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 that are green pastures and golden wheat fields.
Basilicata's natural beauty, ancient culture and 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 ago, and is home of the sassi, cave churches and houses dug into the surrounding hills, valleys and ravines by Benedictine and Basilican monks who were fleeing persecution.
They 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 1950s, when the government relocated residents to modern housing after being embarrassed by the descriptions of the poverty amongst the people of the sassi found 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 is now called "spontaneous architecture" due to the way it conforms to the natural environment and has 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 of Matera, overlooking its magnificent scenery. It has just 46 rooms and has been refurbished recently with 19th century furniture being used throughout. 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 to enjoy.
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 very rare bird, the lesser-kestrel, flying past. The hotel has large halls, a breakfast room and bar.
A province in the arch of Italy's boot
Southern Italian Tours has seven-day Passion of the Christ
packages in Matera including twin share accommodation at Hotel Sassi, guided tours, dinner at Trattoria Lucana and trekking through Matera, starting at $1200 per person. Accommodation starts at $138 per person a night.
Albergo Italia rooms start at $102 per person a night. The Mel Gibson suite is $136.
Hotel Sassi rooms are $95 per person twin share and suites are $113 per person twin share.
Flight Centre has return economy airfares to Rome on sale until April 30, 2005, for travel between October 4 and November 11, 2005.
Melbourne $1499 + tax $180.93
Brisbane $1499 + tax $199.30
Sydney $1499 + tax $198.02
Perth $1399 + tax $180.00
Adelaide $1499 + tax $207.00
To book call Flight Centre on 131 600
Please note that the prices listed are valid at the time of filming.
More informationHotel Sassi
Via San Giovanni Vecchio
89 75100 Matera, Italy
Ph: 39 0835 331 009
Fax: 39 0835 333 733
Via Ridola 5
75100 Matera, Italy
Ph: 39 0835 333 561
Antica Trattoria Lucana
Via Lucana, 48
75100 Matera, Italy
Ph: 39 0835 336 117
Southern Italian Tours
15 Brunswick Street
Fitzroy Vic 3065
Ph: (03) 9415 6524
Fax: (03) 9417 4654
Italian Government Tourist Office
Ph: (02) 9262 1666
Fax: (0)2 9262 1677
Matera Tourist Office
Azienda de Promozione Turistica di Basilicata
Ufficio di Matera
Via de Viti de Marco 9
75100 Matera, Italy
Ph: 39 0835 331 983
Fax: 39 0835 333 452