“Around Matera: from Murgia Park to the Crypt Of Original Sin” Itinerary

In 1993, UNESCO included not only the Sassi di Matera but also the Murgia plateau, and in particular the area of the Archaeological, Historical and Natural Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera, in the list of World Heritage Sites.
Therefore, a visit to this place is a must in order to fully understand the peculiarities of the history and natural environment of the Matera area.
Covering some 8,000 hectares and established by regional law in 1990, the Park, also commonly known as the Murgia Park, contains many exceptional elements of archaeological, cultural, historical, artistic and natural interest.
Along the road leading from Matera to the Murgia Timone area, a road axis built following the development of the ancient Via Appia, you can see, on the right, a number of tuff quarries, which characterise the immediate surroundings of the city.
Among these, “Cava Paradiso” certainly stands out, very special because it has become a container for contemporary art: it houses a sculpture park, called La Palomba Sculpture Park, created on the initiative of the contemporary sculptor Antonio Paradiso. Majestic works in limestone and corten steel are “on display”, among which, not to be missed, is “L’ultima Cena Globalizzata” (The Global Last Supper), made from some beams of the Twin Towers, remains of the tragic event of 11 September 2001.
The itinerary in the Park area starts from Jazzo Gattini, a masonry sheepfold dating back to the 18th century, built of tuff blocks, evidence of the shepherding activity that has always been one of the most important productive components of the Murgia economy. Jazzo Gattini also contains the ‘casone’, the place where cheese and dairy products were made. Today it is the headquarters of the CEA, Centre for Environmental Education.
Leaving the Jazzo, head left along a path that leads to the Neolithic Village of Murgia Timone, undoubtedly one of the most fascinating and impressive archaeological sites in the Murgia Park. Situated on a gentle hill, a little over 400 metres above sea level, this site is an example of a Neolithic settlement with a trench, which is dug into the rock, about 2 metres deep and wide, and is the sign and evidence of a long and complex digging process. Inside the trench the holes for the hut posts can be seen. It is not possible to say how many huts there were or how many people lived in the village, but it certainly must have been an important settlement. A monumental double-circle tomb was found along the trench, made in a later period, with a small artificial cavity surrounded by a double circle of stones.
Returning along the path, we reach Masseria Radogna, a typical tower building from the end of the 19th century, consisting of two storeys and equipped with various accessory structures that bear witness to agricultural and shepherding activities: cisterns for storing water with a network of canals, jazzi (corrals) built into dry-stone walls and threshing floors for processing grain. The route through the park winds its way through paths teeming with vegetation: there are 900 species of plants, including typical Mediterranean maquis plants (mastic, terebinth, juniper), aromatic herbs (thyme, from which the name Murgia Timone derives, rosemary, oregano), plants unpalatable to herbivores such as asphodelus and ferula, and native plants such as Ophrys Matheolana (wild orchid). From April to October, if you look up, you can see the Lesser Kestrel, the smallest species of falcon, now the symbol of the Murgia Park. From December to June, it is not unlikely to come across Podolica cows roaming free, as they are reared in a semi-wild state.
There are numerous rupestrian (rock) churches in the Murgia Park area, some of which are not easy to reach. One of those that can be reached without difficulty is the San Falcione rupestrian complex, a very interesting site because it consists of three different rooms, including the church, which, due to its architectural development in the form of a rectangular hall, is considered one of the oldest in Murgia (11th century).
This rock site, like many others in the area, was later used as a sheepfold, as is evident from the perimeter wall and the presence of rooms used for housing sheep (with openings through which the animals were counted) and for cheese-making. The itinerary proceeds until it reaches the Murgia Timone viewpoint, where the uniqueness of the Sassi can be admired.
Near the place first used by Pasolini and then by Mel Gibson as “Golgotha” in their masterpieces, there is another rupestrian church, Madonna delle Tre Porte.
The church now has only two of the three apsidal naves entirely carved into the rock, the outermost having been destroyed by repeated collapses. Particularly noteworthy, on the walls of the church, is the presence of numerous graffitied crosses testifying to the passage of numerous pilgrims through this area.
In the area around Matera, don’t miss a visit to a truly exceptional site, the Crypt of the Original Sin, a rupestrian church located along the ridge of the ravine and defined, due to its extraordinary set of 9th-century frescoes depicting the Genesis, as the Sistine Chapel of rupestrian wall painting: taking in the colours painted on the walls of this church is undoubtedly the best way to end this itinerary around the city of the Sassi.
THE GOLDEN AGE OF MAGNA GRAECIA IN BASILICATA, DISCOVERING THE IONIAN COAST
METAPONTO, VESTIGES OF ANCIENT SPLENDOUR
Thirty-five kilometres of blue sea lapping the coastline of fine golden sand characterise the Ionian coast of Basilicata, where the intense colour of the water blends with the vivid green of the Mediterranean scrub.
The extraordinary fertility of the Ionian coastline has been known since antiquity. Indeed, the coastal area between the Bradano and Basento rivers was chosen by Greek settlers around eight centuries before Christ to found Metapontum, today’s Metaponto. According to the geographer Strabo, it was the Greek hero Nestor, returning from the Trojan War, who gave life to the city.
The Greek colonists were merchants, farmers, livestock breeders, artisans, who decided to emigrate in the interest of establishing new commercial activities, but the motivation to leave Greece was also due to social tensions generated by the increase in population that the meagre local agricultural production could no longer support.
Thanks to the extraordinary fertility of its countryside, Metapontum soon became one of the most powerful cities of Magna Graecia, as the colonised areas of the Italian peninsula were called, testifying to the pride of the Greek colonists in having created a community that had reached such high levels in the social, cultural and economic spheres that it could be considered, by comparison, greater than the mother country itself.
Metapontum immediately became an important agricultural and commercial centre, but the Greek settlers also imported Hellenic culture, so that art, literature and philosophy flourished in the newly founded cities in addition to trade. Metapontum itself was chosen by the great Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras, who held a school here in 490 BC and lived here until his death.
The Ionian Sea tells of flourishing trade, but also of great battles. Over the years, it was sailed by fleets of ships and there were many wars between the numerous colonies on the Ionian coast and the local populations. With the Hannibalic wars and the arrival of the Romans, the splendour of Metapontum was overshadowed. The Romans conquered the area and built an encampment there, traces of which remain until the 4th century AD.
Today, that ancient splendour is reflected in the numerous finds, ruins and buildings that make the city one of the most important archaeological sites in Italy. The symbol of Metaponto, a hamlet of Bernalda, and its archaeological park are undoubtedly the Tavole Palatine (‘Palatine Tables’). Fifteen columns remain of the temple of Hera, wife and sister of Zeus, built in the 6th century in the Doric style, making it one of the greatest testimonies of worship in Magna Graecia.
In addition to the Palatine Tables, the Archaeological Park contains the remains of the temples of Apollo Lycius, Aphrodite and Athena, part of the agora, the artisanal district for the production of ceramics (kerameikos) and the great north-south road axis (plateia). Not far away you can also admire the agora dedicated to Zeus, the site of public buildings used for meetings and gatherings, and the large theatre with its semicircular cavea.
Traces of a considerable number of monuments that marked the civil and religious life of the colony are recognisable throughout.