In Italy’s southern Basilicata region, the Paleolithic city of Matera is home to some of the oldest dwellings on Earth.
Located directly in the arch of Italy’s southern boot, Matera is a historic maze of ancient sassi, or stone caves, many of which predate even the Ancient Romans or Italy’s first conquerors. In the glow of the southern sun, the bleached sandstone city is a vibrant, luminous relic of times long past, but its rocky shelters have proven to be structural wonders that have stood the test of time to serve as homes, restaurants, bars, and shops today.
Though remarkably beautiful and culturally rich, Matera has evolved from a place of severe poverty and rampant disease in the late 1800s, when Italy’s national government deemed living conditions within its cave dwellings unsuitable. All of its inhabitants were evacuated and provided with new public housing, leaving the stone city abandoned until the 1980s, when it became a tourist destination with renewed dwellings and cultural attractions. Just over a decade later, Matera was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in 2019, it was declared a European Capital of Culture, the final grand achievement in the city’s ‘rags to riches’ evolution.
The original settlement is split on both sides of the Gravina River deep in a rocky emerald gorge. Matera’s sassi are perched high above the glimmering river with white sandstone providing a striking chalky contrast to the lush greens and blues that make up the lower half of the steep valley. Though scholars are still unsure when exactly Matera was first settled, its original caves are thought to be Paleolithic ruins carved into the hillside long before Italy was ever founded. If this widely accepted timeline is correct, Matera is one of the oldest continually inhabited settlements ever to exist, and its history is laid bare in the perfectly preserved stone structures its first occupants left behind.
The stunning natural beauty of Matera and its heavy Christian influence throughout centuries of conquest have earned it the nickname of “The Second Bethlehem,” where ongoing restorations uncover religious relics in its numerous Rupestrian churches. The Matera Cathedral dedicated to Santa Maria della Bruna houses a 14th-century fresco depicting the Last Judgement, along with various statues, adornments, and a bell tower overlooking the grassy lowlands below. This ancient scenery among the white sassi has become a popular filming location for biblical motion pictures like Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), Bruce Beresford’s King David (1985), and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004).
The city’s artisan culture also makes it a haven for handmade souvenirs like traditional clay whistles and figurines that integrate Matera’s storied past into its artistic customs today. Local craftsmen produce small clay whistles called “cuccù,” which can be traced to the city’s Greek Age before Christ, when similar whistles were found in the graves of children and were likely displayed outside of houses to ward off malevolent spirits and entities. Other clay dolls and toys also date back to Matera’s ancient civilizations and serve as timeless mementos for visitors and natives alike.
Once an impoverished city with a rugged and reclusive population, Matera has entirely transformed over the past several decades to become a cultural haven and a true eternal city where sacred religion and one-of-a-kind artistry reign supreme. Its once barren caves are now luxury hotels and restaurants with stunning troglodyte architecture, and its lower caverns serve as foundations for levels upon levels of new habitations in a network of sandstone grottos. The adjacent hillside across the Gravina River offers a prime vantage point of the entire city, particularly at sunset as the sleepy caverns are slowly set aglow and the city comes alive with nighttime crowds weaving through a labyrinth of sassi.
To visit Matera is to walk in the footsteps of one of the world’s earliest civilizations among the craggy sandstone caves they left behind. The city’s rich history is embodied in its cultural accolades, making it a top destination in a country defined by its treasured past and the diverse populations who shaped its traditions along the way.