The Phantom City & The Culture of the Caves

The cave-cities of Matera in Basilicata and cave-churches of Mottola in Apulia

There are cavemen in Italy. Thousands of them. Cavewomen, too. They are the people of la civiltà rupestre, a "cliff civilization" that inhabits the instep of Italy's boot-like profile. For millennia, they have carved their cities directly into the sheer rock faces of ravines and gullies in a landscape made of tufa, Italy's soft, porous stone that's easily cut and molded, then quickly hardens upon exposure to the air.

These days, the people of la civiltà rupestre have slapped front-room façades onto their cave entrances, turning the local city centers, folded tightly into their valleys, into evocative jumbles of houses stacked willy-nilly atop one another, the neighborhoods laced with a labyrinth of stairways, narrow alleys, and layered, pathlike "streets"—far too narrow for cars—each one running across the rooftops of the houses below. But though the house facades give these towns all the necessary right angles and satellite dishes that make up the look of a modern community, if you delve deeper than that squared-off front room, the rest of the house is a bona-fide cavern.

When Italy drew up its regional boundaries 130 years ago, they sliced right through this ancient cave culture. Most of it is still located within the modern boundaries of Apulia, including the towns of Massafra, Gravina in Puglia, and Ginosa, and the gorgeously frescoed cave-churches in the farmland surrounding Móttola, which you can only visit accompanied by guide who holds the keys (luckily, they only cost about $3 for an afternoon). But Matera, the largest and most dramatic cave-city, lies six miles across the modern border in the badlands of Basilicata, Italy's poorest region.

Matera: The Phantom City

The city of Matera was for decades a virtual ghost town known as La Città Fantasma, "The Phantom City." Matera's ancient cave-homes were carved into two parallel hanging valleys—ravines notched into a clifftop and feeding into a much deeper gorge, the 415-foot deep Gravina di Matera. By the middle of the twentieth century, these two crowded valleys—known as i sassi ("the rocks")—were home to 15,000 Materani who lived nearly prehistoric lives, lacking even the most basic modern services like electricity and running water. 

In the 1950s the population was moved en masse from their ancient cave-homes into a modern town built just above the valleys, on the flat plateau of the gorge's lip. For half a century, the cave-houses of i sassi were abandoned by all save a handful of the most destitute squatters, who used old bathtubs as cisterns and discarded washing machines as planters for meager kitchen gardens.

But recently, the Phantom City has risen from the dead.

Revitalization efforts over the past decade have brought electricity, plumbing—and the people—back down into i sassi. The daily life of Matera—shops, restaurants, the evening stroll along the pedestrianized Piazza Vittorio Veneto—still focuses on the newer part of town up on the plateau above. But some Materani have started slowly creeping back down to re-inhabit ancestral homes, and a few enterprising locals have realized the tourism potential of this ancient part of town.

In 1998, Raffaele and Carmela Cristallo bought up a string of homes in the Sasso Barisano, the more rehabilitated and residential of the two valleys, and converted the rambling property into the Hotel Sassi (Via San Giovanni Vecchio, tel. 011-39-0835-331-009, www.hotelsassi.it, €78-€90). Of the 22 rooms, only three are full-fledged caves, plus one other that's installed in an old cistern carved from the tufa. But even many of the more modern façade-rooms have at least one wall of honey-colored raw bedrock.

In the few rooms cursed by four boringly modern walls, at least you're distracted by the private balcony and its sweeping panorama of the Sasso Barisano, the buildings thrown into gorgeous relief at night by warm yellow floodlights set at their bases. You can even live like the Flintstones for $20 if you book a shared bed in one of the hotel's two hostel-like rooms (one with four beds, the other with sixteen).

Another local entrepreneur, Umberto Giassi took a vast, high-ceilinged cavern, slapped the rough walls with whitewash, and started serving pizzas and inexpensive Apulian dishes to hungry crowds of Materani. He called the joint Il Terrazzino because, in addition to that cavern room, there's a narrow terrace out front that holds about eight tables with a marvelous view out over the entire sasso.

Il Terrazzino is way up at the narrow end of the Barisano, tucked into the undercrofting of the modern town's buildings above. In fact, the only way to get to it is via the modern town: where broad Piazza Vittorio Veneto splits into two streets, ignore the crowds continuing their passeggiata stroll up the wider right fork, Via del Corso, and instead follow the narrow left fork called Via delle Beccherie. Twenty feet on, an iron gate on the left of the street leads to an outdoor staircase that twists its way down, eventually, to Il Terrazzino (Vico San Giuseppe 7, tel. 011-39-0835-332-503).

The major sights in town are not in the Sasso Barisano, however, but in the less restored and larger of the two valleys, the rough and tumble Sasso Caveoso on the other side of the ridge topped by Matera's prominent (but ultimately uninteresting) cathedral. Many people spend a whole day wandering the Caveoso—in part because for half that time they're hopelessly lost in the maze of alleys and stairs, full of dead ends and blind courtyards, trying to find the scattered cave churches for which the neighborhood is famous. The city has tried to help by attaching dozens of little brown Itinerario Turistico ("Tourist Itinerary") signs to point visitors along the winding paths to the more important sights. Some local jokester has selectively scratched the letters off one of those signs so that it reads rari, turisti ("Tourists are Rare"), but that pessimistic view already seems to be changing.

