There are some days when the hustle of Florence is just too much: riding the crowded bus every day, bucking the constant stream of tourists, negotiating the usual strife of city life. When this happens, it is time to take a break, time to escape the routine. A day trip to a Tuscan hill town can be a temporary cure, but to truly rid your tired psyche of Florence, go south. In the south, the magic of Tuscany disappears, and you are left with the solid realism of a land touched only by locals and a handful of filmmakers. A city like Matera, a town in the Basilicata region of southern Italy, offers the perfect cleansing site if you are plagued with Renaissance overload.
Getting off the train in Matera, you are likely to think that the small city is nothing special. The city is untouched by the gleam of tourism in the north of Italy and is void of the English overtones you hear in Florence. The buildings look relatively the same: concrete facades with glass storefronts. But after a 15-minute walk, the urban feel gives way to a piazza overlooking one of the most spectacular sights in Italy: the Sassi.
The Sassi, or stones, are some of the oldest surviving dwellings in Italy. It is one of the only places where the locals could be living in the same house as their ancestors did thousands of years ago. These cave dwellings look untouched since the time they were built and seem as though they were transported to Matera directly from Jerusalem: white walls with cutout windows and doors. In fact, Matera looks so much like the ancient Middle East that numerous filmmakers have used it in their depiction of Christ’s life, including Mel Gibson for his Passion of the Christ. Thanks to the advent of tourism in the region, you can stay in a refurbished version of one of these dwellings. Though the toilet is flushable, the bed is a mattress instead of hay, and the managers have installed the latest in flat screen television technology, the jutting rocks hint at a time long before da Vinci and well before the Medici ruled.
But to even explore these dwellings, you have to traverse the labyrinthine streets that wind throughout the city. You could enter into the Sassi and never find your way out. The stone staircases, alleyways, and buildings have no distinguishing features. So, you must choose a direction and hope for the best. That is the beauty of Matera—you never see the same place twice unless you intend to. Thankfully, public transportation is impossible in the Sassi, so you are forced to walk around and take in the sights, like the churches.
Lacking the pomp of most Florentine churches, those of Matera are cut out of the rock and have a single iconographic fresco. These churches still feel alive, as if mass was just said in the cool temperature of the dark cave. If you have the time, buy a ticket for the self-guided walking tour, which takes you around to five of Matera’s ancient churches that run along the edge of the ravine, or la Gravania, which traverses one side of the Sassi.
If the ancient sights are overwhelming, make your way back to the commercial center of town. At night, the city comes alive with locals meeting one another in the main piazza. At first, it seems like everyone knows where the party is and you missed the invitation. But then you realize that the piazza is the party, and you are in the middle of it. And with plenty of good restaurants around the square, you—and your stomach—will have no problem returning to the present.
Matera offers an enlightening escape from Florence. If you can stand the 10-hour train ride, you will not be disappointed. It is a sight unlike any other in Italy, or even the world. The Sassi are the perfect purifier for the tired Florentine soul. Go south, then, and cleanse yourself in Matera.