The past has often helped rescue the present

In  southern  Italy,  the past has often  helped rescue the present. Ever since  the  excavation  of  Pompeii brought  grand tours to Naples in the 18th century, historical sites have lured foreign travelers to impoverished  outposts. But  Matera  may be Europe’s  most radical rags-to-riches  story.  Located in  the instep  of  the  Italian  boot,  the town  has  always  been  an  isolated, forgotten  part  of  Basilicata, among the least populated, least visited  and least understood regions  of Italy . Even in  the  19th  century, few  travelers ventured through its arid, desolate landscapes, which  were  known to be full of briganti,  or brigands. The  rare adventurers  who did stumble upon Matera  were  mystified  by  the up-side-down  world of the  Sassi, where, at their peak, 16,000 people lived one above the other, with palazzi and chapels mixed in among  cave houses, and where cemeteries were actually built above the church roofs.

The Cave Dwellers
Once the “shame of Italy,” the ancient warren of natural caves in Matera may be Europe’s most dramatic story of rebirth
by Tony Perrotte
SMITHSONIAN.COM   
February 2014

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