When we started our virtual travel series earlier this year, it was to put offbeat, interesting places on our readers’ travel bucket lists. Places that offer unique experiences, are not as well-known, are too expensive to visit, or hard to reach. With the COVID-19 crisis, our series has taken on a whole new meaning. It has become our weekly escape to new, far-off destinations from the safety and comfort of our homes. Last week we virtually visited Franschhoek and this week we are off to Matera, aka Italy’s best-kept secret.
A historic city in Southern Italy, Matera is the third oldest (9000 years old!), continuously inhabited cities in the world! The city’s dwellings are mostly carved out of rocks (Sassi), giving it its nickname: the Cave City of Italy.
By the late 1800s, Matera’s cave dwellings became a site of extreme poverty. The inhabitants eventually had to be evacuated and moved to modern housing due to poor living and working conditions and the spread of disease. With renewed vision and investment, the cave dwellings were converted into the historic tourist destination that it has come to be known as today.
Matera has gone from being a place of ancient civilization to a slum to a hidden gem of Italy. It was announced as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993 and a European Capital of Culture in 2019. Needless to say, this is only a part of what Matera has to offer. We’ll let our blog do the rest of the talking!
36 Hours in Matera
9.00 AM: Miniature Sassi
Get an introductory tour of Sassi by first visiting its miniature version. Sassi di Matera is an art and craft workshop that houses many artistic creations in the techniques of maestro Eustachio Rizzi, it is most known for its miniature model of Matera.
10.00 AM: Apulian Romanesque Cathedral at the Highest Point of Matera
Not far from Miniature Sassi is the Cathedral of Saint Mary. A Roman Catholic cathedral dedicated to Virgin Mary under the Madonna Della Bruna and Saint Eustace- it was built in the 13th century in the Apulian Romanesque style. Interestingly, it’s located at the highest point of the city on the ridge that divides the two Sassi.
11.00 AM: MUSMA
Museo della Scultura Contemporanea aka MUSMA is barely 260m away from the Cathedral of Saint Mary and is a museum that is entirely dedicated to sculptures. It is the only “cave” museum in the world and offers a perfect symbiosis of sculptures and unique places sculpted in Sassi di Matera.
It is open from 10 am to 6 pm every day except Monday. Don’t miss it!
12.00 PM: Sassi di Matera
After the perfect build-up all morning, explore Sassi di Matera- Matera’s most famous tourist spot consisting of ancient cave dwellings dating back to the Paleolithic period! Located between two districts- Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano, the Sassi are houses curved into the calcarenite rock. This is characteristic of Basilicata and Apulia, locally called “tufo”, although it is not volcanic tuff or tufa.
The views of the ancient city from here are truly incredible.
1.00 PM: Cavatelli Pasta
When in Matera, you have to try Cavatelli Pasta at the local restaurants. Made in the shape of cavatelli without eggs, they are little pasta nubs with small pockets that hold the savory sauces. Sometimes served with tomato ragu or a vegetable sauce with chickpeas, the dish is delicious.
2.00 PM: Giant Cistern
Palombaro Lungo is a giant cistern that is as magnificent as a subterranean cathedral with arches carved out of a rock. Its scale and ingenuity are breathtaking and still supplies water to Materans.
3.00 PM: Tramontano Castle
Located on Lapel Hill, Tramontano Castle is an Aragonese style castle built in 1501 by Giovanni Carlo Tramontano, the Count of Matera. To learn more about him, watch the 1957 film Il Conte di Matera (“The Count of Matera”) directed by Luigi Capuano.
4.00 PM: National Archaeological Museum “Domenico Ridola”
The National Archaeological Museum is named after its founder Domenico Ridola and is the oldest in Basilicata- dating back to 1911! Learn more about the history of humankind from the Palaeolithic age to the Middle Ages through the vast collection of archaeological remains in and around Matera.
The museum has two main galleries. The Prehistoric collection showcases a variety of stone tools produced by Lower Palaeolithic humans and Homo Erectus and the sophisticated devices from the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic. The “Magna Graecia” collection narrates the story of the inhabited settlements located on the hills overlooking the river valleys.
5.00 PM: Church of Saint Mary of Idris
The Church of Saint Mary is also called the Church of Santa Maria De Idris and dates back to the fifteenth century. Built within a rock complex, it includes the oldest crypt, dedicated to San Giovanni in Monterrone, and offers stunning views of the city and the Gravina river.
6.00 PM: Casa Grotta nei Sassi
Casa Grotta nei Sassi literally means “cave house in the rocks” and provides a glimpse into the lifestyle of the Materans who lived here before the evacuation. It consists of ancient household material, furniture, kitchen vessels, and tools from daily life.
7.00 PM: Sasso Caveoso
Views of the ancient city of Matera at night are as mesmerizing as the views during the day. The cave dwellings and churches light up, giving the entire place a dreamy vibe.
