The Cave Dwellings of Matera, Italy

Author & Photo credits: Beth Pollock



View of Modern Day Matera, Italy.


Is there anything cooler than sleeping in a cave hotel?

I stayed in the beautifully minimalist Aquatio Cave Luxury Hotel in Matera, Italy, which was built from a series of excavated caves.  Thirty-five rooms in various sizes are defined by their limestone walls and ceilings highlighted by discreet floor lighting, and simple furniture. The lobby, dining areas and spa are all part of the same soothing aesthetic.


Cave hotel room in Matera, Italy.


But as lovely as the cave hotels in Matera are, it’s important to understand why the caves were deserted for years before being re-envisioned as upscale dwellings.

For thousands of years, many of the people in Matera lived in cave homes in the sassi region. But by the mid-20th century, the poverty in this overcrowded and underserviced area was impossible to ignore. Author Carlo Levi brought Matera to the attention of the nation with his 1945 book Christ Stopped at Eboli, in which he described a neighbourhood with no running water, where children wore rags or nothing at all, and where malaria and dysentery were common. The sassi in Matera became known as the “shame of Italy.”


The Streets of Matera.


After the book was published, the Italian government was pressured to relocate the cave dwellers. By the mid-1950s, new villages had been built and 15,000 residents had been moved. Some were ashamed of living in caves – even claiming to have moved from elsewhere – and were happy to leave. But the move was hard on many others, who had lost their sense of community and had no idea how to use the running water, electricity, and other features of their new homes.


A Modern Matera Home.


After being abandoned for years, Matera’s Sassi region was named to the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites in 1993. That ignited a sense of pride in the city, which grew even more when Matera was named as one of two European Capitals of Culture in 2019, an EU designation supporting culture and tourism.


Paolo Verri, General Director of the Matera 2019 project, said, “The Sassi are no longer a symbol of the past – they represent the future of Matera.”


Casa Noha

The best place to orient yourself in Matera is Casa Noha. The house was donated to the National Trust of Italy in 2004, on the condition that it be used to explain the history of Matera to the public. We watched the film, “The Invisible Sassi: An extraordinary journey through the history of Matera.” The movie depicts life as it was in the mid-20th century – hopeless. One of the many haunting scenes shows children who are so bereft of hope, they don’t shoo away flies that land on their eyes. On the flip side, the movie also shows the townspeople’s joy when Matera was announced as the European Capital of Culture 2019.

Don’t miss this powerful film; there’s no better way to understand what the city has overcome, moving from “the shame of Italy” to a proud and thriving region.


Storica Casa Grotta di vico Solitario

Once you’re familiar with the town’s trajectory, you’ll want to visit a cave dwelling that shows how people lived. The historic cave house, Storica Casa Grotta, has been assembled with original tools of the time and typical local furniture, to give visitors a clear idea what it was like to live in a cave.


Historic Matera Cave Home.


From the minute we stepped into the tiny dwelling, we were a million miles away from the comforts of our cave hotel. This cave, which was much smaller than any of our rooms, once housed eleven family members. And the family’s animals (chickens, pigs and mules) were kept in the cave to prevent theft.


Historic Cave Home Kitchen.


Beds were built high off the ground, so the chickens could live below. Behind the bed, dwellers often dug a trench where they stored their feces until it could be used to fertilize the soil. Not surprisingly, the infant mortality rate in the sassi was over 50%. The children who survived didn’t attend school; cave dwellers were almost completely isolated from their neighbours outside the Sassi.

It was shocking. And yet, as our Matera guide Giovanni Ricciardi explained, “The country tried to ensure that shame didn’t lie with residents of the Sassi, but with poverty itself.”


From the Underworld to Paradise, via Purgatory

Beyond the cave dwellings, one of the most impressive sights in Matera is the Palombaro cistern. Palombaro, which sits directly under the main city square Piazza Vittorio Veneto, is fifteen metres high and can hold up to 5 million litres of water.

Ricciardi explained that the people of the Sassi used the cistern only in the summer: “They collected rain water from their roofs for washing, and they used water from the public aqueduct for cooking and drinking. But in the summer, there was a shortage of water, so they carried it back from Palombaro. They had to boil it before drinking because of the bacteria.”

A five-minute walk will take you to Chiesa del Purgatorio (Church of Purgatory). You can’t miss this distinctive building, dedicated to the dead. Built in the 18th century, the exterior is covered with carvings of skulls and skeletons. A sculpted hourglass with wings reminds viewers of the fleeting nature of time; symbols of the pope, bishops and kings symbolize that no one, regardless of their power, can escape death.


Chiesa del Purgatorio Door Carvings.


The Latin inscription on the outside of the church reads, “Miseremini mei, saltem vos amici mei” or “Pity me, my friends,” a passage from the Book of Job.


Writing on top of Chiesa del Purgatorio Doorway.


After such a grim reminder of your mortality, you may be relieved to retrace your steps to visit the medieval San Giovanni Battiste. This church was originally built in the 13th century, and in the 1930s the interior was restored to more closely resemble its origins. Elaborately decorated columns throughout the church are decorated with leaves (a celebration of the Resurrection), fruit (symbolizing the fertility of the land), and religious figures.


The artisans of Matera

Elisa and Janna is a sculpture jewelry store that’s cosmopolitan enough to be located in any major city. But owners Elisa Tummillo and Johanna Curti have chosen to be in Matera. “It’s a place that sets your mind free to create,” Curti says. “Here you can physically see the result of the passing of time on nature.”


Elisa and Janna Jewelry.


Their work is both timeless and contemporary, with Curti being the gemologist and Tummillo the artisan. Working with gems and recycled copper pipes, Curti says, “Often a new design is born due to a special shape of the stone or a curve in the pipe.”

She loves working in a town with deep traditions, and appreciates that there is room for creativity and innovation. In the same way that Matera has reinvented itself, she and Elisa, along with many other entrepreneurs, are changing the outlook of this remarkable city.


Notes: The author was a guest of Discover Italy, who did not review or approve this story.


Where to stay

Aquatio Hotel: Every room in this lovely cave hotel is slightly different, because each is fashioned from an excavated cave. Breakfasts are delicious, with everything from custom-made omelets to a homey olive oil plum cake. Sasso Caveoso, Via Conche 12.


Dining Room at Aquatio Hotel.


What to do

It’s easy to get lost in Matera, and we appreciated having a guide not just to show us around, but also to give context to what we saw. Giovanni Ricciardi is a native of Matera whose grandparents were born in the Sassi, and he ably explained both the city’s history and how it is changing.

Casa Noha: Recinto Cavone, 9

Storica Casa Grotta di vico Solitario: Vico Solitario

Palombaro Lungo: There are only a few English-speaking tours a day, so reserve your tickets in advance. Piazza Vittorio Veneto

Chiesa del Purgario: Via Domenico Ridola


Where to shop

Elisa and Janna: Piazza del Sedile, 23

Daciarte: Artist Dacia Capriotti sells her beautiful ceramics in this shop that she calls her “hidden world.” Born and raised in Matera, she moved back to the city after attending art school. Via San Biagio, 17


Ceramics at Daciarte.


Il Sedile: The perfect place to buy Matera’s traditional colourful rooster whistles, or cucùs. According to Ricciardi, a cucù is given to a new mother, while bigger ceramic hens are a gift to a woman from her fiancé – the larger the hen, the more prestigious the gift. Piazza del Sedile, 21


Ceramic Chickens at Il Sedile.