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Last Updated: Friday, 20 January 2006, 14:34 GMT
Italian cave city goes hi-tech
By Daniel Sandford
BBC News, Matera, Italy

A cave city, abandoned in the 1950s, has become the base for several high-technology companies.

As you arrive in Matera by car, it looks like many other Italian cities in the poor south - slightly scruffy, but with a lively feel.

It is only when you drive off the plateau where the new town was built, into the old town clinging to the side of a valley, that you realise it is actually an extraordinary place.

Matera, Southern Italy
Carving out a future: Modern Matera (pic: Unesco/M.Modoveanu)

The historic area known as the "Sassi" (the stones) is a cave city. Some dwellings are little more than caves with a door on the front.

Others have elaborate fronts, hiding the cave quarters behind.

In the 1950s Matera was a slum city. Tens of thousands of people lived in the Sassi in unhygienic troglodyte conditions, and malaria was prevalent. The prime minister at the time declared it was "Italy's shame".

The solution was to evict everyone from the old town and build shiny new blocks into which the population moved happily. The Sassi were abandoned completely and left empty.

Hi-tech future

Now the empty caves are coming back to life. We found large computer servers, with their lights blinking, tucked away in cave rooms once occupied by people and animals.

A call centre company called Datacontact has taken over a whole complex. Their computers are in one cave, the people answering calls are in others.

Matera, southern Italy
It is as if the hollowed-out rooms have jumped from the prehistoric era to the 21st Century, bypassing much of history.

The Datacontact call centre where 500 people work is now the third-biggest employer in Matera.

A software house has also been operating in the caves for several years.

The Sassi of Matera are now a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Pietro Laureano, the architect who led the rebirth of the caves, is enthusiastic about the arrival of the hi-tech companies.

"Sassi de Matera is a prehistoric town. It is the future of technology and it's a town which can be linked to the whole world. It is very interesting to see the city go from Stone Age to the future age," he said.

Matera is also a fast-developing tourist centre, with atmospheric hotels and restaurants opening in the caves.

But tourism is seasonal, and the Sassi might not be fashionable forever.

The people of Matera hope the servers blinking in the caves will be the best answer to their long-term unemployment problems.


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See the people who lived in the caves



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