8.00 PM: Wine and Dine
For dinner, try Carne di Cavallo with some red wine. Carne di Cavallo is a dish made of horse meat. Horse meat is also available as wood-fired grills in the evening in most roadside restaurants, where you can select the meat you want, have them grill it to perfection while you take in the night views of the city.
8.00 AM: Matera Bread with Caciocavallo
Start the day by biting into Matera’s own specialty bread and Caciocavallo Podolico. Matera bread is a saltless bread made with semolina flour and baked in wood-fired ovens. It is considered to be the best bread in Italy! Caciocavallo Podolico is cheese made of cow’s milk from the mountain-grazing podzolic breed of cattle and is one of Italy’s most prized cheeses.
9.00 AM: Crypt of Original Sin
Crypt of Original Sin is in the south of Matera and features beautiful wall art that has endured for over a thousand years! This gave it its nickname “The Sistine Chapel of Rupestrian Art.”
Caves became the home of monks around the 9th century. One of these monks is known as “The Painter of Flowers of Matera” — named after the red flowers that appear in his work on the cave walls.
10.30 AM: Eledorado Ranch
Eledorado Ranch is the perfect place to enjoy a horse ride in the countryside and take in the greenery around. After a full day of traversing through stone dwellings, caves, and churches, some time at the ranch is sure to relax and refresh you!
12.00 PM: Lamb Stew for Lunch
Having worked up an appetite by now, get a taste of Matera’s lamb dishes for lunch. Usually grilled or baked with wine and herbs, it is sometimes topped with Mollica di pane (Italian breadcrumbs). You could also try the local mutton stew called Cutturiedde.
1.00 PM: Murgecchia
If you’re an “active” traveler and fancy a bike ride, head over to Murgecchia- a park located on the plateau of the other side canyon of the Gravina River.
2.00 PM: Matera Escursioni
Matera Escursioni is the place for the ultimate panoramic view of Sassi di Matera. Earn your keep-sake selfies and postcard photos by trekking your way to it!
4.00 PM: Chiesa Rupestre di San Falcione
Chiesa Rupestre di San Falcione, another cave church, is merely 550m away from Matera Escursioni. Parts of the church have been excavated in calcarenite, including two priest parts, wall, and chair created inside the rock layer. There are also traces of Byzantine-style frescoes, now in poor condition, depicting saints (two of them portraying St. Nicholas have been identified) and Jesus in the Temple. The Byzantine influence is also testified by a Greek inscription in an internal niche that reads “This Child created heaven and earth”.
5.00 PM: Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera
Next, head to the park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera — also situated on the other side of the river- for some offbeat excursion. It covers an area of about 8000 hectares and consists of numerous ruins of caves and churches.
6.00 PM: An Artsy Evening
Bring in the evening with a visit to Casa Cava- an auditorium cum gallery that frequently hosts concerts, exhibitions, cultural and multimedia events in Matera’s heart of tuff. It has ten underground rooms that come to life with sounds and lights from the events. Make sure to stop by and catch the event of the day!
8.00 PM: Last Supper
You cannot leave an Italian city without devouring Italian pizza! End the 36-hour tour with Italy’s famous wood-fired dish pizza!
A Tale of Rebirth
Once known as the “shame of Italy”, the ancient city of Matera, with its natural caves and rich history, is a dramatic story of rebirth. Strolling through the ancient, surreal streets of Sassi, and living in one of its 1500 cave dwellings that were once lived in by peasants and artisans from the classical and medieval eras, it’s ironic and interesting that travelers in the 21st century are clamoring to live like troglodytes in this hidden gem of Italy. But it is perhaps this very ability to time travel in Matera that attracts visitors from around the world. As one traveler puts it: “I felt like I was traveling through time in this city- just by walking through it. That’s the fascinating part about it- in the morning you are in the stone ages and in the evening you are in the Rococo era. In between, you feel like you are in Roman Jerusalem”.
Fun fact: Matera is also where Wonder Woman and the latest James Bond movie was filmed.
Have you added Matera to your travel bucket list yet?
How to get there
The nearest airport is Bari International Airport-Karol Wojtyla. The best way to get to Matera from Bari is by train, which takes 1.5 hours and costs around €5.
Where to stay
There are plenty of places to stay at Matera for various budgets and durations. Palazzo del Duca Matera, Sassi Hotel, and Ostello “the Rock” hostel are a few options. If you’re looking for something more adventurous, you can stay in a cave!
When to go
Matera has great weather throughout the year.
Non-EU tourists must have a valid Schengen visa to visit Italy. US residents are allowed visa-free in Italy for 90 days with a valid passport.
There are buses available to get around Matera. Trenitalia offers Freccialink buses twice a day, connecting Matera and Salerno.
The official currency in Italy is the Euro. Merchants in Italy accept card payments; Visa and Mastercard are more common than American Express.
Italian is the official and primary language spoken in Matera, Italy. English, French, German, and Spanish are also common.
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