Marvelling in Matera – How the shame of a nation has become Italy’s next must-visit destination (plus a short guide of course)

Did I miss something? Have you heard of Matera? We hadn’t. I assumed it must have been one of those rare coincidences. For whatever reason we’d missed its mention by fellow travellers, articles or programmes. There’s no way somewhere so spectacular, with so much history could have possibly gone under the radar otherwise right?

When Holly and I began planning our tour of Puglia we were unsure about what we should do, knowing very little of Italy’s least explored region. Still, we HAD heard of Puglia. Indeed we were there for some close friends’ wedding as they themselves had fallen in love with the area having holidayed there several times. A couple of places in particular got regular mentions. “You must go and see the Truli in Alberobello”. “Lecce is a beautiful town”, we also heard. It wasn’t until I consulted a copy of lonely planet however, that I first heard of this remarkable gem Matera…

When we started researching Matera it became clear we had to visit. Mentioned as one of the highlights under Southern Italy in lonely planet, I’d honestly place it as one of Italy’s must-visits, period! The place feels like a cross between Santorini, Cappadocia and Jerusalem – it really is that beautiful. The town itself is perched imposingly on the side of a dramatic gorge with sweeping views over the valley from the towns Sassi’s (the main districts in Matera translated as the ‘stones’). The landscape strewn with various cave dwellings and churches carved out of and into the local rock.

A Brief History…

The history of Matera dates back to Palaeolithic age some 9000 years ago when people settled in the natural caves there (the locals today refer to themselves as Troglodytes – literally ‘cave dwellers’). Over the centuries the town has gone through several transformations, growing into an important centre for trade and commerce before falling into decline resulting in what was dubbed ‘the shame of Italy’ following the Second World War. (The conditions became so extreme that at one point infant mortality rates hovered above 50% due to the sheer level of poverty and rampant disease).

It wasn’t until the 1980s, following the hard efforts of a small group who lobbied to save the town, that things began to turnaround. So much so in fact, that by 1993 the Sassi was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Since then the town has quietly grown in notoriety and was more recently awarded the European Capital of Culture for 2019 beating the likes of Lecce and Sienna to the title! Walking around today it’s hard to believe that a place of such immeasurable beauty and history could have ever suffered under the conditions of neglect it did. The old slum has been radically transformed. In place of squalor a lively town now sits littered with numerous cave hotels, restaurants and bars.

A Short Guide…

I should point out that Matera isn’t actually located in Puglia but in the neighbouring region of Basilicata, which is perhaps why those who tour Puglia often miss it. Don’t make that mistake! Matera is only one hours drive from Bari International Airport – the regions major gateway – and approximately the same from the far more touristy (and in my eyes, far less impressive) town of Alberobello. If you’re not driving you can catch a bus from the airport. Try this link.

If you are arriving by car, parking can be tricky. There are a couple of major car parks just outside the Sassi otherwise you can chance your arm parking on the street-side for much cheaper. Car access to the Sassi itself is restricted so don’t expect to park next to your chosen accommodation. Your best bet is to check with your accommodation for parking advice before you arrive. As always plan ahead.

There are a multitude of beautiful accommodation options to choose from in Matera. We stayed at an excellent family run BnB called La Casa di Ele. The room we had was very comfortable with a beautiful terrace overlooking the Sassi. Breakfast in particular was one of the best we experienced on holiday in Italy with beautiful homemade focaccia bread, cakes and ricotta cheese. Highly recommended.

Once settled your best course of action in Matera is to simply get lost wandering around the city’s two major Sassi districts. Both are astonishing, riddled with meandering alleyways and pale stone staircases that makes you feel as if you’ve been transported back to Biblical times circa AD 1! Aside from the multitude of beautifully restored frescoed cave churches worth visiting, I highly recommend starting with a visit to Casa Noha – a multimedia exhibit detailing the history of Matera through a 20 minute film projected on the walls contained within a 16th century family home. Its a great way to get a better idea of the towns remarkable past and more recent rags to riches story.

For your best photo op (there are countless) you should definitely spare a few hours and head to the Belvedere su Matera e Sassi – the viewpoint of Matera and the Sassi. It’s a short drive out of town on the opposite side of the gorge with the most complete view of Matera. Expect staggering vistas and a number of caves to explore from which you can peep.

“We don’t serve food for tourists here in Matera”, were the words of our host when providing us with recommendations on where to eat. A sure sign in my book! We had a great lunch in a beautiful cave restaurant called Baccanti serving local modern fare. We also had a decent seafood dinner at a restaurant called Alle Fornaci. For a variety of local specialties and in particular the beef I suggest heading to Baccus.

Why You Should Visit…

Its clear that the residents who’ve moved back here have taken a huge amount of pride, carefully restoring and rebuilding a new forward thinking Matera – fully mindful of its recent pasts plight. The transformation has been nothing short of miraculous. Aside from the large number of boutique cave-style accommodation, the residents have inventively converted former dwellings into numerous cave restaurants, cafes, galleries and even cave clubs – all well primed for tourism. If anyone was worried this recent influx might somehow destroy Matera’s past can rest assure that quite the opposite has happened. The huge efforts that took place from the 80s onwards have saved Matera from the brink. Tourism is welcomed, quite unlike other places, precisely because the money and attention with it, is helping the continued efforts to preserve this ancient town. Without feeling overwhelmed Matera has welcomed visitors in an extremely tasteful manner.

Leaving for a moment Matera’s remarkable rags to riches story, one can’t help but marvel at the town’s unique beauty. Its as if the world forgot to include Matera for the last several centuries. The town feels more like what I imagined Jerusalem would than Jerusalem itself did, which perhaps explains why Mel Gibson’s The Passon of the Christ was filmed here in 2004. I honestly struggle to think of anywhere else that so effortlessly makes you feel you’ve traveled two thousand years back in time. And no wonder. If on the surface Matera looks breathtaking, wait until you take a look underneath – literally! The town is built on a honeycomb maze of endless caverns and tunnels harbouring 9000 years worth of secrets still waiting to be discovered.

From a visitors perspective its been extremely rewarding to visit a place where the locals have taken so much pride. They’re all too willing to share their story and that of Matera, to open your eyes, not only to the past but the present and how they got here. It leaves you with a sense of disbelief but also immense hope about the possibilities for the future. The locals are proud of what they have achieved and so they should be. What was once called the shame of a nation can now be considered one of it’s proudest treasures…

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