Matera: History Mixed With Fame!

If you watched the Mel Gibson film “Passion of the Christ”, you might have heard of, or possibly seen, some pieces of the tiny south Italian city, Matera. Even if you’ve watched that film you probably didn’t know that some of the sets were real places and not studio recreations.

We have been lucky enough to see those open film sets with our eyes, in fact we visited Matera but not because of its filmography fame (Matera has been the ideal backdrop for more than one film from the 50’s), but because we were interested in its uniqueness dependent on its history.
In Italy, like in some other European Countries I visited so far, it’s not that difficult to spot what the past has left behind for us to admire, alongside with the new architecture and modern art, this is one of the things that fascinate me & ANGLO/Dale the most when visited a new place – its history.

Old town - Matera: History Mixed With Fame!
Sasso in Matera - Matera: History Mixed With Fame!
Detail of Matera - Matera: History Mixed With Fame!
Matera's houses - Matera: History Mixed With Fame!

What makes Matera so attractive for directors the world over?

It is all to do with its extensive cave-dwelling district, called ‘Sassi’, which lies across a small ravine that has been eroded in the course of hundreds of years by a small stream.
Those caves were surprisingly still being used as houses up until the 50’s. Like in the Paleolithic, entire families were living there in a terrible state of poverty crammed together with their animals too.
Such an hard thing to believe by looking the size of this holes carved into the rock.

To have a better idea on how life was back then we visited the Casa Grotta, meaning cave-house, which I strongly recommend going to (it is located in Vico Solitario and the entrance is very cheap, only €1.50 per person, what a bargain!).
Once in, we learned that it would have been the only opportunity to understand how they used to live, in fact it is the only cave that nowadays shows a reproduction of the everyday life back then with old furniture, utensils and various objects.
It was like making a step back in the past!
As soon as we entered, there was a big space that, judging from how it was set up, it would had been the ONLY room of the ‘house’ functionally as bedroom, dining room and barn all in once. Yes, you understood well, only one room for all the members of the family, animals included (imagine the smell!). No privacy either. Back at that times they clearly had other priorities!
In this main room there was a table with at its centre a plate, indeed at that time people ate from the same plate, there was no room for being fussy.
By nosing around we also discovered a little tiny space still connected with the main room, where all the cooking must have happened considering the few pieces of old kitchenware displayed.
That made me think how things have drastically changed in the last 50-60 years, would you imagine yourself living in such condition after having tasted the high-tech life? And what about internet, could you manage without it?

Hole in a wall - Matera: History Mixed With Fame!
Old door - Matera: History Mixed With Fame!
Dale into a Sasso - Matera: History Mixed With Fame!

With this thoughts in my mind we continued our walk through the labyrinthine alleys of the sassi area, which in my view, is the best way to experience the old city.
Dale might suggest that, in the case of some buildings and streets, they hadn’t been finished and are still under construction even if they are not. He likes his little joke 🙂
On our way we also found a chiesa rupestre (cave church) which distinguishes itself from the normal caves due to the frescos painted on the walls which still remain visible after so much time. In fact, in some cases the drawings are barely noticeable or almost completely destroyed, a real shame considering those few pieces can’t be replicated & show how things really were.

View of Matera from the Belvedere - Matera: History Mixed With Fame!
Matera at night - Matera: History Mixed With Fame!

We waited till dusk to head to the viewpoint called Belvedere situated on the opposite side of the deep ravine. The view from there was simply stunning: we could see the Cathedral emerging above the stone-city while the first night lights started to light up.
During that time of the day everything starts to change: the landscape, the light, the sky. It is my favorite time of the day because I can appreciate the same sights in a different perspective.

When I think about Matera one thing that got stuck in my head apart from the outstanding views, the sassi and the old town, is the silence!
Everywhere we went that day was quiet! Surprisingly it wasn’t crowded with tourists so the townsfolk were going about their normal routine and that helped create the impression of being stuck in time.

Matera's Ravine - Matera: History Mixed With Fame!

Our tips

If you are willing to visit Matera I strongly recommend to:

  • read something about its history before going so what will be seen will make more sense.
  • spend at least one day there to make sure you don’t miss the dusk, also, once dark, the city really looks different, almost magic I would say!
  • look at timing when planning: some places (like the historical museum we wanted to visit) might be closed. We learned that it’s normal for some places to close for few hours after lunch time (Italians like their little afternoon nap, and it’s an Italian to says so). Also bear in mind that during winter the opening times are reduced, check them in advance!
  • Also, there is a contrasting ‘New Town’ side to Matera, so when it comes to looking to rest your feet & grab a cornetto & a small espresso, you’ll have a more modern choice that you may prefer. The small cafes & restaurants in the ‘Old Town’ are quaint though so do pop in for quick shot of coffee.

Would you choose to live the cave life?