Feeling Sassi? Go Explore Matera in Basilicata

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Sixty years ago, at the close of World War II, Italian doctor-artist- writer Carlo Levi published an account of what he'd witnessed in the interior regions of southern Italy during his exile there by Mussolini.

In "Christ Stopped at Eboli," Levi chronicled a forgotten land in the hills of Basilicata. "Christ never came this far," he wrote, "nor did time, nor the individual soul, nor hope." His descriptions of one city, Matera, created a scandal: a civilization of tens of thousands of people still living in millenniums-old caves in a ravine with no running water or plumbing. In the early 1950s, the Italian government began relocating some 30,000 people out of their troglodyte dwellings, or sassi , to a new town above.

Today, Matera is a small, lively city with a university, and the sassi are a growing tourist attraction -- a must-see on any tour of Puglia. (Matera, historically part of Puglia and now just over the border in Basilicata, is about an hour inland by car from Alberobello.)

The most striking feature of the sassi is the churches -- more than 150 of them carved into the soft tufa stone. Among the most dramatic is the 9th-century Madonna dell'Idris, which from the outside is a giant rock formation topped by vegetation and a cross. Inside are colorful, delicate Byzantine frescoes.

In the 1980s, the government offered 99-year-leases and renovation subsidies for locals to go back into the sassi and build homes and business. In the '90s, further help came when Matera was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Walking through the sassi can be an odd and near-mystical experience.

Opulent villas have been constructed by combining sassi homes; there is a four-star hotel, bed-and-breakfasts and cafes. But then you turn a corner and, in the maze of empty stone streets, passageways and still-abandoned caves, you feel you could be on the set of a Bible movie.

Which you are.

About 20 films have been made here, the last being Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," which borrowed most of the locations from Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1964 film "The Gospel According to St. Matthew." Gibson scouted the world for a place that resembled ancient Jerusalem and found it in this once-neglected corner of Italy.

Gibson remains a presence here: Tour companies offer "Passion" tours of film locations in the sassi and nearby hills. Local businesses flaunt star photos, but perhaps none so artfully as chef Gigi Sanrocco at the Antica Trattoria Lucana, 1900. Sanrocco's place is practically wallpapered with images of him and the Australian star hamming it up in the kitchen, which has added a new dish: fettuccine alla Mel Gibson.

-- Robert V. Camuto

© 2005 The Washington Post Company