Matera, Basilicata (in Italy’s south) is also known as the City of Stones.
A visit to Matera is always going to be a special experience. No photos or description can do justice to the vast scenarios that are home to the Sassi but I hope I can at least try convince you, that this town has to be on your Italy ‘to do’ list. The rich ancestral history, the picturesque Murgia landscape, and the serene environment, bring out some surprising emotions.
You may never have heard of the region of Basilicata, in fact, I’d be more surprised if you told me you had heard about it. Speaking to a local (Vito), I found out that the region has a population of about 500,000 people and is home to the town with the ‘oldest’ population in Italy!
However, there is a hidden gem located within Basilicata, that is called Matera. The town of Matera, which borders Puglia, has seen an incredible transformation, from one of the poorest towns in Italy to the European Capital of Culture in 2019!
Some of you may recall the first ever guest post for Tourist by Chance was on Matera by Vittoria (click to read). Ever since reading about her experience, I knew I had to put Matera on my map. So just last week, I found myself in my Fiat 500 taking on the 440km drive from Rome, for a work assignment and man was I happy I got down there.
Matera is undoubtedly one of the oldest towns in the world! The town of Matera is was inhabited as early as 7000BC – since the Neolithic ages – wait for it, without interruption. The ancient city was built inside rock, next to a large karst rift called ravine of Matera. The town developed a close relationship with the rock. With the advance of civilization, using tuff of Matera’s Murgia blocks (same forms still in use), arose the ‘above ground’ city.
Move forward to the 16th/17th century, there is a large religious background in Matera and this is evidenced by all the chapels, churches, cave churches, and carvings in the rock. It must be point out that until economic conditions allowed it the Materani built “above ground”, using the caves as storehouses, cellars and stables.
From the first decade of the 1800s until 1952, the city experienced a long period of decline for both recurrent agricultural and economic crisis, along with the loss of its political and administrative role. The deterioration was so serious as to force the poor to use the caves as housing, for both people and animals. Demographic pressure combined with incredible misery, transformed each ‘cave’ into a home.
Since 1993, it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Now through all its poverty, and its slow rise back to being a ‘normal town’ in the 80’s, Hollywood had set its eyes on Matera and it was going to make the town a star. In fact, this city was very much revived by the arrival of Hollywood.
Just to name a few, in 1984 King David, starring a young Richard Gere. Or even more (in)famous, The Passion of the Christ, directed by Mel Gibson in 2004. Other films include, The Big Question, James Bond – Quantum of Solace and the Italian film – Basilicata coast to coast. More recently (literally March, 2016!), scenes from the upcoming Wonder Woman, have also been filmed in Matera.
As you can expect, I have all these shortlisted so I can watch and see if I passed by any of the parts of Matera, shot in these films 😉
A quick note: In 2010, Basilicata coast to coast was released and for all the inhabitants of Basilicata, it was a matter of great pride, that their region was being promoted in a funny and spirited manner. If you find an English version of the movie, check it out.
What to do?
I got to Matera on Saturday night and had all of Sunday to take in the city. I left my lodging and walked a mere 150-200 meters towards the ‘old town’ of Matera.
Great photographs from the Saint Agostino Convent.
Cathedral of Matera – one of the Saint Doors for this year’s Extraordinary Jubilee.
Piazza – Vittoria Veneto and the underground passages.
Belvedere – to view the Sassi of Matera (10 min car ride from Matera).
Walking through the streets and going for different angles of Matera (233 photos in 3 hours walking).
The view by night of the new and old town is incredible and it is buzzing with people! The Materani know how to spend a weekend out doors.
What’s on the Menu?
First night, I asked for a good restaurant recommendation by a passer by and without hesitation, she told me to go to ‘Da Mario’. So the first thing I did in Matera, was eat (local dishes recommended by the friendly ‘retired’ waiter) and drink an interesting bottle of local wine (Aglianico the local grape)! Not a bad start to any trip and the 3 course meal only cost me 30.00EUR!
For lunch the following day, I went to Il Terrazzino – the Little Balcony. As you may have guessed, it has awesome views of town should you manage to find a seat outside!
That night, I made my way to Trattoria Lucana which I was told about by a couple of other locals. Unfortunately, on Sunday nights it’s closed so if you do get down to Matera, make sure to try this place out and let me know what you thought.
When it comes to wine and you wish to drink local, then you’ll have to go for a ‘Aglianico’. I did no homework on the wineries, as I knew I would not have time to visit any of them. It’s definitely not one of my favourites but still not bad to accompany the local hearty meat dishes, Orecchiette alle cime di Rape or the incredibly delicious Burrata (an absolute MUST try for cheese lovers).
You will also find Peperoni di Senise” or peperoni “cruschi” which are sun dried sweet chilli’s and they are served in almost every restaurant and dish – it is DELICIOUS!
Where I Stayed?
I once again relied on Monastery Stays for my two night, one day stay in Matera. I stayed at Istituto Sacro Cuore, a relatively new guest house, with incredibly hospitable nuns and all the comforts (and right price) for a short stay. You can check out the venue on the Monastery Stays Website.
Get there by Car
I definitely recommend getting to Matera by car. It will save you so much time and the freedom to roam as you wish. The public transportation is not exactly reliable (if existent at all!).
Have you ever been to Matera or anywhere in Basilicata? After reading this post and watching the video, what are your thoughts on the City of Stones? Would love to hear your thoughts and if you have any recommendations, leave them in the comments below – help the community to Italy!