Matera italy cave city

Matera, Italy: Extraordinary City of the Caves 2024

Have you ever dreamed of exploring an ancient city carved into a cliffside? In this episode, we journey to Matera, a captivating destination in Southern Italy unlike any other. Imagine a labyrinth of cave dwellings, known as the Sassi of Matera, where people lived for millennia, now transformed into a vibrant cultural hub.

Whether you’re a history buff, a culture enthusiast, or simply seeking an off-the-beaten-path destination, this episode will show you why Matera deserves a spot on your Italian itinerary.

Matera is a fascinating city with a rich history, unique landscapes and a Hollywood connection. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Matera isn’t necessarily a hidden gem or one that rarely gets tourists because it does. Since it was featured in the last James Bond movie, No Time to Die, it’s been popping on the radar of tourists coming to Italy, but it’s still not that well-known. 

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History of Matera, the city of caves

Matera is another place in Italy that predates Roman times by a lot of years. It was inhabited as far back as the Paleolithic era, which is about 8,000-9,000 years ago. That’s pretty spectacular.

Here, you’ll find a network of Paleolithic settlements carved into the limestone cliff. People have lived in them for centuries, even as late as the 1950s. These cave dwellings, known as Sassi, were not created just for temporary shelter. The Sassi people carved their homes and even churches directly into the rock face, creating a unique troglodyte (cave-dwelling) community.

overview of Sassi di Matera

In case you’re wondering where the name Sassi comes from, Sassi is the Italian word for “stones” (singular: sasso). So the Sassi People (or Sassi Dwellers) is a term that describes the people who inhabited these cave dwellings throughout history. In English, you would call them Cave Dwellers. 

I saw pictures of Matera before we went, and it looked okay, but I wasn’t that moved by it. But once we got there, it just looked incredible. Matera is one of those places where pictures don’t do justice. You have to go and see it for yourself. 

The Shame of Italy

When you see Matera today, it’s hard to believe it was once called the “shame of Italy.” As you can imagine, the unsanitary conditions didn’t make it a great place to live. The caves lacked proper sanitation, running water and electricity. This poverty, not surprising, became a national concern.

In the 1950s, the writer Carlo Levi brought international attention to the situation when he wrote a book called “Christ Stopped at Eboli.” His descriptions of the squalor in Matera exposed the harsh realities faced by the Sassi people. 

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The Italian government recognized the need for change and initiated a program to relocate residents from the Sassi into modern housing projects. As you can imagine, this improved living standards, but it also disrupted the traditional way of life in the Sassi.

Matera’s reputation as the “shame of Italy” gradually faded as the city modernized. The Sassi themselves underwent restoration and became a source of cultural pride. Matera has transformed into a thriving town celebrating its unique heritage.  In 1993, the Sassi were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Matera was even named the European Capital of Culture in 2019.

Why visit Matera

There are three main reasons why I think Matera is a great place to visit:

  • 1) With its cave houses, Matera has a very unique landscape that you won’t find anywhere else 
  • 2) it’s ancient, and if you’re like me, the idea of stepping back in time and walking on the same paths as many have for centuries appeals to you, then this is a very cool experience 
  • 3) it looks incredible, especially at sunset. Matera is interesting because you don’t see any trees or grass as it’s all stone, but you do see flower pots and potted plants that add a bit of liveliness to this rock city
a stone town on a cliff

Now, if you’ve seen the James Bond movie or even just the trailer for it, you have to see Matera. There is a scene in the movie where he’s on this stone bridge, and these bad guys show up and chase him, so he jumps off. That bridge, though, is outside of Matera. It’s actually in another town called Gravina in Puglia. With the magic of cinema, they put the two places together for one seamless look. 

Now, if you want to add a theme to your Italian adventure—be that James Bond or cities made of stone—I recommend visiting both Matera and Gravina in Puglia. They are about half an hour from each other, and both have amazing views. 

We actually did that last year for my birthday. We stayed in Gravina in Puglia and saw that famous bridge. Now, Gravina is in the Puglia region, while Matera is in the Basilicata region. You can check them both out. 

