Matera is one of the most interesting, unusual and memorable tourist destinations in Italy. In the remote southern region of Basilicata (also called Lucania), still little-visited by foreign travellers, it is a town famous for its extensive cave-dwelling districts, the sassi. Curious visitors can stay in caves, wander the lanes alongside the picturesque cave-filled cliffs, and learn the history of this fascinating place.
The caves of Matera had been inhabited for centuries; some humble and some smarter residences, but by the early twentieth-century the area was a by-word for poverty. Until the 1950s hundreds of families were still living crowded into cave-houses here. The squalor and malaria-ridden conditions became a national scandal and finally the cave residents were moved – by law – to modern buildings on the plateau above. By the 1980s the abandoned caves of Matera were no longer scandalous, but fascinating reminders of the past. A few rather more well-to-do residents moved back and renovated old cave houses. In 1993 the town was made a UNESCO World Heritage site, for being “the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem”. And ever since, Matera has become steadily more popular as an off-the-beaten-track tourist destination. More and more old cave-houses are being converted into comfortable modern dwellings, into hotels, B&Bs and restaurants. You can take guided tours of the sassi and visit historic reconstructions of cave life. Matera was the one of the filming locations for Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, with shots showing the sassi and the gorge below.
Things to see in Matera
The way to start your visit to Matera is to wander around the sassi districts, looking at the cramped town above its ravine, and the tumbling grey stone facades, which appear to be houses but turn out to be caves. If you are just passing through, with only a casual interest, this plus a visit to a reconstructed cave-dwelling will suffice for a taste of the town. But to make the most of a trip to Matera, and to understand what you’re seeing, it really helps to have some context. After an initial independent exploration, we’d suggest taking a guided tour, reading a guidebook, visiting a cave-life reconstruction and one of the local museums. To ‘see’ Matera thoroughly, and to get an idea of the living conditions for the former cave-dwellers, you should spend at least a day in the town. For those who want to absorb more of the history and unique atmosphere, to explore the quieter spots and visit museums and churches, we’d recommend staying at least two nights in Matera.
It can be hard to get one’s bearings in Matera. The town centre, the oldest part of town, was built on the edge of a bare plateau where a high rocky mount looms over the spot where a valley descends to the long deep river-ravine. This is where you’ll now find the town cathedral and the fairly typical Italian town centre. As time passed, the rocky valley slopes below the town were dug out to create caves, used for housing, storage and stabling. These cave areas, where the poorest local peasants lived, fill a narrow valley and run along the side of the gorge itself. The first, and smarter, of the cave districts is called the Sasso Barisano and the other the Sasso Caveoso. Small lanes, alleys and stairways wind through the districts, some still closed off and abandoned. At first glance, the slopes might seem lined merely with small shabby stone buildings. But behind the simple facades – which sometimes extend outwards like traditional houses – the dwellings go back into the rock, cut out usually to form one large room, with a kind of ante-chamber at the back for animals. These parts of Matera are strange, quiet and picturesque; the pale rock makes the scene seem faded, colourless and timeless. Overhead swoop birds of prey which have made homes among the silent sassi including the Lesser Kestrel (Falco naumanni).
In Matera and throughout this part of southern Italy, there are many churches cut into the rock of hillsides and ravines. These rock, or rupestrian churches – chiese rupestri – were mostly created by Basilian monks who were fleeing the iconoclastic persecutions in the Byzantine Empire during the eighth and ninth centuries. The caves often contain faded frescoes in the Byzantine style. Many in Matera are kept locked, but some can be opened by tour guides, and several are open to the public with a combined ticket organised by the Circuito urbano delle Chiese Rupestri. It is well worth visiting one or two of these atmospheric ancient places of worship. One of the nicest churches in Matera, though, is actually not a rock church. San Pietro Caveoso is built in a picturesque spot on a rocky spur above the ravine, and is a charming small building with a welcoming atmosphere, simple folk-art decorations and some friendly saints. Up in the crags above are two of the chiese rupestri, Madonna dell’Idris and San Giovanni in Monterrone, connected by a tunnel and visited with the combined ticket. They are good ones to visit, for as well as the truly cave-like feel, burrowed into a little rocky summit, there are some charming Byzantine-style wall-paintings.
The town’s main historical museum, the Museo Nazionale Ridola, contains exhibits from distant eras of Basilicata’s past, from prehistory to the Roman age (closed Monday mornings; a small entrance charge). Nearby, Palazzo Lanfranchi houses the Museo Nazionale d’Arte Medievale e Moderna della Regione Basilicata – an art museum incorporating the Pinacoteca D’Errico, which has lots of religous paintings by southern painters and, more interestingly, the Centro Carlo Levi, which contains a range of paintings by the twentieth-century artist and writer who is a part of this region’s modern history (see Basilicata page for more about Carlo Levi). More recent artwork can be seen in the well-presented sculpture gallery MUSMA (Museo della Scultura Contemporanea Matera), which exhibits sculpture from the nineteenth century onwards (closed Mondays; winter afternoons). It’s normal for churches and attractions to close for a few hours in the middle of the day, and winter opening hours are generally reduced, so check the latest times on the websites (see right) or on your arrival in Matera.
As tourism in Matera is becoming big business, various enterprising locals have set up tourist attractions such as cave ‘reconstructions’: cave-houses which have been filled with period fittings to show how life was once lived here. These include the Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario, well-signposted in the Sasso Caveoso area. You are ushered into the cave, and left to look around while listening to a recorded commentary in your chosen language. There is another similar cave in the Sasso Barisano area, the Casa Grotta del Barisano. These are fascinating opportunities to see the typical layout of an inhabited cave, as they would have been until being deserted in the 1950s. The furnishings and design are all very standard, and it is both impressive to see how families adapted to these restrictive living conditions, and shocking to think how recently people lived like this. Chickens were kept under the bed, a horse in the corner and children slept where they could.