Sassi di Matera, an Eco Friendly Destination

Matera, in Southern Italy, has become an eco friendly destination over the last few decades, thanks to the preservation of ancient villages in the historic area. Old Matera, called the Sassi, or City of Stone, was featured in The Passion of Christ (Mel Gibson).  Sassi consists of very old caves and buildings, some of which date back to Roman times, and may even be some of the earliest human settlements in Italy.

The caverns are carved into calcareous rock along a ravine  (known as "la Gravina") where there was once a river. Now, it's a small stream. For many years, the caverns were the homes of poor families, until the population was forcefully relocated in the 1950's. It was considered an area of poverty until the 1980's, and most of the homes were unlivable.

However, in 1993, UNESCO declared Matera a World Heritage site, and encouraged investors to take out 30-year leases on property. Slowly, the area began to turn itself into an eco friendly destination. Condemned homes, thanks to brave entrepreneurs like Margaret Bergh and  Daniele Kihlgren, were transformed into luxurious hotels and restaurants. The Santo Stefando di Sessanio project, like others in the area, is meant to preserve the local buildings, rather than the noble ones. This particular project involves a partnership between a private investment (Kihlgren) and local government.

No new modern buildings (which would disturb the landscape) are permitted. The original architecture of the villages should be preserved. In Sextantio Albergo Diffuso, the original architecture has been completely preserved, as well as some of the furnishings. Recycled materials are used to build chairs, desks, and milk stools. And, from the ancient cupboards to new towels, all materials are local.  Santo Stefando di Sessanio states the following philosophy: not to betray the "soul" of the villages.

The 18 rooms in Sextantio Albergo Diffuso  are simple and welcoming, with a spiritual tone. Candles flicker, and the occasional cross adorns a wall or corner. No room service, no flat screen TVs, just the ancient quiet. Guests bathe in the rooms where mules munched on grass and sleep where peasants slept. Daniele Kihlgren says he had a "dreamlike vision" that inspired him to preserve the village of Sassi. Lanie Goodman, of  the New York Times, wrote that Kihlgren, with his two neck piercings and a red anchor tattoo, looks "more like a rock star than a businessman". Kihlgren says that caves, while not "beautiful in the classic sense" are "very moving and must be preserved".

Photo credit: Clemensfranz