Matera: Southern Italy’s City of Stone

An ancient city of stone and caves, Matera is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world, quite literally dug out of the rock. All along the edges of the ravine are caverns and grottoes in the limestone layers, which have provided habitation for humans since the Paleolithic era. Located in the region of Basilicata, it is hauntingly beautiful.

Illuminated nighttime view of Sassi on edge of rock ravine, Matera, Italy.
Matera at night: The illuminated nighttime view of the Sassi on the edge of the rock ravine, Matera.
Photo Credit: Adobe Stock Photos

Called “one of the most unique landscapes in Europe”, Matera is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular places I’ve visited in Italy or anywhere in the world. My first glimpse of the Matera’s Sassi stopped me in my tracks – gazing across the expansive view to a tangle of stone houses, windows, roofs and Cathedral dome across the rugged ravine took my breath away.

What is a Sassi?

The Sassi (meaning “stones”) is a complex network of cave dwellings, passages, arches, and stairways revealing stunning ancient churches and cave houses that have been inhabited since Paleolithic times.

Teetering on the edge of a rocky ravine, Matera is divided into two valleys, Sasso Cavoso and Sasso Barisano. A patchwork of alleys and tunnels connect houses, churches, and ravines, offering endless views.

Ancient stone road hugging edge of Gravina Ravine in Matera, ItalyMatera and the Gravina Ravine © Sharon Kurtz

Rocky ledges are jammed with cave houses, each piled on top of the other. Step into the narrow lanes between houses, and you are actually standing on the roof of the house below. The best way to explore the two neighborhoods is on foot, roaming through the narrow alleyways, up and down uneven stone staircases, discovering dead ends and tiny courtyards adorned with flower pots, cave churches and expansive views of the Sassi.

A brief history of Matera

Visiting the ancient city of Matera is not only breathtaking, but fascinating. Its history goes back more than 30,000 years, being one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world. Only Aleppo and Jericho have been inhabited longer.

The original inhabitants and their ancestors, never left. Instead, they quite literally “dug in.” From the oldest period in human history to eventually digging caves with metal tools created during the Iron and Bronze Ages, the people and their dwellings remained throughout the later waves of rulers and empires. Descendants of past generation still remain, even though some things are a little different now.

Life wasn’t easy in Matera

Matera came into national prominence in the 1950s. By then it was a forgotten city that had sunk into poverty. Whole families were living in the Sassi cave houses with no electricity or running water, sharing space with their livestock. Disease was rampant and a constant threat. Conditions became so bad that in 1952 the Italian government evacuated most of the city and the inhabitants were moved to housing in a newly constructed part of the town, leaving the Sassi cave houses empty for decades.

Matera: UNESCO World Heritage Site & 2019 European Capital of Culture

Before being selected as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993, Matera had long been one of the poorest cities in Italy known as the Citta dei Sassi, literally the City of Stones. The prestigious UNESCO label gave a new image to the city that was once an example of degradation and national shame.

Ancient Middle Ages fresco in 11th century cave church  Madonna dell virtu e San Di Greci, where the Salvadore Dali Exhibition is stagedAncient Fresco © Sharon Kurtz 
Ancient fresco dating back to the Middle Ages in the 11th century cave church, Madonna dell virtu e San Di Greci, where the Salvadore Dali Exhibition is staged.   

Matera has been designated one of two 2019 European Capitals of Culture, the other being Plovdiv, Bulgaria. This milestone now marks another important chapter in the city’s history. The theme “Matera 2019 Open Future” is the slogan of the city associated with the designation.

What to do in Matera

Matera is a place to wander and get lost. Go for a walk without a map, with a sense of adventure and you’ll experience a surprise at every turn no matter which direction you walk in. You are bound to come across the major attractions without necessarily looking for them.

Historic Center

Piazza Vittorio Veneto is a lively square with several churches, cafes and Roman remains. Via del Corso, the main shopping street, links the square with Piazza San Francesco and Piazza Sedile. In the early evening, join the ritual passeggiata (a leisurely stroll): amble through the streets, or enjoy an appertivo or glass of wine at an outdoor café table and watch the world go by.

Ancient Sassi, Italy stone houses vacant for decades being renovated;   Ancient Stone House Renovations © Sharon Kurtz
A tangle of ancient stone houses in the Sassi today are inhabited and being renovated; they were evacuated by the Italian government in the 1950’s leaving the city empty for decades.

Ancient churches

There are over 155 churches hewn from the rocks in and around Matera – more than you will be able view in a single visit. The Rupestrian churches are carved into the stone and covered in beautiful frescoes.

Dating back to the Middle Ages, there are stunning frescos inside that back to the early-Medieval period before recorded history began. Some churches may charge admission while others are free of charge – but they are all impressive.

Some of my favorites include:

  • Chiesa di Santa Maris di Idris and San Giiovanni
  • Convento di Sant’Agostino
  • Chiesa Rupestri de Santa Lucia alle Malve

Casa Grotta Di Vico Solitario 

An example This recreated cave dwelling gives visitors a first-hand look at how a family in Matera lived in the 18th century, complete with a cistern to collect rainwater. The entire family (on average six members) including animals lived together in the cave. 

Sharon Kurtz with Dali Sculpturein Dali Exhibition with a view of surrounding landscape
Sharon with Dali Sculpture © Sharon Kurtz
One of more than 200 works by Salvatore Dali, part of the Dali Exhibition with a view of the surrounding landscape with author Sharon Kurtz.

