Although the majority of my travel inspiration these days comes from reading blogs and browsing social media, there are still quite a few towns, cities, regions and countries that I’ve travelled to primarily because my parents inspired me to do so. I visited China in 2012, Turkey and Slovenia in 2013, and Montenegro in 2017 – all as a result of listening to my parents speak so passionately about those destinations that I was encouraged to research them a little further.
My recent trip to the Puglia region of Italy was no exception. And right next to Puglia? A city in Basilicata that my parents also visited. An ancient city that was first inhabited approximately 7000 years ago; one where a series of grottoes carved out of limestone sit teetering on the edge of a ravine.
Welcome to Matera. Also known as Italy’s ‘City of Caves.’
Recognised as being the third oldest continuously inhabited city in the world (after Aleppo and Jericho), Matera is a paradise for curious explorers and keen photographers.
Thousands of caves perforate the hard stone, climbing up the slopes of the ravine so that one cave’s ceiling is often the next cave’s floor. Inside these caves you’ll find boutique hotels and quirky apartments, cosy cafes and atmospheric restaurants, and inviting one-of-a-kind shops and art galleries.
This fascinating labyrinth of steep lanes, narrow alleyways, and ancient stone staircases that zigzag their way up and down the hillside is punctuated by evocative churches, whose beautiful frescoes are considered to be some of the greatest expressions of rock art in the world.
But it may surprise you to learn that Matera was once one of the poorest cities in Europe. As recently as the 1950s more than half of the city’s population (20,000 people) lived in grottoes that were originally intended as animal stalls. Families with an average of six children shared a single cave dwelling with dogs, sheep, goats and pigs. Disease was rife and infant mortality rates were as high as 50% .
It wasn’t until 1945, when Carlo Levi (a writer, painter, doctor and political activist) published a memoir – ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli‘ – about his time spent living in exile in Lucania (now Basilicata), that the gravity of the situation in Matera was exposed.
He recalls images of children
“….in the dust and heat, amid the flies, stark naked or clothed in rags…with their eyes half closed and their eyelids red and swollen,” and
“…with the wizened faces of old men, their bodies reduced to starvation almost to skeletons, their heads crawling with lice and covered with scabs. Most of them had enormous, dilated stomachs and faces yellow and worn with malaria.”
As a result the Italian government were forced into action and the majority of the troglodytes (cave dwellers) were rehoused in modern buildings in the new part of the city.
Matera earned its place on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1993 for offering the
“most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem.”
Since then visitor numbers have been growing slowly (helped by the fact that scenes from the 2004 film, ‘The Passion of Christ‘ were shot there). But it wasn’t really until 2014, when Matera was selected to be the 2019 European City of Culture, that money was invested in developing tourism in the city.
As a result of earning this title, visitor numbers are expected to rise quite substantially; a report published by Siena University in June 2017 confirmed that 25% of Matera’s housing stock is already available to rent on Airbnb.
For this reason now is a very good time to visit this totally unique and fascinating part of the world, while it still remains relatively unknown to foreign tourists.
Things to do in Matera
1 | Take an aimless wander through the Sassi di Matera
One of the best things you can do in this ancient city is to simply wander aimlessly through its intriguing maze of narrow cobblestone alleyways and uneven stone staircases. Every corner you turn yields a new and interesting discovery – be it an interesting old door flanked with cacti and succulents, a photogenic archway, a tiny courtyard bursting with floral displays or an incredible viewpoint.
If you’re familiar with the 1986 musical fantasy film, Labyrinth (one of my all-time favourite movies), think back to the final scene – or alternatively to Escher’s ‘Relativity’ – and you have a fairly good impression of the experience of exploring Old Matera.
It’s almost impossible to find the same spot twice, and if you see somewhere on the opposite side of the valley that you fancy taking a closer look at, good luck finding it.
One evening I went for a solo wander at dusk and had to use Google Maps to find my way back to our hotel. However, it took me about 30 minutes to make the final 180 metre journey home, because every lane I followed or staircase I climbed either took me further away from my final destination or brought me to a dead end. It was incredibly frustrating but also ridiculously fun.
My advice is that if you find a scene you want to shoot, shoot it there and then, even if the lighting’s not great. You can always edit the shot later, but you may not be able to find the same spot again.
