There’s a tiny corner in Southern Italy that has only recently come out of the shadows. Much maligned as recently as 50 years ago as “The shame of Italy”, Matera, the ancient revamped capital of Basilicata, with its magnificent rocky cavernous landscape and its troglodyte dwellings, has been awarded European Capital of Culture for 2019 and is preparing to swing open its doors to tourism.
Why visit Sassi di Matera, UNESCO World Heritage Site?
Without a doubt, Matera is very easy on the eye. Imagine a scene of tightly knit hillside stone dwellings, so compact that sometimes one sits on top of the other. Its ancient style oozes a sort of mysterious grandeur with a mix of cave churches carved into the mountain and ornate grand churches in the old town. It could sit easily within the pages of a Dan Brown thriller blockbuster.
For one can’t help but wonder about all the goings on and strange characters that may have lurked in those ancient cave dwellings of Sassi di Matera (the stones of Matera) for the best part of 9,000 years. Indeed, Bronze age evidence of human existence in the area makes this one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world.
Matera – from shame to chic in 50 years
Yet not so long ago, living conditions were so bad that the streets of the two sassi (meaning “stones”) districts of Barisano and Caveoso, became inadvertent sewers. Homes were badly ventilated often with 90 per cent humidity and on top of that farmers lived with their animals (horses, sheep) in small spaces. None of this was helped by overpopulation, disease and poverty.
The council was so appalled that they evacuated the 20,000 inhabitants and moved them into square-shaped two-story homes dubbed casa Mussolini with modern amenities on the outskirts of town. Matera was now ripe for renovation, and has scrubbed up beautifully, so much so that it has been awarded European Capital of Culture for 2019.
Now bathing in the warmth of the limelight, the city is becoming the next must-visit holiday destination.
What to see in Matera
Matera is divided into the civita – the town centre – and surrounding sassi cliffs. It’s a walk of sometime steep ups and downs and highlights include the sensational views especially from Parco della Murgia Materana, the national park.
The thirteenth century Cathedral of Santa Maria della Bruna made from tufa stone, stands tall overlooking the Sassi from the hightest point on Civita hill. Inside it is rich in Baroque style, with stucco, paintings, gilded frames and sculptures.
Several other churches cut out of tufa stone but a notable exception is the 13th-century San Pietro. It’s worth checking out the Appian Way to Cripta del Peccato Originale to see the medieval cave paintings.
High in this hills is the cave church of Santa Lucia alle Malve, one of 155 rupestrian (made of stone) with extraordinary frescoes.
Explore Matera’s film fame
It’s hardly surprising that Mel Gibson chose to film his The Passion of the Christ in 2003. The sassi caves are instantly recognisable as is the church of San Nicola dei Greci which selected as the location for the Last Supper.
Also look out for the soon to be released Ben Hur spectacular starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Huston where Metera features as the backdrop.
Wonder Woman, released in 2017, was also shot in Matera and stars Gal Gadot, David Thewlis, and Robin Wright.
Where to sleep in and around Matera
Matera has plenty of B&Bs, condominiums and caves suitable for 1-3 nights stay. Le Grotte della Civita, which comprises 18 cave-cum-bedrooms is luxuriously rustic and ripe for romance. For those in search of a spa as well, Locanda di San Martino Hotel e Thermae Romanae’s Roman baths may tick the box, while Palazzo Gattini provides spirituality with a view.
If you are looking to stay longer than just a weekend, we recommend you combine a visit to Matera with a visit to Puglia, just over an hour drive from Matera (read our guide to Top 10 places to see in Puglia). There are over 18000 villas with a pool and at least 2000 luxury villas in Puglia. Here are some of our favourites:
Set amidst three sun-soaked hectares of private garden Trullo Atena is something very special. It has been designed for a holiday that will re-energise and relax, boost wellbeing and offer an unforgettable experience of beautiful Puglia.
Trullo Incanto D’Itria is a complex of traditional trulli with a stunning pool and gardens. Newly renovated, it offers the very best of outdoor living for larger groups. The extensive gardens are beautifully landscaped and filled with ancient olive trees and the pool area is particularly impressive.
Trullo Liz is a little gem, perfect for two couples holidaying together or for a small family. This traditional house has been carefully restored to preserve its original features while still offering the benefits of modern living.
Where to eat in Matera
Matera has a few rustic restaurants but Baccanti Ristorante does a fabulous Podolico cheese flan with pork sausage as a starter, and hearty dishes such as lamb chops and calf’s cheek served with vegetables.
Bread making was a big deal way back when. Households would prepare the dough (enough for a week) called Pane di Matera IGP with 100% Lucanian milled semolina grain known as “Senatore Cappelli.” Once a week the trumpet would sound and a baker boy would pick up the dough to take central bakery for baking. It was returned later fully baked. For this service, the baker kept some of the dough for sale as part payment.
Bread is still a big deal and you can taste it at Il Forno Di Gennaro on Via Nationale, owned by fourth generation baker Particia. You may even get a demo.
Disclaimer: this article was written in partnership with Puglia Paradise