Trip Tips: Italy's Matera is a 9,000-year trip back in time

Fri May 1, 2015 1:06am EDT
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By Michael Roddy

MATERA, Italy (Reuters) - Italy is teeming with places that make you feel like you are on a movie set -- the Trevi Fountain in Rome, the Amalfi coast near Naples and Venice's lagoons come to mind.

But there is one place in particular that for filmmakers and visitors alike evokes early Christian and even prehistoric times and that is Matera, off the usual tourist map in the southern region of Basilicata, part of "the boot" of Italy.

With its "Sassi" limestone cave dwellings dug into the hillside and cascading in gravity-defying fashion down a steep slope towards the Gravina river, Matera is one of the Italian cities that time forgot.

Those who have sought it out include film directors and tourists looking for something different -- like staying in one of the Sassi caves. UNESCO has named it a European cultural capital for 2019, which should bring many more visitors to one of Italy's poorest areas.

Bypassed by development in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and described by Carlo Levi as one of the most backward places in Italy in his famous 1945 book "Christ Stopped at Eboli", Matera remained so primitive until recent decades that it made the perfect stand-in for ancient Jerusalem.

Pier Paolo Pasolini filmed his groundbreaking "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" of 1964, depicting Jesus as a proto-communist, in Matera. Mel Gibson used it for his "The Passion of the Christ" showing Jesus's torture on the way to Calvary.

More recently it's been the setting for a remake of the biblical epic "Ben Hur". It remains to be seen if any of its cast will have a pasta dish named for him or her, as the Australian-born actor does with a "Fettucine alla Mel Gibson" at the popular Trattoria Lucana on Matera's main drag, the Via Lucana (

Matera is really two places in one -- a thriving, modern city with restaurants, hotels, shops, museums, churches and the usual amenities tucked higher up the plateau from the ancient Sassi caves, which have been inhabited since prehistoric times -- by some accounts for 9,000 years.   Continued...

A general view of Matera's Sassi limestone cave dwellings in southern Italy April 30, 2015.   REUTERS/Tony Gentile