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Matera is said to be one of the world’s oldest towns. The simple natural grottoes that dotted the gorge were adapted to become homes. In time, an ingenious system of canals regulated the flow of water and sewage, and small hanging gardens lent splashes of colour. The prosperous town became the capital of Basilicata in 1663, a position it held until 1806 when the power moved to Potenza. In the decades that followed, an unsustainable increase in population led to the habitation of unsuitable grottoes – originally intended as animal stalls – even lacking running water.

By the 1950s over half of Matera’s population lived in the sassi, a typical cave sheltering an average of six children. The infant mortality rate was 50%. In his Christ Stopped at Eboli, Carlo Levi describes how children would beg passers-by for quinine to stave off the deadly malaria. Such publicity finally galvanised the authorities into action, and in the late 1950s about 15,000 inhabitants were forcibly relocated to new government housing schemes.

In 1993 the sassi were declared a Unesco World Heritage Site. Ironically, the town’s history of outrageous misery has transformed it into Basilicata’s leading tourist attraction.