In September my husband and I celebrated our 5th wedding anniversary with a trip to the Puglia region of Italy (read more about that here). While researching for the trip, I stumbled upon a couple of places in the Basilicata region of Italy that warranted a detour.
The first was Castelmezzano, a hill town in the “mini dolomites” or the Lucanian Dolomites. The journey there from Puglia was pretty easy until Google Maps decided to route us to our hotel on a closed road. But of course, we didn’t know it was closed, because we can’t read Italian. The “road” (if you can even call it that) was a series of narrow switchbacks at an incredibly steep grade with a cliff off to one side. We even bottomed out our rental car and got stuck at one part. We did eventually make it to our hotel and promptly realized we could have gotten there with a simple turn off the main drag. I guess it was all part of the journey.
Our hotel looked out over the town of Castelmezzano, which is best known for the Volo dell’Angelo a zipline that runs between its peak and the neighboring village Pietrapertosa. The town itself was named one of the most beautiful villages in Italy and is a collection of medieval stone buildings hanging on the side of a mountain. The town was named for a no-longer-standing Norman-Templar castle, and a templar cross is still displayed on the mountainside paying homage to its past inhabitants. Walking through the town was like walking back in time to the Middle Ages. There were ancient stone walls and fortress-like doors along every narrow alleyway. My husband did the Volo dell’Angelo, which I opted out of as I had recently found out I was pregnant. But I was just as happy walking around town taking photos of every old door I could find. Oh, and lots and lots of hanging laundry. Even photos of shadows of hanging laundry. And this one time I found an old door AND hanging laundry….
Did I mention the doors?!
Next stop was the 9000-year-old city of Matera, Italy which is the closest I’ve ever felt to traveling back in time. Matera is situated on a ravine whose walls are made of volcanic Tufa rock. The rock can be easily excavated into cave dwellings, which is exactly what ancient peoples did starting around 9000 years ago. Matera is considered to be the third oldest continually habited city, after Aleppo and Jericho. The area of cave dwellings is called the Sassi di Matera (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and is separate from the more modern city on the flatter ground above the ravine.
Over the centuries, the primitive cave dwellings became larger and more elaborate. In the 6th century, Basilian monks carved churches into the rocks and painted frescoes on the walls. Stone facades were added to the cave dwellings through medieval times. Then at some point, development stopped. The people who lived in the Sassi were cut off geographically from trade and they became poorer and poorer. Up through the 1950s, people lived in squalor in the caves. There were often entire families and their livestock in one-room caves living without plumbing, running water, or electricity.
The city eventually became embarrassed by the situation and moved all of the inhabitants out of the Sassi to a housing project. The Sassi sat idle and completely abandoned until an enterprising group of developers started rehabbing the caves in the 1980s. It’s a fascinating story, and there is a great Smithsonian article that is well worth the read. Now, the Sassi di Matera is full of boutique hotels, shops, and restaurants, but the exteriors have remained unchanged. It was even named the 2019 European Capital of Culture. The entire town is so historically accurate in appearance, that it has been used as a filming stand-in for Jerusalem in several films.
To paraphrase 17th-century writing about Matera at night – the city becomes a sea of light, perfectly reflecting the starry sky above. It truly was magical! As we were leaving Matera to head back to Puglia, we stopped on the opposite side of the ravine to look back across at the Sassi di Matera. You were able to see the many layers of the cave dwellings and facades that are built on top of each other like an apartment building. We also saw a couple of weddings!
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