WE had read about the Sassi of Matera. We knew what to expect. But still nothing prepares you for the moment when you step out from the narrow streets and courtyards and get your first panoramic view of this extraordinary town.
You look out on human history unbroken since the Neolithic Age. People have been hewing cave dwellings out of the soft livestock rock for thousands of years.The cave dwellings offered the population a place of refuge through successive invasions.
After World War II, the population of the Sassi had grown to around 16,000. An extraordinary number of people were living in what were stone age dwellings.
This situation prompted a national scandal after the Italian prime minister Alcide De Gasperi visited the town in 1950. The Gazzetta del Mezzogiomo declared Matera “Shame of the Nation”.
The people were moved – generally against their will – out of their stone caves into new suburbs. The sassi were vacated and abandoned, until in 1986 the Italian parliament started the process of re-developing them as houses, business premises and cultural centres.
The Sassi of Matera were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. The irony is that what were once primitive dwellings for the very poorest are now almost exclusively owned by the super-rich.
Despite this, visiting Matera remains a deeply moving experience. If you have the opportunity, go and see it.