Matera, Italy, is a destination unlike any other. A city of caves hewn from rock and inhabited since before recorded history. A monochrome medley of stairways and rooftops “where the living sleep beneath the dead”.
It is the remarkable story of Matera’s rebirth that lured us back to Italy for our third visit. The much repeated story of exiled author and physician Carlo Levi, whose vivid account of appalling living conditions in parts of Southern Italy shook the world. A world oblivious, until then, to the abject poverty concealed beneath the twin districts of cave houses referred to as the Sassi of Matera.
In Levi’s 1945 best selling documentary novel titled Christ Stopped at Eboli, his sister describes Matera as “a schoolboy’s idea of Dante’s Inferno”.
She speaks of dark holes in which people lived alongside dogs, sheep, goats and pigs. Of naked children with swollen eyelids. Of faces yellow with malaria and bodies wasted to skeletons.
“I have never in all my life seen such a picture of poverty.”
The political scandal that ensued led to the evacuation of Matera and the re-settling of inhabitants in public housing in the modern part of town.
The derelict caves were, at first, taken over by squatters. Then the artists and businesses moved in and breathed new life into the Sassi. From Italy’s ‘national shame’ to UNESCO Heritage Site and European Culture Capital (2019) has been a dramatic turnaround for Matera.
It feels weird to view the extraordinarily atmospheric Sassi in that historical context today. And to find many of the hovels those hapless people left behind converted to chic boutique hotels.
Matera feels different from cities like Dubrovnik, for example, that cater purely to tourists. Here, the revival is aimed at preserving its legacies. For the people as much as for the visitors now thronging the Sassi.
The idea of profiting from misfortune is still a bit discomfiting. Because the ‘shame’ is almost the highlight of a guided walk through town. “They sloshed their chamber pots into the streets…imagine the stench!”.
Marketing aside, and regardless of lingering questions about whether displaced residents share in the equity*, the resurrection is impressive.
And at the centre of it is the topographical signature that is the Sassi of Matera, evoking the sorrow of its history and the resilience of the people.
The Sassi is magical day or night. Its cave dwellings cling dramatically to slopes of the twin depressions along the ravine carved by the Gravina River: the spruced up Sasso Barisano in the north and its scruffier sibling, Sasso Caveoso to its south. The caves across the gorge are believed to have been continuously inhabited for over 7000 years!
The steep terrain is exhausting to explore. The panoramas you stumble upon at every turn is the reward. They give ‘breathtaking’ a whole new meaning.
The vertical stacking isn’t unique to this city. The caves behind the masonry facades are. As are the graves on the topmost surfaces: porous rock that form the roofs of living spaces beneath! I failed to ask if the strange funeral practice of ‘draining’ corpses in the church crypt might be connected to the burial locations.
Rising steeply between the two districts with a Romanesque cathedral crowning the summit, is the medieval Civita (city). The flat western part that separates the Sassi and the Civita from modern Matera is the (post medieval) Piano (plateau).
The classical palazzos, churches and piazzas are all on higher ground in the (relatively) newer sections. The most significant among them is the 17th century Palazzo Lanfranchi, now the National Museum Of Medieval and Modern Art.
But we aren’t here to admire medieval buildings. It is the rugged spaces of worship carved into the bowels of the Sassi that we find more evocative of the spirit of Matera. The much eroded art within is naive, flat with fixed staring eyes. Many still retain touches of pagan worship in their iconography and funeral traditions (details in the rock-churches section below).
Wondering why visuals of Matera feel vaguely Biblical? We’ve been conditioned into believing the city resembles (ancient) Jerusalem!
The Gospel According To Matthew by Pier Paolo Pasolini was one of the first religious themed movies set in Matera. Bruce Beresford’s King David, The Omen (2006) and the fifth movie adaptation of Ben Hur are some of the others.
The best known, and the one that first catapulted Matera into the world tourist stage, is Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. There’s even a Passion Trail that leads visitors to locations of key scenes.
Matera was also the obvious choice for the adaptation of Carlo Levi’s damning memoir. The title, incidentally, refers to the despair in the (then) squalid region. “Christ never came this far, nor did time, nor the individual soul, nor hope.”
Would Levi, now buried in Aliano where he spent a year in exile for his anti-fascist activism, have approved of the social and political changes triggered by his book? That’s a thought that keeps recurring long after my return from Matera.
