You cannot think of Matera without thinking about its caves and rocks: this amazing town, located in the Southern Italian region of Basilicata, is often overlooked and yet, has tons to offer and should be included in everyone’s travel itinerary.
Built on a ridge, surrounded by canyons, its ancient history dates to around 10000 years ago, when the first settlements can be traced back. Until recently it was infamous for being one of Western Europe’s most impoverished towns: the Sassi -Matera’s caves- were known for decades for being inhabited by thousands of people with no electricity, heat or water, until the 1950 when they were forced to relocate.
It might seem like a nightmare -and it was- but in the 1990s the sassi were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and, shortly afterwards, were slowly transformed into one of the most fascinating neighborhoods one can imagine.
Not only that: nowadays the whole town of Matera is living what can only be described as a renaissance: it features fantastic Greek and Roman ruins as well as a gorgeous coastline, unique food and – shouldn’t that be enough- it is also a stone throw’s away from Monte Pollino, Italy’s largest national park.
Walking into the maze of the Sasso Barisano, the heart of the sassi, is definitely a unique experience: the narrow, pedestrian-only roads and alleys are much like a labyrinth, alternating private courtyards, dead ends and sudden panoramic vista points; walls and buildings are irregular in shape and color; and the cobblestone pavement and steep stairs guide visitors up and down this most peculiar neighborhood. If getting wonderfully lost in the Sassi doesn’t appeal to you, a “Cave World of Matera” half-day and full-day tour can be booked through Select Italy. More here: http://selectitaly.com/
Rupestrian churches, too, are a wonderfully unique site one can only see around Matera: as early as the 7th century monks settled into the caves around town and turned some into churches. A few can still be visited today and are particularly interesting because of the frescos on the walls and ceilings. For more detailed information about the Sassi and the Rupestrian churches, for visiting hours and guided tour check out www.sassiweb.it/matera/cosa-sono-i-sassi/chiese-rupestri/
Slightly less peculiar, but definitely worth a visit is the 13th century Romanesque cathedral dedicated to Santa Maria della Bruna, Matera’s biggest and most beautiful church. The interior is mainly decorated in 18th century Baroque but a 14th century fresco of the Last Judgement has been found, a splendid example of Byzantine style.
Not far away from the Cathedral the historic city center is a pleasant place to stroll and it’s perfect to get acquainted with the leisurely lifestyle that Matera enjoys nowadays. Piazza Vittorio Veneto, one of the town’s main squares, features several churches and historical buildings, as well as Roman remains and plenty of cafés and bars to rest and enjoy a good cup of coffee.
If you happen to walk by at night, check out the square’s fountain: it has a colored light display that makes for the perfect picture opportunity. A little further away from the square, the church of San Giovanni Battista is a beautiful example of Romanesque style and its interior still retains plenty of Romanesque features that will make architecture buffs rejoice.
Matera also has a lot to offer when it comes to gastronomy: the local cuisine is somewhat similar to that of nearby Puglia, but also features some unique aspects that speak of the region’s past and of its origins.
Orecchiette -the small hand made pasta shaped like little ears- are prepared with meat sauce or with a special concoction of bread crumbs and raisins; pirc’dduzz, too, is very typical of the region: fresh pasta is cut into small pieces and cooked in wine.
As Matera once survived mostly because of the sheep and goats they raised, restaurants still offer many traditional dishes of lamb, kid and mutton, along with some fish specialties such as eel. Trattoria del Caveoso, in the heart of the Sassi, is the ideal place to savor great Matera-style cooking while sitting in a truly unique and suggestive spot.
Matera can be reached by train, riding the Ferrovie Appulo Lucane from Bari or by bus from nearby towns in Basilicata and Puglia. The closest airport is in Bari: shuttle buses connect it with Matera.