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Travel back in time in Italy's Matera

Described as one of the most backward places in Italy, Matera is a city that time forgot.
Published 02 May, 2015 12:45pm

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.

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.

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.

UNESCO has named it a European cultural capital for 2019, which should bring many more visitors to one of Italy's poorest areas.

A general view of Matera's Sassi limestone cave dwellings in southern Italy.
A general view of Matera's Sassi limestone cave dwellings in southern Italy.
A general view of Matera's Sassi limestone cave dwellings in southern Italy.
A general view of Matera's Sassi limestone cave dwellings in southern Italy.
A general view of Matera's Sassi limestone cave dwellings in southern Italy.
A general view of Matera's Sassi limestone cave dwellings in southern Italy.
A general view of Matera's Sassi limestone cave dwellings in southern Italy April 30, 2015. 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 perhaps most of the Sassi were left vacant.
A general view of Matera's Sassi limestone cave dwellings in southern Italy April 30, 2015. 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 perhaps most of the Sassi were left vacant.
A general view of Matera's Sassi limestone cave dwellings in southern Italy.
A general view of Matera's Sassi limestone cave dwellings in southern Italy.
A man stands at a viewpoint from where he can see Matera's Sassi, southern Italy.
A man stands at a viewpoint from where he can see Matera's Sassi, southern Italy.
A general view of Matera's Sassi limestone cave dwellings in southern Italy.
A general view of Matera's Sassi limestone cave dwellings in southern Italy.
Chef Gigi Sanrocco prepares a pasta dish named "Fettucine alla Mel Gibson" in his restaurant in Matera, southern Italy, April 30, 2015.
Chef Gigi Sanrocco prepares a pasta dish named "Fettucine alla Mel Gibson" in his restaurant in Matera, southern Italy, April 30, 2015.
Chef Gigi Sanrocco and actor Mel Gibson are seen in a picture posted on a blackboard at a restaurant in Matera, southern Italy April 30, 2015. The Australian-born actor is celebrated with the dish called ""Fettucine alla Mel Gibson" in his honor at the popular Trattoria Lucana on Matera's main drag, the Via Lucana.
Chef Gigi Sanrocco and actor Mel Gibson are seen in a picture posted on a blackboard at a restaurant in Matera, southern Italy April 30, 2015. The Australian-born actor is celebrated with the dish called ""Fettucine alla Mel Gibson" in his honor at the popular Trattoria Lucana on Matera's main drag, the Via Lucana.
Tourists walk on a street in Matera's Sassi, southern Italy April 30, 2015. 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.
Tourists walk on a street in Matera's Sassi, southern Italy April 30, 2015. 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.