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Connoisseur's Guide · Europe · italy · Matera · The incredible taste travels of Sirmais

Matera - the ancient city of caves

Author: Ilze Lasmane-Brože0 COMMENTS

Matera - the ancient city of caves

Matera - the ancient city of caves. Unbelievable people and a unique recipe for fresh pasta
Once upon a time, three million years ago - at the time that has come to be known as the first period in the history of mankind - the first human settlement formed in the territory of the modern-day south Italian city of Matera. The phrase 'once upon a time' usually opens tales of the olden days, relating events which no-one really remembers and which may even not be true at all. Unlike these stories, the history of the ancient town cradled by the ravine of Gravina and its amazing origins are still very much evident in the old town of Matera, home to the ancient dwellings known as the Sassi. People still live there, just like the first residents who settled down in the calcarenitic caves. Sassi di Matera has stayed exactly the same it was in the ancient times, both visually and regarding its residents' way of viewing the world - a fact that makes it the dream location for scholars researching the ancient history. Not surprisingly, the place has been repeatedly casted as ancient Jerusalem in films about Jesus Christ, including Mel Gibson's famous 'The Passion of the Christ'. Considered one of the wonders of the world, the Sassi has also made the UNESCO list of World Heritage.
In the 3rd century BC, the Romans officially founded a new city in the region of Basilicata; in spite of regime changes and the tides and ebbs of history, people have never abandoned the cave dwellings. They still live behind the ascetic doors of the cave houses. Repeating the tangle of the cave system inside the tuff rock, a winding network of roads and paths and silhouettes of traditional structures rises above the rooftops of the cave buildings.
The historical system of water collection is unique to the Sassi. Underground caves were used like giant cisterns to collect rain water; always cold and refreshing, it was then delivered to the homes via underground tunnels. Much more modern methods of water supply are employed today, of course; however, the local residents still take great pride in this unique historical solution.
The city is unforgettable and thrillingly beautiful after dark when the lights are turned on. As the lights seeps through the tiny windows, you almost feel as if you had stepped off the earth into the night sky.

Foto: Matera - the ancient city of cavesFoto: Matera - the ancient city of cavesFoto: Matera - the ancient city of caves

A new and perhaps not quite as interesting part of Matera was built in the 1950s to deal with the overpopulation of the cave dwellings, a dire situation that could result in an epidemic of malaria. Due to compulsive relocation, abandoned dwellings are not rare today in Sassi di Matera. The expanding local tourist industry, tasteful and grounded, makes good use of the fact: the caves now house new design hotels and restaurants.

Design hotels in caves
In fact, it is the design hotels that make it possible for visitors to discover the wondrous story of the city and explore the caves which would otherwise remain closed. The local accommodations are defined by their simplicity in which the beauty of the nature and historical tales meet the aesthetic and practical needs of the modern man. The result is fascinating: you can, if only for a short time, experience the ascetic lifestyle of the ancient cave-dwellers, idyllic peace and harmony with nature - with a twist of 21st-century chic.

Foto: Matera - the ancient city of cavesFoto: Matera - the ancient city of cavesFoto: Matera - the ancient city of caves

The list of the most special accommodations in Sassi di Matera definitely includes the Corte San Pietro Hotel ( The design hotel features only five rooms. It was quite recently that the owner Fernando Ponte came back from the new Matera to a house he had inherited in the Sassi. After a painstaking renovation, the owner created a sophisticated and ascetic 21st-century cave-dweller's interior in which top quality design elements co-exist harmoniously with the environment, offering both modern comfort and a feel of the essence of the caves. As the proper host that he is, the owner greets every guest personally. You also get this feeling of being appraised critically: he is, after all, admitting you to the hotel which he obviously considers his home. A personal touch, peace, harmony and outstanding breakfast prepared from local ingredients are some of the things you will experience here and never forget.

Foto: Matera - the ancient city of cavesFoto: Matera - the ancient city of cavesFoto: Matera - the ancient city of caves

Incidentally, a trademark feature of the Sassi's hotels and restaurants is total loyalty to the local values and advocacy of the green philosophy. Appreciating the unique place they live in, the local people tend to let things be the way they are - for instance, allowing caper bushes grow through the cracks of the city walls... Actually, this kind of people live throughout the region of Basilicata: people with lots of self-confidence and love for their native land; incredibly hard-working people who are not known to skimp on time or effort. People who have no time for what they consider useless.

