Don’t miss the
Cave Churches near Matera
A lot of tourists (me included) don’t realise that the cave churches near Matera form part of Basilicata’s three-in-one UNESCO World Heritage package
We have visited Matera in Basilicata several times over the years. Spent hours panting up and down steep stairways and narrow alleys in the Sassi area looking for beehive dwellings that were first dug out with simple stone tools some time during the Paleolithic Era more than 12.000 years ago. A mistake that cannot alone be blamed on ‘The Passion of Christ’ and the knowledge that it was filmed on location in Matera due to it being the oldest inhabited city in the world.
What we failed to realise the first couple of times around was that there is not much Stone Age about the Sassi. People did not dig out their one-room homes in this area until the 19th and 20th centuries, when overpopulation and undernourishment turned the Sassi into slum. Seeing the poverty and measly living conditions from a time when our grandparents were children is one reason to visit Matera.
Caves across the canyon
But there is literally a canyon between the cave dwellings of our immediate ancestors and the first stationary homes of a tribe of hunter-gatherers. Their homes can be seen from a distance, and that is a second reason to visit Matera. Just remember you have to be very persistent and find a good guide with impeccable rock climbing skills and strong local knowledge to visit the Paleolithic caves in person. And even then I’m not sure there would be more to see than eerie darkness filled with goat shit, weeds and sleeping bats.
The third World Heritage reason to visit Matera is the more than 160 rupestrian churches found in the area. And again don’t expect an Italian version of Turkey’s Cappadocia. Most of the cave churches near Matera are only a few hundred years old. They are modest and smallish and were excavated and used as a point of worship for farm workers living in the country side. As such there is a rock-hewn church for almost every masseria thoughout Puglia and eastern Basilicata and they were in use until quite recently.
These cave churches are great fun to find and explore. You can come across them in the most unlikely places. And quite often they will be decorated with vibrant, colourful frescoes. Most of these frescoes are in a sorry state, but that makes them all the more fascinating.
If you have not got time to ramble around the countryside for days looking for secret entranceways to holy subterranean caverns, you can still get an impression of the rupestrian churches by visiting the chapels beneath San Pietro Caveoso and other Sassi churches. Here you’ll find stories and frescoes too good to miss.
Other unmissable sights near the cave churches and Matera
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It is, isn’t it?
I love looking at places of worship. I think it gives a lot of history and cultural insight. But I’ve never heard of these cave churches! Really cool! Thanks for sharing.
I like them too – there’s always something to explore in such places.
Oh wow! Those are beautiful. Thank you for sharing!
I like them:)
I have never heard of cave churches before but these are fascinating. Those frescoes are just beautiful. I can’t even begin to imagine how amazing they must have looked up close. Matera looks like a delight to visit.
Matera is a special place. And so very different from central and North Italy.
I thought Damascus was the oldest inhabited city in the world… then again, I heard the same in Yerevan. That said, would love to visit Matera and the cave churches.
Well, I didn’t double check the ‘world’s oldest’ claim. And I am not quite old enough to remember. So you might be right:)
I am already soooo exciting about going to Matera hopefully this year. Thank you for adding to this by introducing me to the cave churches! :)
Great to hear you are going down south. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.
I have always wanted to see this area. It is so fascinating. Also the recent history of relocation of the inhabitants back in the mid-fifties is an interesting example of social engineering.
I can only recommend it. Just remember a visit to the historic centre of Matera requires a lot of steep walking.
Those frescos are simply stunning! It’s amazing to think of all the history and stories behind each and every one…
Yes, I also like to envisage the painter. They weren’t always professional.
I’ve never heard of cave churches, this is really really fascinating to learn about, thank you for sharing!
Yes can’t wait to go but this damm Coronvirus put a damper on my trip.
You are not alone. I just can’t wait to get back to Italy and our second home in Puglia.