Matera is glamour. The Sassi and The Park of The Rock Churches – World Heritage Site since 1993 – tell the extraordinary ability of adaptation of the men who have inhabited this harsh but, at the same time, welcoming land. Although the settlements date back to the Palaeolithic, the 2019 European Capital of Culture has perfectly preserved the primitive urban structure, characterized by underground shelters dug into the ravines and cluster structures leaning against each other.
Like “Prigioni” sculpted by Michelangelo, the houses of the historic center are set in the Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano or bundled up in the Civita district, a cliff overlooking the Romanesque Cathedral while, in the Piano district, the modern city center, they have a more regular pattern with architectures that date back from the late ‘600 onwards.
The poignant beauty of the views from the Sassi on The Murgia National Park will certainly remain curled up in your hearts for a long time.
My stay in Matera lasted too little to suggest what to see. I surrendered to this picturesque city and I visited instinctively. I lost myself voluntarily between its alleys, stairs, hanging gardens, caves, rock churches and I never ceased to amaze me. When I thought I saw the most beautiful glimpse, I immediately had to change my mind and select another and so on again and again throughout the weekend.
There are very beautiful churches, convents and palaces in Matera: San Francesco d’Assisi, the Ridola Museum housed in the seventeenth-century convent of Santa Chiara, San Giovanni Battista, San Pietro Barisano and Lanfranchi Palace just to mention the first things that come to mind but, honestly, the hypogean city and all the architecture “stuck in the earth” -as Carlo Levi wrote about the Church of Santa Maria de Idris in “Christ stopped at Eboli“- have captured my imagination. With his novel, he focused on the precarious hygienic conditions of the Sassi inhabited in the 50s by over 15,000 people and engaged the authorities for a solution to the historic center overcrowding.
Santa Maria de Idris, located in the center of Sasso Caveoso (near the rock church of Santa Lucia alle Malve) seems to owe its name to the women imploring the Virgin during periods of drought. Idris, “the one who shows the way” from the Greek Odigitria, could also refer to the water flowed from that rock. Do not stop at the first, small, room of the church. Go in the tunnel and admire the real gem: the crypt of San Giovanni in Monterrone with extraordinary frescoes, dating back to the twelfth century, containing a clearly influence of Byzantine Iconography.
In the rock churches it is not possible to take pictures but I have not resisted the temptation to immortalize the beautiful Madonna del Latte in the church of Santa Lucia alle Malve. The interior is distributed in three naves. In the right-hand one, the Mass is celebrated on December 13 in honor of the Saint and it is curious to know that the other two, for a long period, have been used as dwellings after the nuns transfer in the 16th century.
Santa Maria de Idris stands on the church of Saints Peter and Paul, generally known as San Pietro Caveoso. Although going back to the ‘200, it has undergone many changes in the following centuries and has an even baroque appearance from the front. If you want to immerse yourself in the atmosphere of the underground city I suggest you to visit examples of cave-dwellings like Casalnuovo and Vico Solitario (perfectly restored, you will discover how people lived in the typical Matera dwellings; the furniture and tools are original and it is very suggestive to move around inside this limited space, where families lived with their own animals), the Palombaro Lungo (a huge, perfectly restored underground cistern that can be accessed from Piazza Vittorio Veneto, which for years supplied the city by collecting rain and spring water and lost its function only at the beginning of the 20th century with the compromise of the sophisticated system of communicating vessels due to the construction of the aqueduct – a paradox – and road network) and the Murgia National Park with its caves and 150 rock churches. The park can also be reached on foot from Civita: a nice trek that involves descending towards the stream that cuts the valley, along a rope bridge and goes up to admire the city from a breathtaking point of view.
When night falls, Matera is amazing and I do not really struggle to imagine how beautiful it is during Christmas time, since it seems like a crib all year or at Easter, when the Good Friday procession takes place among the Sassi.
When I come back, I will definitely want to see the MUSMA (the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture – Matera) and Casa Noha, a private house donated to the FAI (Italian Environmental Fund), where you can discover the history of the city from prehistoric era to nowadays, through a multimedia show.
Where to eat
I had lunch in the Trattoria del Caveoso, where I ordered the amazing ravioli with fresh basil filled with burratina, tomato and stracciatella (€ 12) sitting at an outdoor table. The menu offers pasta (average € 7) and dishes of the day, like the one I have experienced; a choice of meet between “Tagliata”, ribs and fillets (between 12 and 16 €) and a selection of tasty homemade desserts. A cute and easy place. Recommended.
At dinner, on suggestion, I went to Francesca, a design restaurant in Sasso Caveoso distributed on several levels where you can discover the flavors of the past. While you decide what to order from a delicious menu with revisited Lucan dishes, your palate will be pampered by a tasty starter based on typical products: a toast of Matera bread with a cream of carrots, peppers, crisps and a fennel salad! Obviously, I wanted to make a taste of other cold and hot appetizers (stuffed aubergines, cicerchia soup with mushrooms, broad beans and chicory, friggitelli) and then give me a plate of homemade pasta with cherry tomatoes and almond pesto. Very nice idea to serve coffee with moka directly at the table!
Where to stay
I stayed at Le Dodici Lune, a structure characterized by mini apartments with independent access, equipped with kitchenette and outdoor space to have breakfast overlooking Gravine. It is located in the Civita district, five minutes from the Musma and the Cathedral. Breakfast is served in the old wine cellar and, if you wish, you can have dinner in a nice and good restaurant. Our triple room was spacious and although it developed in depth, there was plenty of natural light.
The best way for getting there is with a car because if you reach Bari or Brindisi by train / plane then you have to cover the remaining distance by a regional train or jump on a bus (cheaper way but there is no public transportation in Matera on Sundays). Alternatively you can take a cab (approx. $40 from Bari to Matera) or a private transfer (ask to us by e-mail the contact of our driver).
A goody: find the time for a stop in Craco, the abandoned village of Basilicata following a ruinous landslide. You will literally be amazed!
Rock churches: in each site, you can buy a ticket. Cumulative Santa Maria de Idris, Santa Lucia and San Pietro Barisano, the largest rock church in the city: € 6; 2 sites to choose from 3: € 5; a site on 3: 2 €.
Palombaro Lungo: Piazza Vittorio Veneto. Prices: € 3 full, free for children under 18. Hours: every day 10-13 and 15-18: 50 on fixed visits.
Vico Solitario Cave House: Via del Vico Solitario. Prices: € 3. Timetable: every day of the year, including Sundays and all bank holidays, open all day from 9:30 am to evening.