Travelers are always on the hunt for the next big adventure. Some get excited about cage diving with sharks, while others go for a chance to stay in a medieval castle. However, there is another popular opportunity tourists have been clamoring for; a chance to stay the night in a cave.
When most people think of caves, they think of a dark stone hovel where all kinds of creatures dwell, but the caves of Matera, Italy are nothing like that. Instead, they have become a chic Airbnb hot spot for those who want to travel to Italy in style. Yet, not so long ago these caves were a source of shame for the country.
Dating back to prehistoric times, Matera’s cave dwellings, known as the Sassi, have been the standard of the region for centuries. People were living in these homes until the late 1950s. Far from the hip hangouts seen on Instagram today, the former residents lived in poverty. Farm animals were houses inside with their owners; disease was rampant around the city, and most families survived on one meal a day. These conditions created high child mortality rates and those who survived were often illiterate.
When the Italian prime minister, Alcide De Gasperi, visited in 1950, he called the Sassi ‘a national disgrace.’ The government forced the population out of their caves and into newly built homes. Even though people now had access to running water and electricity, many struggled to adapt to this new way of life.
Meanwhile, the cave dwellings sat abandoned for more than 30 years until 1986. The people of Matera began to evaluate how the caves could be used. A law was passed that allowed residents to return to these houses, but by that time most people had adapted to their modern life.
In the early 1990s, one innovative resident, Fernando Ponte, saw the financial potential the Sassi had to offer and immediately started renovations. Ponte and his wife created a five-room cave dwelling with running water and electricity. The inspiration caught on, and more people began renovations of their own. Soon the Sassi was filled with restaurants, bars, and even some cave hotels. UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site in 1993.
The city’s popularity began to grow as more and more tourists began to hear of this unique vacation opportunity. Matera was even able to make secure the honor of the European Capital of Culture for 2019. Now, they receive almost 600,000 visitors a year.
Matera’s citizens still believe the city needs more improvements, but are excited about the new opportunities the Sassi’s rebirth has afforded the area. They are hopeful that more people will decide to take up permeant residence as the years go on.
So the next time you are looking for your next big adventure, look to the Sassi.