Matera is a fascinating town located in the southern Italian region of Basilicata, on the border with Puglia. It has gained international fame for its cave-like ancient town – ‘the Sassi di Matera’ – a settlement with prehistoric origins, and which literally translates as ‘stones’.
Now a vibrant city thanks to tourism and its status as the European Capital of Culture for 2019, Matera has reborn from the ashes. Until the 1950s it was a place of great poverty, and so the Italian government relocated the majority of its citizens into new housing in the suburbs. The caves which were overrun suddenly became empty – until a number of citizens decided to return and restore them.
The effort paid off; in 1993 Matera became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was described as ‘the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem.’ Since then, dozens of hotels, restaurants and B&Bs have opened and many citizens have decided to repopulate the Sassi. The charm of the town and its unique views keep attracting visitors every year, business and cultural activities are growing and the European Commission has chosen Matera as the 2019 town that symbolises the cultural diversity of Europe.
A visit to Matera will certainly leave its mark on you and the town’s “sorrowful beauty” – as writer Carlo Levi described it – will be impossible to forget. Here are our tips to make the most out of a day trip to the city…
A tour through Matera must start from its main attraction, the Sassi. This complex maze of cave dwellings is one of the oldest surviving examples of a primitive settlement and is divided into three main areas. Sasso Caveoso, in the southern part, is one of the ancient settlements and the perfect starting point for your tour – here you can admire the original caves where shepherds used to live and experience what life at that time was like. Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario is a perfect example of one of the traditional cave dwellings that were inhabited until 1956; visitors are presented with a picture of what life in 1950’s Matera was like via a brief video before entering the real house, which has been carefully restored with artefacts and photos of the last owners. The adjacent rupestrian church San Pietro in Monterrone, completely carved into the rock, is also worth a visit. Rupestrian churches are one of the main attractions of Matera, perfectly adapted to this rough terrain and a real surprise for visitors with their complex structure and “sorrowful beauty”. A must-see during your tour through Sasso Caveoso are San Pietro Caveoso and the small church Santa Maria de Idris, where you can admire frescos from the 14th and 15th century and the fascinating crypt San Giovanni in Monterrone as well as enjoy a stunning view over the Murgia – the highland surrounding Matera.
From here, head towards Civita, the second hilly area of Sassi, from where the Cathedral Maria Santissima della Bruna dominates the city and where you can admire the houses and narrow streets that served as locations in the film “The Passion of the Christ”. Getting lost in this complex maze of cobbled streets is the best way to experience the real Matera and you can try to reach the top of the hill through the long staircase in Via Muro, where the famous Via Crucis scene was filmed.
Once you’ve reached Piazza Duomo by the Cathedral, you’ll enjoy breath-taking views over the old centre of the city. You can then climb down the otherside into Sasso Barisano, the third and last area of ancient town; here you’ll find a slightly different Matera, more similar to a medieval village, but the apparently normal facades of the houses hide other caves dwellings, most of which now host hotels, B&Bs and small traditional restaurants.
If you are quite adventurous and don’t mind a little bit of trekking, the best way to end your day in Matera is to reach Murgia Timone, the plain on the other side of the ravine opposite the Sassi. Here visitors will find the oldest cave dwellings of the area, dating back to the Neolithic Age, as well as the Chapel Sant’Agnese and an unparalleled view over the whole town. You can reach Murgia Timone by car but an increasing number of tourists opt for a more adventurous route across the new Ponte Tibetano – a suspension bridge that crosses the Gravina steam. The walk starts from Porta Pistola and it takes an hour to the final destination, but the view of the ancient city at sundown will definitely reward you for all your efforts.
However, if you want to spend your last hours in Matera in a more relaxing way but without missing the chance to see something stunning, from Sasso Barisano you should head towards the main square in Matera, Piazza Vittorio Veneto, and the modern part of the town. With the Baroque palace Palazzo del Sedile and numerous shops, cafés and restaurants, this vibrant area of the city will surprise you and give you the chance to relax, shop, and take a stroll along the lively Via del Corso and Via Duomo.
But before you do that, stop in Piazza Vittorio Veneto and discover what is hidden under your feet! Beneath the square you will find the second largest cistern in the world after the one in Istanbul, the Palombaro Lungo; it dates back to the 18th century and was used to collect rainwater and provide it to this part of the city. Long forgotten, it was discovered by explorers in 1991. Completely carved by hand, it is part of a complex water collection system beneath the whole ancient town – and you can head downstairs into this amazing cistern, and walk along the path below the water level line.
At the end of this incredible day, you will probably want to relax and spend the last few hours in this city enjoying some food – you will certainly have built up an appetite after all that walking! The modern part of Matera is where you can find the majority of restaurants, especially Via del Corso and Via Duomo. In Piazza Vittorio Veneto, near the Palombaro Lungo, the Kappador Restaurant is the perfect choice for a “spectacular” dinner; as the name “The window on the Sassi” suggests, guests can admire one of the best views over Matera from the restaurant terrace while enjoying a pizza or one of the traditional dishes of this region. Be ready to wait a little bit though! The terrace has just a limited number of places, so we suggest you to book your place in advance if you do not want to get there too early. The more you get closer to Sassi then, the more you will find refined restaurants as well. Among them we suggest you “Il Mare nei Sassi”, which serves contemporary, fish-focused regional cuisine, and “Soul Kitchen”, one the most praised restaurants in town for its modern take on the tradition’s receipts.
Whatever you get up to in this fantastic town, we’d love to see your snaps – tag us on Instagram @bookings_for_you
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