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Matera and the secrets of the Sassi

I’m going to tell you about a secret town – it’s actually one of the oldest inhabited towns in the world and one of the most spectacular of Italian cities. Matera, in Puglia’s Basilicata, is a southern Italian town you probably haven’t heard of before. I hadn’t.

Read on to discover how Matera, the town known as “the shame of Italy”, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Europe’s two Capitals of Culture in 2019.

Sassi di Matera, Basilicata, Italy
Sassi di Matera, Basilicata, italy

Since first writing this post about Matera, Italy in early 2014, it became the European Capital of Culture in 2019 so Matera is no longer one of Italy’s best-kept secrets but it’s certainly still as beautiful, beguilling and well worth visiting.

Where is Matera?

Matera is an intriguing city in the remote Basilicata region of southern Italy near Puglia, just below the ankle and above the heel of Italy’s boot. Matera Basilicata is located on the edge of a ravine which has a small stream, La Gravina, running through it.

Settlers have hewn their dwellings straight into the calcarenitic rock (limestone), which is characteristic of Basilicata and Apulia, since the Paleolithic era. The cave-dwelling district is called Sassi and Sassi di Matera means Stones of Matera.

Sassi di Matera are actually two districts, the Sasso Caveoso to the south and Sasso Barisano to the north. The Sassi have been inhabited continuously for over 7,000 years. Matera is a crooked, crumbling, tumbling town filled with ancient cave-dwellings, rock churches and an intense sense of history. It’s well worth visiting.

Matera – a UNESCO World Heritage Site

La Gravina", Matera
The Ravine and la Gravina, Matera

Matera was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993 for being “the most outstanding example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean”. Since then visitor numbers have slowly increased and many of the caves have been renovated and are used as homes, luxury hotels and restaurants.

Things to do in Matera

Matera, Basilicata
Matera, Basilicata

Discover the History of Matera at Casa Noha

Before you explore Matera’s ancient cave dwellings and alleyways, get an introduction to the history of the town at Casa Noha in the Sasso Caveoso. Here you’ll see a short film about Matera’s unique history which will give you a better insight into the ancient Sassi and Matera’s caves.

The initiative is funded by two local families whose forebears once inhabited the premises and the multi-media exhibit tells the stories of the city’s dark history, the people who lived there and the sassi itself.

Casa Noha address is Recinto Cavone 9. Open daily except Wednesdays from 10am to 7pm (5pm in winter). Entry Adults €6, children 2-18 €2 and students €4.

Matera, Italy

Get lost in Matera

Matera and the sassi area are magical places to explore and being a small town, its easy to get around by foot. You’ll find an epic vista at the top of each spiralling passageway and atop every steep stairway. Breathtaking in more ways than one due to the steep inclines but the views are worth it and you’ll have earned a gelato at the end of the day.

You’ll get lost countless times as you wander through stone archways and through the labyrinth of lanes. Although Matera’s small you’ll retrace your footsteps more than once and put in a lot more steps that you expected to. Exploring the town on foot is one of the best things to do in Matera.

Crowning the town’s summit is a Romanesque cathedral and bell tower which dominate the town’s skyline and are the focal point of the medieval city.

Nearby you’ll find beautiful palazzos, pretty piazzas and a number of churches in the flat western part of the town known as Piano (plateau). There’s a pedestrian area with cosy cafes and bars where we stopped for lunch and a drink.

Matera's Pedestrian Area
Piazza Pascoli, Matera

Palazzo Lanfranchi which dominates Piazza Pascoli was built for Monsignor Lanfranchi between 1668 and 1672. It’s one of the most beautiful buildings in Matera and now houses the National Museum Of Medieval and Modern Art.

Matera’s divided into two parts, the more “modern” city, which dates from the 13th century, has several churches, museums, and squares. There’s a pedestrian area with cafes and bars where we stopped for lunch and a drink. This area is called ‘Piano’ and separates the old town and Matera’s sassi from the new part of Matera.

Sasso Caveoso reminded me of Goreme in Cappadocia, Turkey where we stayed in a boutique cave hotel carved into the rock. The Sassi cave houses are similar to the rock hewn cavities in Derinkuyu Underground City although not subterranean.

Explore the Sassi

In Sassi Caveoso, the lower part of town, many of the caves have remained empty. It’s a fascinating side of town where you can wander the silent cobbled streets and twisting alleys; take steps and stairs and turn a corner for a view of tumbling rooftops and weather worn walls and get a feel for what is was to live here years ago. Only the cats will keep you company.

It’s thought there are 8-10 layers of houses in the sassi and the floor of the cave you’re standing in may well be the roof of the frescoed rock church below you. History has many layers in Matera.

Cave Houses in Matera

Disused Cave Dwellings, Matera
Disused cave dwellings in Sassi di Matera

People in Matera lived in the city of caves alongside their animals. The cave dwellers were often large families who lived there without running water, sewers or electricity as late as the 1950s. That’s only about 70 years ago.

