Matera is a place that’s been brewing in my consciousness and on my ‘travel to’ list for a few years now. It sounded very mysterious to me – a town in southern Italy that was inhabited for thousands of years in dreadful conditions, forgotten about by the rest of Italy, abandoned, recently rediscovered, and now reasonably famous.
Visiting there is a really unusual experience, and one you’re unlikely to get anywhere else. I loved it and hope that after reading this you’ll put it on your ‘travel to’ list as well.
So here are my 15 reasons to visit Matera.
1) It’s one of the oldest towns in the world, having been continuously inhabited since the Neolithic age. That’s roughly 7,000 years folks. From the perspective of an Australian, that’s mind blowing. Towns here have been inhabited for less than 300 years.
2) Almost the entire town is made up of caves, or sassi as they’re called here. Early inhabitants carved out the rock to make shelters, and over the years more caves were carved, and added to, until a whole cave town emerged.
3) See how people lived – visit a cave house. One of my favourite places in Matera is the Cave Dwelling of vico Solitario, a house carved/built in the beginning of the 18th century and abandoned in 1956. It’s furnished as it would have been in the 1950s, and it’s both fascinating and depressing to see how primitive the living conditions were.
Imagine living like this your whole life then finding out the rest of the western world had electricity, running water, washing machines and even TVs all this time! Pissed off wouldn’t even begin to describe it!
4) Sleep in a cave! Many sassi have been restored and converted into B&B’s and hotels. Luckily things are a little more luxurious than they were for inhabitants in the 1950s!
5) Visit a cave church with beautiful 14th century frescoes. S. Lucia alle Malve and Santa Maria de Idris are my favourites, but there are many others.
6) Explore the abandoned part of the city. In the 1950s Matera was a town forgotten by the Italian government. Eventually it was coerced into doing something about the people who lived here in appalling conditions, and built a new town nearby before moving the whole town out of their prehistoric cave dwellings. The government compulsorily acquired the caves, and still owns most of them. While many have been turned into shops, restaurants and accommodation, many still lie abandoned. While on a walking tour of the city our guide told us how as a teenager he and his friends moved an old couch into one of them and used it as their ‘party house’.
7) Walk inside an underground water cistern. Palombaro Lungo in Piazza Vittorio is the biggest one and the most atmospheric. Amazingly this cistern was rediscovered only recently when the piazza above was being restored. I found it hard to believe that knowledge like this could be lost within a generation, but there you have it.
8) Step on empty tombs. So this might not be on everyone’s to-do list, but there are several places where you can see (and walk over) ancient tombs carved into the rock.
9) Since the ‘50s, Matera has been a natural film set. The most famous being Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”. If you look at the landscape from certain angles you really feel like you’ve been transported back in time thousands of years. A good place to get this view is from the belvedere (lookout) across the gorge, although you’ll need a car to get there.
And if you’d like to know more about the films that have been made here, check out the cinema museum (in a bar), which shows behind the scenes clips. Make sure you chat to the owner, who did the catering from Mel’s film, and has some interesting stories to share.
10) See some cool sculptures. Parco Scultura sits in an old stone quarry just outside Matera town
11) There’s a castle
12) Matera is home to some great restaurants, bars and gelato – always important! I loved:
I vizi degli angeli gelataria for amazing gelato flavours such as pineapple and ginger
Area 8 for groovy retro vibes and great cocktails – the best bar I’ve been to in all of Italy!
Soul Kitchen for fabulous local food and service
13) It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site (listed in 1993)
14) It’s beautiful. It’s a great place to just wander around on foot and take in the ambiance. Being such an old town, there aren’t many roads so it’s lovely and peaceful.
15) And finally, it’s going to be the European Capitol of Culture in 2019, so get yourself over there before the rest of the world discovers it!
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Until next time, safe travels,
The Travelling Pantaloni