Popular for its sassi and stunning landscapes, Matera lies on the border of Basilicata and Puglia in southern Italy. Though still relatively undiscovered by foreign tourists, it is one of the most popular cities among the local residents of Italy. Also known by the name of ‘la Citta Sotterranea’ (The Subterranean City), it is one of the oldest inhabited regions of Italy. Its history dates back to about 30,000 years back when Matera was one among the most impoverished regions in Italy. And today the city, after going through an unbelievable renaissance is one of the most fascinating towns around the world. However, the real reason to Matera’s fame and it being a UNESCO World Heritage Site is its cave dwellings.
Everything in Matera starts with its caves, some of them even dating back to the Stone Age. The oldest part of the town is called ‘sassi’ meaning stones. They refer to the sandstone caves carved into the mountainside. These cave dwellers are believed to be some of the first human settlers of Italy. Initially these ‘houses’ were simply caverns but with the advance of better tools this developed into a vaulted room and then into what we see today. It is equally interesting to know that some of the streets in Sassi are in fact located on the rooftops of other houses. For a distant observer, these dwellings may look like homes piled on top of the other.
Matera is easily reachable from Bari in the Apulia region. The Ferrovie Appulo Lucane has trains running from Bari to Matera Centrale every 1-2 hours during the morning. To those interested, the FAL does run trains on Sundays! From Matera Centrale there are several buses to our destination, the most popular being the Linea Sassi buses. You can also walk to the Sassi as it takes only about 20 minutes from the piazza. On reaching the Sassi, there are no other modes of transport you could rely on but your foot! Asking the help of a local tour guide is highly recommended to learn more about the various aspects of the city, a one of a kind in the history architectural monuments.
Life wasn’t always so easy at the incredibly romantic town of Matera. Even then the very thought of constructing homes, churches and stores out of rock using the minimum tools in those days by itself makes one astonished in awe. The churches in Matera are worth visiting. Carved out of rock, the churches date back to the Middle Ages and some of them are even filled with vibrant frescoes. These types of churches are popularly known as ‘rupestrian churches’. San Pietro Caveoso and San Pietro Barisano, both dedicated to the Apostle Peter are two prominent churches in Matera. Similarly the Matera Cathedral built in an Apulian Romanesque architectural style is also famous for its 52m tall bell tower.
Though not properly shaped and structured, the churches of Matera are a popular tourist destination. However the frescoes have almost completely disappeared today, particularly because of the damage caused by tourists from touching them. Matera however is not the place for luxury lovers. The houses, churches and other buildings are connected via narrow paths and stairs, so will have to climb stairs, no matter what even if it is to get around from a cave to another one. So bring your walking shoes and sneakers if you are planning a trip to Matera. Another remarkable sight is the handmade cisterns and systems of water channels. Since Matera was built on top of a ridge called Gravina of Matera with deep canyons on either side it was difficult to supply water to the inhabitants.
There are also many museums talking about the rich peasant culture of Matera. The most popular among them are the Domenico Ridola National Museum of archaeology and Palazzo Lanfranchi modern art museum. A popular tourist destination above the sassi is the unfinished 16th century Tramontano Castle. Staying in one of the cave hotels is indeed a unique experience one would dare to miss on a trip to Matera. A commonly recommended hotel is the San Martino Hotel, a former church now transformed into a nice warm hotel with an extraordinary thermal pool. If you wish to stay outside the sassi, Albergo Italy is a good place. The hotel has a fantastic view over the sassi.
The food here is fantastic. Matera produces the best bread in Italy. The most famous food items of Matera include bread, pizza, grilled lamb, trofie pasta with dried red chillies and orechietti. As for drinks the aglianico, a powerful, earthy red wine is a local speciality, most of which never crosses Basilicata! Reasonable and comfortable restaurants round the corner are Ristorante Francesca, Baccanti and Pizzeria Sant’ Agostino. Matera is rapidly rising in fame with wealthy Romans, Neapolitans and Milanese now buying up the cave dwellings and modifying them into vacation homes.
It was the ancient beauty of Matera that inspired Mel Gibson to film his ‘The Passion of Christ’ in the city. Many other films like King David and The Nativity Story were also filmed here. Matera is truly an outstanding example of an ancient human settlement that with the evolution of culture never forgot to pay respect to nature. The caves and its unusual appearance had succeeded in immortalizing the otherworldly village of Matera etched into the mountains of Basilicata. Its unique townscape is as intact and extraordinary, in a way, as Venice!