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Matera, Basilicata

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Way down in the south of Italy is the province of Basilicata, an almost unknown jewel in the trove of treasures this country has to offer. It is a place of contrasts, offering lush forests and arid, lunar landscapes, the Ionian Sea's sandy beaches and the Tyrrhenian Sea's jagged coastline. In amongst all this are green pastures and golden wheatfields.

Basilicata's natural beauty, ancient culture, deeply rooted traditions, combined with the warmth and hospitality of its people, leave visitors with lasting memories.

Matera is in the south eastern part of Basilicata and if you arrive by car, it looks like just another dusty town, but don't be fooled — you are in one of UNESCO's 365 official World Heritage locations listed as the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region. It dates from the Palaeolithic period, some 7000 years, and is home of the sassi — cave churches and houses dug into the surrounding hills, valleys and ravines by Benedictine and Basilian monks fleeing persecution.

The monks excavated individual cells, tiny chapels and even some spacious churches and at first sight the crammed and chaotic sassi is so devoid of colour it could be a mirage. It takes a little while to realise that you are seeing a labyrinth of houses — the roof of one may appear as a road, a stairway, a garden or the floor of yet another house. Chimneys pop out of the road and you actually walk on the roofs of other houses. The ordinary becomes breathtaking.

It wasn't until well into the 20th century that the sassi had sewage connections and electricity. The houses were abandoned in the '50s, when the government relocated residents to modern housing after being embarrassed by the poverty amongst the people of the sassi, described in Carlo Levi's tale of his own exile, Christ Stopped in Eboli. The sassi are slowly being repopulated as trendy digs by artistic types and are now called spontaneous architecture due to the way they harmonise with the natural environment and have many sophisticated and elegant styles.

Not surprisingly, filmmakers seeking biblical landscape go no further than the sassi of Matera. The Gospel According to St Matthew was made there forty years ago by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Mel Gibson literally searched the world for the perfect location for his controversial film The Passion of the Christ and felt the landscape probably resembled that of Judea in Christ's time.

While he was filming in the area, Mel Gibson stayed at the Albergo Italia in the centre of the old town. It has just 46 rooms and has been refurbished recently with 19th century furniture. It has suites, standard rooms and accommodation for families. It is close to the Ridola National Museum, Palazzo Lanfranchi, Levi Foundation, D'Errico National Gallery, Pascoli Square and plenty of churches.

His favourite place to eat was Antica Trattoria Lucana which was started in the 1950s by the mother of the current owner, Gigi Sanrocco. Mel frequented the trattoria so often Gigi dedicated two dishes to him — Fettuccine alla Mel Gibson and Cardoncelli alla Passionne.

Another interesting place to stay is the Hotel Sassi, also recently restored. It has an enchanting 18th century atmosphere and is away from traffic and smog. Each guest room is unique, with terraces and balconies, wonderful for admiring the Romanesque cathedral and the rare lesser-kestrel floating past. The hotel has large halls, a breakfast room and bar.


A province in the arch of Italy's boot.


Southern Italian Tours has six-night Passion of the Christ packages in Matera. Twin share accommodation and guided tours start at $1090 per person.

Emirates has return flights to Rome. Valid for sale from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth until March 31, 2008 and from Adelaide and Darwin until May 31, 2006. Taxes are included.

Fare from;
  • Perth, $2020
  • Melbourne, $2067
  • Brisbane, $2069
  • Sydney, $2086
  • Adelaide, $2096
  • Darwin, $2149

Please note that the prices listed are valid at the time of filming.

For further information

Southern Italian Tours
1/335 Johnston Street
Abbotsford NSW 3067
Ph: (03) 94156524
Fax: (03) 94174625

Italian Government Tourist Office
Ph: (02) 9262 1666
Fax: (02) 9262 1677

Matera Tourist Office
Azienda de Promozione Turistica di
Ufficio di Matera
Via de Viti de Marco 9
75100 Matera Italy
Ph: 39 0835 331983
Fax: 39 0835 333452

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