Matera's Sassi are rock-hewn dwellings piled chaotically atop one another, strewn across the sides of a steep ravine. Some date from Paleolithic times, when they were truly just caves. In the years that followed, the grottoes were slowly adapted as houses only slightly more modern, with their exterior walls closed off and canals regulating rainwater and sewage. Until relatively recently, these troglodytic abodes presented a Dante-esque vision of squalor and poverty, which is graphically described in Carlo Levi's 1945 memoir, Christ Stopped at Eboli. In the 1960s, however most of them were emptied of their inhabitants, who were largely consigned to the ugly apartment blocks seen on the way into town. Today, having been designated a World Heritage Site, the area has been cleaned up and is gradually being populated once again—and even gentrified, as evidenced by the bars and restaurants that have moved in. The wide Strada Panoramica leads you safely through this desolate region,
which still retains its eerie atmosphere and panoramic views.
There are two areas of Sassi, the Sasso Caveoso and the Sasso Barisano, and both can be seen from vantage points in the upper town. Follow the Strada Panoramica down into the Sassi and feel free to ramble among the strange structures, which, in the words of H.V. Morton in his A Traveller in Southern Italy, "resemble the work of termites rather than of man." There are more than 100 chiese rupestri, or rock-hewn churches, some of which have medieval frescoes, three of which are open to the public. The most spectacular is Santa Maria de Idris, right on the edge of the Sasso Caveoso, near the ravine. Guided tours of the town and Sassi area are recommended and can be arranged through the tourist office.