You are no doubt familiar with the image of the Phoenix and it’s meaning, the legendary bird that rises from the ashes as a symbol of constant re-birth. No city in the world embodies this fate and symbolism better than Matera, the fascinating town located in the southern Italian region of Basilicata, on the border with with Puglia.
Now a vibrant city thanks to tourism and announced as the European Capital of Culture for 2019, Matera was once known as ‘the shame of Italy’. Until the 1950s it was a place of great poverty, where diseases like malaria remained a threat. Such a place was a real disgrace for post WWII Italy and so the Italian government took the decision to remove all Matera’s citizens from their traditional homes and relocate them to a brand new area of the city just outside the centre. Those shameful caves where people had been living for thousands of years suddenly became empty.
They remained abandoned for decades but then a number of citizens decided to go back and restore the Sassi (literally ‘stones’). Was it a good idea? Definitely! In 1993 Matera became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was described as ‘the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem.’ Since then, dozens of hotels, restaurants and B&Bs have been opening in the former disgraceful ancient part of the city. At the same time, many citizens of Matera have decided to re-populate the Sassi. The charm of the town and its unique views keep attracting visitors every year, new business and cultural activities are growing and the European Commission has chosen Matera as the 2019 town that symbolises the cultural diversity of Europe. What better example of a ‘re-birth from the ashes’?
A visit to Matera will certainly leave it’s mark on you and its “sorrowful beauty” – as writer Carlo Levi described it – will be impossible to forget. Here are some tips to make the most out of your visit assuming you have just one day to spend in the city. (We recommend a two-night stay in order to get a real insight into this town’s fascinating history, but one day would be just enough to discover the best the city has to offer!)
A tour through Matera must start from its main attraction, the Sassi. This complex maze of cave dwellings is one of the oldest surviving examples of a primitive settlement and is divided into three main areas. Sasso Caveoso, in the southern part, is one of the most ancient settlements and the perfect starting point for your tour: here you can admire the original caves where shepherds used to live and gain a real insight into what life at that time was like. Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario is a perfect example of a traditional cave dwelling where a whole family lived until 1956: visitors are presented with a picture of what life in 1950’s Matera was like via a brief video before entering the real house, where a perfect reconstruction of the old home furnishing and some photos of the last owners will certainly take you back in time. The adjacent rupestrian church San Pietro in Monterrone, completely carved into the rock, is also worth a visit. Rupestrian churches are indeed one of the main attractions of Matera, perfectly adapted to this rough terrain and a real surprise for visitors with their complex structure and “sorrowful beauty”. A must-see during your tour through Sasso Caveoso are San Pietro Caveoso and the small church Santa Maria de Idris, where you can admire frescos from the 14th and 15th century and the fascinating crypt San Giovanni in Monterrone as well as enjoy a stunning view over the Murgia, the highland surrounding Matera.
From here, head towards Civita, the second hilly area of Sassi, from where the Cathedral Maria Santissima della Bruna dominates the city and where you can admire the houses and narrow streets that served as locations for the famous Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”. Getting lost in this complex maze of cobbled streets is the best way to experience the real Matera and you can try to reach the top of the hill through the long staircase in Via Muro, where the famous Via Crucis scene was filmed.
Once in Piazza Duomo, the square outside the Cathedral from where visitors can enjoy a breathtaking view over the old centre of Matera, you can climb down the other side of the hill into Sasso Barisano, the third and last area of ancient town: here visitors will find a slightly different Matera, more similar to a medieval village, but the apparently normal facades of the houses hide other caves dwellings, most of which now host hotels, B&Bs and small traditional restaurants.
If you are quite adventurous and don’t mind some trekking, the best way to end your day in Matera is to reach Murgia Timone, the plain on the other side of the ravine opposite the Sassi. Here visitors will find the oldest cave dwellings of the area, dating back to the Neolithic Age, as well as the Chapel Sant’Agnese and an unparalleled view over the Sassi and the whole town of Matera from the place where the settlement of the area started. You can reach Murgia Timone by car but an increasing number of tourists opt for a more adventurous route across the new Ponte Tibetano, a suspension bridge that allows people to cross the Gravina steam and reach the other side of the canyon. The walk starts from Porta Pistola and it takes one hour to reach your final destination, but the view of the ancient city at sundown will reward you for all your efforts!
However, if you wanted to spend your last hours in Matera in a more relaxing way but without missing the chance to see something breathtaking, from Sasso Barisano you should head towards the main square in Matera, Piazza Vittorio Veneto, and the modern part of the town. With its Baroque palaces such as Palazzo del Sedile and its numerous shops, cafés and restaurants, this vibrant area of the city will surprise you and give you the chance to relax. Why not take a stroll along the lively Via del Corso and Via Duomo and enjoy some shopping? But just before that stop in Piazza Vittorio Veneto, do not miss the chance to discover what is hidden under your feet! Beneath the square you will find the second largest cistern in the world, the Palombaro Lungo. The cistern dates back to the 18th century and was used to collect rainwater for the citizens living in this part of the city. Long forgotten, it was discovered by explorers in 1991. Completely carved by hand, it is part of a complex water collection system that lies beneath the whole ancient town. Head downstairs into this amazing cistern, walk along the path below the line where the water level used to rise and discover an unexpected underworld!
At the end of this incredible day, after walking up and down thorough the centre of Matera, we suggest that you spend the last few hours in this city enjoying it’s traditional dishes! You will certainly have built up an appetite after all that walking! The modern part of Matera is probably the one where you can find the majority of restaurants, especially Via del Corso and Via Duomo. In Piazza Vittorio Veneto, near the Palombaro Lungo, the Kappador Restaurant is the perfect choice for a “spectacular” dinner: as the name ‘The window on the Sassi’ suggests, guests can admire one of the best views over Matera from the restaurant terrace while enjoying a pizza or one of the traditional dishes of this region. Be ready to wait a little bit though! The terrace has just a limited number of places, so we suggest you to book your place in advance if you do not want to get there too early. The more you get closer to Sassi then, the more you will find refined restaurants as well. Amongst them we can recommend ‘Il Mare nei Sassi’, which serves contemporary, fish-focused regional cuisine, and ‘Soul Kitchen’, one the most praised restaurants in town for its modern take on the tradition’s recipes.
And so your day in Matera will draw to a close. Our last tip is to look back at what you have just seen and experienced, this ancient, complex maze of caves you have just visited and its incredible history of sorrow and rebirth. Writer Licia Troisi said that Matera ‘escapes any definition’ people try to give it, because of its uniqueness and the strong, different emotions visitors can feel while walking along its streets. Therefore, think about it and try to give your own definition of Matera. In that moment you will realise how much Matera has given to you!
Jo Mackay is Owner of Bookings For You. Bookings For You is a company offering apartment and villa rentals in Italy and France.