A Mini Guide to Matera, Italy
Most people have never heard of Matera, Italy. It’s one of those places that I found by chance while researching eco-friendly hotels in Italy. I was looking for unique places to stay that I could add to my list of cities that are a must visit. Matera is definitely a must visit.
It’s located in south eastern Italy, about two hours from Naples. The Sassi or cave dwellings in the historical part of the town consist of restored churches, homes, B&Bs, hotels, cafes, shops, etc. all renovated, preserved and reused to showcase an incredible recorded history that began around the 3rd century BC.
There are a number of things to do in the Sassi in the summer time, which is when I was there. Be forewarned, it does get hot. The week that I visited, in early July, was extremely hot (99F/38C). I’m not sure if that was just a heat wave or if that was typical summer weather. Fortunately there are plenty of museums, churches, cafes, restaurants and most importantly gelaterias to help beat the heat. I did walk around during the heat of the day, there’s just no avoiding it if you want to make the most of your time.
One of the most fascinating things about the Sassi is that the original cave dwellings are thought to be the first ever human settlements in Italy. Meaning, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has been inhabited continually, in a similar manner, since prehistoric times. Deemed a UNSECO World Heritage Site in 1993, the Sassi di Matera has to be experienced in person to fully appreciate it. The Sassi has a very interesting history, definitely worth exploring. Interest in the Sassi by Hollywood helped to spark an interest in restoring it. Featured in movies such as King David, The Passion of the Christ and Ben Hur, it’s been perfect for these period pieces because of the preserved look of the city. Walking around the narrow stone streets of the Sassi you do feel though you’ve been taken back in time.
Matter has a number of important churches and monasteries that were carved into the rock of the area, the oldest being Matera Cathedral, completed in 1270 AD.
Explore The Caves
During the day you can tour some of the preserved caves that were inhabited by families, with no electricity or running water, until the 1950s. This brought a huge shame on the city because of the horrible living conditions that people were living in, which was chronicled in the book Christ Stopped at Eboli, by Calro Levi.
I happened upon a old man who has his own little museum (he didn’t allow any pictures) of several consecutive caves belonging to his family. He guides you through, showing the history of his family, the farm equipment/tools they used, how they lived, even photos of them.
He has a very impressive collection of frescos as well. He only speaks Italian and he was reluctant to let me in because I wouldn’t have understood him, fortunately a kind lady who was there offered to do her best at translating. His place is not on the tourist maps of the Sassi, but I’m sure if you ask around people will know him. He doesn't allow any photos of his caves, but there are others very close that are open.
Take in a Live Concert
At night, the city takes on a festive feel during the summer when there are free concerts. Imagine sitting under the stars in front of an 11th century church listening to live orchestra or an Italian band playing traditional Greek music.
The food in Matera is as varied as the people who visit or call it home. From traditional Italian tovegetarian to vegan there are many choices that will fit all lifestyles. One of the best places I had dinner was Fior di Cucuzza located on Via Rocco Scotellaro. featuring fresh, local homemade food, vast wine options for those who drink and organic sodas for those who don’t.
I happened to find out about Matera by chance, but I couldn't have been more pleased by what I found. To say that it's an amazing place is a huge understatement. If you take a trip to Italy, make time to visit a place that really does take you back in time.