*I understand a large part of the old town is owned by the municipality of Matera and can only be leased. The few properties that are sold outright are bound by strict conservation guidelines in their remodelling. Many of the businesses are run by Materan citizens who had migrated out and decided to return with its changing fortunes. Not sure if they were former residents of the Sassi. Most of the tourist guides we encountered claim they are and recount stories of growing up in the caves.
Read on for a complete guide to the Città dei Sassi (plus a spectacular bonus video at the end).
COMPLETE MATERA TRAVEL GUIDE
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THINGS TO DO IN MATERA
EXPLORE THE SASSI
Clambering up and down the warren of streets (and stairs) of the old town is the most enjoyable thing to do in Matera. And as mentioned above equally exhausting and rewarding.
If you have mobility issues opt for an Ape (Italian Tuk Tuk) tour to minimise the effort. Your hotel will be able to organise one. Or check with the tourist information office on the main square.
Discover the story of Matera at Casa Noha. The traditional residence in Sasso Caveoso, donated to the Fondo Ambiente Italiano trust by two local families, is a great introduction to the Matera experience.
The FAI’s evocative audio visual presentation is projected on to walls, ceilings and floors of the casa, It progresses through a series of rooms as it reconstructs the history of the city.
Palazzo Pomarici – the “One-Hundred-Room Palace” – now the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture is another worthwhile stop. As much for its 16th century frescoed interiors as for the contemporary art.
Casa Noha: Recinto Cavone 9
November – March 10.00 to 17.00
April – October 10.00 – 19.00 Closed Tuesdays.
Tickets €6,00; Children 6-18 €2,00. Free for children under 5.
Available on site or on the FAI website.
Photography is prohibited.
Storica Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario: Vicinato di vico Solitario, 11
Open daily 9:30 a.m. till ‘night’.
Tickets: €3,50; Free for children under 10.
MUSMA: Via S. Giacomo
October – March 10.00 to 14.00
April – September 10.00 – 14.00 / 16.00 – 20.00. Closed Mondays.
Tickets €5,00; Discounted (under 18/over 70) € 3,50
Free for children under 6.
Casa Grotta del Casalnuovo:
April – October -9.30 to 19.30 daily.
November – March 9.30 to 17.30
Tickets: € 2,50; Children 12 to 17 years € 2,00.
WHERE TO FIND THE BEST VIEWPOINTS IN MATERA
‘Best’ is relative in this most photogenic city. You’ll likely stumble upon these belvederes by yourself if you have enough time but I’ve added them to the map at the end of this guide for easy reference.
- Belvedere Luigi Guerricchio is right off the Piazza Vittorio Veneto, the main square where the tourist information centre is located.
- Belvedere (in front of the Convent of) Saint Augostino: Access is through stairs from Via D’Addozio.
- Belvedere (off) Via Santa Cesarea: On the right as you walk from Via San Biagio to Via Santa Caesarea.
- Piazza Duomo (Cathedral Square): Its position at the top of the Civita guarantees fabulous panoramas.
- Santa Maria de Idris and San Giovanni in Monterrone: The terrace surrounding this complex is incredible. Combine with visit to the churches.
- Belvedere di Piazza Giovanni Pascoli: Walk towards Palazzo Lanfranchi on Via Ridola. Turn right just after the palace into the Piazetta Pascoli.
For the most enchanting panorama of all you’ll need to go to the belvedere Murgia Timone in the Murgia Matarena Park across the ravine.
If you are fit enough you can cross over on the rope bridge and then hike up. Access to the bridge is from Porta Pistola on Via Madonna delle Virtù (see map below). Take the stairs leading down to the river on the right of the parking lot.
The belvedere is accessible by car: Take the SS7 out of Matera and follow directions to the Parco delle Chiese Rupestri. If you don’t have a vehicle, a taxi drop off and pick-up should cost around €40-50. The park is free to access. I understand the Jazzo Gattini visitor centre can help organise your visit. We went on a guided hike in the evening and highly recommend it.
RUPESTRIAN (ROCK-CUT) CHURCHES
The Romanesque cathedral is beautiful. As are other classical churches in Matera like the Chiesa del Purgatorio. You should visit them if you have the time. But the rock churches. even with much of their frescoes lost to time, are special.
These are a few of the significant cave churches within the Sassi.
In Sasso Barisano:
- Chiesa San Pietro Barisano is the largest of the cave churches. The original dates to 1000AD with a 13th century masonry facade. The crypt has carved ‘seats’ where corpses were left to ‘drain’ and only removed when fully decomposed.
