The oldest continually inhabited cave city in the world, Matera has been populated for some 9,000 years ago.  Carved into the rock of a massive gorge formed by a river, it is filled with fissures, ravines, rocks and caves.  Known as the Sassi, the caves became people’s homes and churches, with structures layered on top of other caves, alleys and stone stairways.


Over the years, new caves were carved out of the rock, however the people lived in desperate poverty.  The dark caves had no natural light, ventilation, running water or electricity, and diseases such as malaria, cholera and typhoid were widespread. Families lived together with their animals in small caves, eating once a day.  Conditions in the Sassi became internationally known in 1935, when the writer Carlo Levi, exiled by Musssolini to a town close to Matera, published a book in which he wrote, “I have never seen in all my life such a picture of poverty”. In 1950 Italian Prime Minister Gasperi said the area was a national disgrace, and, using money from the Marshall Plan, evacuated the inhabitants to newly built homes outside the caves.


In 1986, a competition was held to determine what to do with the vacant Sassi.  The winning idea was to bring the caves back to life, and the government agreed to subsidize restoration, encouraging people to return.  Artisans moved in and set up workshops, and the caves now house shops, bars, restaurants and boutique hotels.  The fascinating and beautiful town of Matera has been designated as the European Capital of Culture for 2019.




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