Matera, Italy, is 5,000 years older than Rome and has been continuously inhabited for the last 9,000 years, making it the third oldest city in the world. People first settled in Matera in Paleolithic times when woolly mammoths roamed the earth.
Toward the Iron and Bronze Ages, the inhabitants, with metal tools, dug into the landscapes of soft volcanic stone to create the cave dwellings, which we can still see today.
Located in the Basilicata region of Italy, Matera is in the arch of the boot and is the most outstanding example of a troglodyte (cave dwellers) settlement in the Mediterranean region.
The Shame of Italy
Matera's recent history is a rags to riches story. In the early 1900s, not many people visited, which was considered the country's poor part. Matera was not on anyone's radar.
Everything changed when, in 1935, Mussolini exiled Italian artist and activist Carlo Levi to Eboli, a town close to Matera, for speaking out against him.
Southern Italy was always poorer than the North, but he was appalled by the level of poverty he witnessed.
Large families lived in caves with their livestock and had no access to electricity, plumbing, or running water. Children were dying of hunger or malaria.
He wrote a book called “Christ Stopped at Eboli” to vividly recount what he witnessed, which changed the course of Matera's history.
The book caused an uproar in Italy, and Matera was known as la vergogna Nazionale, the nation's disgrace.
In 1950 the Italian President visited Matera, himself appalled at people living in caves with livestock. He put together a plan to build a new housing development and move everyone out of the caves.
They forcibly relocated the inhabitants to a more modern development up the hill from the Sassi (the Italian word for stones). While this worked great for the younger generations, the older people lost a lot.
They no longer had the sense of community they had living so closely together in the Sassi and found the change very difficult.
Although life in the caves was tough, the families were always outside together, children playing, and women chatting while they worked; it was a strong community where everyone knew each other. In the new housing, that sense of community fell apart.
In the following years, a group of Italian artists started to renovate some of the caves. Today about 3,000 people live in the Sassi, occupying half of the cave dwellings.
In 1993 Matera became a UNESCO world heritage site; in 2019, it was Europe's Capital of Culture.
Today The Sassi di Matera are undergoing complex restorations to recover the original cave structures and preserve the important history and traditions of the area.
There are about 1,500 cave dwellings in Matera; some turned into luxury hotels with underground swimming pools. Others are cafés, museums, restaurants, bars, and private homes.
Matera has two areas, Sassi Barisano and Sassi Caveoso, and the best way to experience it is by foot.
Wander through the narrow alleyways, up and down ancient stone staircases, see spectacular views, and imagine what it would have looked like thousands of years ago. You will get lost, enjoy it, and keep wandering.
Visit Casa Noha, named after the noble family who lived there, to watch the history of Matera projected onto the walls, floors, and ceiling of the rooms.
Matera has 150 Rock Churches, Chiese Rupestri, carved into the stone, and the insides are covered with ancient frescoes. Visit the San Pietro Barisano, the largest rupestrian church dating to the 12th century.
The Murgia National Park
Across from the old city is Murgia National Park (Parco della Murgia Materana). The park is part of UNESCO World Heritage and the Sassi di Matera.
Many churches are on the other side of the large ravine, which you can get to by hiking through the park for two hours or taking a tour. Some tours bring you there on bikes and others by bus. We did not have time to visit that side of the ravine but plan to on our next trip.
Matera Walking Tour
The best way to see Matera is to book a walking tour which you can do online or through your hotel. Our guide's family had lived in the Sassi for years, and he could tell us intimate stories about his grandparents, which made the tour more enjoyable.
Via del Corso, the town's main road, is lovely to walk through, with expensive stores, great restaurants, and hip cafes. To see some amazing views of the Sassi go to both the Belvedere Piazzetta Pascoli and Belvedere Luigi Gurrigghio.
We visited Matera in January 2022, and it rained during our trip. The stones were somewhat slippery, so make sure to bring good walking shoes. Walking up and down the many stairs, we took our time. Some pathways in the old town are uneven, and there are potholes here and there, be watchful of where you are walking.
Although fewer tourists were there in January, it was cold, and we were numb after our walking tour. If I travel there again, I will go in Spring or Fall when the weather is better. It gets incredibly hot during the summer months and is full of tourists.
Explore Matera by Night
Walking through the old town of Matera at night is magical and otherworldly. You can get a feel for what it might have been like many years ago. It's mind-boggling to think that people were in these caves continuously for 9,000 years. It's a very romantic place to stroll in the evening, and they even have some city tours that start just before Sunset.
Visit Matera's Museum of Modern Art – MUSMA – housed in a 17th-century cave palace and contains many sculptures and contemporary art. It's the only cave museum globally, and the interior is stunning.
Everyone wants to visit once a city is named the European Capital of Culture.
Matera didn't get much of a run with that since Covid hit in 2020, one year later, but it's very much on everyone's radar now. Still, it's raw enough that it's a must-see place; there is nowhere like it.
As Matera is Europe's most exotic place to visit, it's also the filming location for several films, including the latest James Bond movie from 2021, The Passion of Christ, Ben-Hur.
Although everyone usually takes the route of Venice, Florence, Rome, and the Almalfi Coast, add Matera to your list. You won't regret it.
While wearing masks when I traveled there was still mandatory, you had to wear the correct mask – N95. We were turned away from a museum as we were not wearing a suitable mask, so checking on the current regulations is essential before you travel.
The Italians are strict regarding Covid, which is understandable considering how it impacted them in 2020.
Where We Stayed in Matera
Sextantio Le Grotte Della Civita
How to Get There
& When to Go
Fly into Bari and take the airport shuttle bus to Matera, just an hour's trip.
Use the national rail line to get to Bari, the capital of Puglia. On arrival in Bari, change to a private rail line, Ferrovie Appulo Lucane, that runs every day except Sundays and holidays.
Private trains do not leave Bari station; they depart from a smaller station next door. Leave Bari train station. Once outside, look left and see the entrance of Ferrovie Appulo Lucane; buy a ticket for the train to Matera in person. You can take a bus to the Sassi area from the Matera station.
Touring by car is the best and easiest way to see Puglia. If you stay in the old district, you must park your car in the new part of town and take a taxi. The taxi will drop you as near as they can get to your hotel. Cars are not allowed in the center of the old town.
Alternatively, your hotel might have a shuttle service and a preferred garage. Usually $25 per night.
Best Time to Visit
Offseason, Spring, and Fall are the best times. I visited in January, and it was a little too cold.
Italian, although each region has its dialect.
Cash | Cards
Most places accept credit cards but always carry cash. Shops in smaller cities, some car parks, and most parking meters only take cash. Use Visa or Mastercard with no foreign transaction fees in Italy.
Discover, Diners Club and American Express are not commonly accepted. ATMs are the best way to get cash.
The standard voltage in Europe is 230 V; buy a travel adapter before leaving the US.
113 Italian National Polizia
115 Italian Fire Brigade
118 Health Emergencies
EU Emergency Number
Dialing 112 from any country in the European Union will connect you to emergency services, such as police, fire, and ambulance services. Dialing 112 is free; you can dial from any mobile phone, landline, or payphone.
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