Step Back In Time: Exploring Matera, Italy's Ancient Wonder

A locale for a James Bond movie, a favourite escape for Wes Anderson, and an UNESCO World Heritage Site, one can count innumerable reasons for why Matera deserves to be on your must-visit list
A Guide To Matera Italy's Oldest Settlement
A Guide To Matera Italy's Oldest SettlementLuca Micheli/Unsplash

You may think of Venice, Rome or Florence or the romantic coast of Amalfi when you think of Italy. However, if you are planning a visit anytime soon, consider a trip to the historic city of Matera in southern Basilicata. Known as "Sassi di Matera," the ancient town has earned itself the title of a "Stone City" due to its unique architecture. And that, in turn, has made it a deserving UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Matera's Ancient History

Matera, A UNESCO World Heritage Site
Matera, A UNESCO World Heritage SiteNeedpix

The history of Matera dates back thousands of years, with evidence of human habitation in the area dating back to the Paleolithic era. The Sassi (meaning stone in Italian), carved into the calcareous rock of a deep ravine, was inhabited by the local population for centuries, serving as homes, churches, and even entire neighbourhoods.

Unfortunately, Matera faced significant poverty for a long time and was plagued by poor living conditions. In the mid-20th century, the city's Sassi symbolised Italy's social problems and was even described as the "shame of Italy" due to their extreme poverty and unsanitary conditions. This led to the abandonment and neglect of the Sassi, which fell into a state of disrepair.

In the 1980s, things turned around for the better. Matera's Sassi began to undergo a revitalisation process. Efforts were made to restore the cave dwellings and promote sustainable tourism, bringing Matera back to life. In 2019, the historical city was designated as the European Capital of Culture. 

Today, visitors to Matera can explore the winding streets, cave churches, and rock-cut dwellings of the Sassi and immerse themselves in a blend of history, architecture, and natural beauty. 

Immerse In Materi's Culture And History At Casa Noha

Inside Casa Noha
Inside Casa NohaDepositphotos

Start your discovery at the popular Casa Noha. Named after the family that previously resided there, the museum narrates Matera's history from the dawn of time till its crisis point in the 1950s, closing at its recent revival. It is the best place to learn more about the Sassi and its people. The video projected on the ancient walls take visitors back to the past through vivid visuals and provocative descriptions. 

Information: Casa Noha is open from 9 am to 7 pm and is situated at Recinto Cavone from April through October. Entry costs €5. 

Explore Matera's Unique Churches

Church of San Pietro Caveoso, Matera
Church of San Pietro Caveoso, MateraTerry Feuerborn/Flickr

Churches in Matera are architectural wonders and are unlike anything you must have seen before. They are the finest examples of troglodyte settlements and repose rich historical tales. The most unique is the Church of Saint Mary of Idris, commonly known as the Rock Church and Chiesa Rupestre di Santa Maria di Idris (in Italian). 

This cave chapel is located on a cliffside in Sassi Matera, Monterrone. There are two things to do at this church tour the interior, and climb the observation towers on the exterior. The frescoes that are still visible within. The two viewpoints should not be missed. You must also visit San Pietro e Paolo al Caveoso and Santa Lucia alle Malve. 

Explore Abstract Art At La Palomba

Located on the outskirts of Matera, La Palomba, which translates to "the dove," hides a world of tragedy moulded into unique sculptures. The open-air gallery inside a quarry is unassuming but opens a different world to viewers as they discover artist Antonio Paradiso's thought-provoking creations. From time to time, the old quarry, now transformed into a sculpture park, also hosts exhibitions featuring artworks by other artists. The most notable sculpture here is the one that uses debris from 9/11. Entry to the park is free and is always open. 

Explore Sassi On Foot

Sassi can be explored on foot
Sassi can be explored on footDepositphotos

Matera is full of pleasant surprises, and every corner hides one. The best way to encounter them is to set off strolling the picturesque narrow, maze-like alleys on foot. If you stumble upon Casa Grotta, enter it without any thought. It is a preserved cave dwelling that provides a glimpse into the daily life of Matera's past inhabitants. It is furnished with authentic household items, offering a unique perspective on the living conditions of the Sassi residents.

View of Cathedral di Matera from Murgia Timone
View of Cathedral di Matera from Murgia TimoneWikimedia Commons

Murgia Timone is another great spot to explore on foot if you love nature. The park offers breathtaking views of Matera's surrounding landscape. If you are into photography, ensure to have enough space for all the beautiful sights that will keep you glued to the viewfinder. 

Where To Stay

Sextantio le Grotte della Civita, considered the most luxurious accommodation in Matera, required years of dedication to create its majestic atmosphere. It is an albergo diffuso, which means it offers hotel services but is not a traditional hotel, with rooms scattered throughout the town (Tariff: From €180 Website) Other lodging options in the city include Airbnb rentals such as The Magical Poet's Apartment and Mater Casa Vacanza, located in prime areas.

What To Eat

To try out authentic Lucanian dishes, head over to Trattoria del Caveoso. It is located in the heart of the city and is carved into a rock. It is the ideal place to try out regional specialties like crapiata or cavatelli con peperoni cruschi. Also, head over to the cultural hub of the local artists and famous filmmakers here, Area 8. It is a production house by day, a theatre and cafe by evening, and a happening bar by night. Famous filmmakers like Wes Anderson and Léa Seydoux and actor Joaquin Phoenix frequent the bar. Along with this, Osteria al Casale also offers a wide range of authentic dishes and a collection of wines. 

What To Shop

Matera offers many shopping options to its visitors. Via Lucania in Matera is home to numerous apparel, footwear, gift, and furniture stores. The ancient district of Matera's Via del Corso is also full of jewellers and stores selling local food and wine, and art galleries (near Via Ridola).

Getting There

If you're travelling from Europe to Matera, the Bari Karol Wojtyła Airport, 64 km away in Bari, is your best option. Daily flights are available to and from Rome, Milan, and other destinations. Do note, there are no direct flights to Bari from India. Alternatively, trains and buses connect Rome and Milan to Bari, offering a scenic journey through the Italian countryside. Once in Bari, local trains or buses provide transportation to Matera, known for its ancient cave dwellings and stunning architecture.

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