2 | Check out two of the best lookout points
You’ll probably have discovered several amazing lookout points during your aimless wanders, but these are (in my opinion) two of the best:
- The terrace right in front of Matera Cathedral (picture 1, below)
- The terrace next to the Convent of Sant’Agostino (picture 2, below)
3 | Get a glimpse of what life used to be like inside the caves
In order to preserve the city’s history and to better educate visitors about life inside the caves, a couple of the dwellings in the sassi have been turned into museums where you’ll find a recreated cave house decorated with period furnishings, tools and artefacts. The one we’d read about online and planned to visit was Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario, but the queue was so long when we arrived (around 11:30 on a Saturday) that we decided to abandon the idea until later on in the day.
However, further along we stumbled across Casa Grotta Del Casalnuovo, where there was no queue and which (as I discovered from my subsequent internet research) looks very similar inside to the former.
There’s a helpful commentary to listen to as you wander around (in the language you’ve specified to the ticket clerk as you entered), which gives you further information about the tools and artefacts you see and how these were used by the troglodytes.
4 | Walk across the ravine to visit the caves
From almost every lookout point in the Sassi di Matera you’ll be able to gaze across to the opposite side of the ravine, where the hillside is punctuated with small caves. As soon as we spotted these caves we were really keen to find a route across the valley, in order to explore them.
We found an access point to the trail along Via Madonna delle Virtù, where a series of stone steps lead down to a hanging bridge across the river. However, when we visited (September 2018), the path was closed due to “safety reasons.” We couldn’t see signs of any obvious dangers, but at the same time we didn’t really want to risk jumping over the barricade to join the trail – although we were sorely tempted!
Hopefully when you visit the path will have been re-opened.
5 | Take a peek inside a few of Matera’s 150 churches
There are reportedly over 150 Rupestrian churches located within the province of Matera, and many of these can be found in the city itself. It’s unlikely you’ll have the time (or money; some of them charge entrance fees) to visit them all, but here are a few you may want to add to your itinerary:
Convento di Sant’Agostino
Chiesa di San Pietro Barisano
Chiesa di San Francesco
Chiesa di Santa Maria di Idris
6 | Check out the underground water cistern, Palombaro Lungo
Hidden beneath the city’s main square, Piazza Vittorio Veneto, is a massive 16-metre deep underground water cistern that was dug in the 1800s and supplied the townspeople with water until the the advent of modern plumbing systems. Due to Matera’s location above a deep ravine that divides the territory into two areas, it was almost impossible for residents to obtain water from the river below, especially in the hot, dry summers when the water levels were low. So early dwellers invested an enormous amount of energy building underground cisterns that would collect rain water and subsequently provide a year-round water supply to residents.
Palombaro Lungo was only rediscovered and excavated as recently as 1991, and it’s now possible to enter the cistern with a guide. Guided tours cost €3 and run several times a day – 10:30, 12:30, 15;30 and 17:30, if my memory serves me correctly. It’s advisable to book in advance, as we found – even at the end of September – the tours were really popular, and had we not booked our 12:30 tour in advance, we would’ve had to wait another three hours to secure a place on one.
7 | Browse Matera’s shops and art galleries for some one-of-a-kind gifts
You won’t find any well-known retailers in Matera; all the shops here are privately-owned businesses. Some even have attached workshops where you can watch the craftspeople at work. There are goldsmiths, sculptors, gemologists, woodturners, potters, and painters.
Many of the sculptures you’ll see are made out of the local tufa stone, and I got ridiculously excited when I saw so many of them in the shape of cactii.
8 | Listen to some local musicians
I love hearing local live music when I travel, so I was absolutely overjoyed to discover the band below whilst walking down Via Domenico late one afternoon. Obviously I can’t guarantee they’ll be there when you visit, but if you see them, I recommend that you stop for a while and take a listen. Make sure you part with a few coins as you leave, to say thank you for brightening up your day.
Where to eat in Matera
You definitely won’t struggle to find somewhere to eat in Matera. Trip Advisor alone lists 284 restaurants in the city, and many of these are located in the sassi, inside caves or in cave-like buildings. We weren’t too concerned with eating at the best restaurants in Matera; we just wanted to find somewhere that served good quality Italian food for a reasonable price in an authentic and atmospheric setting. Somewhere that was as popular with the locals as it was with other tourists.
I stumbled upon La Grotta nei Sassi during one of my early evening photo-taking wanders and convinced Stu that we should go there for dinner later. It was so hidden away that we struggled to find it again two hours later, but I’m glad that we did. And I’m also glad that we arrived as early as we did (around 7:30pm). Almost everyone who arrived after us was being turned away.
