Day 9: Matera (0km)

Long before it became a world heritage site, Matera was considered a national embarrassment. The people living there, in the Sassi, were so impoverished and malnourished it was known as the shame of Italy. We did not know this, when we first looked out on the old town in the gloomy, flat morning light. Instead we saw exotic limestone dwellings carved into the hillside, some with handsome eighteenth-century facades, concealing unknown cavernous depths.

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When I awoke that morning I was hungry and so felt glum. But downstairs, in the large breakfast room, we were greeted by an extraordinary looking spread. On a table thoughtfully decorated with lace doilies lay bread, homemade jam, mozzarella, ham, pizza, fresh orange juice, yogurt and preserved figs. We helped ourselves eagerly. Afterwards, Raffaele the proprietor’s son, dignified and charming, offered us coffee, which he then meticulously prepared in the kitchen next door according to our exact requirements.

After eating two helpings of baked ricotta cheesecake, slices of bread lavished with jam, and drinking two cups of coffee, I felt more revived. We decided to spend the morning there, in Matera, and set off again after lunch. Raffaele kindly recommended places for us to visit: Casa Noha, the cisterns, and the Cathedral. I asked if I could interview him and he agreed asking if we could return once the other guests had finished breakfast.

I began by asking him his views on Europe.  Raffaele said he felt neither European nor Italian. 

            ‘Where you are from is a long story.’ He told me, then added, ‘I feel of the place I stay.’

            He was critical of the European Union.

            ‘Europe as a political system doesn’t work.’ He explained. ‘There are too many cultures. Every culture must find the best way, its own way to live. Here we have a very good culture. Here, for example, is the best place in the world for food. I cannot imagine that Europe, the EU, understands the food in our culture. Europe cannot produce the food we serve, which is the product of my mother. Italian politics, the EU doesn’t support these things.’

But then he said modestly.

            ‘But I don’t know what I can say, it is a very big question.’

He spoke softly, fluently, and as he talked I tried to follow all he said. Wondering about the impact of fiscal policy, I asked him if he thought people’s attitudes towards the EU had changed since the crash. But he thought in the south it had made little difference and again stressed the importance of local culture.

            ‘Europe wants all the cultures to be the same. But how can you put 30,000 years of culture into a box. Here you go to different towns, even close by and there are different dialects, different ways of life. There is great diversity here shaped by the land.'

He went on,

            ‘It’s possible they (the EU) can give us some good ideas. The concept is beautiful, the entire world, all the countries in one direction, in peace. But we need something that works with our culture. The politicians want the people to think in a certain way. We have the Euro and we pay double. It makes life more difficult for people.’



What he said about the Euro was reminiscent of conversations we’d had in France and I was reminded then of a young couple we’d met near Bains-Sur-Oust on the canal path. They’d suggested that young people in France, those born after Maastricht, felt more European than French and I asked Raffaele if it was the same in Italy. But he only shook his head.

            ‘Last year I went to Spain, to Asturias.’ He said as way of explanation. ‘The culture there is very similar to here and the region is not so linked to other parts of Spain. They have their own culture. I spent a year there, but not as a tourist. I learnt the music, the language, about the food, what is their history. That is the way to be someone, somewhere. When I was there I became a part of that place. It is the same wherever I am. Otherwise, if you are not linked to the culture of a place how can you say you are from anywhere?’

Without pausing, he told us the following year Matera would be the European Capital of Culture.

            ‘But perhaps the attention is too much.’ He added. ‘We don’t have the infrastructure to support these things. More attention will bring more investment. If brands and big companies come, it will upset the existing culture and traditions. We are already losing our traditions because of consumer culture. People buy something for 5 Euros and the next year they throw it away. Downstairs we have an old master who makes dresses, but now no one buys her clothes which are made to last a lifetime because they are too expensive. There is nothing this political system does for the culture, it only makes life more difficult.

I nodded and he continued.

            ‘But you know in other ways the Euro Capital is good for Matera because people who don’t care about our culture will come to know it. You know it is not so long since the people here were obliged to leave. They lost their culture, their dialect. Here was the shame of the Italy, so all the culture, very old, they put this in a very bad light. We had to cancel our culture. So others don’t know the capability of the people.’

When I returned home, I looked up what had happened in Matera. I read about the forced exodus of the troglodytes living in the Sassi. How in the 1950s a new Matera was built and when the caves were abandoned it brought to an end an ancient existence. The government forced the peasants to learn Italian, and they became dependant on the state for work and their wages. After it was emptied squatters moved in, drug addicts, followed by artisans and artists. Then in 1993, the Sassi believed to be one of the first human settlements in the world, became a UNESCO world heritage site.