- Madonna delle Virtù & San Nicola dei Greci are twin churches built one over the other. San Nicola has better preserved frescoes. Both were closed for restoration during our visit. The complex is now being used as an exhibition space.
In Sasso Caveoso:
- Santa Maria de Idris and San Giovanni: Two adjacent churches perched on top of the Monterrone outcrop dominating the landscape. The frescoes in the crypt of San Giovanni are in good condition and the views from the terrace are special.
- Santa Lucia alla Malve: A smaller church with beautiful frescoes. There was restoration work going on but we were allowed to walk around and even watch the artists at work.
Chiesa San Pietro Barisano is more popular but the Sasso Caveosos churches would be my pick if I only had time for one. Photography is prohibited in all of these churches.
Minor cave churches dot the Parco della Murgia Materana across the ravine. The park is free to access. A guided hike is highly recommended (guides can organise keys to the shrines that aren’t always maned). See ‘Views‘ section above for more details.
October – March 10.00 to 16.00
April – September 10.00 – 19.00
Tickets €3,50; Discounted (under 18/over 70) € 2,50
A combined ticket (€7) gives one access to San Pietro Barisano and both the Caveoso churches.
THE CRYPT OF THE ORIGINAL SIN
The most fascinating of all the rock churches, accidentally discovered in 1963, is not in the Sassi but deep in the Murgia plateau (20 min away by road).
Highlights of the Crypt Of The Original Sin are the frescoes depicting the Virgin as a Byzantine empress and the figures of Adam and Eve eating the ‘fruit of original sin’. The fruit is, intriguingly, a fig! Why? It is believed the meaning of the Latin word ‘pomum’ got lost in translation.
The presentation, in the tiny, pitch-dark space where small sections are spotlit in conjunction with the audio before a full reveal, is the kind of drama Italian museums excel in.
Be warned, that’s a considerable chunk of time – and money – to gaze upon the work of an anonymous 8th century artist nicknamed ‘Flower Painter’ and for all of 20 minutes. I enjoyed it. Ravi, not as much.
Photography is strictly prohibited. Click on the link below to view the official gallery.
There is no public transport to the site. If you don’t have a car you could hire a private transfer through your hotel. It cost us €50 including an hour of waiting.
Visits are by prior reservation. Tickets available on the ‘Cripta del Peccato Originale’ website for half hour time slots. (Adult: €10; Free for the disabled and children under 6).
SLEEP IN A CAVE HOTEL
Many of the highly rated properties are in regular buildings located on the edge of the old town and closer to the Piano. But inhabiting a cave hotel was a particular highlight of our Southern Italy trip. More details under Where To Stay.
MORE THINGS TO DO
PLUMB THE DEPTHS OF PALOMBARO LUNGO
The massive underground cistern beneath Piazza Vittorio Veneto is referred to as the Cathedral of Water for its 15 m high walls. It is part of Matera’s ingenious water supply system that comprises a network of public and private cisterns. Comparable in scale to the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul but not half as beautiful. (Ravi wisely took off to find a bar with a view.)
Guided tours in several languages alternate every half hour. Tickets €3. Buy on site or at the tourist office in the square.
LA PALOMBA SCULPTURE PARK
If you have more time to spare this might be an interesting outing. We didn’t get to it.
La Palomba, meaning “The Dove” is an abandoned stone quarry repurposed into an open air sculpture park by contemporary Puglian artist Antonio Paradiso. He is supposed to be the only artist in Italy to receive charred metal from the September ’11 Twin Towers attack site to turn into art. Free entry.
RIDE A HOT AIR BALLOON
Balloon rides over the Sassi of Matera have recently been introduced. I cannot vouch for the operators, but I imagine it’ll be an experience nearly as magical as ours in Cappadocia.
WHERE TO STAY IN MATERA
I am yet to visit an European city with such a wide choice of highly reviewed tourist accommodation. Nor one that offers more luxury for the buck.
If looking to splurge on a romantic, full-service luxury hotel the Sextantio Le Grotte Della Civita is hard to beat.
We stayed in La Dimora de Metello and loved our spacious cave suite despite having to climb 30 steep steps to access the hotel and despite the clear glass toilet that we aren’t fans of. The terrace, like many other hotels in Matera, is actually a thoroughfare but this is a less used one and felt very private.
These are some of the properties I had shortlisted. All include breakfast and still show exceptional reviews across booking sites.
L’Incanto Luxury Rooms: Ticks all the boxes except that it isn’t a cave hotel. Great location in the Sassi. Private terrace with fabulous views. Hospitable hosts. Even a lift for luggage. It was unavailable during our visit.
