Touring Puglia, we can’t help but jump to Matera, which has long time been shrouded in mystery and is considered by many to be “the shame of Italy”. It’s part of the UNESCO world cultural heritage, it was the European capital of culture for 2019, it’s the setting of several box-office Hollywood productions, and until 70 years ago part of the local population lived in cave dwellings with primitive conditions…
Where is located, how to get there and where to stay
Matera is located on the border between the regions of Puglia and Basilicata, but still falls within the boundaries of the latter. Located in the inside of the peninsula, it’s characterized by a predominantly mountainous terrain and is among the least developed tourist regions of Italy. It’s almost equidistant from the two major airports in the area – Bari is 65 km away and Taranto is about 90 km away. Naples is 250 km away, but is also an option for arrival.
There are comfortable, low-cost trains between Bari and Matera, with a journey time of around 2 hours. But from our stay in Puglia, we were convinced that the best way to get around is by car! However, it’s advisable to avoid the streets of the old town… It is best to find a place to stay that provides parking.
I definitely recommend Nei pressi dei Sassi! It is located in close proximity to everything interesting in Matera and has a private parking space in the courtyard. We were greeted by a kind old lady who didn’t speak a word of English, but was so beaming and smiling that we still managed to understand each other. The apartment was very clean, cozy and consisted of two separate bedrooms with attached bathrooms. Perfect for us as there were four of us and it cost us 97 euro! We also had breakfast served at a bar downtown, but we’ll get to that…
See more places to stay in Matera
The view from the terrace of Chiesa di Sant’Agostino
We left our luggage and set off to explore Matera… on foot! Forget about the car, you don’t need it here! We had a whole day to explore and tour it. And the start is more than fantastic… We headed to the nearby terrace of the Chiesa di Sant’Agostino for the best view in town (HERE)! It’s like a postcard… We quickly got an idea of what awaits us – a wonderful mess of stone houses, narrow streets and curved staircases… We couldn’t wait to get into it!
💡 Matera is built on steep cliffs where you would hardly imagine a city could spring up. This is precisely what predisposes at times to reveal wonderful views… Take lots of pictures! Every corner offers a different surprise…
First steps in Matera
It was lunchtime and we were hungry… We were about 400 meters away from the designated place to eat, so we headed straight for it. But without losing sight of the panoramic view of the old part of the city, also called “Sassi” (Sassi di Matera) or in translation – “Stones of Matera”. A few steps, a few tunnels and another spectacular view from the ground above Chiesa di San Pietro Barisano (HERE).
Lunch at Street Food Il Rusticone
Even before we arrived in Matera, we were sure where we would have lunch! We love street food in Italy and one of the best places for typical street food is Il Rusticone. It’s conveniently located next to the main square, Piazza Vittorio Veneto, and has a few small tables on the street. We couldn’t wait to try the Pucce sandwich, popular in this region, made with special dough and always fresh products. We ordered several varieties, each portion costing 7-7.50 euro – you can see the current prices on the restaurant’s website. Crispy crust and perfect taste!
Around Piazza Vittorio Veneto
Before exploring the Sassi di Matera, we walked around the modern part a bit. The main meeting and walking place for locals is the central square Piazza Vittorio Veneto. The Palazzo dell’Annunziata is its most impressive building, and the most touristic site is the underground water reservoir Palombaro lungo. The predecessor of the modern water supply system was part of a rock church, which gives it a very interesting appearance and can be visited for a fee of 3 euro. Unfortunately it was closed when we visited…
The view from Belvedere Luigi Guerricchio
If we hadn’t prepared beforehand, we would have wondered why so many people were heading to the few arches in one of the corners of the square. But we knew that there opened another wonderful panorama towards the Sassi. With the exiting the Belvedere Luigi Guerricchio terrace, we were simply breathless… A sea of stone houses, literally stacked on top of each other and facing in all possible directions… And on top rises the cathedral of Matera. We are now in Sasso Barisano!
