From beautiful Mediterranean beaches to exploring UNESCO sites and feasting on fabulous food, it’s time to check out the best things to do in Paphos.
Cyprus is the third largest island in the Mediterranean and makes for a perfect beach holiday. But what to do in Paphos after you’ve bathed in crystal clear waters, relaxed on the sandy blue flag beaches and eaten your fill of the island’s fabulous food? Quite a lot actually.
Delos, a tiny uninhabited island, near Mykonos lies in the sparkling Aegean Sea. It’s the stunning centrepiece of a circle of beautiful Greek islands called the Cyclades and makes a perfect day trip from Mykonos town just across the water.
The Port city of Catania, Sicily’s second largest city, is situated on the east coast of the island, just south of where Italy puts the boot in. Mount Etna looms on the horizon, swathed in haze, huffing a near constant stream of smoke and an occasional dribble of red-hot lava.
Catania is a brooding city with many of the buildings constructed from dark grey basalt lava rock. There’s a plentiful supply. You may think at first glance that my photographs of Catania are in black and white but they’re not, that’s just the colour of the place. The city makes up for its shadowy hues with the vibrancy and atmosphere of its colourful markets, sunny disposition and the energy of a student population. So, what to do in Catania, Sicily?
I’m going to tell you about a secret town – it’s actually one of the oldest towns in the world. You’ll be surprised to learn that it’s in Southern Italy and I’m guessing that you’ve probably never heard of it. I hadn’t. Matera is one of the oldest inhabited places in the world where people have lived continuously for over 9,000 years. Just think about it – that’s incredibly old. It’s a crooked, crumbling, tumbling town filled with cave-dwellings, churches and an intense sense of history.
The view across “La Gravina” into the ancient town of Matera
Where is Matera?
Matera is a city in the Basilicata region just below the ankle of Italy’s boot near Puglia. Located on a rugged ravine which has a small stream, La Gravina, running through it, prehistoric settlers have dug their dwellings straight into the soft volcanic tuff since the Palaeolithic period. The cave-dwelling district is called Sassi and Sassi di Matera means Stones of Matera.
Sassi di Matera
Our first glimpse of the Sassi was from the opposite side of the ravine, La Belvedere. As we walked to the edge of the canyon bright green lizards scorted away from us and the aroma of fresh thyme filled the air as our footsteps bruised the leaves of the wild-growing herb underfoot. This is the best view of the town and shows exactly why Mel Gibson used it as a substitute Holy Land when he filmed ‘The Passion of the Christ’.
Sassi di Matera
The view is of 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 we could see where rows of flat rooftops formed the streets of the level above. The homes were originally carved out of the rock and extended with facades to look like normal dwellings connected by underground passages and tunnels.
People in Matera lived in the caves with their animals (donkeys, chickens and goats) and without running water, sewers or electricity right up to the 1950s. Poverty and disease were wide-spread and it wasn’t until Carlo Levi’s book ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’ that people became aware of the appalling conditions suffered by the cave-dwellers in Matera. 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.
We visited a reconstruction of a typical 20th-century cave dwelling, Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario.
Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario. Matera
St Antoni Church, Matera
There are around 140 rock-cut roman and baroque churches in Matera. St. Antoni church consists of four connecting churches built between the 12th and the 13th centuries. They house a crypt and vault and there are millstones and cellars used to produce wines at some stage in their history. The remains of frescoes are the main attraction.
Fresco in Matera Church
Matera’s divided into two parts, the more “modern” city, dating from around the 13th century, has several churches, museums, and squares. There’s a pedestrian area with cafes and bars where we stopped for a Peroni – it was a really hot day for November! This part of town reminded me of Goreme in Cappadocia, Turkey where we stayed in a cave hotel and the Sassi cave houses similar to the Derinkuyu Underground City although not subterranean.
Matera’s Pedestrian Area
Basilica Cathedral dominates the town’s skyline with its bell tower.
The Church of Purgatory caught my attention with its unusual 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.
Church of Purgatory, Matera
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. Many of the caves have been renovated and used as homes, hotels and restaurants but in Sassi Caveoso, in the lower town, most 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.
I can imagine Matera in 10 years time being a complete boutique town filled with cave hotels, bars and restaurants 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 2000 years in time.
La Gravina”, Matera
Disused Cave Dwellings, Matera
My trip to Matera was part of a Celebrity Cruise excursion. Many thanks to Celebrity Cruises UK for hosting our cruise. As always views and opinions; good, bad or otherwise are entirely my own.
Aya Sofya, Hagia Sophia or, in English, the Church of the Divine Wisdom, is a mighty structure defining the heart and soul of Istanbul, melding the characteristics of a city that crosses time, continent and culture. If you only have time to visit one sight in Istanbul this is it.
The Blue Mosque in Istanbul, or to give it its official name Sultan Ahmet Camii, is both a place of worship and a major tourist attraction receiving four to five million visitors every year. Facing the Hippodrome in the centre of Old Istanbul, its grey cascading domes and six minarets are one of Istanbul’s iconic views, the interior is just as stunning.
The Blue Mosque, Istanbul