They say that the place makes the man. Perhaps it is the harsh seismic laws of the location that have taught people to approach life somewhat differently here: they are actually living for today. And maybe it is exactly due to this constant presence of adrenaline and ability to appreciate the value of each day in their life, so important for the 'blood circulation' of the place, that they stay stubbornly put. Nothing keeps the people of the Sassi from going wherever they want, making things happen, fulfilling their dreams.

Foto: Matera - the ancient city of cavesFoto: Matera - the ancient city of caves

The story of a pastry genius
This is illustrated by the very special story of a pastry chef called Luciano Zambrella. Together 24/7, Luciano and his wife run their own café; the couple complain in jest of not having enough time even for a bit on the side - so they cheat on each other... with each other. Luciano grew up in a very religious Catholic family which lost one of the sons at a very young age. A somewhat strict and authoritarian figure, the head of the family announced a considerable period of mourning, which meant, among other things, giving up any kind of sweets. The six-year old Luciano was forbidden to indulge his sweet tooth. One day the family visited the local fair which, of course, featured loads of mouth-watering confections and things for children's amusement. When the little boy implored his parents to buy him the tiniest piece of cake, he was harshly told off. That night Luciano dreamt of a giant field scattered with lovely little cakes... When the morning came, the boy knew that he wanted to be a pastry chef when he grew up. The self-taught Luciano has mastered countless different techniques and cooks a great variety of pastries and sweets; he also takes great pleasure in sharing his knowledge with others. The little café boasts an array of top-class professional kitchen appliances, the culinary world's equivalent of a fleet of Bentleys. Interestingly, the actual car that the pastry master drives every day is very modest; in fact, you don't see a lot of cars that old in the street today. It's just that his dream is still a priority to him; a car is nothing else than a means of getting from place to place.

The incredible pianist
The protagonist of another genuinely touching story is the pianist Michele Gioia whom we met in the village of Pisticci. As we hear the sounds of a classical piece played beautifully on the piano somewhere in the basement of the local community centre, we go downstairs and stay put, watching the pianist play, stop for a break now and then to roll a cigarette and have a smoke, then resume playing... He shares the story of his life during one of the cigarette breaks. Despite a childhood trauma (the boy broke a left hand finger which was left disfigured for life), he never gave up his dream of becoming a great pianist. Ignoring the doctors' verdict that deemed him incapable of ever playing again and defying rejection from music schools, the young enthusiast taught himself to read notes. Then he transcribed his favourite classical musical pieces from the 1970s cassette tapes and learnt to play. According to the master himself, however, he had only taught himself to play properly by the age of 50, which was when he decided to find the world's hardest piano piece for the left hand and master it. He played, we cried...

Foto: Matera - the ancient city of cavesFoto: Matera - the ancient city of cavesFoto: Matera - the ancient city of caves

Fresh pasta recipe
The unforgettable food of Basilicata is yet another thing that reveals the great power generated by the combination of ancient traditions and contemporary possibilities, a power that can be felt on every step in the region of Basilicata. While Basilicata has always been one of the poorest regions of Italy, the people who live here are extremely responsible, diligent and hardworking. And that is why the local people have learnt to cook unforgettably delicious food from the simplest of ingredients. Basilicata is famous for its fresh pasta, traditionally hand-made by the housewives, as well as for its special pasta recipe which they do not mind sharing with anyone. The variety of fresh pasta shapes is endless: a different one for each village. The most popular kind of fresh pasta in Basilicata is orecchiette ('the little ears').

Foto: Matera - the ancient city of cavesFoto: Matera - the ancient city of cavesFoto: Matera - the ancient city of caves

The regional cooking is dominated by beans which are used in the widest range of dishes: bean sauces, beans with pasta and pasta with beans, beans in pasta dough... Horse meat is quite popular in this part of Italy; they also eat lots and lots of sheep and goat milk products in Basilicata. A special ingredient typical for the region is sun-dried and then deep-fried sweet pepper, served as a starter or added to the main dish.

Foto: Matera - the ancient city of cavesFoto: Matera - the ancient city of cavesFoto: Matera - the ancient city of caves

Lots of interesting facts about the culture and cuisine of different nations will be featured in the new TV programme entitled 'Sirmais: Cult Dishes', aired on LTV1 starting in March 2013.

The 'Sirmais: Cult Dishes' programme is produced with the financial support of the RIMI retail chain and the European Commission Representation in Latvia at the Mistrus Media film studio.

The Italian episode was produced with the support of the team of the Lucania Film Festival Produced by Ilze Lasmane-Brož (GSM: 00 371 29104652; e-mail:

Photos: Epatastudio

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