💡 The old part of Matera (Sassi di Matera) is divided into two neighborhoods – Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso. The first is more developed and predominates in stone houses, palaces, churches, restaurants and hotels. The second one is more authentic, a bit abandoned and gives a clear idea of what exactly life was like here until very recently…
Through the shopping streets of modern Matera
To further enhance our expectations for the old part of Matera, we continued our walk around the new! The main shopping and pedestrian streets are via del Corso and via Domenico Ridola. There are mostly shops of all kinds, restaurants and here and there a hidden temple. Between them is the spacious square with of the same name church of San Francesco. And as if the huge similarity in the structure and name of the settlement with Modica wasn’t enough for us, chocolate also appeared… There was something like a chocolate festival and it didn’t take much thought for us to wander around the tents and taste…
The tasting quantities weren’t enough to satisfy our need for dessert, and the February sun, which gave us more of a spring mood, prompted us to eat gelato. The wide open green gates of the artisanal laboratory I Vizi degli Angeli – Gelateria Artigianale are a special attraction for any visitor to Matera… We hadn’t gotten lost in the narrow mazes yet, but here we definitely got lost in the variety of experimental flavors… There was even with thyme!
The view from Belvedere di Piazza Giovanni Pascoli
Fully satisfied we reached the end of the street and Piazza Giovanni Pascoli with another great view! We can’t help but spend a few minutes in silent contemplation of the Sassi di Matera… And from here you can get the clearest idea about the structure of the city. The two neighborhoods are clearly visible, and frontally facing us is the Sasso Caveoso and the rock church Chiesa Rupestre di Santa Maria di Idris dominating on the summit.
More about Matera
With its history of around 9 thousand years, this remarkable city is among the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world! The former population created a unique network of caves in the limestone rocks, around which the life of the local population continues to be built to this day. And if now most of them have been converted into small shops, charming restaurants, art galleries, museums, boutique hotels and other types of objects serving the development of tourism, then until the 1950s the cave dwellings were inhabited by about 20 000 locals! While Italy is famous around the world for its Renaissance, Baroque, art and culture, time has stopped in Matera…
For the last 70 years, the city has come a long way to show itself as one of the most interesting places to visit in the southern part of the country. In 1993, it entered the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List, and at the beginning of the new millennium it appeared as a setting for some emblematic films – “The Passion of the Christ”, “Ben-Hur”, “Mary Magdalene”, “James Bond” and etc. In 2019, it defeated the applications of many more popular Italian cities to become the European Capital of Culture, together with Bulgaria’s Plovdiv.
Through the old part of Matera (Sassi di Matera)
It was time to ditch the urbanized part and we set off to explore the steep alleyways with multiple steps… Walking through the Sassi di Matera can be described in one word… delight! The best plan to get around is to just get lost… At times we were literally walking on the roofs of some houses, entering their yards or walking up to the doorsteps… However, the more basic streets you can use as a reference are via Bruno Buozzi, via Muro, via delle Beccherie, via Duomo and via Fiorentini. Along them there are nice restaurants and shops for typical local products.
The rock church Chiesa Rupestre di Santa Maria di Idris
There are over 120 rock churches around Matera! The most iconic is the Chiesa Rupestre di Santa Maria di Idris, perched on top of the cliff. In fact, it’s so embedded in it that, looking at it from afar, one might not realize that there is a church there! It represents a harmonious combination of rock and additional construction. We managed to get to it, but not to get inside… But the eponymous square itself is a panoramic site, giving another wonderful and unknown perspective to Matera and its dense network of stone houses…
La Gravina Canyon
Go all the way around it to take a look at the deep canyon that borders the city on the other side. Called “La Gravina” by the locals, it appears thanks to the river that meanders through it. To get to the opposite shore, you cross several rope bridges and various hiking trails that lead to the abandoned ancient caves. It is good to embark on such a walk if you have more than one day. Therefore, there is also an easier option to get there, but I will share it with you a little later…
The authentic lifestyle at Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario
The best way to understand and feel what life was like for the locals is to visit one of the museum-turned rock houses. We chose it to be Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario. We knew we were somewhere above it, but we had to strictly follow the posted signs so as not to get lost in the narrow stairs… To get inside, an entrance fee of 5 euro is paid, and you can see the current working hours on the website (HERE).
The narrow kitchen with the hearth, the niches in the walls for storage, the small family table on which the only meal was placed, the bed with a mattress stuffed with corn leaves, the weaving loom and the stable give rise to many mixed feelings in us… Separately is the snow storage hall, which served as a cold room and is a unique practical solution for the living conditions that the locals had. All the furnishings inside are completely authentic and arranged largely as they looked in the past…
And it’s unbelievable that this past is actually the 1950s! Until very recently, numerous families and various farm animals coexisted there… without electricity or sewage! The inhabitants of the Sassi are totally neglected by the society and called “the shame of Italy”. Infections and diseases begin to spread through the caves, which drastically increase child mortality… In 1931, the writer Carlo Levi was sent to a prison around Matera and, describing in his book the cruel reality he saw there, drastically changed the fate of the city… The government passes a law that forcibly evicts the people from the caves and moves them to apartments, and the rock niches become municipal property.
