In no Italian city you will feel the Middle Ages stronger than in Matera. This is mainly due to the fact that the southern Italian town left the dark centuries behind it only 70 years ago. A large part of the population lived until the late 1950s in the caves dug at the bottom of the hill.
“ Whole families lived here. Often with his ten or elves,” says Antonio Manicone. He has been a tour guide in Matera for over a decade, so he has a vivid picture of the miserable conditions of the inhabitants in one of the hundreds of caves.
“ In the middle stood one high bed. High so that the chickens could breed underneath. There was their donkey in the back, and maybe a goat for some milk. And here in the corner, rainwater was collected in this hole for drinking and washing. Imagine how unhygienic with all that cattle in the house.” The cave is also beaten out of limestone, so extremely dusty. Pulmonary diseases, typhoid and cholera easily spread in Matera. The infant mortality rate was particularly high.
It is almost unimaginable that the Materani lived this way far into the last century. Not for Antonio. Both his grandfathers have been through that time. “The difference with their lives now is indescribable.” Because since the 1960s Matera has gone through a spectacular development. First after the book of Christ came no further than Eboli of Carlo Levi. His descriptions of God-forsaken Matera caused deep shame in Italy, after which the government built flats higher up the hill so that the cave dwellers could leave their lair.
After that, due to its special construction Matera became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which made tourists curious. When Mel Gibson recorded The Passion of The Christ here in 2004, tourism really exploded. With the highlight of the European Capital of Culture in 2019, you‘ve been able to walk over the heads of tourists in holiday periods.
“ Tourism has saved Matera and brought about a huge transformation,” says Antonio. “Materani now live in converted houses on top of the caves. And the caves themselves are bed and breakfasts for tourists. My grandfathers always laugh at the irony of that!”
Never arrived a train
But now Antonio, like much of Matera, is out of work. Because the coronacrisis has shown that mass tourism is not a foundation for a sustainable economy. “The only source of income in the city has dried up.” Antonio also recognizes that the economy needs to be more diverse in order to cope with setbacks as a pandemic. “But that requires infrastructure.”
Tour guide Antonio Manico would love to tour tourists through the famous caves of Matera:
And even in poor southern Italy, where there are numerous problems with infrastructure, Matera is a special case. You only get there by car or bus. In 2016, a train station was built, but a train has never arrived there since. Because there is no connection to the national rail network. “The higher authorities do not have the confidence that an investment will pay back,” said Alderman Rosa Nicoletti.
The hope was that the European billions from the Corona Recovery Fund would provide a solution. Some EUR 28 billion are planned to be invested in infrastructure. But Prime Minister Draghi is spending that money mainly on new high-speed lines such as those between Salerno and Reggio Calabria. “We still don’t know if our railroad will ever be there,” says Nicoletti.
And this while, according to Nicoletti, simple infrastructure is fundamental to growth in the south. She studied in the north of the country and came back to Matera to give back to her community. “I have many friends of the same age who would like to do the same.” But according to her, they see too many obstacles.
Matera would like to develop further. If only to keep the young people out there in the city. A problem that occurs throughout southern Italy. “We want to set up a creative industry so that we can offer young people jobs. But that requires good infrastructure.” That is why Nicoletti, together with other municipalities, is making a new plan to convince higher authorities of the connection to the national network.
The coronare rules in Italy are now somewhat relaxed, so next week Antonio will be around his first group of Italian tourists. He likes to show them how Matera got out of the Middle Ages in the 20th century. “During that unexpected transformation, we went from the stables to the stars.” But if the trains ever arrive, he is just as happy to show them how the city finally entered the 21st century.