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What to do in Matera

The layout of Matera sort of reminds me of Herculaneum in that there are two parts of the city. One is the ancient Sassi area, where you can wander around and explore. The second part is the modern-day city. Like in Herculaneum, the modern city surrounds the Sassi and overlooks the ancient part. So, think of it like a stadium. The Sassi are the seating area and the arena, while the modern day is like the nosebleeds at the very top. 

Sasso Caveoso: This ravine is one of the two historical districts that make up the Sassi. It’s a maze of cave dwellings, churches, and caverns carved into the rock face. Sassi Caveoso part will give you more of an idea of what living here was like. For safety reasons, I wouldn’t advise you to venture into any dwellings that are not clearly open to visitors. 

Recommended Tour: Complete tour of the two Sassi – Barisano and Caveoso – book your ticket

Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario: Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario is a restored cave dwelling that has been turned into a museum. It is located in the Sasso Caveoso, the larger and more atmospheric of Matera’s two Sassi districts. The cave dwelling is furnished with traditional furniture and tools, and it features exhibits that explain the history of the Sassi and the lives of the people who lived there.

Sasso Barisano: The other historical district of the Sassi, Sasso Barisano, offers a slightly different perspective. Here, you’ll find charming cave dwellings alongside upscale restaurants and hotels. Walk the narrow streets, climb the stone steps

PRO TIP: Book a private walking tour and learn about the Sassi history and culture – book your tickets today

Casa Noha is another restored cave dwelling that is open to the public. It is located in the Sasso Barisano. Casa Noha is a bit more spacious than Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario, and it features a number of modern amenities, such as a kitchen and bathroom. You can rent Casa Noha for short-term stays and experience living in a traditional cave dwelling.

Rock Churches

When exploring Matera’s caves, you might be able to visit some ancient rupestrian churches with intricate carvings. They weren’t open when we came so that’s something we have to do the next time we go. There are a couple of old churches with frescos inside. You can also book a guided tour to see them. 

  • Casa Grotta nei Sassi: This restored cave-turned-museum offers a glimpse into how the Sassi people lived. You’ll see traditional furniture, tools, and household items.
  • Church of San Pietro Barisano: The largest rupestrian church in Matera, featuring stunning frescoes depicting the life of Christ and various saints.
  • Church of Santa Maria di Idris: Nicknamed the “Rock Church” due to its dramatic cliffside location, it offers beautiful frescoes and breathtaking views.
  • San Giovanni Vecchio: This cave church features Byzantine-style frescoes from the 13th and 14th centuries.

Hike the gorge

Once you get to the base of the Sassi, there is a gorge at the edge of a ravine. You can’t miss it as you’ll probably walk along the road that overlooks the opposite side of the ravine. You can hike the gorge to the other side and get spectacular views of Matera. We opted to drive to the viewpoint across from Matera. It’s called Belvedere di Mugia Timone, and you can find it on Google Maps. We parked there and made our way to the edge, where you can see Matera across the way. 

@amongstromans

Matera is a magical place to explore. But there is also a trail that you can hike from the city and across a gorge to a magnificent view point. We started at the view point then hiked to Matera and back. Hiking boots are def a must here! #italytiktok #traveltiktok #travellife #italytravels #matera #materassi #sassidimatera #basilicata #exploreitaly #traveltips #hikingadventures

? Cinematic Epic – AudioCoffee

On this side of the canyon, you’ll find some old caves that are about 7,000 years old. They will give you an idea of what living in one must have been like. I am happy to pass on cave dwellings, but I admire the creativity and effort it took to live there. 

We hiked across to Matera and then back. The hike itself took about 20 minutes to half an hour each way. The road is rocky and uneven, so you definitely need proper footwear, or you might get hurt if you slip or step the wrong way. The side across from Matera is more rugged but follows a path, whereas the side on Matera is more steep. At the bottom of this gorge is a river with a bridge that you have to cross. It’s not too scary, but it’s narrow, so if there are many people, you might have to wait for them to cross. You’ll have to wait if they all stop to take pictures. 

What to see in modern-day Matera

The newer part of Matera has your typical attractions. There are museums, bars, restaurants, shops and sculptures that make it nice to explore. If you stay in Matera, you’ll have plenty to explore in the Sassi as well as the modern town. 

