Ever since seeing photos of Matera, a strikingly beautiful hillside town in the Italian province of Basilicata, we knew it was a place we wanted to explore. Famous for its historic sassi cave dwellings and included on the UNESCO World Heritage List, Matera is thought to be the third oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the world, after Jericho and Aleppo. Humans have lived there for 9,000 years, and the cave dwellings are the earliest signs of human life on the Italian peninsula.
In the twentieth century, however, the cave houses had become overcrowded and poverty-stricken with malaria running rampant. The difficult living conditions were brought to light in Carlo Levi’s book Christ Stopped in Eboli, and the prime minister nicknamed Matera “the shame of Italy” in the 1950s. The government forcibly evicted the 15,000 residents from their cave homes and relocated them to new social housing projects outside the city. Communities were broken up and residents struggled to adjust to a totally new way of life, while much of Matera lay abandoned and fell into ruins. Other than sheltering a handful of squatters and providing the backdrop for some Hollywood films, the sassi were largely forgotten.
Fast forward to today, and life is returning to the sassi once again. Realizing that this unique, historic settlement is an asset, Matera is transforming its sassi into hotels, restaurants, shops, bars, and even modern homes. While today’s revitalization is a far cry from the peasant settlements that once filled the sassi, it is a remarkable and rare case of a city that has practically come back from the dead.
Most of Matera is perched on a steep hillside overlooking the Gravina Gorge. As a result, it is hidden from its surroundings and you don’t see any of the old city approaching from the outskirts. It was only when we had entered the historic center that we got our first glimpse of the old city—it was a memorable moment as the impressive city wowed us with its layer upon layer of stone buildings clinging to the hillside.
What to See
The sassi are spread throughout two different neighborhoods: Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso, both of which descend down towards the Gravina Gorge in a series of twisting, narrow alleyways and staircases. On the high ridge that separates the two sassi neighborhoods sits the 13th century cathedral of Madonna della Bruna, and Matera’s New Town, a more typical Italian neighborhood of stone-paved pedestrian streets lined with shops, restaurants, churches, and historic palazzi.
Our favorite way to see Matera was to wander through the sassi neighborhoods without a map, seeing where this alleyway or that staircase would take us, enjoying the numerous viewpoints and visiting whatever cave churches or sassi homes we came across.
To really understand Matera, you have to understand the rich history of the sassi. The sassi are caves carved into the soft limestone rock. Most sassi had their front doors as their only source of light and fresh air. While many constructed stone facades that gave their homes a more modern appearance, behind those limestone walls was just a simple cave where families of 8 to 12 people lived, often with their livestock for warmth and security. The sassi homes were constructed one on top of another, so the street or courtyard in front of one home is likely the roof of a lower house.
A great starting point to understanding the sassi is a visit to Casa Noha, located near the cathedral, where a 20-minute film provides an extensive overview on the history of Matera. Visiting a casa grotta or cave home gives an even closer view of what life looked like for families living in Matera’s sassi. In Sasso Caveoso, the Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario is set up as a sasso would have looked in the early 1900s, complete with figures representing the different family members and their livestock. There is an adjacent cave with videos showing historic footage of Matera, as well as a former cave church. While the display was interesting and well done, it was incredibly crowded; it seemed like every tour group that came to Matera stopped there. Luckily we didn’t see such crowds elsewhere. Over in Sasso Barisano, we found the Casa Grotta “C’era Una Volta” to be more enjoyable with only a few other visitors while we were there. Created by a family of artisans, the life-size figures inside the sasso are carved out of the same stone that forms much of the city.
At La Raccolta della Acque, we learned about Matera’s water system, with channels carved into the soft stone and the network of underground cisterns that collected and stored rainwater to sustain the city’s population. The displays and brief self-guided tour were interesting, very informative, and not crowded at all. Hidden beneath Piazza Vittorio Veneto, the Palombaro Lungo is a massive cistern that was carved out of the stone in the 1800s to serve the expanding population of the new city. It still provided drinking water until the 1920s, when it was abandoned and forgotten. Today, guided tours to this cavernous space are offered daily in English and Italian. Just down the road and back beneath the modern city, Materasum Hypogeum has recently opened an extensive labyrinth of historic subterranean homes, streets, and even a communal bread oven following extensive archaeological work. While it primarily features impressive, rock-hewn spaces, the multilingual information boards give excellent background into how the spaces were once used, as well as how the excavations were performed underneath several city buildings.