Poverty and disease were wide-spread in the sassi and it wasn’t until writer Carlo Levi published his bookChrist stopped at Eboli’ that people became aware of the squalor suffered by the cave-dwellers in Matera. Levi’s account shocked the world and Matera became known as the ‘shame of Italy’.

Sassi di Matera, Italy
Matera di Sassi, Italy

To address the situation the Italian government evacuated the caves and moved the occupants to new public housing in the modern (upper) part of the city. This took almost two decades.

Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario

Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario. Matera
Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario. Matera, Italy

While you’re in Matera pay a visit to the reconstruction of a typical 20th-century cave dwelling – Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario. Located in Sasso Caveoso, the Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario are typically furnished cave rooms. You can step inside to see how people lived in the caves in the 18th century and get an insight into life in Matera’s Sassi.

Large families lived together in one cave along with their chickens, pigs, mules and dogs. It’s well worth seeing their furnishings, tools and how they existed with no running water, no heat and poor sanitation. It’s unbelievable that they were still doing so in the 1950s.

Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario is open every day from 9.30am to 8pm. Entrance is €5 for adults, €3 for groups with a licensed guide, over 65s and students. Children 11 to 18 years pay € 2,00. Entry is free for Free entrance: Children under 10, guides, tour leaders, people with disabilities, journalists abd Matera citizens

Park of the Rupestrian Churches

There are around 140 rock-cut roman and baroque churches in and around Matera. Repestrian means ‘occurring, or executed on rocks, or on cave walls’ which refers to the frescoes found on the walls of many of the churches.

St Anthony Church, Matera

Fresco in Matera Church
Fresco in St Anthoni Church, Matera, Italy

Convicinio di Sant’Antonio, aka St. Anthony church, is located in Sasso Caveoso at the end of Via Bruno Buozzi. The complex consists of four connecting churches which were built between the 12th and 13th centuries. The four churches house a crypt and vault and there are millstones and cellars which were used to produce wines at some stage in their history. The remains of the frescoes in each of the churches are the main attraction.

Outside there’s a small courtyard with fabulous views over the gorge. There’s a small fee to enter the church. Photography is no longer allowed but back when we went it was.

The Church of Purgatory

The Church of Purgatory caught my attention with its unusual but striking theme of death, fashionable at the time of building, in 1747. Death was considered not as an end but as the beginning of a better life.

There are carvings of skeletons, skulls and angels with more unusual details of flames enveloping repentant souls. The wooden door is divided into 36 panels with skulls and crossbones, sometimes crowned with headwear belonging to different classes of society, showing that all men are equal after death.

The Palombaro Lungo – an underground water cistern

Underneath the city’s main square, Piazza Vittorio Veneto, is a 16-metre deep and 50-metre long underground water cistern. It has pillars carved from the rock and was built in the sixteenth century to supply the town with water. The cistern is so big that it’s navigable by boat and can hold up to 5 million litres of water. It’s one of many underground cisterns of various sizes in Matera but by far the largest.

Because of Matera’s location above the steep ravine it was an impossible task for the townsfolk to collect water from the river below, especially when levels were low during summer months. The underground cistern was built to collect rain water gathered from of system of water channels that ran through the town. The water was then filtered and the people of the Sassi would draw it from a well in the Piazza.

Palombaro Lungo was excavated in the early 1990s and nowadays can be visited with a guide by walking along wooden boardwalks suspended over the water. The water level has been reduced to allow visiting.

Tours cost €3 and you’ll need to book in advance through the Palombargo Lungo website.

Times: Open daily 09:30 – 13:00 hrs and 15:00 – 18:30 hrs.

If you’ve visited the Basilica Cistern in in Istanbul you’ll get an idea although Matera’s is much smaller.

Best view of the Sassi di Matera

One of the best places for spectacular views of the Sassi of Matera is from the opposite side of the ravine. This area, called La Belvedere di Mugia Timone, in the Murgia Matarena Park, is also the location of the crucifixion scene in ‘Passion of Christ’.

Here you’ll find the small caves where people lived in the Palaeolithic period over 7,000 years ago and you’ll breathe in the aroma of fresh thyme from wild-growing herbs underfoot.

From the Belvedere gaze across the canyon towards Matera to take in its full antiquated glory. The scene is a honeycomb cluster of small, square hovels layered higgledy-piggledy on top of each other. A labyrinth of steep winding staircases pick their way through the jumble of connecting cave houses and rows of flat rooftops which form the streets of the level above.

Homes were originally carved out of the rock and extended with facades to look like normal dwellings. These are all connected by undergroun passages and tunnels. From across the canyon the views of the Sassi are enchanting.

