Matera – Arrival, Departure, Arrival (or why leadership matters).

The stunning opening scenes of the 2021 James Bond film, No Time to Die, were shot in Matera, which I recently visited.

Matera is located in the Italian province of Basilicata, a smidge over the border from Puglia (but formerly part of it). It’s either the third oldest city in the world, after Aleppo and Jericho and/or the oldest continually habituated city in the world, depending on who’s telling the story. Either way, it’s no spring chicken, dating back to the Paleolithic period (2.5 millions years ago to 10,000 BC).

UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – added Matera to its list of world heritage sites in 1993, dramatically shifting the narrative arc for this city of caves once known in the 1950s as The Shame of Italy. And therein lies a story with more twists and turns than Daniel Craig’s wild, high-speed car chase in his character’s beloved Aston Martin DB5.

Matera is a remarkable example of ‘negative architecture,’ its dwellings chiselled out of calcarenite rock at a time when man had only the most basic of tools. The myriad of caves were gradually burrowed deeper and expanded into living spaces throughout the classical and medieval eras.

The old town is shaped like an inverted W, with two ‘Sassi’ on each side and a large hill in the middle. Across is a park where you can access more caves and rock churches; those ones were mostly closed when I was there because of a bun fight between different levels of government. (Plus ça change. . .)

Matera, Italy, one of the two Stassi that make up the old city.

Each Sassi is a higgledy piggledy series of honeycombed terraces on a steep ravine with approximately 1,500 grottos that jut out and over the others. To describe these homes as small is a gross understatement; a family of 10-12 would have resided in a one-room windowless cave with children sleeping on the floor or in drawers, and the family livestock pushed to the back at night to stop poachers from stealing them.

(No photos are allowed inside the re-enactment caves that serve as museums today, or in the surviving rock churches, or I would include here.)

Most cooking was done communally, and of course there was no indoor plumbing, although the ancient dwellers built a brilliant underground cistern system from the nearby Gravina River.

This all worked well for thousands of years, with every class of people living together in the Sassi. Eventually, though, as humans do, the inhabitants began to segregate based on class, with the clergy and other privileged folks moving up the hill, and the poor people remaining below.

By the 19th century, a population explosion overwhelmed the infrastructure. With no sanitation, disease spread. Life was hard. Everyone knew everyone’s business and had an opinion on it. It was the original social media, but without the memes.

Over the years, the government did little to address the “Southern Problem” of extreme poverty and desperate living conditions, until shamed into it after author Carlo Levi published his 1945 memoir Christ Stopped at Eboli. The book chronicled his year of political exile spent in Basilicata (then known as Lucania) under the fascists.

The south had not widely supported Mussolini and fascism (nor had they decades earlier supported the unification of Italy). Despite his status as a political exile, Levi was welcomed with open arms by the villages he visited. Matera was not the major focus of his book; indeed, it took up no more than a few pages. But he singled out the Sassi for their tragic beauty and decay:

Like a schoolboy’s idea of Dante’s Inferno…dark holes riddled with filth and disease, where barnyard animals were kept in dank corners, chickens ran across the dining room tables, and infant mortality rates were horrendous, thanks to rampant malaria, trachoma and dysentery.

The book caused an uproar in postwar Italy and around the world, coming to be known as as la vergogna nazionale, the disgrace of the nation. 

Suddenly, the question of what to do with the Sassi was on everyone’s lips. The government decided to force the relocation of roughly 16,000 people to five new settlements they built at the top of the hill. Marshall Plan money flowed in.

The decision wasn’t universally popular. The Sassi may have been cramped and disease-ridden, but it was also home. And then there was the social life, where everyone lived outside in the courtyard and looked out for each other through every difficulty, especially important since they couldn’t rely on the government to act in their interest.

(One of the amazing historical photos of the Sassi taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson.)

It took a decade to clear the people out by bribe or by force. It’s estimated 90% relocated; the remainder were too stubborn or too frightened to go. But because they stayed, Matera can claim the oldest continually inhabited place in the world.

The decades that followed were not pretty. Any maintenance or services disappeared; the residents were on their own. Buildings fell into dangerous disrepair. Squatters, thieves and smugglers moved in.

Meanwhile, in the 1960s a group of students began to agitate against the focus on Matera’s failures of the previous 100 years, versus the success of the 9,000 that came before it. They documented the archeological treasures of the Sassi, including cave churches with priceless Byzantine frescoes. By then, Carlo Levi had become a senator and supported their efforts for conservation funds.

Slowly, artists started to drift into abandoned buildings. By the 1980s, the group of students had become part of the political class and were still actively working to save the Sassi. Their efforts to write a counter-narrative on Matera gained ground.

