“Matera: The Two Sassi Districts: Caveoso And Barisano” Itinerary

Matera, European Capital of Culture 2019, is a place that takes your breath away when you arrive for the first time and find yourself facing an enchanting setting that is one of a kind: the two Sassi districts, Caveoso and Barisano, a World Heritage Site, carved out of the limestone rock and unique not only for their urban structure but also for their exceptional history.
Dedicating just one day to the two districts only gives you a general idea of the places that deserve a more in-depth visit to capture their full essence. However, by focusing on certain sites, visitors can understand the complexity of the historical development of the Sassi and at the same time enjoy their urban beauty.
The starting point for the itinerary is Piazza San Pietro Caveoso square, where the church of the same name is located, built in the 14th century right on the edge of the Gravina, an impressive canyon resulting from thousands of years of water erosion.
The visit continues inside the church, one of the few entirely built inside the Sassi, which are undoubtedly one of the world’s most important examples of rock habitats, where built architecture blends and integrates with excavated architecture. The caves in the Sassi di Matera are not natural caves, but environments dug by man, thanks to the presence of a rock that is easy to work, calcarenite, and used for different purposes.
In order to understand cave dwellings, it is essential to visit one of the cave houses in the Sassi, furnished as they were in the 1950s, showing how the living space was organised, with a kitchen, a sleeping area, a stable and a cistern.
It continues through the numerous neighbourhoods, ‘horizontal apartment blocks’, small squares overlooked by the various structures of the Sassi and where the inhabitants shared everyday life, sad and happy events such as anniversaries and festivals. Even today, on 1 August, the festival of the “crapiata” is celebrated, a typical dish of pulses and wheat with potatoes added, a reminder of the conviviality of the neighbourhood and the rituals of good fortune for the new harvest.
In the Sasso Caveoso it is hard to miss an imposing rocky spur, the Monterrone, inside which two rock churches have been excavated, Madonna de Idris and San Giovanni in Monterrone. In the latter you can admire fine frescoes representative of medieval cave paintings. Of particular note is the fresco of Christ Pantocrator (11th-12th century), with a double inscription in Latin and Greek.
A remarkable example of religious rock architecture is the church of Santa Lucia alle Malve: divided into three naves by “excavated” pillars, with apses, niches and columns, it offers the possibility, even to an unobservant eye, to admire negative architecture, so-called because it is achieved by removing rock and not adding it.
Thanks to their intricate urban development, it is also possible to walk on the roofs of the Sassi, such as that of the church of Santa Lucia, where a large medieval necropolis stands, with about 100 tombs dug into the rock, thus placing “the dead above the living”, as the chronicler Eustachio Verricelli wrote in his “Cronica de la città di Matera” (1595).
Beyond the Malve district, so called because of the presence of numerous mallow flowers (‘malva’ in Italian), the visit to the Sasso Caveoso continues in the Casalnuovo district, where there are a number of rock wine cellars and oil mills that used to be important sites for the production of wine and oil for the people of Matera.
The only passable road in the Sassi districts, Via Madonna delle Virtù, leads along the Gravina river to Sasso Barisano: here the excavated parts are less evident than in Sasso Caveoso, because they are hidden from view by the built parts. However, there are also large excavated areas in this district.
An impressive example of ‘excavation’ in the Sasso Barisano is Casa Cava, now an auditorium and multi-purpose cultural centre, once a tuff quarry in the heart of the city. The site is an extraordinary example of modern reuse of an area of the Sassi not intended for commercial activities or accommodation, but used for concerts, shows, conferences, and gatherings. A truly unique and impressive place.
Next to Casa Cava, the itinerary continues to the Church of San Pietro Barisano, the largest of the cave churches in the Sassi: inside you can visit the unusual underground catacombs, known as ‘a scolare’ (draining), because the dead were placed on seats carved into the rock, to lose their bodily humours.
As you walk through Sasso Barisano, you can discover the numerous restoration projects carried out under Law 771 of 1986, known as the “Law for the Conservation and Restoration of the Sassi di Matera”.
Thanks to careful and extensive renovation, the various structures have been repurposed for different uses: sometimes they have become residential homes again, but more often they house rooms in very atmospheric and well-kept guesthouses, cafés and restaurants, where you can stop and enjoy the tasty local cuisine of Matera accompanied by the now famous local durum wheat bread.
There is no shortage of art galleries, workshops run by local craftsmen who recreate the typical Cucu (whistle in the shape of a cockerel, used as a good luck charm) or work with local stone to create a variety of handmade items, design studios and creative businesses, and even office spaces.
And to round off an intense day in the Sassi, among the stairways, loggias, alleyways, balconies, squares and courtyards, you can relax in the thermal spas in the caves.