Salvatore Dali Exhibition

The dramatic setting – two cave churches sculpted from the rock on the edge of a ravine and giant sculptures scattered throughout Matera – bring the Dali Worlds of Art into sharp relief in this exhibition that is a part of the European Capital of Culture celebrations. More than 200 works by the Catalan Surrealist master are part of the exhibition that will remain in place through November of 2019. It is worth the price of admission just to see the artworks displayed in the 11th century cave church Madonna dell virtu e San Nicola di Greci.

Matera is a famous film setting

Matera gives you a glimpse of the distant past, as it hasn’t changed much since Roman times. Bearing a considerable resemblance to ancient Jerusalem, Matera is a magnet for filmmakers and artists seeking a biblical landscape.

  • Richard Gere used Matera as a setting for “King David” in 1985
  • Mel Gibson filmed “Passion of the Christ” in Matera in 2004.
  • Parts of MGM’s “Ben Hur” and Warner Bros. ‘Wonder Woman” were filmed in 2016.
  • James Bond– when I was in Matera in April the city was abuzz because actor Daniel Craig aka “007” was in town to prepare to film the prologue action sequence for “Bond 25” with a film release date of April 2020. 

Where to Eat

I find that it is best to eat Italian food regionally. In Matera, you find plenty of local ristorantes and cafes serving classic Puglian and Basilicata cuisine, using lots of fresh seasonal vegetables.

Is Terrazzino  Ristorante, preparing for lunch seating. Photo Credit = Sharon Kurtz Is Terrazzino Ristorante © Sharon Kurtz
Is Terrazzino Ristorante, preparing for lunch seating.

From pastries to pasta, and cheeses to deli meats, eat as many local dishes as possible. Find a restaurant or café that catches your eye and go for it. I loved the dining experience at Il Terrazzino Ristorante. Located in Sassi de Matera with ambiance to spare, it has a cave interior with vaulted stone ceilings and an outdoor terrace overlooking the historic Sassi. Antipasti, fresh cheeses, local pasta, seafood and more, they serve typical dishes of the region handed down from their grandparents. The local wine specialty, Primitivo, is served in a large carafe (and at a super reasonable price). Service is friendly and the ristorante features a wine cave and underground small museum… What’s not to love? Located not far from the Piazza Duomo.

Where to Stay

As for lodging, I recommend staying in one of the cave districts of Sassi as a great way to soak in this place. It would be a shame to visit Matera without this overnight experience. By searching online, you can find a variety of bed and breakfasts, small hotels and Airbnb choices. I stayed at Locanda di San Martino, a small hotel in the Sasso Barisano district, comprised of many individual caves connected by external flights of stairs with an elevator in the rock. The reception area of this multi-level hotel is ground level, at the valley bottom.

Stone Staircase: one of many winding, narrow streets in ancient Matera, Italy
Stone Staircase © Sharon Kurtz
Just one of the many winding, narrow streets of the ancient part of Matera.

The property’s 40 bedrooms with private baths are all independent caves, set along little terraced paths and off external staircases. Chairs and benches dot the terraced pathways between bedrooms, so guests can sit outside and enjoy the splendid views over the valley.

The hotel’s public areas are all in stone caves, with a large breakfast room, seating areas and small lounge/bar. Cave hotels can be tight on space – after all, one’s working around the earth’s natural geography. The reception staff were very friendly and helpful. They stocked maps and information leaflets and recommended an initial sightseeing walk.

When I return to Matera, I would be very happy to stay here again.

Final thoughts on visiting Matera

Matera is an amazing, special, unforgettable place with an undiscovered air about it. Off the normal tourist track with its spectacular setting and fascinating history, plan a visit soon before the rest of the world finds out about it. The magical, otherworldly glow of Matera at night created by the glimmering lights from each side of the Sassi over the deep ravine is a sight I will not soon forget.

Lively ancient Piazza Vittorio Veneto golden buildings under cloudy grey sky shopping in Matera, Italy.
Matera Piazza © Sharon Kurtz
The Piazza Vittorio Veneto is a lively square connecting with Via de Corso, the main shopping street of Matera.

IF YOU GO

  • Matera is a little out of the way so it can be difficult to reach. The closest airport to Matera is the Bari International Airport (about 43 miles away).
  • I took the Trenitalia train from Rome to Bari and then hired a private car service to Matera, about 90 minutes from Bari.
  • It could make sense to rent a car from Bari if you are planning to combine your trip with a visit to the neighboring region of Puglia. Alternatively, you can also take a direct train from Bari to Matera. However, the train is a local commuter train that doesn’t run on Sundays or holidays.

About Sharon Kurtz, Author & Freelance Travel Writer

Sharon Kurtz headshotAuthor: Sharon Kurtz is a freelance travel writer and tour leader for a women's travel group who shares her passion for travel, culture and food by exploring local customs and flavors at home and around the globe.

Her love of exotic destinations & traditions began as a young girl with a train journey to Montreal for the World's Fair. People spoke French and ate strange and wonderful fool... she was hooked and hopes to never recover.

She lives in Dallas, Texas with her husband and 3 dogs, but her carry-on is always packed ready for the next adventure. She enjoys writing about solo women travel, international destinations, adventure and culinary travel for web based and print magazines.

Follow Sharon's travels on Instagram at https://instagram.com/shar_kurtz and on Facebook at https://facebook.com/sharonkkurtz. Read more articles on her website www.Sharonkkurtz.com.com or here in her IFWTWA profile. 

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