I can personally recommend the salmon marinate all erbe (marinated salmon) and ferricelli con fonduta di podolico porcini e pistachio di stigliano (ferricelli with fondue cheese, porcini mushroom and pistachio), and we chose to wash it down with a carafe of Primitivo to share. Of the two varieties of grape that are grown in this area (Negroamaro is a black grape variety and Primitivo is a red), Primitivo was definitely my favourite.
Other restaurants that were recommended to us but that we didn’t get a chance to try are:
- Ristorante San Biagio – for simple yet elegant Mediterranean fare with a focus on locally sourced produce.
- Soul Kitchen – for traditional Basilicata dishes with a modern twist.
- Osteria Al Casale – for its varied menu of delicious soul food with more veggie options than most.
- Il Rusticone – for tasty cheap eats and some of the best pizza in town.
Accommodation in Matera
We stayed in two different places during our time in Matera – one which we chose and booked ourselves and another which was arranged for us as part of our self-guided cycling trip. Ironically they ended up being around 100 metres apart from each other, which was handy for transferring luggage.
Our definite favourite was the one we’d chosen, but the other one also had its selling points, and I’d happily stay at either one of them again.
L’Hotel in Pietra
Consistently recommended as one of the nicest, most authentic places to stay in Matera, and offering amazing value for money, L’Hotel in Pietra (The Stone Hotel) was – as you’ve probably guessed – our own accommodation choice in the city.
The hotel is housed in a converted 13th century monastery and it is absolutely stunning, with tall arched ceilings and stone floors. There are just seven rooms and two suites and each one is unique in its design and layout.
We stayed in one of their cheapest rooms – a split level double room. Our bathroom and hallway (with wardrobe and bench seat) were downstairs and our bedroom was reached by climbing a spiral staircase and lifting a heavy wooden hatch. I’m so relieved I didn’t need to climb down here in the middle of the night to use the toilet, because those stairs were steep!
Check prices and availability at L’Hotel in Pietra here.
Hotel Sassi is also quite unusual in its design: its rooms are located beneath the main part of the hotel, so you have to walk through reception and hop in a lift (“elevator” to all my American readers) in order to reach them. Although we didn’t have a balcony, we could open our bedroom door and be rewarded with a beautiful panoramic view of historic Matera and its cathedral. There’s also a terrace which affords a similar view and therefore makes a great place to sip a late afternoon beer or a pre-dinner glass of primitivo.
Hotel Sassi is reportedly (according to their website) the first hotel built inside the Sassi, in 1996. It was previously a large residential complex, dating from the 16th century.
Check prices and availability at Hotel Sassi here.
Other places we added to our wish list but didn’t book were as follows:
BUDGET | L’Ostello dei Sassi. If you want to stay in the sassi and have a cave-like experience without the price tag then this smart, modern, well-equipped hostel should be right up your street. If you don’t fancy sleeping in a dorm (although these are by far and away the cheapest options) then apartments are also available here.
LUXURY | Sextantio Le Grotte Della Civita. Yes, the rooms are upwards of £130 per night (and therefore there was no way us budget travellers could justify the cost), but just take a look at this place! If you can’t afford it, you can dream.
How to get to Matera
The closest airport is Bari, which is approximately 64 kilometres northwest of Matera. If you’re using public transportation then the bus is the cheapest and fastest option to get from Bari airport to Matera. You can check timetables and prices, and book tickets at Pugliabus. If you’d prefer to take the train then you’ll firstly need to catch a train to Bari Centrale station, and then wait for a connecting train on to Matera. The entire journey takes almost three hours though, in comparison to just over an hour on the bus.
However, if you’re on the Ryanair flight from Stansted that arrives into Bari at 21:20, you’ll struggle to make it to Matera using public transportation. The last bus is at 19:15 and the last train leaves Bari Centrale station at 22:30 (bearing in mind you firstly have to get a train from the airport to Bari Centrale).
We ended up playing it safe and booking a shuttle with Shuttle Matera. However, as we were the only passengers on it, we had to pay €75 for the 60-minute journey. Yeah, should really have researched that when booking the flight. But at that time of night, it was a nice luxury to have our own private taxi and a door-to-door service.
If we weren’t on an organised self-guided cycling trip around Puglia, starting in Matera, we probably would’ve hired a car. From those who have, I’ve heard that it’s a great way to see the area. The roads are largely traffic free and there are so many charming little towns and villages to explore, as well as amazing coastal views along the way.
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