Guide to Matera, Puglia


Pure charm… this is what Matera, with its colours, light and views, offers visitors. Largely carved out of and built with tuff, the town has an incredible history and a deep sense of spirituality, purity and authenticity. The sassi, ancient cave dwellings that were inhabited until the middle of the 20th century, and the rupestrian churches are the most remarkable aspect of the town, but not the only reasons for visiting this beautiful and unique part of the world. Matera also boasts a superb artistic and cultural heritage, delicious cuisine and a warm sense of hospitality.

Matera is 2019 European Capital of Culture. Even more reason to go.

Its dramatic position has also made it one of the preferred cinematic locations for numerous film directors, including Roberto Rossellini, Pierpaolo Pasolini, Giuseppe Tornatore, and Mel Gibson, the last of whom chose Matera as the perfect spot to film much of “The Passion of the Christ”.

Matera’s origins are lost in the mists of time but archaeological finds tell us that the grottoes and natural ravines of the surrounding countryside were settled in at least as long ago as the Palaeolithic age. More recently, though still over 2,500 years ago(!), the town began to trade with the Greek colonies that had been founded on the Puglian peninsula, and later became a colony itself. As it grew in importance, so did its attractiveness to invaders and throughout its history the town would pass under the control of a succession of rulers including the Romans, Byzantines, Saracens and Lombards. During the Middle Ages, Matera witnessed the arrival of hermit monks and monastic communities who settled there for good. They chose to live and worship in the town’s sassi, and there began a long process of transformation, as numerous grottoes were extended and turned into dwellings, crypts and even churches.

This tradition of cave living continued right up until the end of the Second World War, when new national laws were introduced that forced the residents to evacuate to other, more modern parts of the town, where living conditions were not as extreme. Today, the area of the sassi area has been totally recovered and in 1993 it was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, thanks to it being “the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem… (and) illustrating a number of significant stages in human history.” Some people have since moved back in and several high-end hotels have transformed the caves into luxury rooms for guests visiting the town.

The area of the sassi extends along a small canyon called Gravina, which forms the oldest part of the city. They are divided into three main groups: the Civita, which was the first urban nucleus, the Sasso Caveoso and the Sasso Barisano. If you want to fully understand how people used to live in the sassi, head to the Casa Grotta, a kind of mini museum that recreates the atmosphere of a typical sasso dwelling.

Matera also boasts a superb artistic and cultural heritage, delicious cuisine and a warm sense of hospitality.

The rupestrian churches, built into the tuff rock by the hundreds of monks over the ages, are extremely evocative and atmospheric, and feature many beautiful frescoes that are considered to be some of the greatest expressions of rock art in the world. Particularly worth visiting are the Church of Santa Maria della Valle and the Crypt of Original Sin.

The Case Cisterna (rainwater cisterns) offer visitors a fascinating glimpse of how the locals came up with an ingenious solution to the scarcity of water by collecting rainwater via an extensive network of ducts that piped man’s most important resource into the cave dwellings.

Wandering around Matera, you will come across numerous lively street stalls displaying a rich array of Matera’s colourful whistles, papier-mâché objects, and the traditional terracotta cuckoos, symbols of fertility. And if you’re in the area in the Spring we recommend you check out the programme for the annual jazz festival, Gezziamoci, which attracts international artists from all over the world.

Last, but certainly not least, don’t miss the wonderful local cuisine, with its delicious oven-baked bread, mouth-watering cheeses, and a huge variety of home-made pasta best eaten with a bottle or two of Matera’s local DOC wines!

Although Matera is situated in the region of Basilicata, just across the Puglian border, it is an easy, and greatly rewarding day trip from many of our villas, especially those in the Valle d'Itria or on the northern Ionian coast. If you're staying in one of our villas, why not let us arrange for a private guide to unveil the town's millennial secrets for you? There's even more reason to go to Matera in 2019, when it becomes a European Capital of Culture with a multitude of events taking place, starting on 19th January. 

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