THE CAVE CHURCHES
Much of Italy’s artistic and cultural heritage is found in its churches, but in Matera many of the churches aren’t towering cathedrals but rather caves hollowed out of the soft stone. These so-called rupestrian churches are examples of “negative architecture;” instead of being build up, they were constructed by removing the stone. Nearly everything inside the churches—including columns, niches, altars, and ceiling decorations—were constructed this way. From the outside, it’s nearly impossible to guess the size or richness of what’s behind the door, so visiting these churches provides some fun exploration.
Near the northern end of the old city, the Convento di Sant’Agostino is a traditional church built on top of a small cave church decorated with 17th century frescoes that are still in good condition. It’s free to visit the church but a donation is encouraged to visit the cave church. In front of the church, a small piazza provides one of the best views of the old city of Matera and is a great spot for photos.
San Nicola dei Greci & Madonna delle Virtù is an extensive cave complex with two churches, a monastery, as well as some cave homes. The self-guided visit starts with Madonna delle Virtù, an especially impressive 12th century church with three aisles, high ceilings, and numerous columns, all carved out of the limestone. Several 15th & 16th century wall paintings here are in good condition. Continuing on the same level, there is a monastery that dates back to the 8th century. Individual monk’s cells are carved into the rock, while vats for crushing grapes to make wine and a millstone show that the caves were inhabited by peasants after the abandonment of the monastery in the 18th century. Up a flight of stairs, the church of San Nicola dei Greci has suffered from the effects of time and weather, including a collapsed ceiling, but several frescoes from the 11th through 14th century remain visible. Finally, on the upper level, there are some cave dwellings that show distinctive water channels carved into the limestone.
With its simple facade, Santa Lucia alle Malve’s interior is surprising with its high ceilings and three wide aisles. Extensive wall frescoes date back to the 13th century, making this one of the prettiest of the rupestrian churches in the city. After the nuns moved elsewhere in the city, the church became a house. You can see where a former column, complete with frescoes, was relocated near the entry to form a kitchen. Entry costs a few euros and a combined ticket is available to visit this church along with Santa Maria di Idris and San Pietro Barisano.
Dramatically situated near the top of rock and visible from many viewpoints in the old city, Santa Maria di Idris features a small church decorated by 17th century frescoes, connected through a hallway to a crypt featuring more interesting frescoes from between the 12th and 17th centuries.
San Pietro Barisano is the largest rupestrian church in the city and shows the evolution from cave churches to the constructions more common in later years. The oldest parts of the church date back to the 12th century, but a facade completed in 1755 and an adjacent belltower give the exterior a more church-like appearance. It’s worth visiting the crypts below the church, where small niches carved into the rock were used the drain the bodies of the deceased.
For a trip outside of Matera, the Cripta del Peccato Originale (Crypt of Original Sin) can’t be missed for some of the region’s most beautiful frescoes. Considered the “Sistine Chapel of Matera’s Rupestrian Churches,” the frescoes here are around 1,200 years old, painted between the 8th and 9th century. Reservations are necessary for the guided tour and you’ll need a car to get out to the location about a half an hour from the old city—it’s well worth the effort.
PARCO DELLA MURGIA MATERANA/PARK OF THE RUPESTRIAN CHURCHES
Across the Gravina Gorge from the sassi, the Murgia Materana Park is a unique location that’s worth spending at least a half a day exploring. It’s a beautiful natural setting, located on a steep hillside that mirrors Matera’s, as well as on a high plateau. The location provides striking views of the sassi neighborhoods and is a great place for photos.
The park is rich in history, with a cave dating back to Paleolithic times, as well as villages from the Neolithic, Bronze, and Copper ages. Included with Matera’s sassi on the UNESCO World Heritage List, the park is also home to 150 cave churches, built primarily in the early Middle Ages when there were several monastic communities inhabiting the area.
We stopped at the visitor center and picked up a map for €1, then hiked a 7km loop that brought us past five of the rupestrian churches. The churches with intact frescoes were largely gated closed, but you could still see the paintings from outside. It seemed that the only way to enter those churches was with a guide with access to the keys, but we enjoyed exploring at our own pace. Our half day only took us to a small portion of the park and we would certainly enjoy exploring more on a future visit.
There is a trail that leads down from the city, across a bridge over the Gravina, and up into the park, allowing direct access without a car. Unfortunately when we visited in 2018, the trail was closed while they worked to stabilize the steep slopes. In the meantime, you can drive to the park and continue exploring by foot.
Where to Eat
The revival of Matera’s historic areas has lead to a burgeoning food scene as well. The traditional local cuisine is simple, based on the foods grown in the region and emphasizing the flavors of the ingredients. In that regard, it was similar to what we found in Puglia (read more about Pugliese cuisine in this post.)
