Located in Italy’s southern region of Basilicata, Matera is one of the most interesting and unusual cities in all of Italy. Never heard of it? I’m not surprised. This still relatively unknown town is one of Southern Italy’s best kept secrets – but not for long! Matera has been inhabited for 9,000 years and is best known for its extensive cave-dwelling districts, the sassi. It’s stunning beauty and storied history will make a lasting impression on each and every visitor.
Matera wasn’t always this lovely. Until the 1950s, Matera was actually a source of shame for Italy. It was a place of poverty, where people lived in caves without electricity, running water or sewage and malaria and infant mortality ran rampant. Carlo Levi’s book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, helped to raise awareness of the desperate conditions people were living in, and between 1953 and 1968, about half of the population was moved into new homes in the modern part of the city. Since the 1980s, Matera has been on the rebound and a great number of its once uninhabitable caves have now been turned into hotels, restaurants and cafes. In 1993 the town was named a UNESCO World Heritage site and tourism is slowing on the rise.
Separated into two main neighbourhoods, Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso, Matera’s old town is an intricate labyrinth of narrow alleyways, uneven stone staircases, cave churches and tiny courtyards. The best way to explore is by foot. As you step into the sassi, you may feel as though you’ve been transported back in time. Don’t worry, it’s bound to happen. No doubt that is precisely why filmmakers chose Matera as one of the filming locations for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Go slowly and don’t worry if you get lost. That’s half the fun of exploring! And there are two main pathways that take you through a big loop so you’ll be able to find your way back fairly easily.
To get a feel for what life was like for people in the 18th century, don’t miss a stop inside the Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario. This cave dwelling is outfitted with furniture and tools from the period so you can imagine what life was like for a family of 6 to 8 people living in a cave, along with their mules and chickens. Entry is only 3 euros and it is a stop well worth making.
Another spot that is well worth a visit is Convicinio di Sant’Antonio. After entering through an elegant portal, you’ll get the chance to explore this fascinating complex of four interconnected churches, each with its own distinct style. Although the churches have been long abandoned, you can see see evidence of the gorgeous frescos clinging to the stone walls. This former monastery was later turned into a wine cellars in 1700. If you look closely, you can still see the spouts for wine emerging from what appears to be an abandoned altar.
And as an added bonus, when you leave the church complex and enter the lovely courtyard, you are treated to spectacular views of Matera’s river and ravine. From here you can see the abandoned ruins of the portion of the city across the river that has not been rebuilt. From here it is easy to imagine what life might have been like long ago.
After all this exploring you are going to need a good meal. Stop at Trattoria del Caveoso. Located at Via Bruno Buozzi, 21, 75100, Trattoria del Caveoso is a casual, family run restaurant built out of an old stone cave. Order up a glass of the local Puglian wine and if they have a special of the day, go for it! That is how I was lucky enough to enjoy a mouthwatering plate of local cured pork and artichoke carpaccio lightly drizzled with olive oil and a touch of lemon. This was followed by a simple, but absolutely delicious plate of cavatelli pasta that had been handmade that morning, swimming in a light tomato sauce and sprinkled with freshly made ricotta cheese.
If you’re still hungry after indulging in an incredible meal of fresh, local specialties, make your way back up the Sassi to the town center where you can find I Vizi degli Angeli Laboratorio di Gelateria Artigianale. Located at Via Domenico Ridola, 36, I Vizi degli Angeli gets creative with flavours and serves up great artisanal house-made gelato, frozen yogurt and sorbets. I tried a lavender gelato that was absolutely out of this world!
If you are at all intrigued by Matera, I’d recommend visiting sooner rather than later. Matera just beat out more popular Italian cities Siena and Ravenna to be the named the European Capital of Culture in 2019 so it’s going to be getting a lot of attention very soon.
Did you know? Matera’s sister city is Petra in Jordan.
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