A rocky outcrop in the region of Basilicata in southern Italy, Matera is a complex of cave dwellings and a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has just been designated Europe’s Cultural Capital for 2019.
At 3,000 years old, we think of Rome as ancient, but really it is just a toddler compared to Matera, which is 5,000 years older. In the heel of Italy’s boot, the town is made up of 60,000 residents but has also been the home of blockbusters such as ‘The Passion of the Christ (2004)’, ‘Ben-Hur (2016)’ and ‘Mary Magdalene (2018)’.
Transformed from southern Italian slum to go-to holiday destination, the town is set to attract thousands of new visitors this year, giving presence to its ancient past.
The Sassi period, which dates back to the Paleolithic age over 2.5 million years ago, means that walking through Matera is a bit like strolling through a prehistoric theme park. A popular way to immerse yourself in the history of the town is to stop in the middle of the Sassi at the Vico Solitario museum.
This shows a typically furnished cave dwelling, giving visitors an idea of what it was like to live in Matera in ancient times. Today, these caves have obviously been converted into hotels, with air-con and Wifi.
For example, situated on the highest point of the Sassi is the Palazzo del Duca, a romantic boutique hotel with a dramatic terrace overlooking the Gravina canyon. Retaining much of the original architectural detail of the caves, the suites have been furnished with a heated pool and waterfall, with breakfast taken in a cave room lit by candles.
“It’s not about tourism” says Paolo Verri, general director of Matera’s 2019 European Capital of Culture, to the Los Angeles Times. “It’s more how to increase the quality of culture, how to involve citizens to make more of a cultural base in the city”. This is evident in the amount of events being staged this year at Matera. The beautiful opera ‘Cavalleria Rusticana,’ by Pietro Mascagni, will be performed late summer (Aug 2-11) in Sasso Caveoso, whilst another event showcases the top masterpieces from the south of Italy, including 180 works by artists like Raphael and Caravaggio.
Matera shows that visiting history truly is the cultural capital of our times.