Mesmerising Matera: experiencing the extraordinary

Much as I loved our adventures around Puglia, the highlight of the trip was undoubtedly Matera, which is just across the regional border in Basilicata, the instep of Italy’s boot.

Matera is the world’s third-longest continuously inhabited human settlement where natural caves emerged as the River Gravina cut through the tufa limestone rock and created a gorge. The cave dwellings or sassi make Matera quite an extraordinary and unique place to visit.

The two cave areas, Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso, are separated by a ridge where you’ll find Matera’s grand cathedral. But what is not so grand is that many of the sassi were shabby one room caves where people lived in abject poverty as recently as the 1950s.

Meanwhile in the new town, the wealthier residents of Matera were living a very different life which was exposed by Carlo Levi in his book Christ Stopped at Eboli in 1945. Matera was quickly decried as the shame of Italy and a few years later the sassi-dwellers were moved out and the caves were left abandoned for years. Decades later the area was recognised as a unique environment and restored. When Matera was recognised as a European Capital of Culture in 2019 it was quite a turnaround for the former shame of Italy.

There are plenty of places to stay in the Civita, Matera’s new town, but we wanted to stay in the sassi and opted for a hotel in Sasso Barisano which is more restored than Sasso Caveoso. The Locando di San Martino is a cave hotel with rooms on several levels. It’s possible to stay in a cave room, but we thought it might be a bit claustrophobic, so opted for a room on a higher level. We were rewarded with the most amazing views of the sassi from our window and a nice outside terrace.

Once settled and ready to explore Matera we picked up a couple of maps at the hotel reception which have helpful walking routes around the sassi. Though it’s a pretty confusing place to get around even with maps because of all the steps and different levels!

But before really diving in I’d recommend heading to Casa Noha. Tucked away in Recinto Cavone, a narrow street close to the cathedral, it offers a 25-minute multimedia exhibit spread across three rooms of a family home which was donated to the Fondo Ambiente Italiano, the National Trust of Italy. The exhibit explains the social history of the town and really helps you to understand what it was like for the sassi dwellers. Entry is free for members of the UK National Trust.

As mentioned, Matera’s cathedral is close to here and while it’s relatively plain on the outside, it’s still impressive and worth going inside as the interior is ornate and sumptuous. There are also some stunning views of Sasso Barisano from the terrace.

From the cathedral, you can head to the edge of town and take a look at the Gravina Gorge with its abandoned caves and villages. Known as the Parco della Murgia Materana, it’s part of Matera’s World Heritage Site.

You can walk to the park from the town as there are steps down from the parking place near Monasterio di Santa Lucia. But at the bottom you have to cross the river on a narrow bridge and then hike up to a viewing point which takes about two hours. Not ideal on a very hot day! The cooler and less energetic option is to drive to Jazzo Grattini, the park’s visitor centre, and explore the caves from there.

Back to the town and if you turn right along Via Madonna della Virtu you can walk alongside the gorge to Chiesa di San Pietro Caveoso, the only church in the sassi that isn’t dug into the tufa rock. It was built in 1300 but has a 17th-century facade and a frescoed wooden ceiling. Next door is the Chiesa Rupestre di Santa Maria di Idris, probably the most impressive of the Rupestrian (rock) churches. The two very different churches sitting side-by-side make for a very cool photograph.

At the bottom of the steps up to Santa Maria di Idris, there is a great cave bar called Zipa. It has big comfortable bean bag style seating and was the perfect place to get out of the heat for a while and have a cold drink.

Also near here is Casa Grotto di Vico Solitario, a recreated cave dwelling that can offer a glimpse of life in old Matera. We didn’t make it inside as the queue was always very long! However, we did head to Palazzo Lanfranchi in Piazzetta Pascoli which houses Matera’s museum of sacred and contemporary art. Carlo Levi’s paintings include a huge panoramic mural called Luciania ’61 which shows his depiction of peasant life in Matera.

The palazzo building itself is lovely and after the visit, we walked down the street opposite to I Vizi degli Angeli Laboratorio di Gelateria Artigianale, reputed to be the best ice cream shop in Matera. I can confirm that the chocolate ice cream is extremely good!

That road becomes Via del Corso and leads down to Piazza Vittorio Veneto, the largest square we came across in Matera. There were always lots of people strolling through at all times of day and night. The piazza’s churches and palazzi face inwards with their backs turned on the sassi, evidently an attempt by the bourgeoisie to block out the shameful poverty. We quite liked the Vittorio Veneto Cafe for a light lunch and also had some very strong after-dinner cocktails there. But one of the square’s main draws is Belvedere Guerricchio, one of Matera’s best viewpoints to see the sassi, day or night.

If you take Via San Biagio out of Piazza Vittorio Veneto you can head up to Chiesa San Pietro Barisano, a Rupestrian church that dates to the earlier 12th century. It’s the largest of Matera’s rock churches and includes an ancient honeycomb of niches where corpses were placed for draining. Pretty creepy!

At the entrance level, there are some amazingly well-preserved frescoes of the Annunciation and various saints. But the empty frames of the altarpiece are an illustration of the plundering that took place when Matera was partially abandoned in the 1960s and 70s.

Close by is a Salvador Dalí exhibition in the Rupestrian monastic complex of Madonna delle Virtù and San Nicola dei Greci. You can spot it by the Dali sculpture perched on a terrace part way up the rock face. When we were in Matera there were also some huge Dali sculptures in other parts of the town, including the Space Elephant. But I’m not sure if they are still there. I think they appeared when Matera achieved Capital of Culture status in 2019 and stayed longer than planned because of the pandemic.

A short walk from the Dali exhibition on Via D’Addozio is the Convent of Saint Agostino which includes a church you can go inside. But the real draw here is the viewpoint Belvedere Emilio Colombo. It’s where I took the iconic Matera photo that I started the post with – and very recognisable if you saw the James Bond movie No Time to Die as the opening section was filmed in Matera.

After a short wait, we managed to get an outside table for lunch at Austin which is opposite the convent and meant we got to stay and enjoy that amazing Matera view for even longer. It’s so good I think I’ll post it again after the restaurant photo below!

I could easily end the post on that image, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t share where else we ate and drank in Matera as we made some great choices that I would recommend. On the first evening, we had dinner at Tierra in Via San Biagio. It’s a cave restaurant so no windows, but there was air con and the food and service were both really good.

The next night we went to La Gattabuia which means the good cat. It’s another very nice restaurant that is set in a sottano (antique house below street level) in Via delle Beccherie. The food and service were great and it seemed a well-regarded place as we spotted the film director David Cronenburg who was in Matera for a film festival.

After dinner we walked back along Via delle Beccherie and came across MoMAng which serves food but is also a great bar. It was an excellent spot to sit outside with a cocktail watching the world go by and being entertained by the owner Piero. He was keen to tell us all about the James Bond stars who frequented his bar during the filming! The perfect way to finish our visit to one of the most mesmerising and memorable places I’ve been to.

Click on an image below to scroll through more images in the gallery and check the Italy section of my blog for other posts about my Puglian road trip.

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