The Sassi Just Might Be The Best Place You've Never Heard Of

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Brent and I recently spent a month living at Casa Netural, a co-living space in Matera, Italy. Located in the southern part of the country, you probably haven't heard of Matera. We never had. But wee suspect you'll hear more in the future.

There are a lot of terrific things about this rural city of 65,000, especially the friendly people. But the most amazing part has to be the incredibly rich history of the place. And it all begins at the Sassi -- Matera's central "old town" section.

The Sassi, also known as the Stone City, is simply remarkable. Stone streets wind among ancient stone houses built along steep hillsides -- and sometimes directly into those hills, in the form of caverns and cisterns. 

It is one of the longest continuously inhabited places in the entire world. It was first occupied as far back as the Paleolithic Era, and has been continuously inhabited since the Bronze Age, in 7000 B.C., when farmers settled there.

Situated above the gorgeous Gravina di Matera (the Ravine of Matera), many of the earliest inhabitants lived in the original limestone caves found in the steep cliffs. The limestone was so soft that over time subsequent occupants continued expanding the caves, and also creating new ones that eventually became a city. 

During the Medieval Ages, the Sassi became a powerful economic and cultural center. During the 1500s, a series of six caves were carved into an enormous stone cistern that supplied the city and nearby farms with water for nearly 500 hundred years. Called the Palombaro Luongo, the cisterns were closed in the 1920s, then completely forgotten until the 1990s when they were rediscovered. 

Much of the rock excavated to form the cisterns was then used to build the stone structures that make up much of the Sassi. But it must be emphasized: many homes, stores, storage spaces, and even churches are carved directly into the rock itself, creating a labyrinth both above and below ground. The most spectacular of the churches is surely the Madonna di Idris, which is carved into a mountain-like rock that rises above the city. The inside is half-cave, half building, with ancient frescoes painted directly on the walls.

By the 1700s, the Sassi was in decline. And by the 20th century, the Sassi had become one of the most impoverished places in the world. Families of ten or more were squeezed into small caves with no light and no ventilation, except for the entrance. Most families shared their living quarters with their livestock. And in order to fertilize what crops they could grow in the stony ground, every bit of human and animal waste was stored in the back of the caves, creating what was supposedly a very foul stench.

Not surprisingly, in these conditions, life was often brutal and short. Most children were sickly and died before the age of five. Those that survived lived hard, miserable, unhealthy lives.

Then in in 1945, Carlo Levi published a book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, which in part chronicled the abject misery in which these forgotten Italians lived. After it was translated into English, the book sparked an outrage around the world, and then in post-war Italy. Eventually all of the inhabitants were moved out of the Sassi into new farms and apartments built nearby. 

And then the Sassi itself was forgotten, falling even deeper into ruin and decay. Finally, in the 1980s, some people started moving back into the ruined homes, slowly repairing and fixing them up. In 1993. the Sassi was named a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its remarkable history, and ever since then the Sassi has slowly been restored to its former glory. 

You might not had heard of the Sassi either. But trust us, you'll be hearing more about it in the years to come.