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 (www.trattorialucana.it)
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.
The fact that until the fascist leader Mussolini’s rise to power in the 1930s the caves didn’t have electricity but were teeming with people who kept their livestock inside was what so shocked Levi. Post-war social planners relocated the inhabitants and many and perhaps most of the Sassi were left vacant.
Today they are again buzzing as the simple, congenial ways of Matera have been rediscovered by a new generation of Internet-savvy entrepreneurs, restaurateurs and hoteliers who have turned some of the Sassi into luxury digs or workplaces.
Hotel Sassi (www.hotelsassi.it) is said to be one of the first of the renovators. On its website it says guests “will enjoy the view and tranquility of the Sassi and you can also see the twirl of the lesser kestrel, a bird of particular rarity” — starting at 70 euros ($78) for a single and rising to 160 for a junior suite.
More conventional accommodation is provided by the Hotel San Domenico (www.hotelsandomenico.it) on the Via Roma, a short walk to the Piazza Vittorio Veneto where locals congregate on warm nights to talk and walk and rekindle the communal spirit that thrived in the close-knit quarters of the Sassi.
On the square, the “salumeria” il Buongustaio Matera stocks local delicacies while the Kappador restaurant has decent food, good service and a terrace with a spectacular view of the Sassi and the ravine (www.kappador.it).
It would be easy to spend an entire holiday in Matera but that would be a mistake. A drive 50 km (30 miles) south brings you to the ancient Greek settlement of Metaponto, with its ruins, including a temple dedicated to Hera, the wife and sister of Zeus, and a superb archaeological museum.
On the way, reserve to take a tour (8 euros per person) of The Crypt of the Original Sin, sometimes described as “the Sistine Chapel” of the region’s “rupestrian”, or rock cave, churches (www.cryptoforiginalsin.it).
The 9th-century monks who painted it were no Michelangelos, but the Eve emerging from Adam’s rib leaves little to the imagination about why that original sin happened.
Reporting and writing by Michael Roddy; Editing by Crispian Balmer