Angolo del Poeta Suite: A gorgeous three bedroom holiday home that also offers two smaller units.
Ai Maestri Rooms & Cafè: Beautiful design hotel close to the main road with easy access. It also has a little cafe/bar attached. Relatively average views from the common breakfast terrace, however, and none at all from the cave rooms.
La Corte Dei Pastori: A travel blogger favourite in Sasso Caveoso. The views seem amazing especially from the common terrace.
FIND MORE OPTIONS TO FIT YOUR BUDGET HERE
WHERE TO EAT IN MATERA
Basilicata’s traditional cuisine reflects its (historical) hardship. It typically consists of rustic soups and pastas bolstered by thrifty pork sausages and the region’s famous bread: Pane di Matera, an IGP certified product (Protected Geographical Indication). I could live on the bread alone. Or the sweet and crunchy (fried) peperone crusco.
Bread was traditionally made the night before and left to prove until morning when a baker would collect it from each household to bake in a communal oven. To avoid mix-ups at the bakery the women would mark each loaf with personalised wooden stamps. The stamps, apparently still in use, make neat souvenirs.
Other traditional Basilicata foods to try: Pane cotto (soup made with stale pieces of bread and topped with crushed senise peppers), Salame pezzente (pork sausage seasoned with fennel), Caciocavallo podolico (stretched-curd cheese made from the milk of the podolica breed), Cacioricotta cheese (made from a blend of goat’s and sheep’s milk), Baccala alla lucana (salted cod with Senise red peppers) and Strazzate almond biscuits flavoured with a local liqueur.
Aglianico del Vulture is the best local red to wash it all down with.
We enjoyed our meals at all of the restaurants listed below.
Stano Ristorazione: For traditional cuisine without any frills. We particularly enjoyed sharing the large plates of antipasti.
Ristorante Baccus Our favourite of the list. Standout was the red wine poached pear with whipped cram.
Vicolo Cieco a cool cave bar/café on Via Forentini for aperitivos.
L’Antica Credenza: Another lovely restaurant/bar for an aperitivo or light snack meal.
Artisanal Gelato at I Vizi degli Angeli is right up there with the best in Europe. Pistachio and mango are the flavours to try.
We meant to splash out at Dimora Ulmo Ristorante on our final evening but it rained and so we ended up back at Baccus.
Fior di Cucuzza is a vegetarian restaurant that appears well rated.
DAY-TRIPS FROM MATERA
With nearly three full days on hand we could’ve easily added a day-trip to another Basilicata town. But at the tail end of our Puglia trip and with my solo week in Northern Italy to follow, we took a conscious decision to slow down in Matera rather than breeze through one more town. Do I regret it? A little. (I was supposed to return in September with a small group and thought I could sneak away for a bit.)
BERNALDA (40 min by road)
Bernalda used to be an impoverished sleepy town where Francis Ford Coppola’s grandfather lived in a one room tenement before migrating to the US. Then Coppola bought the lone palace in town and turned it into a fancy resort.
CRACO (60 min. by road)
The ghost town of Craco, abandoned after a series of landslides between 1963 and mid 1980, was high on my list. Craco can only be visited by appointment and only as part of a guided tour. Contact the Municipality of Craco for information.
GROTTOLE (1 hr 10 min. by road)
CASTELMEZZANO AND PETRAPERTOSA
Castelmezzano is about an hour and 10 minutes from Matera. Pietrapertosa is about 30 minutes further ahead on a steep and winding road.
Towns in neighbouring Puglia including Altamura (don’t miss the bread!) and Gravina make for easy day-trips from Matera. Stay tuned for my upcoming post on our favourite places to visit in Puglia.
Should you hire a tour or guide?
You don’t need a guide for Matera. Study the map below, add your hotel to get your bearings, grab a hat and water bottle and you should be good to go. Most major sites are clearly marked. And getting lost in the Sassi is part of the experience.
An introductory walk with a local will, however, get you familiar with the stories and the lay of the land.
We were very happy with our mini hike in the Murgia Matarena Park organised by Renato Favelli. His city tours are also well reviewed but he wasn’t free during our visit.
I had planned to use the services of Amy Wiedemen to guide a small group tour in mid 2020. (The tour was cancelled.)
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
HOW MANY DAYS DO YOU NEED IN MATERA?
You can cover a fair bit of the experiences listed above in a long day-trip from Bari or one of the Apulian towns, but you’ll need a minimum of one night for a more immersive visit. We had three.
