Matera di Sassi

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October 13th 2016
Published: October 19th 2016
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The view from our roomThe view from our roomThe view from our room

The sassi are pretty unbelievable
Dianne had planned this trip meticulously and the last stop was Matera. I had limited knowledge of what went on there. I heard something about the sassi (plural of sasso) being a bunch of caves where people had lived even into the 1960s. But I wasn’t prepared for what we saw.

I can’t begin to describe how this ancient town developed. In an article in The New Yorker in 2015, D.T. Max gives a pretty good description of Matera di Sassi. Click here to learn the city’s history. Coincidently, he stayed in the same B&B we did.

The city is gradually being gentrified and in another generation the original residents won’t recognise it. Our B&B on Via Fiorentini between Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso is pretty upscale. We discovered one similarity to an old cave dwelling: apart from the door, our apartment had only one small window high on the wall. Those old cave dwellings must have been pretty dark. With an average of 6 children per family not to mention the occasional donkey, a hen and chicks and whatever else the family might own, things must have been pretty tight. Our place was very nice and had a bathroom,
Same view at nightSame view at nightSame view at night

More light than we have at night on Pender. Must have been pretty dark here in the "old days".
something those old caves didn’t.

Our B&B came with a huge breakfast. Not a full English breakfast (thank goodness) but with enough choices that we could keep stuff for a nice lunch. And because it was right in the middle of the sassi we were well positioned for exploring.

The majority of our time here was spent walking around the old streets trying to figure out where we were. The old city isn’t really that big so once you figure out where everything is you start to recognise things even though everything seems to be the same colour (see pictures).

Rupestrian churches

We kept seeing references to rupestrian churches but no explanation of what they were. Our friend, Wikipedia, explained they are churches carved into the rock cliffs. There are several in the sassi themselves and one, San Pietro Barasano, is huge. It’s just like being in a church built in the usual way except the walls and floors are a little rougher. There are still many frescoes that have withstood the years. Hopefully they will also withstand the influx of tourists. You are not allowed to take photos in the old repustrian churches, in order
Our B&BOur B&BOur B&B

Much like one of the old cave dwellings, our unit had a door and one small window. But we had electricity and running water. It was a beautiful room.
to protect the fragile frescoes.

There are three sassi and they are all on the same side of the Torrente Gravina. There are also many (hundreds) of smaller rupestrian churches across the river.


Trips to the supermarket are always fun. First you have to find them (refer to previous blogs for comments on that). But one night we approached the checkout with our wine, cheese, olive oil etc to find a group of backpacker/hikers, with all their gear, buying some things to eat and drink. Many were buying just one bottle of beer. As they were paying for them, they had the checkout guy open them. It was quite a production. When our turn came, I asked him to pull the cork on our wine. He was amused (thank goodness).

Parco della Murgia Marterana

Part of our walk was along the “ring road” than runs around the town about 100 metres above the river. It is a great view. And at one point there is a way down to the river that isn’t quite straight down as there are a few switchbacks but it is pretty steep. After crossing the suspension bridge to the
Our place from the streetOur place from the streetOur place from the street

We were at the top of the stairs (right hand door, almost out of sight). The window is ours!
other side, you can climb up a series of trails all the way to the top which is somewhat higher than the side you left.

Dianne had a small fall just before we left Canada (nothing like my experience in 2015 but it still caused her some grief). This meant we were uncertain how far we could go. The trip down was easier than expected and the trip up the other side was also surprisingly easy. We didn’t get to the caves because this part of the trail wasn’t well marked and we still had to negotiate the return portion of the trip. Once we got to a good place to view the old city, we decided to return.

It wasn’t until the next day when we could look back across the valley that we realized how close we had come to some of the biggest caves. Sigh.

Train story

Faithful readers will know we are always aware of our exit strategy from every town. One night, while we were sipping our wine, we were discussing our trip back to Rome. We had come in on an FAL regional train and we couldn’t remember seeing any
From across the gully.From across the gully.From across the gully.

