While in Puglia and just one day before flying back to the UK, we decided to stretch over to Basilicata to visit Matera. Just off the border with Puglia, Matera, which is thought to be the third oldest city in the world, is located 400 mt. above the sea level in a superb setting. For me it was one of those places where reality far exceeded expectations.
The road to get there is not a particularly nice one; mostly one lane only, driving through construction works and shacks with prostitutes (yes), you can’t say it’s a lovely drive but it’s totally worth it. When we were there (mid April), traffic was steady with definitely far more trucks than tourist cars and you will appreciate it even more once arrived in Matera: the old city was extremely quiet and we could wander through the Sassi almost on our own. We started our tour of the city with sunshine but by the end of the day we had some really heavy rain. Still, it was wonderful and before the rain hit we were able to enjoy a yummy outdoor quick lunch with all the local delicacies, including a incredible buttery fresh ricotta.
Not to miss:
- I Sassi: Matera is known as “La citta’ dei Sassi” (the City of Stones). It’s a whole city literally carved in tuff with plenty of underground labyrinths and hidden corners that create an extremely fascinating effect. “I Sassi”, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1993 (together with the Park of Rupestrian Churches – see further down), show a way to live that dates back to prehistoric times and that has lived up to our days, almost intact. Get lost in the old city, wander through the narrow alleys and enjoy the spectacular views that literally open up at every corner.
- Rupestrian Churches: they are churches created in caves where you can still admire wonderful frescos. They go back to the Medieval times and, apart from their religious function, throughout the centuries they have also been used as dwellings or animal shelters. There are around 155 rupestrian churches spread all over the area around Matera. To arrange a guided tour, you can contact the CEA (Environmental Educational Centre); I haven’t tried them by myself since unfortunately we didn’t have as much time as we would have liked in Matera but apparently is an excellent option for excursions and visits in the area.
- The treks. If you have got a couple of days, you could spend one day visiting Matera and the second one exploring the beautiful nearby area; there are plenty of stunning treks in the wonderful National Park of the Murgia Materana (Murge – spiky rocks – is a vast subregion encompassed between the regions of Puglia and Basilicata), dotted with plenty of Rupestrian churches. On CEA webpage they advertise different walks/treks options for all levels so it could be an excellent option to combine beautiful outdoor treks with a full explanation of the territory and the local history.
We didn’t sleep in Matera but as you will see on the web there are plenty of options. Sleeping in the Sassi is extremely charming but it can be very expensive though (have a look at Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita or Corte San Pietro to get an idea)…so if you are on a small budget but still want to fully experience this magical setting, a good option could be to use Airbnb. There are plenty of rooms from less than 40 Euro/night right in the Sassi with many excellent reviews, worth to have a look at 😉
Matera has been appointed (together with Plovdiv, Bulgaria) 2019 European Capital Culture, defeating other shortlisted stunning Italian cities, such as Lecce and Siena. But it is quite striking to think that only in recent times this same city had been defined as a “national shame” by some Italians themselves and its “Sassi” were considered a disgraceful example of deterioration; in the 1950s, funds were granted to build new housing outside the old cave-city, aiming at relocating over 15.000 people from their house-caves thus emptying the original prehistoric city. It was only in the mid-80s that a new national law started the process of recovery of the old city, after over 30 years of neglect. Still, if you visit now, you will have the feeling that a lot needs to be done as plenty of buildings are still abandoned and empty. Unfortunately, Matera (and the whole region) suffers what largely affects the beautiful South of Italy: high unemployment rates and lack of infrastructure. Not many people are interested in living here and many young people are forced to emigrate looking for better job opportunities. But this is another excellent reason to put this place on top of your list, before it gets taken over by hordes of tourists. If you are a movie fan, you might already know that plenty of blockbuster movies have been filmed here (including the massive Ben-Hur production, to be released in summer 2016), taking advantage of the breath-taking views and the unique city.
If you can’t wait and want to have a preview of how stunning Matera is, I suggest you have a look at the Episode of Italy Unpacked 2015 where English art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon and Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli discover the beauty of Matera during their tour throughout Italy.
There might be plenty of other cave dwellings in the world (Spain, Turkey to name a couple) but rarely you will stumble across something as unique as this.