Matera & I Sassi
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If you are planning to be in Apulia and can find only one day to make a run into Basilicata, then head for Matera. Easily reached from Taranto or Bari, it is just across the border and lies at the western edge of an area called the Parco delle Chiese Rupestre del Materano. This is one of the most extraordinary spots on earth, which is why UNESCO has listed it among its 365 official World Heritage List locations.

To comprehend the origins of the fascinating cave churches of Matera, you need really only understand how the Middle Ages affected this area. For centuries starting roughly at the end of the first millennium, a Who's Who of world leaders sent their armies up and down the eastern and western coasts of southern Italy, either to protect their dominions or to usurp someone else's. Some of those armies strayed into Basilicata, but most took the more streamlined Apulian, Calabrian and Campanian routes. This relative obscurity made it possible for another "army" to invade the region: the Benedictine and Basilian monks who were fleeing from the persecution of generations of foreign "infidels." These monks literally "dug in," excavating individual cells, tiny chapels and even some spacious churches in the hills, valleys and ravines around Matera.

You can visit 155 of these astounding structures, just beyond the southeastern edge of town. Much like the Etruscan tombs of Latium and Tuscany, they range from the primitive to the exquisite. Many are decorated with world-class Byzantine decorations and frescoes in varying stages of decay. La cripta del Peccato Originale (the crypt of the Original Sin) contains what is probably the most important 10th-century fresco cycle. Sant'Eustachio is reminiscent of the native Americans' cliffside cave villages in Arizona. The outside of the 11th-century Madonna della Croce, in the so-called Saracen style, looks like a prehistoric rock mound, but there are more exquisite frescoes inside. Santa Maria della Valle, the largest cave church, is fronted by a private garden. Crypt Madonna

Eventually, it seems as though everyone in this region moved into caves, which came to be known as i sassi (stones). You would think Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano (which begin at Piazza V. Veneto) were just typical Italian hilltowns until you realize the "houses" are all windowless grottoes with damp walls and earthen floors, where the family's animals slept side-by-side with the humans. Far from being uncivilized, these rock towns had intricate hydraulic systems that kept water fresh and cool year round. Eventually the caves gained façades and roofs, but the interiors remained virtually unchanged. Nearly 15,000 people were still living in them in 1952, when the government finally declared them unhealthy and outlawed their use. There are several places where you can visit a typically furnished sasso: the most indicative is probably the one at Vico Solitario 12, in Sasso Caveoso.

Of course, there is more to this town than caves. Do not come to Matera without visiting the Domenico Ridola National Museum, which is located in a splendid former convent (again the product of the Italian State's "liberation" of church property in the south). Faithful readers of In Italy will remember our mentioning the serious fiscal problems encountered by Italian art patrons who wish to give their treasures to the public. Luckily for us, Senator Ridola made his donation in 1911, before today's tax laws had been concocted to thwart philanthropy. The vast collection includes Paleocene, neolithic and Bronze Age finds, as well as pottery and statuary from the 6th to 4th centuries BC.

Other sites to be seen are all conveniently located in the medieval and Renaissance parts of Matera, between the two rock towns. There's the unfinished 15th-century castle, the D'Errica gallery of Neapolitan art in Palazzo Lanfranchi, the churches of Purgatory, St. Francis of Assisi, S. Lucia and Materdomini, and the cathedral. One of the last buildings erected in the Apulian-Romanesque style, it has an elegant façade, a beautifully carved 15th-century choir and several 12th-century frescoes. The stone Nativity Scene it harbors dates from 1534 and is a charming work of folk art that was probably inspired by the inhabitants of i sassi di Matera.

For information, maps and guided tours of the sassi and cave churches, contact APT Regionale, Via De Viti De Marco 9, Matera; tel. 0835/333-541, fax 333-452, and Circolo Culturale La Scaletta, Matera.

Click here for a Photo Album of Matera.

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