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Matera–From Italy’s ‘City of Shame’ to a James Bond Backdrop

Italy has more to offer than Rome, Naples, or Venice. A walk through its charming southern City of Caves, Matera, will transport you back 10,000 years. 

By Fabienne Lang
August 26, 2022

A sharp intake of breath is all you will manage when you first set eyes on Matera. Thousands of pale limestone cave dwellings honeycomb the flanks of a steep ravine. A warren of matching limestone churches, monasteries, palaces, and houses rises above the caves, all balanced on the edge of the same precipice. This vista plays tricks on your mind as these light buildings seem to perfectly blend in with their natural, desert-like surroundings. One blink, and you believe you’re staring at an empty hill in the countryside. By day, it is mesmerising; lit up at dusk, it can move you to tears.  

Photo: Natasha Tang

You have undoubtedly already laid eyes upon this unmistakable City of Caves in Italy’s Basilicata region. Travelling to the edge of your cinema seat, you will recognise Matera’s tangle of alleyways and ancient cave dwellings in the latest James Bond movie, No Time To Die, where 007 speeds through its torturously winding streets in his iconic silver Aston Martin. It has also appeared in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. There’s little doubt why this unique southern Italian backdrop was chosen for these films. 

Like nowhere on Earth, the troglodyte Sassi (“stones”) district of Matera is built on natural caves that have been excavated and expanded into living spaces over millennia. In fact, there’s evidence that these Palaeolithic caves have been continuously inhabited for nearly 10,000 years, making Matera the third oldest city in the world after Aleppo and Jericho.  

Photo: Natasha Tang

There was a short period of time, however, when the Sassi of Matera was left uninhabited for its dismal poverty and sanitation, causing it to be known as “the shame of Italy.” In 1952, the entire population of around 16,000 people was forcibly relocated to housing in the “new” city of Matera because of the caves’ highly unsanitary living conditions, leaving the Sassi an empty shell. After a few decades, many of the descendants of the caves’ original owners started returning, and refurbishments of the caves began. 

Today, it’s hard to imagine the city as a national embarrassment, and these underground residences are being reinhabited by Italians who are turning them into unique homes, hotels, and restaurants. You know travellers’ tastes have come full circle when hotel guests are clamouring to spend a night or two living like troglodytes. These cave hotels have indeed become one of Europe’s most exotic and unforgettable experiences. 

Photo: Natasha Tang

As you walk around the sinuous cobblestone streets of this enchanting cave city, you see the reparations and building sites of many still-empty dwellings. However, you also notice the decades-long work and polishing that have shaped this diamond in the rough into one of the world’s most fascinating destinations. So much so that the Sassi gained the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, as well as a designation in 2019 as one of only two European Capitals of Culture. 

The magical arch of the Italian boot is clearly no longer going unnoticed as such veritable gems like the Sassi di Matera are drawing travellers from around the world to walk through its historical and charming streets.