A decade ago, you needed to find someone with the keys and a good flashlight to get into the complex of a half-dozen small churches known as the Convicino San Antonio. These days the doors are throw open and there are wooden boardwalks to guide you through the tiny, interlinked chapels—walkways which are a welcome addition to the old slippery slopes that, in several churchlets, leads from the spacious upper chamber down a steep tunnel to the dark and cramped altar sanctuary below. The rope handrails also serve to keep visitors a safe distance from the delicate medieval frescoes on the walls, illuminated by the sunlight streaming through tiny "windows" bored through the rock face of the entrance.

Even more dramatic is the church of Santa Maria de Idris, carved into a rock pinnacle that thrusts up at the open end of the Sasso Caveoso valley, right before the valley plunges off the lip of Gravina di Matera gorge. Cave homes barnacle the sides of this pinnacle, petering out about halfway up, but a broad staircase continues above the buildings to the terrace and the blank masonry façade of the church.

Matera has 7 cave-churches; each costs €2.10, or visit 4 for €4.10.

The interior hints at how the city is starting to gear up for tourism. Formerly gloomy, spooky, and requiring a flashlight to explore, the caves and tunnels of the church now have new flooring that's inset with small, recessed halogen lights, illuminating the medieval frescoes painted on the rough, undulating tufa walls. Just inside the door against the wall, a shiny turnstile lies on its side next to a toolbox; soon, you'll need a ticket to explore the cave churches of Matera.

The city fathers, mindful of preserving their roots, have not attempted to rehabilitate or slap an admission fee on everything yet. While fixing up the sassi, they purposefully left the far, southeast end of the Sasso Caveoso untouched, merely sealing off the dark openings of cave-home doorways with prison-like bars to keep out squatters. This decision paid off handsomely in 2003 when Mel Gibson chose Matera—and this antique neighborhood in particular—as the perfect stand-in for ancient Jerusalem in The Passion of the Christ.

The underground cave churches of Móttola

Not all civiltà rupestre cities remained going concerns. Pirate raids forced the Apulian cave culture of Móttola—25 miles east of Matera—to abandon its ravine in the Dark Ages. The townsfolk retreated a few miles further inland to a more defensible ancient hilltop fortress, famous as the spot where the Romans finally defeated Pyrrus. But the walls of the Gravina di Petruscio valley southeast of town are still pockmarked by the "villagio ipogeo" they left behind, hundreds of cave entrances unencumbered by those squarish façades of the modernized cave-cities.

To visit Mottola's cave churches (S. Nicola, S. Margarita, S. Angelo), call tel. 011-39-099-886-6948 to arrange for the required guide. Book a week in advance if possible. €2.60.

You can visit the ravine on your own, but to see the area's cave-churches—pilgrimage sites from the Dark Ages, now tucked away under farmland—you need to call ahead and arrange for a guide. Not only do these local volunteer academics know the fascinating background on the caves' paintings, tombs, and other relics, they're also the only ones with the keys. They only charge around $3 and will spend two to three hours with you, bombing down a maze of back roads, dirt paths, and rough tractor-tracks to find the hidden entrances of the area's three cave-church superstars.

San Nicola is known as the "Sistine Chapel" of cave churches, the wall slathered in twelfth-century frescoes. Look for the two pilgrims who painted tiny portraits of themselves into the thin strip dividing two competing scenes of St. George slaying the dragon.

Nearby Santa Margarita's frescoes showcase its namesakes' miracles and martyrdom—she was fried in a pan, cast on a bed of nails, and finally swallowed by a demon, though she cut herself out of his belly with a knife. To the medieval mindset, the mechanics of this horror-movie act made her the perfect candidate to become the patroness of pregnancy, and one corner of the chapel is fitted with a primitive plumbing system—troughs and cisterns carved from the rock—that was used by midwives to assist in births.

The decorations are nearly vanished from Sant'Angelo, but it is the only two-level cave-church in existence: a space for worship above, a burial crypt beneath full of the graves of pilgrims who died at this famous stopover along the Via Consolare.

But before the ancient travelers could board the boats in Brindisi or Taranto that would take them to the Holy Land, they first had to pass south into the Valle d'Itria. This is where the harsh, brushy macchia of upper Apulia—stunted Aleppo pines, rosemary bushes, fragrant thyme, gnarled olives, and capers growing from rock crevices—softens into hillsides of olive groves, valleys of vineyards, and pockets of oak forest that survived the Middle Ages, when the maritime republic of Venice scavenged the local trees to feed its ravenous shipyards.

It's a land at times even stranger than that of the civiltà rupestre, a valley whose people like their wine strong, their towns whitewashed, and their houses very, very pointy.

» On to: The Land of Point & The White City

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