Matera, home of the incomprehensibly 9000-year-old cave village
Matera in Italy and Plovdiv in Bulgaria are the twin European capitals of culture of 2019. This article will focus on Matera and what makes this city worthy of the great attention that comes with being one of two cities selected to be the uniting center of the continent for a year.
Drink in hand, this city will open up once you adjust to the slow pace of the Italian lifestyle. Like any other Italian city, Matera is not to be explored on a stressful holiday following a tight and touristy schedule. Instead one needs to take part in this charming city that appealingly encourages every visitor to slow down and join the rhythm of the area.
Aperitif is a well-known Italian concept, where you meet up with friends or family a couple of hours before dinner to have a drink and enjoy a light meal. It is intended to be an appetizer before the main meal and functions as a perfect way to level with the city. As the main street of Matera, Via del Corso and the surrounding area is the place to find the most appealing café, and each will have their own suggestion as to how this meal is to be served. As long as you like sausages, ham, and cheese, it seems impossible to get it completely wrong. While aperitif and the cozy cafés are widely known throughout Italy, Matera has lots to offer that is unique to this city.
The first settlements found in Matera
Matera has a history that very few other places in this world can compete with. The rocky landscape that surrounds Matera is full grottoes which have been home to people for thousands of years. The first people moved into the grottoes 9000 years ago and the area has been inhabited constantly since. The oldest part of town, known as Sassi di Matera, is the area where all kinds of housing can be found. There are many seemingly regular houses, but the fact that they are built into the rock and are placed on top of each other makes these layers of houses extraordinary. There are large churches dug into the limestone in the same way, thus uniting the raw nature of the rocks with religious worship in the churches. They offer an interesting insight into a kind of architecture most people don’t come about too often together with a cool break from the South Italian heat. This is also the area to find modern grottoes. The last people were forcibly removed from these grottoes in the late 60’s – that is 1960’s! In other words, this a modern cave, a home for people with a kitchen, bedroom and what not, that functioned until only about 50 years ago. Not everyone thought that this was amazing, and the Italian government at the time considered Matera to be a point of shame for Italy. The poor society in Matera was infected with diseases partially due to the lack of infrastructure, and it wasn’t until several years later that people realized what a unique way of living people had led here. This is what draws tourists from all over the world and ultimately what made it possible for Matera to be the cultural capital of Europe in 2019.
The art of getting lost in Matera
The thought of getting lost in a foreign country and the unknown city is somewhat romantic. In Sassi di Matera this dream comes true easily: The winding roads, shifts of level and seemingly randomly placed houses gives a chaotic impression of the city which makes it a perfect place to get lost – on purpose or not. There are plenty of cafés, restaurants, shops, and museums ensuring entertainment. Even if you arrive during the afternoon nap, the special sights of the city itself should provide entertainment at least until the locals wake up again. The nature surrounding the city is obviously rocky and provides some great views when moving away from the city center.
The journey into this chaotic part of the city really starts when visiting one of the viewpoints which give an overview of the old part of town. It resembles a naïve kids-drawing of a city on a hill – and although the structure might actually be a bit naïve, these views are some of the most beautiful I have encountered. It is beautiful in the day when you can watch all the details of the city, as well as in the night when it is bathed in orange light from the streetlights.
After dinner, I head back to my hotel. The heat urges me to buy another Italian delicacy – ice cream to be enjoyed on one of the squares in the city. Even on a regular Tuesday night, the square is crowded with locals enjoying the evening. The elderly people are sitting on the stairs to the church while keeping an eye on the kids playing football. The young people are hanging out, flirting with one another, with a confidence that goes perfectly with their fashionable outfits. Matera has a special feature, that is certain. It welcomes any visitor to look back into history, and, mixed with the high standards of modern Italy, acts as a great European capital of culture.