BEST TIME TO VISIT MATERA
May/June and September/ October are ideal months. Summers are too hot and crowded and expensive across Europe.
VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR TRAVEL TO MATERA
Italy is part of the Schengen Zone. All nationals of countries that do not have a visa-liberalization agreement with the Schengen member states need to obtain a visa prior to their arrival.
A Tourist Schengen Visa permits visitors entry into the Schengen Area for a maximum of 90 days within a 6-month period.
Check whether you need a Schengen Visa to travel to Italy here. (Scroll further down to confirm if you are on the exempted list.)
Do not forget to check current entry restrictions on the page linked to above.
HOW TO GET TO MATERA
Bari Karol Wojtyla International Airport (also referred to as Palese Airport) is the closest airport. The simplest way to get to Matera is by road or by train from Bari.
GETTING TO MATERA BY ROAD FROM BARI
A shuttle operated by PugliAirbus takes you directly from Bari Palese airport to Matera in about 1:15 hrs for €6. Advance booking is recommended.
By car, the drive takes under an hour. If you don’t have a car you could request your hotel to organise a private transfer for around €80 – €100 (per vehicle). We used a return transfer to the airport.
Private transfers from most central Apulian towns like Locorotondo or Alberobello cost approximately €100 if booked through your hotel’s preferred agencies.
Several bus companies run the one hour Bari – Matera route for prices ranging from €13 – €17. I gather from reviews that some of their arrival stations are not very convenient to access the Sassi.
WHERE TO PARK IN MATERA:
Rants by clueless travellers about lack of parking near Matera hotels are most amusing. Please remember. Sassi di Matera is a Limited Traffic Zone (ZTL) so access is exclusive to vehicles of residents and authorised persons including local taxis. There are free parking slots (white lines) or paid parking spaces (blue lines) with parking meters costing 0.50 cents per hour. For overnight stays several ‘guarded’ parking garages offer shuttle transfers. Ideal to co-ordinate with your hotel for the closest garage or one they have an arrangement with.
GETTING TO MATERA BY TRAIN FROM BARI
If your flight schedule does not match that of the direct PugliAir shuttle you can get to Bari Centrale Station and catch a train from there. The Airport shuttle bus departs every 35-60 min from just outside the station and takes 30min. Price: €4.
Or take the Trenitalia train from Bari Airport to Bari Centrale. Price: €5 (We took this before hopping on another train to Monopoli).
Matera isn’t served by Trenitalia but by the private train company FAL (Ferrovie Appulo Lucane). So the train to Matera departs from a different station.
For the FAL station you must exit Bari Centrale out the front where all the buses are parked and turn left facing the piazza. It’s the building next to Ferrovie Nord Barese on the corner of Piazza Aldo Moro and Corso Italia.
The (FAL) train from Bari Centrale takes you to Matera in just under 2 hrs. Price €5.
We bought our ticket at the station the day before. Pick Matera Centrale from the list of four arrival stations unless your hotel suggests you get off at a different one.
Do note that this is a smaller train service, so schedules might be limited on Sundays and other holidays. Supplementary buses ply the Bari to Matera route on those days. You’ll find schedule and ticket info at the (FAL) station. (Website isn’t updated often.)
- The nature of Matera’s geography demands a certain level of fitness. You’ll need to navigate a LOT of (smooth, slippery stone) steps to get to most of the sites. Something to keep in mind if you have mobility issues.
- Hotels closer to the main roads will have fewer (access) steps. Check beforehand if that’s an issue.
- Pack comfortable walking shoes with good grip.
- Most hotels offer help with luggage but travel light(er) just in case. Leave larger bags in your preceding destination if possible.
- Don’t rush. Make time to chill with a drink on a terrace with a view even if you are only doing Matera on a day-trip.
MAP – THINGS TO DO IN MATERA
Click on icons to view expanded details. You can save a copy from the enlarged view.
Christ Stopped At Eboli (Book)
How Matera Went From Ancient Civilization to Slum to a Hidden Gem
Matera & Basilicata (pdf)
A Conversation Between Bourdain and Francis Ford Coppola
The Italian Sabbatical – Grottole
Bonus watch – MATERA, ITALY, CITY OF THE SASSI – HAPPY PLANNING!
DISCLAIMER- The information provided above has been meticulously checked for accuracy at the time of writing. While efforts will be made to keep it updated periodically things can change without notice. Please do corroborate all details with relevant companies/websites before finalising your travel plans.