by Pam Williams

When leaving New Zealand our goal was to have no plans except fly into Rome and eventually head to Amalfi.  As for Matera…we did know about this place but never thought of heading in that direction. But when one has no plans sometimes something special happens and this certainly was one of those moments.

Matera challenges from the moment we arrive. It is dark, no one around to help, no taxis, our phones do not work, and we have no idea where our CAVE is.  Yes, a cave is our accommodation…why not experience being a troglodyte for a couple of nights?   We do find our cave eventually, and when looking out the window the ancient town of Matera is lit up like something out of a fairy tale.  I could not believe how beautiful ‘The Sassi’ is. It reminds me of the Holy Land.

The ancient part of Matera is called The Sassi (meaning stone) and it is all about caves.  It is unique and utterly spectacular and oh so ancient. Some say the first inhabitants date back more than 7,000 years.  Up until the 1950’s these caves were lived in by the locals.  The town is full of caves, churches, frescoes, tunnels and caverns. The streets are a maze of winding stone alleyways with steps going in every direction.  What is even more astounding is that we are only seeing one third of it….there is still two thirds under where we walk.   And yes it is easy to get lost, but you are not lost for long.

The Sassi was a source of shame for Italy.  Cave life was full of poverty, disease (malaria was rampant) and filth (strong words, but true) but what we must remember is that it was the chronic poverty that made it so unhealthy.   No electricity, no running water, usually six to ten members of a family lived in a cave (infant mortality rate was 50%), they shared one bed and often children slept in draws or alongside the animals that were also living inside the cave…usually a donkey and chickens. Life was truly hard.

Read the full story on how this ancient warren of natural caves (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) has recovered, and become a town where the locals once again feel proud of their heritage.

Matera is now on the tourist map and a popular destination. Hollywood often uses it as a filming location (the perfect double for Jerusalem) and Caves once again are becoming homes. Accommodation, cafes, restaurants and galleries are also housed in renovated caves. The history and future of the Sassi is so exciting and positive.


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Judy McAuliffe is a writer, and publisher Essence Mid Canterbury. Her experience in media is extensive and includes approximately 15 years as Creative Director for The Radio Network, writing, and managing the writing of radio advertising, mainly in Invercargill and Greymouth. In the late 1990’s she transferred to Christchurch, moving into an Account Management role with 91ZM. In 2007 she and a business partner set up Essence Mid Canterbury, very quickly adapting her radio-writing skills to print media. Judy became sole owner of Essence Mid Canterbury in June 2014. Judy is a ‘people person’ and has found her niche writing feature stories about the community she lives in and the people who live there. She is also available for freelance writing assignments.