Most restaurant meals will start with a basket of delicious Matera bread, traditionally baked as a large, dense loaf that is crunchy on the outside and soft inside. First courses are dominated by fresh pasta, in shapes like strascinati, orecchiette, and cavatelli. The pasta serves as a vehicle for local produce like cime di rapa (broccoli rabe or turnip tops) or a rich local meat sauce. Mollica fritta is a unique addition to many pasta dishes; they are large breadcrumbs, fried in oil with a distinctive chewy consistency. We also found lots of peperoni cruschi added to meals. These local sweet peppers are dried and then baked briefly to give them a distinctive crunch. While they might look like their spicier relatives, there’s no reason to worry; they are not spicy at all and add a nice, subtle flavor to any dish. Second courses are primarily meat-focused, though there are generally some fish options given the proximity to the Ionian Sea. Plenty of wonderful local cheeses and cured meats round out the offerings.
We found several tasty restaurants to sample Matera’s culinary offerings. Just on the edge of the old city, Stano’s menu focuses on excellently prepared local dishes, from homemade pastas with seasonal sauces to grilled meats and interesting desserts, all washed down with tasty house wine. The menu changes with seasonal availability of ingredients, but on our visit the strascinati pasta with tomato, pancetta, mollica fritta, and peperoni cruschi was exceptional. A few minutes walk into the Sasso Barisano neighborhood, we had another excellent meal at Baccus, which offers a choice of seating on their outdoor terrace, or inside the warmly-lit cave restaurant. We enjoyed one of our favorite pasta dishes of the trip there: orecchiette alle cime di rapa, followed by perfectly grilled local pork. Right in the heart of Sasso Barisano, Osteria al Casale has a lively atmosphere in a larger cave-like setting, with an excellent selection of traditional dishes and a rare vegetarian main course, grilled smoked scamorza cheese with honey and walnuts. Over in Sasso Caveoso, L’Abbondanza Lucana is a bit fancier and serves a more refined take on top-quality local ingredients.
A recent addition to Matera’s culinary scene, Enoteca dai Tosi has transformed several old water cisterns into a wine bar, offering a vast selection of wines and some flavorful appetizers in a comfortable, unique setting. Of course, summer exploring left us hungry for a cold treat, and we found excellent artisanal gelato at i Vizi degli Angeli in the new city. The flavors featured a mix of old favorites and their own modern inventions. The pistachio, made with nuts from nearby Stigliano, was especially good. They also feature sorbet and granita made with fresh seasonal fruit.
Where to Stay
While we tend to look for good lodging values when we travel, this trip was a case where we splurged to enjoy something really special. Sextantio’s Le Grotte della Civita “diffused hotel” gave us the unique opportunity to stay inside one of Matera’s historic sassi.
The project of Italian-Swedish hotelier Daniele Kihlgren, Sextantio is part of Kilhgren’s plan to preserve and revive traditional Italian towns that have seen decreasing populations, and provide an authentic experience for visitors. Located overlooking the Gravina Gorge, the hotel’s 18 rooms are located in unique and thoughtfully renovated caves. Part of the property is a former Benedictine Abbey; the reception area was once a monk’s cell and the dining area, where an abundant buffet of local goodies is served each morning, is a de-consecrated church dating back to the 13th century.
There are many small details that add to making this an authentically Matera experience, from the tall metal bed frame (just like we saw in the cave houses we visited) to the bed linens that were woven on traditional looms. Modern luxuries like a bathtub, shower, and toilet make the overall experience easier than traditional sassi life would have been.
We also appreciated the efforts to make the hotel more environmentally conscious, like minimizing the use of plastic and providing bamboo toothbrushes, powdered toothpaste, and locally-made soap.
Getting There & Away
Bari’s airport is the closest to Matera, about an hour’s drive from the city of sassi. From there, there are direct buses to Matera or you can rent a car. Trenitalia doesn’t currently service Matera. To travel there by train, you can take a high-speed train to Bari Centrale and continue on the train system’s Freccialink bus to Matera, or change to the narrow-gauge Ferrovie Appulo Lucane to continue by train to Matera Centrale. Since we visited Matera in conjunction with our trip to Puglia, we drove our rental car. While you can’t park in the old city, our hotel allowed us to drive into the ZTL limited traffic zone to load and unload our luggage, and we found a free parking spot on a street just outside of the old city. We didn’t need our car at all while we were staying in the city itself, but it made it easier to add some side trips to our arrival and departure.
Matera is a fascinating city and was a lot of fun to explore. With such a rich history, it was as beautiful and interesting as we were expecting, but we also found wonderful surprises as we wandered through the oldest parts of the city. With Matera’s selection as a European Capital of Culture for 2019, we were happy we were able to visit the southern Italian city before it gets discovered by the crowds.