While driving through the rolling plains of eastern Basilicata you have no indication that there would be such a striking place like the city of Matera, built along the edge of a deep valley carved through layers of a very soft limestone called “tufa”. Caves form naturally in the rock layers along the valley, the light colored rock is easily carved into different shapes and cut into blocks for building, which gives the city a relatively uniform golden hue.
Matera is famous for “I Sassi”, the two sections of the city that are built into and on the sides of the valley below the ancient city walls. The sassi were originally used as storage and wine producing area as well as hermitages until the civita above overflowed its fortified walls and people began to build out from the steep valley cliffs. Mel Gibson chose this the location for the filming of the “Passion of the Christ” several years ago and since then there has been a revitalization of the sassi areas. There are views of uninhabited caves on the opposite cliff wall across the deep ravine, and if you venture to that bluff you will have incredible views of the sassi, both day and night.
The sassi are built along the steep valley so there is a lot of up and down walking to see this area but around each curve you get a new view. Staying more than a few hours is a must as you will find that the changing light as the day progresses also provides different views of the same places, and with some mixed clouds the sun and shadows will play across the light-colored stone.
Several churches and convents are built right into the stone. Many of the houses have a portion that is a cave along with additional living quarters constructed outward from the valley wall, the roofs of one house then becomes the street for the level above. The ceilings are in the form of barrel arches providing the required support. There are a mix of hotels and restaurants that have cleverly utilized this unique architecture that are often difficult to distinguish from the surrounding buildings.
Many of the cantine are still used for making and storing wine. Before the introduction of vehicles the grapes would be brought down from the plains above the valley on donkeys and crushed in cisterns carved into the rock then stored in the caves deep in the hillside.
The civita resting on the plain above the sassi has many attractions of its own and you will find the entire city to be bustling with people going about their daily activities during any season. This is a city that must be experienced first-hand to fully appreciate.