Matera: caves like no other
Coming away from the edge of the gorge and heading down to the bottom of the “Sassi” is an experience that marks one’s entire life. No other place in the world can grant the sensation of time beyond time, of place without place, that this cluster of houses evokes. At first sight, this ravine looks less like a town than a gigantic game of Jenga gone awry. Descending the Sassi – then climbing again, then coming down again – is to pass from the “national shame” of Matera as it was in the 1950s, to the UNESCO World Heritage Site that Matera is today, and has been ever since 1993.
But this city is more than just a unique shard of ancient history lodged in the 21st century. It’s more than a symbol of harmony between God’s work and man’s. It’s more than a victim to modernity, which barrelled into these ancient stones and simply expected them to adjust. It’s more than the untold history of the men and women who lived here; it’s more than a miniature town under the open skies. It’s more than the sum of its scars, the price of adapting to economic realities as it hauls itself out of the doldrums where it languished for decades.
The streets – the alleyways, we should really say – do not take traffic, except for a couple of asphalt roads at the bottom of the gorge. Every other thoroughfare in the Sassi knows only human footfall and the clop of mules. Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso, the two districts of the city, face off across the old river canyon, which emphasizes just how crucial the management of water has been to Matera over the centuries. Now the cisterns have been converted into hotel rooms: as you sleep in them, feeling the enormous mass of rock suspended above you, with dim lights guttering in stone niches, you can still feel the immense power of the place, and the immense strength it took to live here.
It is astonishing how beauty and mystery combine in Matera, where the realities of ugly, tooth-and-nail survival merge with the realities of dogged belief. Churches sit between houses, almost indistinguishable from them, ingenious in their design. And as you walk through the town, your eyes rolling in your head, something is shaken at your very core: you feel as light as a twig. For all its mass and density, the grace of Matera owes to a form and substance that is immaterial. Here, you experience beauty as a fold of the spirit, not of the body.
Visiting the Sassi takes time and patience. It also requires total surrender, letting go of our modern need for constant connection and points of reference. Only then can we lose ourselves in the labyrinth, which has more to do with time than with place, and truly understand what the Sassi have to offer: disorientation.
And in a world built around right angles and the shortest, most direct routes from A to B, disorientation is a gift. Almost a promise of infinity.
Photo by the author.