Matera, Italy is located in the region of Basilicata in the southeastern part of the country. It sits upon a rock outcrop on a mountainside where you will find the Sassi, a series of cave dwellings carved into the limestone hillside with pathways atop the rooftops of houses and buildings with stone staircases leading through a labyrinth.
It is less known than other parts of the country but has much to see and explore with its Baroque churches and palaces.
In 1993 the town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and named a European Capital of Culture in 2019.
The History of Matera, Italy
Prior to becoming an Italian state, the area was first occupied in the 10th millennium B.C. and ruled over the years by several factions among which were the Byzantines, Arabs, Romans, Lombards, and the Arogonese. It is one of the oldest continuing inhabited settlements in the entire world.
Matera was “officially” founded in 251 B.C. by a Roman, Lucius Caecilius Metellus. At that time it was called Mateola. Over the years there were several conquests of the town by several groups.
It was not until 1927 that the town became the capital of the new province of Matera.
Some Interesting Facts
- Matera is the capital of the Province of Matera in the region of Basilicata
- its twin cliff-side zones are known as the Sassi which has twelve (12) levels connected by a network of courtyards, stairways, and paths. This area now has a number of museums, hotels, restaurants, and a very lively arts community.
- the town lies on the bank of the Gravina River
- the acropolis or central high ground supports the city’s administrative buildings and the cathedral is known as Civita
- you can book a room in one of the caves in the Sassi area and get a real feel for the area’s culture and history
- there are many tiny chapels on the hillside
- the Matera Cathedral was built in the 1200s
- to learn about the early inhabitants of the Sassi and how they lived visit the Casa Grotta di Vico Solitaria and the MUSMA art museum
- the local government was reorganized in 1993 and the mayor and 32 city council members are elected every five (5) years
- the ancient part of the town is called “Sassi di Matera” and it consists of structures that are believed to be the first dwellings in Italy. They are dug into the calcareous rock. Prior to the late 1980s, it was considered an area of poverty, but it is now full of hotels, bars, and other businesses.
- there are many monasteries and churches scattered throughout the city
- the city was built above a deep ravine called Gravina of Matera that divides the area in two. There are many cisterns and water channels built to collect water for the city. In 1832 the Palombaro Lungo, a cistern carved from the rock, was built under the Plazza Vittorio Veneto.
- the Murgia National Park was built in 1990 and has about 150 rock churches among the ravines and plateau
- in 2000 the San Giulianl Regional Reserve was established where Lake San Giuliano resides
- in the Bradano Valley, you will find the green plateau, Colle di Timari
- the Tramontano Castle was constructed in the 16th century
- along with Plovdiv, Bulgaria, in 2019 Matera was named European Capital of Culture
- Palazzo dell’Annunziata, a historical building on the main square, is where the Provincial Library can be found
- the cuisine is “cucina povera” or Southern Itay’s “peasant food” which is served with a local wine
- the town has been used by filmmakers as a biblical setting because of its ancient primeval scenery. In fact, Mel Gibson’s, “The Passion of the Christ”, was filmed here in 2004.
- Metallica made a music video here in 2016, “Spit Out the Bone”
- a religious festival, The Feast of the Madonna della Bruan is held on the 2nd of July each year
- the closest airport is Bari Airport and there is also bus and train service
- Daniel Craig stayed at the Palazzo Gattini while filming a recent James Bond movie
Things to Do in Matera, Italy
* Visit MUSMA — the Museum of Contemporary Art displays centuries-old traditional sculptures as well as more contemporary art from international and local artists. The art is displayed within a network of caves.
* Check-Out Belvedere — hike through the Parco Regionale della Murgia and get a great view of the city. There is fantastic scenery and shepherds throughout the countryside tending their sheep.
* The Streets of Sassi — in the Paleolithic Age these cave networks were inhabited by the Troglodytes. It’s a fascinating scene with the many steps, attics, balconies, and arches throughout the cave system. Farmers and peasants, known as the Shame of Italy, inhabited the Sassi in the 19th century and the area was considered a slum. After these cave dwellers relocated to government housing in the 1950s, the area was empty until the 1980s when businesses rented the caves for tourist purposes. Many of the caves were turned into hotels and other properties. There are guided tours available.
* Chiese Rupestri — these are religious structures and churches built into stone scattered throughout Matera. San Francesco di Assisi and San Pietro Caveoso are two of the most popular.
* Walk Along the Main Road — here you will not only find many restaurants, shops, and bars but a few good viewing spots as well. From Belvedere Luigi Gurigghio and Belvedere Piazzetta Pascoli, you get excellent views of Sassi. There are many other viewing areas along the way so it is easy to make a day of it.
* Duomo of Matera — completed in 1270 the Matera Cathedral has intricate artwork carved into its walls that advocates the morality of its viewers. You will also discover artwork, frescoes, and paintings on its ceilings. There is intricate marblework throughout the church and its original altars are preserved.
* Take a Nighttime Adventure — viewing the Sassi at night is quite enjoyable. Experience the mystery and magic in the area in this most fascinating part of the world.
* Chiesa di Santa Maria di Idris — located in Sassi, this old Catholic Church is also called Madonna de Idris and is carved right into a large limestone cliff. It is a rather amazing sight. Originally built in the 12th century, only parts of the original structure are left.
* Convento di Sant’Agostino — this former baroque monastery with its many stone elements has much historical significance. There are panoramic views of the area including the Sassi di Matera.
* A Tuk-Tuk Tour — take a trip around the area in a tuk-tuk or “ape car” that will cover all the main highlights of Matera.
* The Cuisine — many restaurants with a view can be found in Matera. This adds to the enjoyment and charm of a pleasant meal. The food itself is simple but delightful. A few places to check out are La Grotta tei Sassi, Regiacorte, Lanfranchi Caffe, Dimora Elmo, San Biagio Ristorante, La Nicchia nel Sasso, and 5 Lire Matera. Try the “pane di Matera” which is bread with a yeast base, water, salt, and durum wheat flour.
Here you will find historical and interesting sites in this ancient city. It has a history that goes back over 30,000 years.
Also, it is not an overly touristy town. Most people come for the day on a bus trip and leave prior to the evening setting in.
The Basilicata region itself has many picturesque villages and is one of the best-kept secrets in all of Italy. The gorgeous mountains and stunning coastline make this an area of Italy not to be missed. Although off the beaten path, this is one of the best parts of the country.
I would strongly suggest putting this on your destination list especially if you are a history buff. You will find Matera, Italy to be a very enjoyable and enriching experience.