Matera is a unique city located in the heart of the Basilicata region in Southern Italy but it is also just an hour’s drive from Alberobello. Its fascinating history, rich cultural heritage, and stunning natural scenery have recently gained global recognition after being named the 2019 European Capital of Culture and being recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its unique Sassi district. Matera is a city that has long remained hidden from the rest of the world, and exploring it is like taking a journey back in time.
A bit of history
Matera has a long and fascinating history that dates back to the Paleolithic era, with evidence of human settlements dating back over 9,000 years. Despite this rich history, the city was once known as the “Shame of Italy” due to the poverty and poor living conditions of its residents. The situation was so bad that the inhabitants of the “Sassi”, the current historical centre, were forced to leave their homes, often real caves, and move to the new area of the city. However, Matera has undergone a dramatic transformation in recent years and is now one of the most captivating destinations in Italy. The city has managed to preserve its ancient architecture, and its historic center is now a popular destination for visitors from around the world.
Sassi of Matera
The Sassi district is the highlight of any trip to Matera. The district is a maze of cave dwellings, churches, and rock formations that are carved into the soft tuff stone. Walking through the narrow streets and alleys of the Sassi is like traveling back in time. The houses are dug into the rock and the city’s architecture is unique, with buildings that seem to be suspended over the Gravina di Matera, a deep gorge that cuts through the city.
A must-visit in the Sassi district are the rock churches, including the Church of Santa Lucia alle Malve, the Church of Madonna delle Virtù, the Church of San Pietro Barisano and Santa Maria de Idris.
The Church of Santa Lucia alle Malve, in Sasso Caveoso, is one of the oldest churches in Matera, dating back to the 8th century. The church is carved directly into the tuff rock and features stunning frescoes, including one of the Virgin Mary with Saint Lucia, for whom the church is named. Visitors can also see the original baptismal font, which dates back to the 12th century.
The Church of Madonna delle Virtù, located in the Sasso Barisano, is another impressive example of the Materan people’s ability to create beautiful and functional spaces in the tuff rock. The church is characterized by its beautiful façade, which features a carved rose window and a bell tower that is a true masterpiece of Baroque architecture. Inside, visitors can see stunning frescoes, altarpieces, and other works of art.
The Church of San Pietro Barisano, also located in the Sasso Barisano, is one of the largest and most impressive cave churches in Matera. The church was carved out of the tuff rock in the 12th century and features stunning frescoes that depict scenes from the life of Christ and the saints. Visitors can also see the impressive altar, which is made entirely of tuff and features intricate carvings and sculptures.
Church of Santa Maria de Idris is a cave church that was carved out of the rock in the 14th century. It is located in a prominent position, high up on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Sassi. The church has a simple, unadorned exterior, but its interior is filled with beautiful frescoes that date back to the 15th century. The frescoes inside the church depict scenes from the life of Christ, as well as various saints and angels. The frescoes are in a distinctive style that is characteristic of the region, with bright colors and a flattened perspective that is typical of medieval Italian art. In addition to its artistic and historical significance, Santa Maria de Idris is also a popular pilgrimage site. Every year, on the first Sunday of May, a procession is held in honor of the church’s patron saint, Our Lady of Idris.
Another great attraction of Matera is Casa Grotta. This is a fascinating and unique museum located in the heart of Matera’s Sassi district. The museum offers visitors the opportunity to experience what life was like in the ancient cave dwellings that are typical of the area. It is a restored cave house that has been furnished to recreate the living conditions of a typical Materan family in the 18th and 19th centuries. Visitors can explore the various rooms of the house, which include a kitchen, a bedroom, and a stable. The house is made entirely of tuff, the soft volcanic rock that makes up the Sassi, and visitors can see how the rock was used to create everything from furniture to cooking utensils.
In addition to the Sassi district, visitors should also explore the historic center of Matera. The town is famous for its beautiful Baroque architecture, and the Piazza Vittorio Veneto is a great place to start. The square is lined with cafes and restaurants, and it offers stunning views of the city’s ancient skyline.
Matera and the movies
Matera has become a popular location for filmmakers due to its unique landscape and ancient atmosphere. The city’s architecture and natural surroundings have been used as a backdrop for several famous movies, including the James Bond film “No Time to Die”, Mel Gibson‘s “The Passion of the Christ” and Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew”. The city’s cinematic potential is undeniable, and it has become a popular location for filmmakers from around the world.
Surroundings of Matera
Matera is surrounded by stunning natural scenery, including the nearby Parco della Murgia Materana, which boasts beautiful hiking trails and stunning views of the surrounding countryside. The nearby town of Altamura is also worth a visit for its beautiful medieval architecture and delicious food.
If you like trekking, the best way to end your visit to Matera is to reach Murgia Timone, the hill on the other side of the canyon. Here you will find the oldest cave dwellings of the area, some rupestrian churches and a stunning view over the Sassi from the place where the settlement of the city began.
What to eat and drink
“Grano duro”, hard wheat, is one of the main ingredients in Matera’s food. It is used to make pasta and bread, which is a key ingredient in dishes like the “Cialledda calda,” a kind of soup prepared with eggs, olives with garlic and bay leaf. Red chili peppers are another typical product of Matera, and they are widely used in a range of recipes. Matera is also a recommended destination for wine lovers, who appreciate the regional dishes and cheeses besides local wines.