We climbed the stairs just outside our place up to the other side of what used to be an open sewage creek to take this picture showing out B&B towards the bottom and the Cathedral at the top.
Trenitalia trains, the line we were going out on. A quick look at the Matera to Salerno ticket had the word “BUS” printed on it. What’s up with that? Examining the Trenitalia web site didn’t help that much but Googling the word “Fraccialink” that appeared on the ticket seemed to point out that a new service had been set up this year to get Trenitalia customers from Salerno to Matera without the need for a train. But where was a bus station? The web sites were no help.

We walked up to the train station and looked around. We could see no references to anything like it. We asked at the Tourist Information centre and were told yes, the bus stopped on the right of the station. As we thanked the young woman, another said, no it was on the left. How confident did we feel? The next day we walked back to the station at the time our “train” was supposed to leave and, miracle or miracles, there was a brand spanking new bus waiting for passengers. Our confidence level increased dramatically.

When the time came to leave, the bus showed up and we were off on our way home. The bus holds about 24 people in very comfortable seats with huge windows for better viewing. At Salerno, we switched from the bus to a high speed train that took us to Rome Termini. We really enjoyed the trip even though it took us closer to the end of our trip. .

Another way of looking at things

We heard a guide talking to his group about one of the cave dwellers who was forced out of the sassi. The old chap complained he couldn’t sleep without this donkey breathing on him. We think this is sad or funny until we think about how many people sleep with their dogs and cats.

The End of the Road

The time had come to start winding our way back to Pender Island. The two nights in Rome were designed to put us close to our departure airport and give us one more chance to see our Roman friends. Turned out they were our roamin’ friends as they were off to Mexico. But we have an agenda to see a couple of things we missed and, yes, have another cappuccino at the Tazza D’oro. But, not
Road trafficRoad trafficRoad traffic

This shows one of the few roads into the sassi. There is barely enough room for two vehicles to pass. If they are both trucks, they have to be extra careful.
to worry, we have arranged a house sitting job in France next spring so this is ToBeContinued.

Additional photos below
Photos: 30, Displayed: 27


Typical stairsTypical stairs
Typical stairs

Because the valleys were steep, the "sidewalks" were a series of switchbacks. The rise was short compared to the run.
Add onsAdd ons
Add ons

Many stairways had these added inclines to allow the carts to be pushed up the stairways. Must have been brutal.
Restored handcartsRestored handcarts
Restored handcarts

This one looks a lot better than many we saw stuffed into back corners.
Rupestrian churchRupestrian church
Rupestrian church

We couldn't take photos in most of these churches but could in this one. Carved out of the rock, these "pillars" look like the ones in normal churches.
Palombaro LungoPalombaro Lungo
Palombaro Lungo

We were deep in a sophisticated system of underground cisterns used to collect rain and spring water. This one held 5 million litres. The holes are where they dropped buckets down into the cistern.
A view across the valleyA view across the valley
A view across the valley

We walked this trail almost to the top of the other side.
What we missedWhat we missed
What we missed

Because we didn't go quite far enough, we missed these caves many of which were rupestrian churches.
The bridgeThe bridge
The bridge

Looking back over the bridge and up to the town. We came down from a spot right above the bridge.
The valleyThe valley
The valley

Is beautiful in its own right.

The scenery lends itself to videos. Ask me. I have lots to show. This one from the top of the other side of the valley is great.

We were constantly amused by the ways people in Italy found parking. Often they would just park in a driving lane and turn on their hazard lights. They would park sticking out into alleys, on corners, in crosswalks, whatever worked.
A bit on edge?A bit on edge?
A bit on edge?

How they could build these massive churches right on the edge of a cliff is beyond me.
Two churches for the price of oneTwo churches for the price of one
Two churches for the price of one

San Pietro in Barasano was my favourite church. That's the one you see. The one you don't see is one of the rupestrian churches which is in the rocky promontory above San Pietro. It was hand dug into this high cliff.
Great photographGreat photograph
Great photograph

Dianne decided to be creative with this arch. I think it worked.

19th October 2016

Looks like a well planned trip. I'd not heard of this town and enjoy learning what it has to offer.

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