Best view of Matera, Italy
Best view of Matera, Italy

How to get to viewpoint La Belvedere di Mugia Timone from Sassi di Matera

To get across the ravine you can hike from Porta Pistola on Via Madonna delle Virtù. Take the steps to the right of the car park and head for the Tibetan suspension bridge. From there, various paths lead to the other side. The routes are not that well maintained and there are unmarked and improvised paths with steep climbs and descents.

The hike takes around an hour to get to the bridge and up the other side plus the return journey. You’ll need sturdy walking shoes, plenty of water and a hat as there’s no shade. Avoid taking the hike when it is too hot and when the sun is at its peak. Book a guided sunset hike.

Top Tip: If you’re visiting Matera by car then stop at La Belvedere before or after your visit to the town. It’s accessible by car if you take the SS7 Taranto-Laterza road out of Matera and follow directions to the Parco delle Chiese Rupestri. If you don’t have a car then a taxi drop-off and pick-up will cost around €40-50. Access to the park is free.

Sassi di Matera is a Limited Traffic Zone (ZTL) so access is only available to vehicles of residents and other authorised persons including local taxis. There are free parking slots (white lines) or paid parking spaces (blue lines) with parking meters costing from 0.50 cents per hour.

For overnight stays several ‘guarded’ parking garages offer shuttle transfers. Ideal to co-ordinate with your hotel for the closest garage or one they have an arrangement with.

This is the view across “La Gravina” into the ancient town of Matera…

Films set in Matera, Italy

Sassi di Matera
Sassi di Matera

Mel Gibson used this view of Matera as a substitute for the Holy Land when he filmed ‘The Passion of Christ’. It shows exactly why Mel Gibson used it as a substitute Holy Land.

The Sassi also appeared in Wonder Woman in 2017 as the setting for the Amazons’ city Themyscura.

The latest James Bond movie, No Time to Die, released in 2021 includes a scene with Bond’s Aston Martin racing through the historic centre.

Matera, Italy
Matera, italy

I can imagine Matera in 10-years time being a complete boutique town filled with stylish hotels, bars, cave restaurants and art galleries with none of the empty caves left in their original state. 

If you’d like to see it before that happens go now; enjoy the peace and calm of a city that’s steeped in millennia of history and where you really do feel like you’ve stepped back hundreds of years in time.

The best way to see Materia depends on your style of travel. We made our own way through the ancient stone caves, passages and cave churches but I think for somewhere as fascinating and ancient as Matera it would’ve been good to book a guided tour. Take a walking tour of the Sassi with a local guide or book a guided cycle tour.

Matera – a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Matera was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993 for being “the most outstanding example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean”. Since then visitor numbers have slowly increased and many of the caves have been renovated and are used as homes, luxury hotels and restaurants.

How to get to Matera, Italy

The closest airport is 65km (40 miles) away. Fly into Bari in the neighbouring Puglia region. If you hire a car you’ll need to park in the new part of Matera and avoid driving in Matera’s old town as vehicles are restricted.

Matera is 250km (155 miles) or a 3-hour drive from Naples.

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My trip to Matera was part of a day excursion with Celebrity Cruises UK. As always, all views and opinions; good, bad or otherwise are entirely my own.

Matera, Italy
Matera, Italy

James

Saturday 9th of April 2022

The rocks are not volcanic, they are types of calcium carbonate (limestone).

Suzanne Jones

Tuesday 12th of April 2022

Thank you for advising James. I wrongly thought because it's called tufa or tuff that it's volcanic. I've amended accordingly.

Linda

Sunday 4th of January 2015

we too worry that being selected as the 2019 Cultural City will change this city so we were glad to visit in October of this year. The church of Purgatory was also one of our favorites - so beautiful inside if you get past the skulls!

Suzanne Jones

Sunday 4th of January 2015

I'd have liked to have seen the inside but didn't have time. Let's hope it becoming City of Culture in 2019 won't change it.

Sally-Jayne Cox

Tuesday 21st of October 2014

We were in Matera on 17th Oct 2014, the day it won its bid to be European City of Culture 2019. I greatly fear that this very special and peaceful place will be spoiled by having more visitors. It was the highlight of our ten-day visit to Puglia (though Matera is actually in Basilicata). BTW the trulli houses of Alberobello weren't that interesting - nowhere near as interesting as Matera even though both are world heritage sites.

Suzanne Jones

Wednesday 22nd of October 2014

I had no idea Matera is to be European City of Culture in 2019. I think, sadly, you may be right - one of the appealing aspects of the town was that it was very tranquil. I hope that lasts. Noted re the trulli houses - I guess one is pretty much like another...

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Sunday 20th of April 2014

[…] Matera and Secrets of the Sassi […]

Natalie Tamara

Sunday 23rd of March 2014

I also had never heard of Matera. It looks stunning! I'm planning a trip to Italy for a couple of month's time and have no idea which part to visit... this might have swung things in favour of the south!

Suzanne

Sunday 23rd of March 2014

It's a lovely part of Italy - I'd love to see the Trulli houses in Puglia which are nearby too.