One year ago, I flew to Puglia with my husband for a holiday in the south-eastern tip of Italy. We carved two days out of our itinerary to drive to the neighbouring region of Basilicata and visit Matera. The cliffside town, known for its cave dwellings in the area that is called Sassi, had long been on my bucket list.
If you haven’t been to Matera yet, I hope this post will convince you to add it to your bucket list. Now it’s the time to wanderlust and dream about our post-lockdown trips. Why not choose the enchanting town of Matera as your next travel destination?
Sassi di Matera
Generally when people talk about Matera as a tourist hotspot, they are referring to the area of Sassi di Matera, and not than the larger, modern city of Matera. The Sassi di Matera are prehistoric cave dwellings dug into calcarenitic rock, that are believed to date back thousands of years.
It wasn’t that long ago that families used to live in tiny houses excavated inside the mountain, without heating and sewerage. In the aftermath of World World II, as the country was being rebuilt and developing a strong economy, the ancient Sassi districts were riddled with extreme poverty and widespread disease. Matera was called “the shame of Italy”.
In 1952, the inhabitants of Sassi di Matera were evacuated to the new districts of Matera, a move that continued over 15 years, until 1968. Sassi was abandoned and nearly forgotten about… Until 1993, when the old city was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, thus kickstarting the re-birth of Matera.
The Sassi di Matera have undergone complex restorations to recover the original cave structures and preserve the important history and unique traditions of the area. Nowadays, Sassi di Matera is flourishing and it’s become a big tourist attraction. It’s also an exciting and attractive creative hub thanks to decades of developing cultural and artistic activities locally.
Sassi di Matera is stunning and unlike anything I’ve ever seen before! It will transport you back in history. It’s literally a city carved in the rock, where the hotels, museums, churches and restaurants are housed inside caves. And it gets even prettier at night with its warm street lanterns.
I loved getting lost in the narrow alleyways of Sassi. Walking up and down the steep cobbled streets and stairs to find charming corners and spectacular viewpoints. Belvedere Piazzaetta Pascoli and Piazza Duomo offer some of the best ones.
The Sassi di Matera are divided into two distinct districts: Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso. The first could be considered as the heart of the old city, where most of the hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops are located. The latter is the more quiet one, where the older cave dwellings are located.
European Capital of Culture 2019
Matera was very busy when we visited, and not just because it was the week of May Day (a bank holiday in Italy and in most of Europe). In 2019, Matera was appointed European Capital of Culture. The city celebrated with 48 weeks of events, museum exhibitions, art performances, and over 50 original cultural productions involving 18.000 people. It is estimated that one million visitors from all around the world flocked to Matera in 2019. Even James Bond made a visit to film the new movie, No Time to Die! Matera is also the backdrop of another blockbuster film: The Passion of Christ by Mel Gibson.
Things to See in Matera
We spent just two days in Matera, not enough to visit all the museums and art exhibitions. If you have the time, I recommend going to the MUSMA, the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture, situated in an atmospheric cave.
The 12th-century Chiesa San Pietro Barisano is completely carved out of the rock, while the Matera Cathedral is a 13th century Romanesque-style church that was recently restored and re-opened in 2016. From the square facing the cathedral you will get a gorgeous view of Sassi at sunset.
A must-see is the <a” href=”http://www.casagrotta.it/index.php?lang=en” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener noreferrer”>Storica Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario, an original 18th-century house, with furniture and tools of the time still inside. The short guided tour and video (both available in English) will give you an authentic sense of how the cave life was like in Sassi di Matera in the old days.
What to Eat and Where
I didn’t have the time to delve into the local gastronomy, but a few foods everyone should try in Matera are: pane materano (the traditional bread loaf) used to make the typical bruschette; focaccia; local cheeses like caciocavallo and pecorino salato; fresh pasta like cavatelli; a bean and grain soup called “capriata” ; and the “cialledd” a salad made with stale bread, onions and potatoes (a similar dish to Tuscan panzanella).
The Trattoria del Caveoso was recommended to us by our hotel, they also booked a table for us and we enjoyed our dinner there. Other restaurant recommendations I was given (though I didn’t go there myself) are Soul Kitchen, Morgan, Ristorante Francesca and La Latteria. For lunch the next day we ate a forgettable focaccia, but were then rewarded by a delicious artisanal gelato at I Vizi degli Angeli.
The Murgia National Park
Venture across the valley bordering from the old city on the southern side and you will be in the lush grounds of Murgia National Park (Parco della Murgia Materana). The park is part of UNESCO World Heritage, together with the Sassi di Matera.
The park is best enjoyed with sports footwear on and a camera in hand. There are plenty of great shots to be taken, especially from the belvedere which provides a spectacular view of Matera’s historic centre.
The scent of the local foliage and flowers will make this visit especially memorable. It’s a great way to spend a few hours wandering and connecting with nature. Don’t miss a visit to see the spectacular Italian rocky landscape with about 1,200 botanical species over an area of 7,000 hectares.
There used it be a path to walk across the valley from Matera to the park, but not anymore. The only way to reach the entrance of the park is by car or by joining a guided tour.
Where to Stay in Matera
Our home in Matera was Corte San Pietro, an impressive boutique hotel is nestled in a carved out stone in Sassi. My friend Federica at Pasta Bites blog recommended it and we loved it! All of the rooms—which look out to an internal courtyard—are decorated with traditional touches like hand-carved wood and stone pieces. Breakfast is served indoors during winter or out in the picturesque courtyard in summer. The owners of Corte San Pietro will be happy to help you during your stay with recommendations on places to see and things to do.
We, unfortunately, only had one night in Matera, but there is so much to see and do that we recommend staying at least two or three nights.
How to Get to Matera
From Bari Airport, you can rent a car and drive to Matera in just 1 hour; alternatively, you can hop on a bus operated by Pugliairbus five times a day (price €5, duration 1h10′).
Tip: if you are driving to Matera, make sure to email the hotel in advance to request that your car number plate be added to the list of cars allowed into Sassi. It is essential you get a permit to drive in the ZTL (limited traffic zone).