In film scripts based on a three-act story structure, there’s a plot twist that separates the second and third act, making inevitable the outcome of the movie. In real life, this was UNESCO’s 1993 designation of the Sassi as a world heritage site, calling it:

The most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem.

And a world heritage site cannot be left to rot and wither. So, now the Italian government had the world sitting in judgement once again about Matera. Decades after forcing people to leave by carrot and by stick, they asked them to go back.

In the thirty years since, huge amounts of EU funds have been spent to restore the Sassi. There are now chic cave hotels, and fine restaurants. Articles in Condé Nast Traveller and endless tourist selfies. A European capital of culture designation and tons of movie productions (it often doubles for ancient Jerusalem).

Of course, there is no shame in poverty, only in a world of such unequal distribution. And in governments whose leaders fail their citizens – whether because of neglect, or corruption, or addiction to symbolic acts or wedge politics that appeals to heightened emotions but does little to better people’s lives in the here and now.


After Italy, I went to Ireland to visit family, stopping in Dublin for a few days to see friends. Parts of the city were still locked down from the violent anti-immigration riots that had rocked it following the stabbing attacks on young children at a school. 

Everyone had an opinion that either condemned the mostly young male protestors, or ‘contextualized’ the reaction due to a severe lack of housing, unequal social benefits and rapid social change, while still decrying the anti-immigrant sentiment.

One thing everyone agreed upon, though, was a belief that all Ireland’s political parties had pandered to partisan politics in their reaction to the crisis, instead of providing strong leadership to their community. Wedging works – until it doesn’t, and they vote you out.

The funeral procession for Shane McGowan of the Pogues took place when I was in Dublin, and thousands lined the streets to pay their respects. The Irish do death well, but they live life fully, too. This musical performance clip of Fairytale of New York from McGowan’s funeral will have you dancing in your chair 🙂

But what struck me most in both Italy and in Dublin – beyond the need for good political leadership – is the resiliency of individual people and of the communities they form. That too is leadership, and it’s worth celebrating.

Books & Film.

Just a fraction of the novels/poetry on my 2024 Books Watchlist:

  • A Year of Last Things, Michael Ondaatje, M&S March 2024. A new poetry collection that rediscovers the influence of every border he’s crossed as a self-described ‘mongrel’ of diverse cultures. As the daughter of immigrants, I’ve always been fascinated by experiences of migration. 
  • Who By Fire, by Greg Rhyno, Cormorant Books April 2024. Launch of a new female sleuth series and who doesn’t love those.
  • What’s Not Mine, by Nora Decter, ECW Press April 2024. For fans of Miriam Toews, an absorbing, darkly funny story of family, addiction, and survival.
  • Wild Houses by Colin Barrett, set amidst violence and chaos in western Ireland, by the now Toronto-based author, M&S March 2024.
  • The Phoenix Crown, by historical novelists Janie Chang and Kate Quinn, set in 1906 San Francisco. Harper Collins Feb 2024.
  • A Friend in the Dark, Samantha Bailey, Thomas & Mercer, March 2024. I’ve got chills, they’re multiplying.

In my January 2023 Letterbox I included some film recommendations while I was at the Sundance Festival. That includes PAST LIVES, a truly breathtaking movie that has received 5 Golden Globe nominations including best pic, director, screenplay + actress, and is heavily expected to receive several Oscar noms. Writer/director Celine Song (a Korean-Canadian New Yorker) is currently shooting her second film, MATERIALISTS, about a NYC matchmaker. It’s definitely on my watchlist.

As is the following book adaptations: THE MAID by Nita Prose, set to star Florence Pugh; HAMNET, the fantastic Maggie O’Farrell novel directed by one of my favs Chloé Zhao (who is writing the screenplay with the author) and produced by Sam Mendes; THE CHAIN by another fav author Adrian McKinty; The NIGHTINGALEby Kristin Hannah (I’ve read other of her books but not that one). Plus ONE LOVEabout Bob Marley, the latest in the KNIVES OUT and KINGSMEN franchises; a new film by playwright Martin McDonagh; and APEX because I love Formula One.

I’ve just joined the social platform Letterboxd. (I know, the name). If you’re on there, let’s connect. It’s like Goodreads for film lovers without the nastiness or review bombing. (And yes, something really must be done about the hot mess that is Goodreads.) Like all my social platforms: @HelenWalshBooks

These little ceramic pumi abound in PugliaShaped like flower buds, they ward off il Malocchio (the evil eye). The word pumo comes from the latin pomum, or fruit. It’s important to never buy one for yourself, because you can’t buy yourself luck. But you can increase the odds of it for others. So please accept these digital pumi as my hope that the coming year opens up for each of you in surprising and abundant ways.

Bye for now. Thank you for joining me for this twenty-sixth edition of Letterbox.

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Matera – Arrival, Departure, Arrival (or why leadership matters).
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