little green to be seen anywhere. Naturally, this works like catnip for movie directors who want to give a sense of ancient authenticity to their reels.
That’s why Passion of the Christ and the new Ben-Hur were just a few movies that used Matera as a stand it for Jerusalem. It was the spot for filming non-Bible related movies, too. For example, the Sassi made an appearance in Wonder Woman, acting as the Amazon capital of Themyscira.
So come see the cultural capital of Europe that’s for once one of the oldest inhabited spots in the continent! And while it’s hard to get a flight delay so bad you’ll miss the entirety of 2019, flights disruptions can still ruin your holidays. If that happens to you, claim flight compensation via Skycop. Who knows, you might get up to €600 in compensation, which can buy you quite a few cave coffees!