Rock of ages: Matera, Italy

Matera, Italy

Matera, Italy

Matera’s unique cave dwellings and labyrinthine history make the ancient city a must for curious travellers.

The cobblestones of Matera, a haunting city on the instep of the Italian boot, look as smooth as ball bearings. Yet there are deceiving ridges off which my two left feet slide as I pad warily uphill. The walk is an act of courage since for me, except on the straight, ambulation is a path to calamity. I soldier up the steep incline under the heat of Matera's bald sun for a single reason: giving up would be to forfeit the extraordinary sight unfolding before me.

Heading towards lodgings built into a limestone cliff, I pause to look at the other side of the deep ravine through which flows the Gravina. Deep black cavities, like eye sockets gouged into striated grey stone, mark the city's blank face. Matera is monochrome, as if colour had not yet arrived in this antique corner of the country. The sockets are caves in which men once lived. Is it my imagination, or does this Italian city look more like biblical Judea than the southern province of Basilicata? A few dozen filmmakers agree, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Mel Gibson among them, the latter directing Jesus and Monica Bellucci inThe Passion of the Christ, at a crucifixion not far from where I walk now.

But the Materan story is older even than Christ. Paleolithic men lived here, their detritus uncovered amid the cave dwellings, known as the sassi. The human occupation of the caves, which dot the rocky face of the gorge, created a social and political battleground. During the Middle Ages and into the modern era, Materan troglodytes have been seen variously as either the pride or shame of Italy. The tensions over the sassi - primitive malarial shelters where, in the first half of last century, the poor ate and slept alongside their animals - led to enforced depopulation of the caves in the 1950s.

The cave gallery at Palazzo Pomarici.

The city is a labyrinth of stone tracks and stairways leading sometimes to somewhere, but often nowhere. The eye takes in repeated shapes - steps and alleys, small rectangular windows, arched openings - set into stone buildings cast in the city's neutral tint. Matera's visual uniformity is utterly hypnotic and not a little oppressive. Abandoned sassi are spectres of past suffering - of bleak lives. Perversely, they make Matera a most desirable destination for curious travellers.

People began to return to Matera in the 1970s, first squatters, then artisans. In 1986, government subsidies brought modern infrastructure, and cave hotels and spas followed. In 1993, UNESCO named the Sassi di Matera a World Heritage site. But even in the new, fashionable Matera, the past speaks loudest.

From the walls of Santa Lucia alle Malve, one of many rupestrian churches - some dug into the barren slope of the Gravina's gorge - John the Baptist stares down from a frescoed wall. The saint, whose direct brown eyes owe much to the early Greek colonisation of Italy's south, is 800 or so years old. Standing on the grotto's dirt floor, I marvel at how he and others alongside him have clung to life so long.

I'm led to my cave abode in the Sasso Caveoso, one of the city's two cave districts. The walls of the Basiliani Hotel are bare, save for a coat of stark white paint. The bathroom was once a stable. A wall by the shower is hollowed into a large cavity in which I picture a tired mule on R&R after a hard day's hauling. The rest is dressed in 21st-century Italian design: sharp red panels frame an open wardrobe; lighting exposes the walls' gritty relief; and inflated chairs made of what look like white plastic carry bags are lit from within.

The rocky layers of ancient Matera are only part of the story. The Piano, the flat ridge held up partly by the steep rise containing the sassi, is like any boutique-filled Italian city. "My grandmother was lucky enough to move up," says Paolo, a 25-year-old guide, referring to the relocation of residents decades ago before the revival of the sassi. There's little work for young people, but Paolo is tourist-ready, negotiating with equal aplomb both sightseeing appointments on his mobile, and tortuous bends from behind the wheel of a Jeep. Business, he hopes, will be booming by 2019, when Matera becomes a European Capital of Culture.

The cave gallery at Palazzo Pomarici.

One rainy day, having climbed to the Piano, I watch restorers floating on scaffolding, tending to the façade of the cathedral. The 13th-century duomo's belfry rises above the city, a reference point for those of us born with faulty compasses. The stones are even more slippery than usual. I stall here and there, but know better than to cancel the walk down to the Sasso Caveoso and the Palazzo Pomarici, which locals proclaim as the world's only cave gallery.

The story of Matera is inside: a warren of dimly lit caverns housing the stark works of the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture. Some are simple, related somehow to the shape of the caves' intrusion into stone. Their naïve lines throw dramatic shadows on rough-hewn walls. Others are taunting exhibitions of modern ingenuity.

Emerging from the shadows, I find the sun is out, beating down once more on the Materan maze of steps and mysterious paths. The wet stones, I'm comforted to know, will soon be dry.

Matera is three hours' drive east of Naples, four and a half hours by train, or an hour's drive south of the port city of Bari.

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