City Guide to Matera Italy
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Matera. A city of caves set above a massive, breathtaking gorge. A civilization dating back to almost 7,000 years ago, making it one of the most ancient cultures in the world. A location in a remote part of southern Italy in the region of Basilicata. A place relatively unknown until recent years, when Matera became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993.
Matera is fascinating and like no other place I’ve been. It’s unlike any other place anyone’s been as well, and why it was named European Capital of Culture for 2019. To experience the city of Matera is to go back in time, to an age so primal it’s hard to believe the city still looks that way today. For it truly is a city of caves – known as the “Citta Sotterranea” (Underground City), it is situated on a ridge that jets up from a deep ravine, with thousands of caves built into the cascading limestone.
There are caves everywhere, with layers upon layers of caves in the earth. Some are homes and some are churches. A place of worship could be a family’s ceiling. They are the essence of this great city, and today serve as hotels, restaurants, shops and churches. I first learned of Matera from my travel blogger friend Clare’s post on it, when she described sleeping in a cave with her family. As I read on, I became completely captivated, maybe even obsessed, and less than a year later had planned my own trip there.
As I started reading articles on Matera, I kept saying to myself, what kind of place is this? And where is this? I’ve been to many places in Italy (it is, after all, my favorite country), and if I haven’t been to them, I know about them and they’re on my list. But, Matera – I had never heard of it. Turns out, I wasn’t alone. Matera has a unique history, and was not on peoples’ radars until recently, for a reason.
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Apart from its remoteness, Matera had been relatively unknown in modern times because in the 1950’s, the government deemed it unsafe and unsanitary, and demanded evacuation. Families of up to 8 and 10 people had been living in a single cave with their horses and livestock. There was no running water or electricity. Diseases such as malaria and cholera were running rampant. The people of Matera were living in terrible poverty, so much so that the city had been coined the ”shame of Italy.” Then the evacuation happened, and Matera became a ghost town.
By the time the 1990’s rolled around, Matera was re-recognized for its unique setting and way of life, and a restoration effort was begun to put this amazing city back together. As mentioned above, the caves were turned into restaurants and hotels and shops. I stayed at Hotel Sassi, the first cave hotel to be built (but not the nicest), and it was one of the most unique experiences I’ve had. While my room did have a window with an incredible view over the Sassi (city dwellings), I had friends stay in rooms with no windows and simply lit up with candles. It was almost other-worldly.
To look at the Sassi from above is quite a site. Caves descend down and down, one on top of the other, while narrow streets and alley ways twist and turn and disappear and reappear again. It’s a complete labrynth and maze of structures and streets that’s impossible to keep track of. A meandering puzzle of life. There are two parts to the Sassi – the Sasso Barisano (where most of the hotels and restaurants are) and the Sasso Caveoso (the more impoverished part of town). Both are a trip to walk through and around.
It should be noted that while the Sassi is the part of Matera where all the caves are located, there is another, more modern part of Matera, above the Sassi. This is where the main square is and many of the city’s shops and restaurants. This is where people lived after the Sassi was evacuated. Many of the homes were built facing away from the Sassi, so as to not look upon the “shame of Italy”.
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Cars can drive around the streets here. In most of the Sassi, no cars are allowed. In fact, I don’t think they’d fit. When I first arrived to Matera, I was dropped off in the modern part of town and had to walk down some ambling streets to reach my hotel. It’s tricky, but doable. As I was on a group tour with Exodus Travels, I did have help with my luggage. Otherwise I may have been in a bind! Make sure to ask your hotel if they have staff to assist.
Below is a list of things to do in Matera. Many people say you can make Matera what you want of it and visit in a day or stay a week. I think the perfect amount of time is to spend a weekend. I think 1 day is definitely too little. It’s a bewildering city in the best way possible, and to spend 1 day there you’ll wish you had spent more.
Things to do in Matera
Walk around the Sassi
The Sassi is a maze, a wonderful cobweb of cascading caves, winding streets, serpentine staircases, and hidden alley ways. It’s almost impossible to follow the map, so be prepared to walk and just get lost. That’s the great thing about Matera – it’s a total adventure. You never know what’s going to come upon you around the next corner and getting from A to B is not easy. You have to roll with it and treat the city as one big playground. Lose yourself in it and discover the hidden gems that make Matera such a special place.
Visit Murgia National Park
For unbelievable views of Matera in its entirety, head to Murgia National Park, on the other side of the ravine. You can drive there or take a bus. This is a must-do (after walking around the Sassi) in my opinion because it really does give you an amazing perspective. Just look at the photos! Also, there are several walking paths that you can hike around and see more caves up close and personal on this side of the ravine.
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See the Rupestrian churches
There are approximately 150-200 churches in Matera, known as rupestrian (rock) churches. Some are entirely in caves, while others are partially in caves, and others on top of caves. Many have ancient frescos, and you can even see them being restored live in some cases. The Chiesa di Santa Maria di Idris is an imposing site in Matera, as it is located in a huge, bubbly rock formation. You can’t miss it. The Chiesa San Pietro Barisano is Matera’s largest rupestrian church, with 15th-16th century frescos of the Annunciation. The Chiesa di Madonna delle Virtu was built in the 10th or 11th century and used to be a monastery. These are to name just a few – there are churches everywhere.
Visit the Casa-Grotta di Vico Solitario
To see what a cave would have looked like in the past, take a visit to this “casa”, or home. It’s set up the way it would have been, with a large bed, small kitchen and livestock living quarters. It’s crazy to think that people lived with their animals in a small area with no windows. You really get a sense of just what life was like by seeing this example cave.
Take a tour of the Palombaro Lungo
Located in the modern part of Matera, or “New Town”, the Palombaro Lungo is a giant water cistern underneath the city’s main square. It may seem random to do this, but it was pretty amazing and is regarded as one of Matera’s top sites to see. It is huge. Carved out of existing rock, the cistern still supplied water to the town up until recent times. You sort of feel like you’re in a James Bond movie when you’re walking around it – it’s very big, yet very secret at the same time.
Dine in a cave restaurant
Many of the Sassi’s caves have been turned into restaurants, and what better way to spend time and experience the town than to while away some time eating in a cave. Matera has some excellent food, and most places you can’t go wrong. We did a wine tasting in one of the cave restaurants..which was a good way to beat my claustrophobia – just drink lots of good Italian wine.
Matera is truly an awe-inspiring city. I straddle between wanting to yell out to the masses about it, and wanting to keep it still a secret. But with it being the European Capital of Culture for 2019, the secret is out. Still, though, it’s not under many people’s radars, so go now before it completely explodes.