Never heard of it? Neither had I – until I was planning a trip to Puglia. I came across it while looking for an alternative to Bari for our first night’s accommodation. It didn’t appear too far from the airport (an hour) but didn’t figure much in Puglia listings because its actually in neighbouring Basilicata (your first lesson!).
You have to visit this place!! A full busy day and maybe an hour or two the following morning will cover most of it. Its too far from Rome for a day trip but if you are staying in Bari or Lecce then its worth visiting even as part of a guided day tour – you will still see the highlights and get a chance to enjoy the extraordinary landscape. The best option though is to stay for a night or two and enjoy the city in the evenings when day trippers have departed.
♦ It overhangs the Gravina Gorge.
♦ Natural caves were burrowed deeper to become dwellings for the first inhabitants.
♦ Layers of buildings were added on top of each other with houses and churches hewn into the rock.
♦ It is the third oldest living city in the world after Jerusalem and Aleppo (there are older cities in Mesopotamia but they have not been continuously occupied into modern times).
♦ Under the warren of houses there are tunnels, cisterns, warehouses and rock churches.
♦ The cave homes –Sassi – continued in use until the 1950’s when they were denounced as the ‘Shame of Italy’ because of living conditions
♦ 16,000 residents were relocated to new housing projects
♦ Restoration began in the 1980’s
♦ In 1993 the Sassi was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site
♦ The city and the surrounding ‘biblical’ landscape has attracted filmmakers and features in Mel Gibson’s Passion of Christ (2004) and Ben Hur (2016) among may other works.
♦ Hotels. restaurants and bars are opening up in the old cave dwellings
♦ Get there before tourism takes over!
The Sassi Dwellings
The old city is split into Sasso Barisano and the lesser developed Sasso Caveoso which meet at the Civita spur, the oldest part of town. Exploring is easy – just head off into the maze and wander up and down the steps and alleyways. The city map has suggested itineraries but you’ll get lost anyway – and that’s ok! You can’t stray very far and everything is breathtaking. There are plenty of panoramic viewpoints of the Sassi and the Gorge throughout the city.
To get an idea of what life was like in the caves, you can pay a few euros into a reconstructed dwelling and see the furnishings and tools
The city is stunning at night –
The Rupestrian Churches
There’s a new word for you – (or not!) – Rupestrian roughly means made or found on cave walls or rocks
There are about 150 Rupestrian Churches in this part of Italy. Some are just simple caves with an altar and maybe a fresco, some are more elaborate with a network of caves and underground chambers. Many artifacts were damaged or stolen in the 60’s and 70’s when residents were leaving the Sassi but its worth visiting a few churches for the frescoes alone. Some images date back to the 12th century and are probably facing their biggest challenge yet with the ever increasing influx of visitors.
A €6 ticket allows admission to 3 churches – San Pietro Barisaano, Santa Maria de Idris and Santa Lucia Alle Malve. Photography is not allowed but the brochures below will give you an idea of the quality of the frescoes inside.
The 13th century Cathedral stands on the spur between the two Sassi. The relatively plain exterior belies the ornate interior
San Pietro Caveoso stands right at the gorge
San Francesco d’Assisi was built over an ancient underground church which is still open.
In 1991, excavations revealed an enormous underground cistern which was once the main water storage for the town. With arches and pillars reminiscent of a cathedral, it has a capacity of 5 million litres of water. Its worth taking a guided tour which follows metal walkways through this marvel of engineering.
If you are staying for a few days then you can explore some of the trails in Parco della Murgia. The 80 sq km park offers cliffs, waterfalls, ravines, and caves. there are dozens of ancient settlements and frescoed churches.
From the other side of the gorge, the city is spectacular. You can drive around town to a viewing spot on the opposite side.
(The old and the new – modern Matera rising above the cave dwellings)
Its not all caves and churches – you can sit in a sunny piazza and enjoy a coffee, wander through the shopping streets or visit one of the excellent museums.
Madonna della Bruna
This special celebration dates back to 1389. On July 2nd each year, a statue of the Virgin Mary is carried through the streets on a wagon pulled by mules. The ornate wagon and statue are attacked and destroyed in the evening, with everyone in the crowd trying to to take home a piece for good luck. Everything is rebuilt, to a new design, for the following year.
We weren’t in Matera for the festival but when we visited in June, preparations were in full swing –
European City of Culture 2019
Started in 1985, the chosen cities must present a programme which contributes to the long term cultural and social development of the area. In 2019, Matera will share the title with Plovdiv in Bulgaria. This will raise the international profile of the city and attract more visitors to the area.
Food and Drink
With just one day in town, we didn’t have opportunity to sample many restaurants. We were able to enjoy coffees and juices during the day as we wandered around. We opted for an al fresco lunch – buying focaccia and coffees and sitting in a piazza. The same square was perfect for an aperitif in the evening and we rounded off the day in a restaurant in the Sassi.
(The fabulous Matera bread is not unlike the harsh local landscape in appearance!)
(Orecchiette and Veal at Ristorante Nadi in Sasso Barisano)
(A ‘must stop’ for ice cream on the way home I Vizi degla Angeli)
Everyone nowadays wants to sleep in the Sassi. Because we had a car, we opted to stay at Hotel Casino Ridola – a 20 minute walk into town.
Hotel Casino Ridola
The Positives: Good breakfast included / nice pool and garden / walking distance into town
Niggly Bits: A bit hard to find / €2 charge for pool towels
Matera was our first stop on trip to Puglia. If you’d like to read about it then have a look at Puglia – and Beyond! Highlights from an 11 Night Trip