Visiting the ancient city of Matera in Basilicata is a chance to delve into pre-industrial Italy. The Sassi district is a warren of houses, where each hill is carpeted by simple abodes, only broken up now and then by a white church hewn from the tufa limestone or a communal piazza.
Since prehistoric times humans have found shelter within grottoes and caverns underground. But the Matera caves have endured throughout human history, with a local population surviving entirely off-grid right up to the 1950s. The city was home to many different cultures, including the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Bourbons. In fact, this troglodyte (cave dweller) city is the world's third-longest continuously inhabited human settlement - after Aleppo and Jericho.
Now a burgeoning off-the-beaten-path tourist town, Matera is returning to its sustainable roots, shaking off past labels and reinventing itself as one of Italy's top travel destinations.
Matera is simply beautiful - it begs to be explored, uncovered and understood. It was named the European capital of culture in 2019 and has since seen a revitalisation in the economy with trendy new food venues, lively bars, and a thriving art scene - perhaps this is how it ended up in the James Bond film “No Time To Die”.
First inhabited around 7000 years ago, the Neolithic caves or ‘Sassi’ can still be seen from the old town on the other side of the Gravina River. But it’s the modern history that really adds intrigue to the city.
Much like the rest of Southern Italy, Matera was largely overlooked by the country during industrialisation and left to pick up the pieces when Italy unified, and tenant farmers lost their lands. The city became overpopulated, and the caves once used to store olive oil, wine and cheese were rented out to the newly homeless farming families.
Unsurprisingly, health and hygiene standards fell as further hurried accommodation was excavated out of the rock, destroying the intricate water systems that had sustained the city throughout its extensive history. It was labelled vergogna nazionale (a national embarrassment) in the 1950s after international headlines derogatorily proclaimed, "In Matera, people are still living in caves"!
The ancient Sassi districts had become a bed of disease, without electricity, clean water or waste management. In response to the international news stories that ensued, a government-led compulsory relocation saw 20,000 people moved to new housing in the suburbs of Matera.
It was much later that Matera was finally recognised for its advanced building techniques and subterranean water systems. It shed its bad reputation when it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. The way of life here, living simply in ancient stone dwellings with self-sustaining water systems, is now commonly regarded as a model for sustainable living.
The zero-waste society of Matera recycled everything, self-sufficient with produce from rooftop gardens and neighbourly trade. The residents were mostly vegetarian, surviving and even thriving off of the lands surrounding the city.
The crowning achievement of Matera's success was the Palombaro Lungo, or the ‘Cathedral of Water’. Today you can visit this city wide network of subterranean cisterns beneath the town’s central square, the 17th century Piazza Vittorio Veneto.
Modern-day residents have embraced this ancient way of life, championing locally grown food, and modest and sympathetic upgrades to dwellings, with a tangible focus on sustainability. Matera is not just a city of the past. It’s alive and well - constantly evolving to welcome a world that’s only just rediscovered its charisma.
Although you could probably see the main sights in a day, an overnight stop in Matera will allow you to experience the true culture of the city. Restaurants and bars become lively around dusk during passeggiata and the customary aperitif.
Grab a spritz at one of the hillside terraced-restaurants surrounding the main square, and take in the views of the Sassi skyline by night - an utterly unparalleled mosaic of glowing lights, silhouetted buildings and seemingly endless alleyways.
A must when visiting Matera is a stop by at a casa grotta or cave house. Some of the original abodes have been preserved as museums, and the quarters are ‘cosy’. Usually, a family group of around seven people would share one house, along with several farm animals to help with the heating.
You can visit one of the oldest surviving Matera cave dwellings at Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario. The residents of Matera lived this way, without electricity or running water, until around 1960.
Another absolute must in the province of Matera is to stop by at one of the humble chiese rupestre (rock churches). Visit the frescoes in Santa Maria di Idris, the 8th century Santa Lucia alle Malve, and the scollatura or ‘draining chairs’ of San Pietro Barisano.
You can also take a tour to uncover the underground world of Matera, including a bakery and mill, a church and entirely subterranean homes at Ipogeo MateraSum.
If that all sounds a little tiring, Birrificio 79 offers the perfect antidote. A lively bar with craft beer and top-quality Basilicata snacks, it’s the perfect place to retreat when you need a break from exploring.
For something a little more refined, Osteria L'Arco is a wonderful little restaurant to try local dishes like troccoli with sausage or lamb - recommended to us by the family that owned our cave house, it exceeded our expectations with the sublime food and vast wine collection.
Of course it would be ill-mannered not to stay in a cave hotel in Matera - for one of the best book Sextantio Le Grotte Della Civita. This old-world hotel is built out of the original family houses of Sassi Caveoso, and it features simply furnished rooms with luxurious touches like free-standing bathtubs.
For 007 fans though there’s only one option - Palazzo Gattini Luxury Hotel. Appearing as Bond's hideout in the franchise film, the five-star luxury hotel is set in a 15th-century stone palace, right outside the Piazza Duomo in the heart of the historic old town.
The nearest airport to Matera is Bari, about an hour's drive (65km) away. You can fly there from any major European city, or get a connecting flight in Rome.
From Rome to Matera, it’s a 5-hour drive, 5.5 to 6 hours by bus or train, or an hour's flight to Bari followed by an hour's drive or train ride to Matera.
From Naples, Sorrento or the Amalfi Coast, Matera is less than a 3-hour drive across the country's mountainous interior.
Around an hour's drive east of Matera is one of Puglia’s most charming towns - Alberobello. You can easily take a day trip to the Trulli di Alberobello from Matera and spend a few hours exploring the distinctive rural stone houses with their unusual conical roofs. Another of Southern Italy’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Alberobello is best experienced with a local tour guide.
A day’s drive south through the mountains of Parco Nazionale del Pollino will take you to Sicily (after a nimble ferry-hop over the Mediterranean Sea). Here you can ski Mount Etna, enjoy the beach at Cefalù, and explore the ancient sights of Syracuse and the Valley of the Temples.
Last Updated 15 August 2023