  • MUSMA—Matera Museum of Modern and Contemporary Sculpture: Housed in a 17th-century Franciscan monastery, MUSMA offers a collection of works by Italian and international artists with a focus on sculpture. It also has a rooftop terrace with views of the city.
  • Cathedral of Matera (Duomo):  Located on the highest point of the Civita hill, the Duomo is a beautiful example of Apulian Romanesque architecture. The interior boasts a magnificent main altar and a crypt with frescoes.
  • Palazzo Lanfranchi:  This 17th-century palace houses the National Museum of Medieval and Modern Art of Basilicata. The collection includes paintings, sculptures, and archaeological artifacts.
  • National Archaeological Museum Domenico Ridola: This museum showcases archaeological finds dating back to prehistoric times from Matera and the surrounding Basilicata region.
  • Belvedere Luigi Guerricchio:  This viewpoint offers stunning views of the Sassi caves nestled into the cliffs, which are particularly beautiful at sunset.
  • Belvedere Piazza Pascoli:  A scenic viewpoint with a perspective of the Sassi and the ravine below.
  • Palombaro Lungo:This is a long, narrow street carved into the rock face. It’s a great place to wander and soak up the atmosphere of the city.

Food to Try in Matera

When it comes to food, Matera is not where you come to eat pizza. This area is known for a specific type of bread made from what they call “hard wheat,” which is made a certain way. It’s delicious, and I recommend trying it. 

food in matera

The dishes here are inspired by local produce and the people who lived here. There weren’t many choices, so they had to get creative. You can get orecchiette, a flat disk pasta shaped like an ear. It comes with turnip tops, bread crumbs and anchovy. Another local dish is a soup from a thistle called cardoncelli. 

Agretti bunches
Agretti bunches

One of my favourite dishes in Matera was this fava bean puree topped with agretti and sprinkled with breadcrumbs. Agretti is an herb that looks like straight dark green stems. You can steam it or fry it, and I would say it tasted like asparagus or even more like fiddleheads. 

Try these culinary experiences in Matera:

The best time to visit

Now, let’s talk about the best time to visit. If you’ve listened to any of the previous episodes, you know that I’d say January to March or October/November. Summers can get very hot, and there isn’t a lot of shade. I would not recommend hiking across the gorge in the middle of the summer as there is no shade. 

A view of Matera from a distance

The first time we went to Mater was in late September, and the second time, we went at the beginning of January. Winter here is different from the winter we get in Canada. January was great, as it was sunny and relatively warm, about 10 degrees.

They have a Christmas market in the new part of Matera just outside the Sassi, and the stalls stay open until 6 or 7 of January. We got to explore those as well, which was a nice bonus. If you’re into the Christmas season, December is a great time to experience Matera’s festive atmosphere with nativity scenes carved into the caves.

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How to get to Matera

  • Fly into Bari Airport (BRI): The closest airport to Matera is around 55 km or an hour’s drive away. You can take a train or bus or rent a car from Bari Airport to reach Matera.
  • Train: Matera has a train station connected to the regional rail network. You can take a train from Bari Central Station or other major cities in Southern Italy to reach Matera. While the trains may not be the fastest option, they offer a scenic journey through the Italian countryside.
  • Bus: Several bus companies offer connections to Matera from surrounding cities and towns, including Bari, Naples, and Potenza. This can be a budget-friendly option, although travel times may be longer than by train.
  • Car: Consider renting a car for the ultimate road trip to explore Matera and its surroundings at your own pace. The drive from Bari takes about an hour on regional roads. Just remember, parking within the historic center of Matera can be a challenge, so plan accordingly.
  • Book a tour: If you want to avoid dealing with the logistics, consider taking a day trip to Matera with a local guide. 

Is Matera Italy worth visiting?

Matera’s historic centre is a remarkable city that speaks to the area’s cultural heritage and human history. As one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities, it offers a unique perspective on Italy’s culture and history. While different from other Italian cities on the UNESCO World Heritage list, Matera has a unique appeal and should be on everyone’s Italian itinerary. 

@amongstromans

Matera’s Sassi: Where history and beauty carve a breathtaking landscape ??? Discover Italy’s famous rock dwellings. It’s crazy to think that this was onfe considered as the shame of Italy. #fyp #italyadventures #italytiktok #TravelItaly #discoveritalywithme #traveltiktoktravel #sassi #matera

? Dolce Vita (Extended Version) – Ryan Paris

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