Visit Matera and you will feel like you’ve been transported back to biblical times. This atmospheric cave town, carved into a canyon, sits on a chalky plateau – a place that is quickly surging as a destination to experience.
Visit Matera: A Cave City Reborn
Matera wasn’t on my radar. All I knew was that the annual International Women’s Fiction Festival was to be held there and I was going. Turns out, it was a place that was unlike any other European town I have visited. It had this incredible kind of energy perhaps influenced from the fact that people had been living in this pocket of inland southern Italy for more than 10,000 years.
Matera was once dubbed as the “shame of Italy,” due to its history of poverty. For example, malaria was a problem in the 1950s. Conditions were so horrible that during that decade, the Italian government had to force residents out of their old quarters and into new, modern buildings built on a hill up from the old settlements.
Things have surely changed. In recent decades, Matera has slowly started a story of its own rebirth. The town organized itself to promote its history and culture, and today there are many thriving businesses from hotels to restaurants. Matera was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. Matera has been nominated for the distinction of the European Capital of Culture 2019. (Update: It won!)
The Troglodyte Life
Like other cultures during various times, especially in prehistoric times, people lived in caves. In Greece, think Santorini and the traditional cave dwellings carved out of the island’s limestone rock. Well, Matera is another fantastic example of a troglodyte settlement -still very much intact- in the Mediterranean. People continuously lived in caves shaped out of rock for thousands of years.
Now that Matera is more up and coming and catering to travelers, those who have inherited these cave homes are refurbishing them for tourists that want a taste of the troglodyte life. Like me. I stayed in a beautifully modern and refurbished one I found on AirBnB.
The Meaning of Sassi
Matera’s historic district is called the Sassi which translates to stones in Italian. If these scenes look familiar at all, Mel Gibson’s acclaimed film The Passion of the Christ (2004), one of the most famous biblical films was filmed here. Perfect choice.
Every morning I trekked up some steps from my AirBnB to walk through the Sassi. I’d make my way across a few church squares, a lovely 10-minute walk to Hotel Le Monacelle where the conference seminars took place. Despite some days of cloudy and moody skies, Matera appeared before me just like a dream. I found myself pulling out the iPhone to take the same pic over and over.
Tip: The whole sassi is series of stairs and cobbled paths. Be prepared to walk a lot from place to place. There isn’t a way to get around otherwise.
Getting to Matera
For me, it wasn’t the easiest place to reach but I enjoyed the journey since I love traveling anywhere in Italy.
To visit Matera, I flew from Athens to Rome. From Rome, I took a flight to Bari and stayed there for a night. The next day I took a train from Bari to Matera. The train stop isn’t right in town, the stop is just outside of Matera since cars are not suited to drive through the Sassi. I took a cab from there and walked to my AirBnB which happened to be on the border of the Sassi, so I didn’t have to walk too much.
Train: Ferrovie Appulo Lucane
Take Bari Centrale to Matera Centrale
1 hour and 15 minutes and 1.5 hours
Price: 4 Euro
From the train station: 15-minute walk to the Sassi or take a cab
Where to Stay in Matera
I highly recommend staying in a refurbished cave house, it is a unique traditional kind of stay. I found my apartment on AirBnB. For more on what it was like to stay in a Sassi cave, check out my post: Sassi Cave Stay in Matera.
What to Do in Matera
On your visit to Matera do explore the repustrian churches which are carved into stone and date back to the Middle Ages. They have vibrant frescoes inside including the cave church Madonna de Idris.
Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario gives insight into how people lived in the caves in the 18th century. Admission: €2
Museum of Contemporary Sculpture Matera (MUSMA) presents sculptures set in the nooks and crannies of a 17th century cave. Admission: €5
At Palazzo Lanfranchi, in Piazza Pascoli, you can visit the National Museum of Medieval and Modern Arts of Basilicata. That was where I saw the fantastic works of painter and doctor Carlo Levi. Levi depicted the poverty of the sassi in his paintings.
For more on Matera visit: www.matera.flyer.it
I loved the undiscovered feeling I had during my visit to Matera. The unreal kind of setting and learning about its history and seeing its rebirth first hand was incredibly memorable. It’s an up-and-coming place so that won’t last. Visit soon!
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Would you like to visit Matera? Have you been to this region of southern Italy?