La Città Sotterranea (The Subterranean City)

M   A   T   E   R   A

The town of Matera is the main town in the southern Italian region of Basilicata. It is situated close to Murgia and in the upper valley near the Bradano River. The area is mainly hilly and is crossed by la Gravina. It was inhabited in the Paleolithic era when a group of hunters and refugees settled down and laid the foundations of the original dwellings. Thus whole ancient residential areas were formed inside the surrounding grotte naturali (natural caves) or along le gravine (the ravines and canyons).

401-la-citta-sotterranea-the-subterranean-city-10Later Matera endured the Ancient Greek and Roman influence. Then it was invaded by the Longobards and Franks. In the medieval times numerous religious communities used the caves for establishing village-type and rural sanctuaries. The town became part of Italy. The first half of the 20th century was hardest period for locals. It’s an interesting fact that Matera was the very first Italian city that made a rebellion and fought against the Wehrmacht during the WW II.

401-la-citta-sotterranea-the-subterranean-city-11Nowadays the economic income of the town is agriculture and the production of the renowned wine Aglianico di Matera. On the other hand, tourism is flourishing and i Sassi di Matera have been attracting more and more visitors and tourists in recent years. One of the reasons is that filmmakers choose this a little bit mysterious place as a set for “evangelistic” film productions such as Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” or “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Last but not least, i Sassi and the surrounding natural beauty plus the long history of Matera dating back to the Paleolithic era have contributed to the nomination of the city as la Capitale europea della cultura (European Capital of Culture) 2019’ together with our town of Plovdiv.

401-la-citta-sotterranea-the-subterranean-city-12Matera is oftentimes nicknamed as la Città Sotterranea (or the Subterranean City). But it was also called “an island of land” from time to time in the past. You would ask why…. Because it was not very easily accessible, there were not enough roads and transport means. Today everything’s changed. Buses and trains from almost all corners of Italy come to Matera which greatly contributes to the development of tourism in the town and the latter in no longer just a deserted island of land near la Gravina. No, it’s a tourist site whose historic centre “seduces” too many lovers of adventures, natural beauty and history. If your are that type of travellers, get off the bus and head downhill to la Piazza Vittorio Veneto.

401-la-citta-sotterranea-the-subterranean-city-13This main Square is outside the historic centre and actually, it’s a starting point for exploring the ancient town and its cave-dwelling areas. Here you enjoy il Palazzo dell’Annunziata from the 18th century, la Chiesa dei Cavalieri di Malta and the 11th century Chiesa rupestre del Santo Spirito.

So, after passing through the social hub of the town, take the flight of steps which will lead you to i Sassi.

401-la-citta-sotterranea-the-subterranean-city-14I Sassi di Matera or the Stones of Matera, consisting of Sasso Caveoso, Sasso Barisano and rione Civita, is a term that indicates the historic centre of the town and the “pulsating heart” of this cave-dwelling area established in the rocks. The first and smarter cave-dwelling area is Sasso Barisano and the second one – Sasso Caveoso. They are, actually, separated by la Gravina. They were created after the rocky valley slopes had been dug out to create the caves in question and those cave areas were inhabited by extremely poor peasants and villagers who made their home inside.

401-la-citta-sotterranea-the-subterranean-city-15Being in Sasso Barisano, you ought to visit the stunning Chiesa di San Francesco d’Assisi. It’s an extremely beautiful baroque church (namely this baroque style is typical for Lecce) constructed over an underground crypt. La Piazza del Sedile (or today known as la Piazza Maggiore) used to be the ancient political and market centre of Matera. Today’s numerous artisan shops, osterie and trattorie used to house the town’s prison, governors’ offices and the municipality building (or il sedile) in 1550.

401-la-citta-sotterranea-the-subterranean-city-16Before visiting the second Sasso, take Via Duomo which will bring you to rione Civita which is accessible by the two main gates – Porta di Juso and Porta di Suso. This district of the historic centre occupies the highest point of the ancient town and it houses the splendid Cattedrale di Matera (the S. Maria della Bruna Cathedral). Another attraction is via Fiorentini which was given this name due to the fact that Florentine merchants of textile and tissues opened their artisan and workshops namely here.

401-la-citta-sotterranea-the-subterranean-city-17La Porta Pistola is a square from which one indulges in the views to la Gravina. While you’re walking along the road, make a stop at le Chiese rupestri di Madonna delle Virtù e San Nicola dei Greci (Rupestrian Churches of the Madonna delle Virtù and San Nicola dei Greci). As I’ve just said, these are two churches and even convent complexes in the rocks. No matter what they’ve still been keeping precious frescoes on the walls.

The monastery complex of St Nicolas was built above the Church of the Madonna delle Virtù and both religious places are very interesting but I can assure you their atmosphere is too odd.

401-la-citta-sotterranea-the-subterranean-city-18Now it’s time for us to head for the second cave-dwelling area, i.e. Sasso Caveoso. This part of Matera houses several sites and places which are worth a visit. In the first place, you enjoy the splendid, baroque Chiesa dei Santi Pietro e Paolo or better known as la Chiesa San Pietro Caveoso. It was built in 1218 and it has suffered too many transformations through the centuries. Two other rupestrian churches (le Chiese Rupestri di San Giovanni in Monterrone and Madonna De Idris) located on il Monte Errone attract tourists’ attention and capture their curiosity.

401-la-citta-sotterranea-the-subterranean-city-19Another inetersting site in Sasso Caveoso is la Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario. This is a typical peasant cave dwelling with furniture, tools and utensil. This type of cave dwellings was typical for Matera before Sassi were abandoned.

As for la Casa Cisterna, it’s an antique house in a cave which includes one cistern inside. The Cistern was used for collecting rain water (by the way, it’s still been performing these functions.

401-la-citta-sotterranea-the-subterranean-city-20Our short trip to Mater is ending. La Città dei Sassi which is the first declared UNESCO heritage site in Southern Italy will leave you breathless, for sure. There is no doubt that you will want to come back and continue discovering this mysterious stone town and it’s a weird cave-dwellings.

Before getting on the bus you might see il Castello Tramontano di Matera (the Tramontano Castle of Matera).

401-la-citta-sotterranea-the-subterranean-city-21The construction of the castle started in the early 16th century and it was commissioned by Gian Carlo Tramontano (then Count of Matera). This construction was most probably the only structure (or one of the few structures) of great importance that was situated above the ground and outside i Sassi. Nowadays the il castello has three very large towers and it’s thought that there were twelve towers in the original design.


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