Raffaele explained that in the Sassi, ‘It was very difficult before the support of UNESCO.’ Be he was also critical. He said that although the town was now celebrated and tourists came to visit the cisterns, these developments were ‘not so radical’ and the ancient traditions were being lost. He pointed to the window. To the cranes and scaffolds outside littering the horizon, the symbols of external investment transforming the caves into businesses and holiday homes.  

As the interview came to an end, Raffaele told us that, ‘if you really want to understand what Matera has been you should read Christ Stopped at Eboli.’ Later I bought a copy. Carlo Levi the author, originally from Turin was exiled in southern Italy during the 1930s owing to his opposition to fascism. Later after the Second World War he wrote about his time there, in Gaglino, amongst the peasants, which he described as living ‘on barren ground in remote poverty in the presence of death.’ In the book I found the passage which describes the Sassi eighty years ago, told in the words of Levi’s sister who was required to stop there to obtain a police stamp to visit her brother

‘The houses were open on account of the heat, and as I went by I could see into the caves, whose only light came in through the front doors. Some of them had no entrance but a trapdoor and ladder. In these dark holes with walls cut out of the earth I saw a few pieces of miserable furniture, beds and some ragged clothes hanging up to dry. On the floor lay dogs, sheep, goats and pigs. Most families have just one cave to live in and there they sleep all together; men, women, children, and animals. This is how twenty thousand people live.’

Levi’s sister a doctor, also described with horror the children she saw there, starving, disease ridden and impoverished.

 ‘I saw children sitting on the doorsteps in the dirt, while the sun beat down on them, with their eyes half-closed and their eyelids red and swollen; flies crawled across the lids, but the children stayed quite still, without raising a hand to brush them away. Yes, flies crawled across their eyelids, and they seemed not even to feel them. They had trachoma. I knew that it existed in the south, but to see it against this background of poverty and dirt was something else again. I saw other children with the wizened faces of old men, their bodies reduced by starvation almost to skeletons, their heads crawling with lice and covered with scabs. Most of them had enormous, dilated stomachs, and faces yellow and warn with malaria.’

Later that morning as we strolled around the Sassi passing charming properties and tourist cafés it was impossible to imagine how it had once been. Instead of cramped and squalid, the streets and houses were pristine and deserted, a part from a few workmen and the occasional British family taking advantage of the half term holiday. The tourist season had ended a few weeks before and unlike the lively new town further up the hill, the Sassi felt vacant and quiet.


When I’d finished interviewing Raffaele he’d offered to show us his family’s cistern by the old city wall. We walked towards the church of San Giovanni and afterwards Raffaele pointed out a restaurant he liked serving ‘good local food at good prices’. Near the entrance, he stopped to show us the guttering held up with animal bones. Inside, we explored the rooms and cellars dug into the stone, following Raffaele down steps and through arches, past a deep well and platform where previous generations had crushed grapes to make wine. We weaved our way through a series of smaller caves and then entered a dome shaped room. Here he explained that he and his family had been renovating the cisterns. Raffaele was a musician and his plan was to put on a series of concerts the following year. We went deeper into the cave. I touched the rough edges of the stone. In the dark Raffaele showed us how the steps had been carved in such a way that daylight fell on the edge of each lighting the way out.


Afterwards he had to leave 'for an appointment' and we thanked him eagerly for his hospitality. Following the map he’d given us we navigated our way through the disorientating maze of passages searching for the museum. Soon it began to rain. We joined the road following the edge of the cliff. There we saw below us a narrow perilous looking path, which led steeply down towards the river far below, then up towards more cave dwellings on the other side of the gorge.

I photographed the workmen and afterwards we agreed to stop for a coffee. We headed to the nearest café. Inside, behind the bar stood a young African man. I watched him serve the couple next to us and noticed how he announced the price of the drinks before he made them and again when he handed the couple back their change. When it was our turn, I asked him his name and where he was from. He’d travelled from Nigeria, sailing across the Mediterranean the previous year. He told us when he first arrived he’d lived in the Fast Motel, the hotel we’d cycled passed the evening before. Now he was living out of town in the countryside and cycled into work. Thinking of the young man we had seen on our travels, I asked how he had found the job. He told us an Italian woman who worked at the hostel knew the manager. He said he was lucky. Next year he told us proudly, he hoped to study.

After I’d paid for the coffees, we selected a table outside, the rain having briefly stopped. By then it was nearly 12 and we’d not yet visited any of the sites. We were exhausted after several days on the bikes and extravagantly we decided to stay in Matera another night.