I’ll admit it. It was through Instagram that I fell in love with Matera and it became a constant, fixed, ever-present travel
obsession goal. And finally, this summer – my summer of fulfilling Italian dreams and exploring my home country- I managed to see it with my own eyes.
As much research you can do about Matera, as much as you stalk people on Instagram and Pinterest, there is not much that prepares you for seeing the shiniest Italian gem for the first time.
World-known for its famous sassi, Matera is located on the border of Basilicata and Puglia and is one of my latest (and favourite) discoveries in Italy. Walking around this cute town where the sun reflects off the white limestone is not only breathtaking but extremely fascinating because of its history but also for its stunning beauty. But things were very different not too long ago…
THE OLD ITALIAN SHAME
Matera dates back to the Paleolithic Age and once you get there, you will see that not much has changed. Matera, after Petra in Jordan, is the oldest city in the world which was continuously inhabited for more than 30,000 years. It was once considered a giant slum filled with malaria and where poor people were living in medieval conditions. In caves. Exactly as described in the controversial book ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli‘ by Carlo Levi (1945), there was no running water or electricity and people were really living in very basic conditions. Truth to be told until the 1950’s Matera was also where prisoners were sent to live (and possibly die) in horrible conditions. In 1952, after the visit of the then prime minister, the Italian government ordered its evacuation due to inhumane living conditions and the city was left behind and abandoned by everyone but the addicts and the “bad people”. The residents were offered a new apartment in the new Matera, but some struggled to live their homes, livestock and families.
The city was never completely empty until the 1980s, but it’s only in the last two decades that the government and the local authorities and entrepreneurs have launched and managed a deep and important make over and facelift. Today, Matera has re-shaped its streets, caves and general vibe. There are luxury and boutique hotels at every corner and you can dine at some of the best Italian restaurants right in the same caves that not long ago hosted entire families and their livestock, often in the same room.
After so much general effort, in 1993, Matera was named a UNESCO World Heritage sites, which means that it is considered of ‘outstanding value to humanity and is protected to preserve the cultural and natural heritage of the area.” Matera will also be the 2019 European Capital of Culture and I think this gem is totally ready to attract thousands of visitors.
First of all, let me tell you that the sassi aren’t what you think (or what I thought!). Many people think that Matera’s caves are the “sassi”, but they’re not. The sassi (literally meaning “stones”) refer to the two neighbourhoods, Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano, made of stone dwellings in porous limestone of tufa in the ancient town. The original living quarters were primitive cave dwellings on the other side of the canyon. Gradually, the people made their way over to build the city you can visit today.
To really get a feeling of Matera, you need to walk (and get lost) among the narrow lanes between houses.
How to explore the city
Kids, there is a new way to explore a new city and this new way is an app called Aroundly (available in the App Store and google play). Aroundly allows you to tailor your visit to your preferences, whether you are alone or in a group, looking for fun or culture, this app creates an itinerary just for you takes you around Matera (or Cagliari, Erice, Catania, Trapani, Siracusa, Trieste and many other cities) and puts you in touch with locals and new friends.
Where to stay in Matera
When I was invited to stay at the Sant’Angelo Resort in Matera, I had no doubts to say YES and immerse myself in this stunning hotel and its ancient walls and rooms. The owners took on the massive project to transform these caves that were once humble abodes, into splendid residences, suites and luxury rooms in order to redeem and restore the noble soul of an old civilization. The result is a mesmerising resort where you are constantly spoiled by incredible views over the old town and where every little detail screams luxury, but also home. I had a fantastic stay at Sant’Angelo and I am sure I’ll go back next time I am in Matera.
As I always do when I travel for work, I opted for breakfast in bed which was served in a sumptuous basked filled with all the delicacies you would expect from such a top notch hotel.
If you are looking for a simpler room in Matera, then Vicolo Fiore is the go to option. Only 50m from the Piazza Pascoli viewpoint, this brand new and super cute apartment features two double rooms (Barisano & Caveoso, the names of the two neighbourhoods) and a brand new kitchen that offers all you need for a short stay in town.
You will have all the comforts and facilities you will need for a short or a long stay in Matera, including (strong) wi-fi making a perfect place for fellow digital nomads looking for a place to work and stay put for a short period of time. Another plus is the free parking (which is a massive plus in Matera which is almost completely car-free).
How to reach Matera
- Train: if you want to travel by train, the easiest way is to first get to Bari which is connected to Trenitalia (the national train system and it’s a 4-hour train ride from Rome to Bari), then go to the regional train site, Ferrovie Appulo Lucane, putting in “Bari Centrale” as your starting point and “Matera Centrale” as your endpoint. The ride takes between 1 hour and 15 minutes and 1.5 hours and it is very cheap (something like 2 euros). From the train station, it’s about a 15-minute walk to the sassi of Matera.
- Car: as part of our #fromnorthtosouthandbacksummer road trip we came by car, but parking in the centre of Matera can be quite difficult (erm…impossible!) since it’s a big ZLT area (no cars allowed except for residents), but you can still find a solution by talking to locals or parking just outside the city center.
INTEresting FACTS and tips ABOUT MATERA
- Matera was tagged a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993
- Here is where Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of Christ’ movie was filmed
- Forget your heels and wear (very) comfy shoes – ideally with a good sole as the streets can be quite slippery
- Fully charge your camera batteries and bring a wide angle lens if you have one
BOOKS & MOVIES
- Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi’
- The Passion of Christ by Mel Gibson
- Ben Hur
- La Lupa, 1953
- Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo 1964, by Pier Paolo Pasolini
WHY SHOULD YOU VISIT MATERA NOW?
Today, the city (still) has a great non-touristy vibe. I don’t think it will be the same next year since Matera will be the 2019 European Capital of Culture and I am sure it will attract even more visitors in the next decade and beyond. So, if you don’t love crowded places and queuing every 10 minutes book your stay in Matera now!
Sleeping in a cave? Where else can you experience it? I am not sure, but I think Matera is the only place in the world.
As Carlo Levi said:
Anyone who sees Matera cannot help but be awe-struck, so expressive and touching is its sorrowful beauty
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