To Cattedrale di Matera “Maria Santissima della Bruna” and Piazza Duomo
Still under the influence of what we saw, we again took the winding stairs and narrow passages of the old town… This part of Matera is definitely bigger than I expected. It takes time to cross distances. And if you come in summer, there is almost no shade! The charming olive trees and another great view of the rock church and Piazza San Pietro Caveoso, made us quickly forget about the shameful past of the city and continue to explore it with pleasure…
We also reach the highest point in Matera (401 m), namely the Piazza Duomo and the 13th century Cattedrale di Matera “Maria Santissima della Bruna” located on it. And while the only thing impressive about the simple facade, bathed in yellow by the bright winter sun, is the rose window with sixteen rays, the many painted and gilded elements inside are worth seeing.
Sunset over the stone city
We arranged our plan perfectly so that we could be right here during sunset. We just sat on the stone wall to watch the fast disappearing sun… We realize that Matera is stunning… Its history and uniqueness captivated us!
Last wandering through the Sassi
We embark on one last wander around the “heap of stones”, as the city’s name translates. At times we feel as if we are in a city from the Near East lost in the southern lands of Italy… Ancient Jerusalem or Bethlehem. But the green shutters on the windows, the motorbikes and the laundry stretched everywhere tell us that we are still on the boot!
The night lights of Matera
We had enough time to get back to the apartment to freshen up before heading out for a night walk and dinner. The convenience of being one step away from everything interesting! And in the evening, Matera transforms… Multicolored lamps illuminate the old part, giving it extra charm and mystery… Familiar viewing spots are a perfect choice for some night pictures!
Dinner time – Taverna La Focagna
We deserved a delicious dinner after all that climbing and descending! Our choice of location came down to the authentic Taverna La Focagna. Extremely cozy inside, decorated with a rich ethnographic collection of items and serving traditional Matera food! Here they follow the maxim that great food is a combination of local, cheap and accessible products (Cucina Povera). The bread, peppers and onions are a must-try! We had onions alla materna (4 euro) and two types of pasta (9 euro each). The portions are generous and the prices reasonable. The local draft wine was also very good! We were charmed by the overall atmosphere and the delicious food.
Leaving the restaurant, we came across the still working stalls full of chocolate delights and we couldn’t resist to get some pistachio chocolate for the next days and a cannola for dessert… Nothing that we are not in Sicily!
A few shots under the morning rays
The truth is, we couldn’t wait to wake up to enjoy the amazing views once more… Before heading to Bari we had to have breakfast, but we decided to extend the distance to the cafe by taking another walk with a view of the Sassi di Matera, bathed in morning rays and timelessness… Good morning, Matera!
Breakfast at Caffè Schiuma
We were provided with breakfast by the accommodation, which was served at Caffè Schiuma. To get to the typical Italian cafe, with windows full of various sweets, we had to go through some unknown streets with obstacles! It was quite busy inside, and the queue of people waiting for coffee was growing, perhaps making the staff a little more irritable… We ignored this negative note and immersed ourselves in Italian everyday life with a hot cappuccino and a freshly baked croissant!
Let’s find a cave around Belvedere Murgia Timone
As much as we don’t want to… it’s time to leave Matera. But not without exploring the most ancient caves on the hill beyond the river gorge. I promised to reveal to you how to get there more easily… We set the car’s GPS to Belvedere Murgia Timone and parked in the spacious lot. This is where the crucifixion scene from the movie “The Passion of the Christ” was filmed. And Matera opposite looks like Swiss cheese, dotted with caves and tunnels… I advise you to get off the beaten track and find a cave with an amazing look…
For a final
That is… the sorrowful beauty of Matera! Unlike most other Italian cities, they never had a golden age here… Only poverty and misery… Many of the emigrants never mentioned that they came from the Sassi, but invented new roots…mostly out of shame! But today it seems that Matera is finally getting its deserved role and experiencing its renaissance!