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In this episode, we are heading south to the region of Basilicata to visit Matera – a truly unique city that has had a troubled past but is now bursting with newfound optimism thanks to its incredible history, architecture, and magical appeal.
We talk to Danielle Oteri. Danielle is an art historian and tour operator who has an unquenchable passion for southern Italy. She takes us on a fascinating trip to discover the historic treasures of the city of Matera, where, with much of the hotel accommodation still family-owned, it can serve as a great model for responsible tourism and an appreciation of a city being at one with nature.
What you’ll learn in this episode
- Matera is one of the longest continuously inhabited cities on Earth. Archaeologists have found human settlements there that go back to the Paleolithic and the Neolithic periods
- It is often mistakenly said to be in the region of Puglia because it’s very close to the border – and it’s a common day trip from Puglia’s popular holiday destinations like Polignano a Mare or Monopoli
- The Sassi di Matera are the cave homes found in Matera that, having been restored over decades, have now made Matera an amazing city to visit
- Matera is comprised of two parts – the Sassi (caves) and the Civita, which is the city that is built on the top.
- There is a famous book written by Idrisi, an Arab geographer in the 1100s which describes Matera and how the Sassi (caves) all had beautiful wells in front of them and terraced gardens so that the water from the top of the hill would flow through these ingenious channels that fed individual cisterns. There were special wells for the animals to drink from and eventually flowed into the ravine – with the design that no water would be wasted
- The descendants of the original inhabitants of the Sassi, formed a club in 1959 called Circolo La Scaletta, meaning the Circle of Stairs. This is a cultural club designed to salvage the past, discovered and reforming the Sassi whenever they had free time and weekends. They were all college students and alongside the rehabilitation, they explored the abandoned Sassi finding ancient cave churches, they found over 150 of these painted Rupestrian churches from the Byzantine era – from the 800s
- By 1993 Matera had been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site which is when the hotels started moving in and Matera became a touristic city. However, none of the big hotel chains have moved in to the Sassi – because they’re all owned by families
- The Sassi hotels are what’s known in Italy as Alberghi Diffusi, meaning diffused hotels. There’s a central check-in point where there’s usually also a spa or restaurant or both and then you go to your cave (your sasso) for your accommodation – possibly down the street. The caves are cozy and luxurious, and it’s so quiet, still, and peaceful that you get a fantastic nights sleep
- It is just helpful to go on a tour and have somebody walk you through the city and orient you to the various places where the districts of the Sassi, the Civita explain where the cave churches are. But wear your most comfortable shoes as the limestone terrain is bumpy and can get slippery
- When you’re wandering around on your own a paper map is a good idea – the GPS does not work in most of Matera!
- There’s one particularly spectacular Rustapherian church which is outside the city called The Crypt of the Original Sin. Discovered in 1963 by the Circle of the Stairs, it’s covered with paintings of the Virgin Mary, the Apostles and it gets its name from a scene of Adam and Eve – where Eve is handing Adam not an Apple, a fig (you’re in Southern Italy after all). It can be visited but only on a pre-arranged tour of which are only 10 people. The talks are in Italian. There is an English translation of limited sound quality. The church remains exactly as it was in the 2nd half of the 8th century because it was carved deep in the earth and it wasn’t exposed to the elements and was forgotten about for so long. The only people who knew about it were the shepherds who had been using it to shelter their flocks
- Though it feels in the middle of nowhere today, this area was how people from Eastern Europe crossed through Italy
- Matera is the only city in Southern Italy to have been named a European City of Culture – a great leap from being the ‘Shame of Italy’ back in 1945
- The region is famous for their dried, sweet peppers, called cruschi. You can have them in various meals, sprinkled over pasta, or even just eat them from the bag like you would a potato chip
About our guest – Danielle Oteri from Feast on History
Danielle Oteri is a writer, art historian and founder of Feast on History a food, wine and art school specializing in Southern Italy. She is passionate about the city of Naples and surrounds and knows it inside out – including where to get the best sfogliatella and life-changing pizza.
After visiting her grandmother’s town on the Cilento Coast she was inspired to celebrate her family’s homeland and help others do the same.
Feast on History offers immersive culinary, art and wine classes in Italy and now online.
If you’re visiting New York City you can also join Danielle’s company Arthur Avenue Food Tours on a delicious walk through Little Italy.
You can find Danielle on these channels:
Places mentioned in the show
- Matera – Basilicata’s best known city where you’ll find cave dwellings and an ancient past
- Capaccio Paestum – town in the Campania region
- The Crypt of the Original Sin – 8th century church discovered by the Circle of the Stairs in 1963
- Casal Dragone – Agriturismo near the Crypt of original sin with a wonderful restaurant. With mind-blowing salumi
- Ellena Ferrante – an author whose novels are great inspiration for trips to Italy
- Christ Stopped at Eboli – a memoir by Carlo Levi, published in 1945
- Sassi – the cave house making up a substantial area of Matera
- Transumanza – the twice-yearly event where large flocks of sheep are driven south from the hilly and mountainous regions
- Muhammad Al Idrisi – an Arab geographer, cartographer and Egyptologist, working for the Sicilian King Roger II
- Il Circolo La Scaletta – the Circle of the Stairs is the organization created by those who wanted to reclaim and revive the caves
- Rupestrian Churches – there are 150 rock-hewn churches around Matera with ancient wall paintings, many hidden for many 100s of years
- Alberghi Diffusi – meaning diffused hotels,
- The Passion of the Christ – Mel Gibson’s religious movie
- The Gospel According to St Matthew – movie directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini
Resources from Untold Italy
- Listen: to our previous episodes with Danielle – Episode #061: New Discoveries in Ancient Pompeii, Episode #044: Ciao Napoli! Don’t miss this noble and exciting city and Episode #038: The Captivating Cilento Coast
- Driving in Italy – a guide to getting around by car
- How to plan a trip to Italy – our article that takes you step by step through trip planning so you can avoid our mistakes
- Italy Travel Planning – our FREE online community where you can ask questions and get inspiration for planning your trip
- Travel shop where you’ll find items mentioned in the show
Prefer to read along as you listen? You can download a PDF version of the full transcript of this episode.