Tis Returns to Italy! Day 63: Exploring The “Shame of Italy”
Today I woke up in my little cave home, excited to explore the area. Last night, from the viewpoint above, the inner depths of the caves looked a little deserted. I decided daylight might be a better time to begin my explorations.
Getting to Know The Sassi!
There are two cave concentrations, Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso. Sasso Barisano, has caves that were built up to be more like palaces. Sasso Caveoso was less developed, more simply cave homes.
When you read information about the two areas or locals explain, Sasso Barisano was for the wealthier people. But wait. I thought these dirt-poor people, out of utter desperation, dug cave homes out of the hills and lived in them with their animals? Who among them was considered wealthy?
As I was trying to understand the wealth distinction, a local explained to me that no one lived with their animals in Sasso Barisano, only Sasso Caveoso. I guess if you were “wealthy enough” to have a little patch of land to leave Bella the Cow outside your cave at night, you were a wealthy poor person. How charming!
Exploring the Wealthy Part of Town
I began my explorations close to home, in “wealthy” Sasso Barisano. Just off the central square was a sign with many arrows, all pointing down a staircase. All roads lead down! Ready or not, here I come Sasso Barisano!
Quickly I found Via Fiorentini, which from my map, seemed to be the main street. This must have been the 5th Avenue of the “wealthy” district. I used 5th Avenue as a base to wander and explore side streets. As the government is not yet done exploiting the caves for tourism’s sake, there was a variety of things to see from crumbling old buildings to fully developed streets with shops and caffès.
My first intended destination was Museo-Laboratorio della Civiltà. The museum offers a glimpse into life in the cave homes. Upon entering the cave, the first room has a lofted bed, to allow the humans to sleep separately from the animals. I was informed that only in Sasso Caveoso did families live with their animals. This is apparently an important distinction.
The museum held pictures of people who had lived in the Sassi including a description of what life was like in their words. Heartbreaking. Outside the museum hangs a sign saying “Per non dimenticare” or basically, “So we don’t forget”. It gave me flashbacks to Auschwitz. While definitely not the same, there was a fair amount of death in the Sassi, including a 40% infant mortality rate at its peak.
Time to Clean up the “Shame”
After WW2, Italy needed to polish its reputation a bit. Back then, Matera’s Sassi were called “la vergogna dell’Italia” or the shame of Italy. Life in the caves was difficult. There was no electricity, no plumbing, and disease was rampant.
So what did Italy do? In 1952 they “relocated” everyone to modern housing nearby. This sounds lovely but imagine one day someone knocks on your cave door, if you had one, and tells you to pack up because you have to move. Many did not want to move. This was the only home they had ever known. Some pleaded to return. Eventually, the government relented, allowing families, at their own expense, to bring their homes up to code and move back into THEIR homes. Currently, only 30% of the Sassi are privately owned.
Basically, instead of cleaning up the Sassi as has been done for profit now, these people were just thrown out.
Today Matera is a popular tourist destination, filled with fancy hotels and nice restaurants. Should you visit? Absolutely. However, do so with respect for the lives that came before you here. Spend some time learning about their life in these streets that are lined with places they could never dream of stepping foot in during their life. People still live in similar conditions in the world today as they did then…
Ciao for now!