Matera creeps up on you. The town is built on the side of a ravine, and it is hard to fully appreciate it until you turn a corner or walk down a flight of stairs and a spectacular view of the Sassi suddenly pops up in front of you. Even then, it is difficult to understand where is up and where is down… sort of like in an Escher painting.
This area has been inhabited for millennia, making Matera one of the oldest cities in the world. The old town is entirely carved in the rock, from roads to houses and churches. Incredibly, locals still live in the same dwellings as their ancestors… no wonder this unique landscape has been selected by Hollywood as the set for some of its blockbusters. The Passion of the Christ, with Mel Gibson, is one of them.
Until the 1980s, the old town was run down and riddled with poverty (the reason why the Sassi are hidden from view from the modern part of town). Local authorities, however, saw an opportunity in tourism, evicted 60,000 people and cleaned up the rocky heart of Matera. It didn’t take long for the world to notice: in 1993, the Sassi were awarded World Heritage Site status… and the positive streak doesn’t end there for the city. More money has been poured in recent years, as Matera prepared to host a plethora of events as 2019 European Capital of Culture.
The result is a fantastic destination for foodies, history buffs and photographers. In this blog, I will tell you what you can see in Matera in a weekend hours.
NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH – Sassi
The Sassi district is divided in two: the Sasso Caveoso and the Sasso Barisano. It’s not too easy to know where one ends and the other one begins, but it doesn’t really matter: getting lost in this labyrinth of stone dwellings and churches is half the fun. To orientate myself, I found the best thing to do was to pick a landmark higher up on the hillside – like a tower or the Cathedral – and use it as a reference to move around the city’s rocky underbelly.
From the old town, on top of the ravine, the Sassi (which are the old-oooold part of town) are almost invisible. It is only when you get to a panoramic terrace or walk down a flight of stairs passing underneath a building that you can finally see them and descend into them.
So, what to do here with limited time? First, indulge in some Instagramming at one of several terraces lining the Sassi, before setting off to explore the maze of alleys lying at your feet. One of my favorite things to do, at the edge of the Sassi, was going to explore (with hardly any visitors) old cave dwellings that lie abandoned. Some are in a rather poor state, but it’s still interesting to see how people used to live until recently.
We are in Southern Italy, and religion is a very important part of people’s lives. So, understandably, churches are among the main sights you can see in Matera, but even there the city surprises you. Sure, there is a majestic cathedral dominating the Sassi… but the most interesting religious buildings here are the rupestrian churches built right in the stone, with paintings made directly on the rock.
LANDMARK FOCUS – Rupestrian chuches
There are over 150 rupestrian churches in Matera, which means that unless you have a month you will have to make some choices. Most of these churches date back to the Middle Ages, and it makes sense for you to visit some of the best preserved ones. You can access them on the same ticket, which costs €7.
Start off at San Pietro Barisano. From the outside, you almost couldn’t tell this church is actually carved in the rock. Inside, however, the architecture is astonishing. There is also a great exhibit going on at the moment. Ask the security person to escort you down to the crypt where priests bodies were kept awaiting embalming. Kinda spooky, but interesting.
Another stunning church is Santa Maria di Idris, built on top of a spectacular rocky outcrop. Part of it is excavated in the rock, part of it is built. Inside, you will immediately notice an altar from the 1800s and really get the sense of being in a cave that runs deep into the rock.
The nearby Santa Lucia alla Malve has beautiful frescoes, like one of the Virgin nursing baby Jesus. When you visit the inside, you will notice that the nave on the right is still used for religious ceremonies. For several decades, the church was used as a living space by locals – the holes in the wall on the left show where women used to place their looms.
STREET VIEW – Piazza Vittorio Veneto
Piazza Vittorio Veneto is likely to be the starting point of your visit to Matera, acting as a bridge between the modern city and the ancient Sassi district. This large square was entirely transformed in 1993 to remove a road that ran through it and bring back to the surface some impressive underground structures. In Matera, they refer to these sites as “ipogei”.
The most impressive one is certainly the Palombaro Lungo, a gigantic cistern that was used to collect rain water (in short supply in this part of Italy) and spring water flowing down from nearby hills. It is 15 meters high and could hold 5 million liters of water, which people had access to by means of wells in the above square. Locals stopped using the cistern in 1920 upon completion of the aqueduct. Book your tour a few hours before to avoid disappointment.
Back on the surface, you will notice a big sculpture of an elephant, part of an exhibition on Salvador Dali Matera will host until November 30th – oddly in harmony with the surroundings. You can also use the square to get an idea of what the Sassi look like before stepping into them – from the terrace accessible from the square, the view of the Sasso Barisano is breathtaking.
Piazza Vittorio Veneto is in many ways the beating heart of Matera. Spend some time people-watching and perusing the stalls of the vintage market that pops up here every weekend. Stop for a delicious espresso at Caffé Tripoli, right next to the imposing Palazzo dell’Annunziata – a former convent that today houses a library.
Spend Day 1 discovering the Sassi and their intricate maze of alleys without rush, and without fear of getting lost – picking a reference point on the hilltop will be enough to navigate the complex topography of the city. But you will quickly realize that Matera looks like a completely different place at every vantage point. Perspective here is relative!
Towards the end of the day, walk to the edge of the Sassi – past the Convinicio di Sant’Antonio – and explore abandoned cave homes almost entirely alone. A reminder for the three cave churches we talked about: between one church and another, don’t forget to hold on to your cumulative ticket. After the sun sets, look for a viewpoint and take in the amazing sight of the city at night: after dark, Matera looks like a Nativity Scene.
On your second day, cross the Gravina canyon and spend the morning hiking this side of the ravine – with perhaps the best view of the Sassi. The suspension bridge crossing the river is temporarily closed, so you might have to drive or catch a bus.
In the afternoon, explore Piazza Vittorio Veneto – the heart of Matera – and visit the underground cistern, the Palombaro Lungo. Then join locals for a stroll down Via del Corso and Via Ridola all the way to beautiful Palazzo Lanfranchi.
- Stay in the Sassi for a more authentic and possible expensive experience; choose the new town for access to supermarkets and shops. We rented an apartment – La Casa del Presidente – for €60/night.
- WHERE TO EAT. It doesn’t get much better than Trattoria Lucana, serving traditional Basilicata food. You can also join locals at cheap bistrot Monsu, which offers local favorites. Lunch can also be on the go, with delicious treats from one of the city’s many bakeries – my favorite was Panificio San Giacomo.
- Matera has no airport, so you will have to fly to Bari. From the airport, a shuttle bus will take you to Matera in an hour and 15 minutes.