Thanks to all who contributed suggestions and information to write this document. This is now good enough to enter the unMonasterian’s infopack attached to the international call for the unMonastery.
About Matera: what you should expect as an unMonasterian
Matera (Wikipedia) is a small city (60,800 inhabitants) in Southern Italy, in a region called Basilicata. Its ambience is mostly defined by the Sassi, the old city of dwellings that are half excavated and half built overground and are believed to have been continuously inhabited for 9,000 years – longer than any known human settlement. The unMonastery is located in the Sassi (here is a map with its location and those of other interesting and problematic places in town, built during a workshop with Materans themselves).
The Sassi were very densely populated up to the 1950s, when the Italian public opinion decided that the living conditions therein (hygiene was especially bad, with infant mortality four times as high as the national average) were unacceptable for a country that wanted to be modern. Special laws mandated the evacuation of the Sassi and the relocation of their inhabitants into new neighborhoods designed by the best Italian urban planners of the time. As a consequence, the ownership regime in the area is quite intricate, with a lot of the real estate (including the unMonastery building) belonging to the state. Since the 1980s enterprising Materans have started to re-colonize the Sassi.
Matera has a very cohesive society. You can expect to bump into people you know or who know you through others practically from day one. People you have met before will generally expect you to stop and chat for a couple of minutes. Be aware that most people are not comfortable speaking English: teaching yourself a few words of Italian is going to be a very good investment for your time in the city. People are generally very friendly and uninhibited in walking up to you and asking you questions.
The climate is quite mild by European standards. Temperatures below zero are rare even in the winter (seasonal average temperatures), and rainfall is moderate. Winter is short, and autumn long and mild: October, November and early December are normally pleasant. Food is normally very good, easy to come by and cheap. This is, after all, Italy.
Despite the friendliness of the locals and the beauty of the Sassi, Matera is no utopia. Like most of Italy’s Mezzogiorno, it is plagued by high long-term unemployment (the region’s unemployment rate in 2013 is 15.6%, well above the national average of 11.4 and double the average of Northern Italy); an aging population (average age 41.7 in 2011, with 18.4% over 65 years of age); and a growing sense of despair and disempowerment as the Italian crisis unfolds.
This sense of impending doom might be the unMonastery’s greatest challenge. It reverberates into a generally conservative attitude, as a well as a deep mistrust of institutions (while Basilicata has fared better than other regions, the effectiveness and transparency of governance in Southern Italy is generally considered to be abysmal). In 2011, when the city decided to run for European City of Culture 2019, the decision was greeted with enthusiasm by some, but with skepticism by others: many Materans think their city is too backwards to deserve any recognition, and think the City Hall should focus on running business as usual. The unMonastery is a pilot project of the Matera 2019 committee, and some of the skepticism that surrounds any local government initiative in the area might have rubbed off on the unMonastery. Check out this video made by a local blogger (English. Thanks Francesco and Donato!) to get a feeling for this. We expect the first unMonasterians to make some effort to prove their usefulness to the local community before such reservations are lifted.
As an unMonasterian, you are encouraged to make your own inquiries about Matera, Basilicata and Southern Italy in general. A better mutual understanding across Europeans from different corners of the continent would not be a bad outcome from this project.