The Sassi of Matera
Fact is, the central, ancient part of Matera is entirely carved out of two enormous soft limestone rocks, sensibly called Sassi (‘rocks’, indeed) in Italian. Its first inhabitants began living in the natural caves dotting the area 13,000 years ago – you can still visit them today, and appreciate the incredible effort of sculpting a whole city to bend nature to the human will. The work, which continues to this day with very careful interior renovations keeping the outside untouched, left traces of a multitude of architectural styles layered one upon the other through the centuries, and this is what makes Matera so unique.
Describing the city in detail is impossible, as its unusual origins produced a veritable labyrinth of narrow alleys crisscrossing the sassi in all directions: horizontally, vertically and through them. Buildings have been built one out of another, so it is common to find the façade of a church, then walking in and discovering a cistern, and taking a sideways detour reaching the communal court of the medieval equivalent of a condominium. The effect of it all is dazzling to outsiders, also because of the disconcerting superimposition of elements going back even 3,000 years ago through the 1700s.