Once known as the “The Shame of Italy,” Matera is now regarded very proudly by its inhabitants. It’s hard to imagine that in the first half of the 20th century, the cave houses of the Sassi were crammed full of people and animals, living together in malaria-ridden squalor.
Carlo Levi wrote about this area and the town in his book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, shining a spotlight on the horrid living conditions of this area. In 1950, the government could no longer ignore the extreme poverty and unhealthy state of the Sassi inhabitants, and over the next ten years forced the resistant families out of their cave homes. The Sassi dwellers were relocated into new government housing in the outlying areas, but were not happy about it.
Now, after years of abandon, the cave homes are slowly being renovated, and in 1993 the Sassi were declared a Unesco World Heritage site, drawing more and more tourists to this ancient land of the past…including us.
The side of Matera called Sasso Caveoso was still mostly abandoned and here I could more easily evoke the past. Although the entrances of several of the empty cave houses were barred, you could peer in. I was even able to slip inside a few and stand in the center of the darkened rooms. The caves were cool despite the heat outside. In most, small clumps of refuse were piled here and there.
I will let the images of this stony, silent world speak for themselves.
I could have spent an entire day in Matera’s Sasso Caveoso. But our time had run out. We had to get back to check out of our hotel. As we did, the clerk noted where we were from and told me we were lucky to live in California. “We dream of California!” he exclaimed. I told him we dream of living in Italia! We all laughed.
The breakfast was still set out, and he urged us to pack some food for our drive. Thanking him for his thoughtfulness, we wrapped up some panini and fruit and waved goodbye.
Back in our car, I slowly drove up and out of the steep driveway, careful to avoid the stucco wall, and pointed the car in the general direction of the autostrada. We were headed to Ostuni, in Puglia.