Sunday, August 16, 2009

Italy’s first human dwellings

In the mid-1930s Matera was a town marked by misery and malaria. In his book called 'Cristo si è fermato a Eboli' the exiled Italian writer Carlo Levi recounts his sister's first meeting with a city, she has trouble finding, because most of the habitations lay hidden in a ravine below the earth's surface. As a doctor she describes how the residents suffered from malaria, dysentery, severe eye infections. The starvation evident in the prominent ribs and swollen stomachs. The caves dug into the ravine where large families lived with their dogs, goats, sheep and pigs. And the children that were begging quinine from strangers to fight the malaria.

Today Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso are primarily a tourist attraction. Matera's Sassi are reckoned to be among the first human settlements in Italy, and the caves, excavated in cells and layers like a beehive, have not changed significantly over the last 9000 years. In fact, the old city is supposed to resemble the old Jerusalem so much that, Mel Gibson used it as location for The Passion Of Christ.

In the 1950s Sassi dwellers were forcefully relocated to more modern housing, and only recently have the caves been renovated and transformed into hotels, cafes or shops. Nevertheless a walk through the old streets is still a fabulous experience and there are lots of churches to visit along with the Casagrotta museum in Vico Solitario, which looks exactly like Matera houses did 50 or 500 years ago. A one-bedroom earth cave with fireplace, washstand, agricultural tools, kitchen department, a cradle over the double bed, childrens' beds in all drawers and "room for a pony."

Tourists still pull a tail of children and adolescents, when they walk around the old city. But instead of malaria medicine, local youths asks for money for a guided tour through the neighbourhood, and their dialect is replaced by a free choice of English, German, French, Italian and Dutch. It all goes to show that the jet age has reached Matera.

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