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The captivating city of Matera will immediately make you feel like you’ve set foot in another time in history. Located in the region of Basilicata in Southern Italy, this ancient city dates from the Palaeolithic period and is one of the oldest continuously settled cities in the world. Yes, you read that right, it was first occupied since Stone Age, 9000 years ago, and people have never ever left until today. To this day, homes and establishments remain located in the cave dwellings carved into the mountainside of this rocky region.
Matera has not yet become a mainstream travel destination since it still remains relatively unknown from foreign tourists. However, my recommendation is that you move quickly as this UNESCO World Heritage held the European Capital City of Culture for 2019, alongside Plovdid, Bulgaria and it will most likely gain in popularity in the very near future.
Now let’s cut to the chase and talk about what makes Matera so impressive!
1. Matera’s history and the way it evolved
Matera came a long way as it didn’t always have the quaint charm it prides itself on having today. Through its long course of life, Matera was actually once known as the shame of Italy. Up until the 1950s, at least 20 000 of its habitants were living in extreme poverty, right in the caves, in the same conditions as in the prehistoric era; with absolutely no electricity and running water. They could be families of 10 living in one roomed dark caves with, at times, bed to even sleep on. As most of the residents were peasants and farmers, animals would also stay in the caves with them to ensure they wouldn’t get stolen at night. People were living in very difficult conditions with basic needs not covered and diseases being a thing of normalcy. A bit past the mid 1900s, the government seized the Sassi of Matera and relocated its population due to important health issues.
2. Roaming around the ancient city
You should plan yourself about two days to visit this ancient city. Because Matera is small, it’ll be enough time to see all you’ll wanna see. During your tour, you’ll notice that what absolutely defines Matera is the thousands of cave dwellings that appear literally everywhere. You’ll definitely need to make your way to the Sassi of Matera (sassi for stones), which is the old part of town and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its immense range of the original prehistoric dwellings. Many of these have stayed relatively intact and still feature original decor and frescoes. Today, they have been adapted to everyday life and house homes, shops, hotels, churches and museums to name a few.
Matera is legitimately unlike any city we’ve ever seen. There’s this certain vibe to it that is hard to explain with words. It is a truly mystical and bewitching town and its biblical appearance is astonishing, so much so that it is actually where they filmed the Passion of the Christ. By day or by night, the best way to appreciate the city’s labyrinthine layout is on foot. Since Matera is literally placed on a mountain, you’ll be able to enjoy the views from many angles and heights, all prettier than the other.
By day, you’ll be able to visit many of the churches and caves, stop by a little cafe or bar for a snack and drink, soak in the stony views from the various viewpoints and admire the sun as it hugs the various buildings and cave dwellings in the most magical of ways.
But at night, oh my, at night. Believe it or not, the town becomes even more magical. The dimly yet gloriously lit up streets and facades give the town an even more romantic vibe, giving even the residents and visitors twinkles in their eyes. As you roam the streets, you’ll feel enamored with a sense of total magnetism. People are nice, life is slow and it just feels so comforting.
3. Seeing the inside of the typical Matera caves
Since caves are a common part of the city and have been adapted to modern times, you’ll find yourself walking in and out of them on the reg as you go by your day.
However, to experience something totally extraordinary, we recommend visiting the Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario. Granted, this is more of a touristy activity and you’ll most likely share the space with tour groups but it’s definitely worth a visit. For a 3 euro entry fee (check out their website as prices are subject to change), you’ll be able to visit typically furnished cave dwelling, allowing you to see how people lived in the 18th century before they were relocated. You’ll find yourself immersed in their way of living, which didn’t involve any electricity or running water, summer like winter. You’ll discover the furnishings and instruments, the bed where the often large family slept, the animal stalls (horses, pigs, chickens, etc). You’ll be able to learn about everything in the room as there is an audio description available in English. It’s open all year round so make sure you plan an hour out of your day to visit it whenever you go!
4. Sleeping in a cave
If sleeping in a cave wasn’t considered a treat back in the old days, it has become today a quite luxurious experience. Cave hotels can be found in the hundreds in Matera, and we highly recommend that you sleep in one. There are so many wonderful options that vary from hotels to Airbnb’s. We stayed at Il Pallazzotto Residence & Winery and had a lovely experience. Our room was stunning, and they offered a delightful breakfast that was enjoyed in the most beautiful of settings. I would highly recommend it, but there are so many other interesting options that can be found in the heart of the Sassi of Metera. Please consult this list if you would like to explore some of them. There are also many Airbnb options that you can choose from in this list!
5. The churches
Matera would not be Matera without its array of classical churches. They are what make the town feel so biblical, and they are loaded with history. The Sassi and the Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera comprises several places of worship, from churches to monasteries and chapels. Most of them have remained intact over the years and still have their original frescos. As you roam the city, you’ll pass by several without even trying, in which you can enter for free or for a small entry fee. Here’s a list of the ones we took note of but there are so many more you’ll stumble upon!
The Matera Cathedral
The most popular Matera Cathedral is a beautiful church to visit, and it’s also the highest point of the Sassi. You’ll be able to soak in the incredible views from its lookout.
The Church of Santa Maria de Idris & The San Giovanni Crypt
One other church to definitely see is the Church of Santa Maria de Idris. It is literally a church in a rock and dates back to the fifteenth century. As you enter, you’ll make your way in the San Giovanni crypt, where you’ll be able to see frescoes from the 12th to 17th century.
St-Peter of Monterrone Rock Church
This is a chapel that was carved out of a rock in the 11th century. It was built to temporarily locate St-Peter and Paul while their main church was being built. As the centuries went by, it no longer became a place of worship and was actually used to store wood and construction equipment, as well as to tread grapes in a tub to make wine. During these years, a big fire damaged the frescoes, but the church is definitely still worth visiting.
6. Food, drinks & hospitality
Matera is where you’ll be able to find authentic and deep-rooted recipes that will make you rediscover Italian cuisine. Its habitants have been using the same local ingredients over the centuries and you can still find the peasant cuisine on the Matera table, at times in its intact state, and others in elevated settings. You’ll have some of the best bread (be sure to have the strazzata, a typical local focaccia, coined il pane di Matera – the bread of Matera), pasta, cheeses and charcuterie, as well as unique dishes to the region. Think wild mushroom and pork orecchiette, crapiata, a rustic soup of legume and cereal, and cialledda, Puglia’s version of the panzanella, a stale bread and tomato salad as the main ingredients. Everything tastes fresh and everything tastes real, what a delight.
One of our favorite places was actually a bar near our hotel. Vicolo Cieco Salsamenteri was a beautiful venue tucked away in a cave with extremely welcoming and helpful staff. This is where we had our first cialledda and it was delicious. It tasted even better with an iced-cold Italian beer.
Of course, you’ll want to discover some of the delightful local Southern Italian wines. Because of the warm temperatures of the region, bold and hearty wines are mostly what you’ll be able to enjoy while you visit Matera. The local house wine we had at Trattoria del Caveoso, a restaurant serving local delicacies located in a traditional cave with a beautiful terrace, was amongst our favorites of the trip.
So… are you convinced yet?
This list is definitely not exhaustive as there are a million other reasons to visit Matera if only for the ambiance and the feeling you get once you set foot there for the first time. It really is hard to describe with words but I wish I did a good enough job to spark your interest and consider a visit. Trust me on this, when you’ll see it, you’ll wonder how a place like this can exist.