This spring we decided to visit Alberobello which is a very small city in the South of Italy.
Having few days at our disposal, I started to look in the region for other places to visit during our stay, and I discovered this amazing old city which was declared European Capital of culture in 2019. It looked like a prehistorical city with small houses carved into the gray mountains. The name of this city is Matera.
Located in the southern Italy, in the region of Basilicata, Matera is like a cradle of civilization.
It is that type of an old city where people are still living in the same houses of their ancestors like they used to do 9,000 years ago, dwellings cave, known as Sassi.
Its history goes way back in time to the Palaeolithic, but the city was founded by the Romans in the 3rd century BC and was called Matheola, after the Roman Consul Lucius Caecilius Matellus.
In time, the city grew big. In the 30’s the caves were homes for more than 20,000 people, but because of the rough living conditions: the caves had no heat, no light or sanitation, families with all their belongings crammed into tiny spaces, they had problems with diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and malnutrition.
In the 50’s, all these, made the city to be considered an area of poverty and at this point, the Italian Government relocated the inhabitants.
After some time, the city started to be reborn and grew in beauty and reputation. Also with the help of many famous movies that were made here, like The Passion of the Christ directed by Mel Gibson.
This place grew to be spectacular, which is nothing compared to the feeling that this place gives you.
Matera is the second oldest continuously inhabited city in the world after Petra (Jordan).
Sassi of Matera (stones of Matera) were also included in UNESCO.
In the old city of Matera you can’t go by car. The entire route must be done on foot.
We rented a car from the airport and went directly there.
The first thing that we did, once arrived here, was to stop at one reinvented pasta restaurant, right in the center. They were preparing their own pasta. So they could prepare on the spot something traditional.We ordered orecchiette with tomato sauce which is a local dish, octopus, and some ravioli con pepperoni cruschi. I have to admit that I was not impressed. The place looked very well but the food was average.
How to reach?
You can reach Matera from Bari:
- By train
The distance between the two cities can be done by train, in about an hour and a half. The trains to Matera are operated by a private company –called Ferrovie APPULO Lucane. Both, the line and the ticket office are located in another building next to the central station of Bari. Trains are clean and modern. In Matera there are 3 train stops: Matera Villa Longo, Matera Centrale and Matera Sud. When you arrive in Matera for a city tour you have to stop to Matera Centrale.
From the train station you take the main street leading down to the old city. A train ticket cost up to 5 euro (4.90 euro).
Attention! There are no trains on Sunday but you can find a bus that can take you there.
- By bus
As an alternative to the train, there are some shuttles buses going from the airport to Matera: the problem is that there are very few rides and you should be lucky to find a connecting ride.
- By rented car
You can rent a car directly from airport. There are many rental companies available and the prices per day are not very high. It starts with 20 EUR/day.
In Italy, you have to pay a deposit for the rented car. In our case, they asked 1,000 EUR, but this is the best way to travel around Puglia region.
Where to sleep?
Since Matera has approximately 58,000 inhabitants, it is not exactly a small city by Italian standards. While the city has some grungy areas and Soviet blocs, the Centro Storico, it is very attractive and has a small-town vibe with its tingled winding streets and narrow alley, markets, bakeries, coffee shops. Is the place to be!
There you can find very interesting accommodation, right in the caves.
I recommend you to book something in Centro Storico. There are some cozy and interesting B&Bs.
What can you visit?
Everything looks very simple, but things are getting very complicated. You look at the map and realize how many thinks are to be seen and how many narrow streets there are in front of your eyes.
You can take a guide that will cost you 10 Euro and follow a precise trail, directly to the main attractions and tell you the story in the meantime.
Or you just lose yourself in the city trying to discover it. To walk freely with no schedule. This is another way of discovering it.
And this was also our way.
First, we went to Piazzetta Pascoli where is a balcony with an amazing view over the Sassi.
At some point, we stopped to visit Storica Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario which is house museum. Here they reproduced and ancient cave house and the way people were living in ancient times.
The entire family (on average six members) including animals like mules, chickens, and pigs lived together in the cave and it has been furnished how it would have been.
The Casa Grotta tells the story of the people that lived in the Sassi. In the large one room area, partly dug out of the rock and partly constructed, the furniture is positioned so as to create smaller areas: the hearth with the stove, a small table in the center of the room, a bed with two iron trestles on which wooden planks were placed, supporting a mattress made out of corn leaves. In front of the bed, in between the cave walls, there was a trough where the mule was tied. A round hole was used as a cesspit, or as a place to keep straws.
After then we continued our trail to Sassi di Matera, going further to the Chesa de San Pietro Caveoso and going up to the Cathedral in Sasso Barisano.
The city is really impressive.
The best way to explore the neighborhoods Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso is on foot, roaming through the labyrinth of narrow alleyways, up and down uneven stone staircases, discovering dead ends and tiny courtyards adorned with flower pots, cave churches and expansive views of the Sassi
Things to do in Matera
- Lose yourself in Sassi di Matera
The city center, represent itself the heart. It is called Sassi di Matera which means “Matera’s stones”. The entire central area is unique and impressive, like no other city.
Without a doubt, the Sassi are the main tourist attraction in Matera.
The Sassi are a labyrinth of houses, winding streets, narrow up-and-down alleys, ancient rock churches and inhabited as well as abandoned cave houses. Armed with a walking map, you can tour at your own leisure. But there is a lot to see and visitors can spend an entire day wandering the Sassi, getting lost in the maze of alleys, stairways and dead ends.
- See the Byzantine churches
The highlights of Sassi tour are the ancient Byzantine churches carved out in the rock. Santa Maria de Idris is carved into a huge rock pinnacle perched on a rock ledge overhanging the ravine. Another rock church, Santa Lucia alle Malve contains 10th-century frescoes. The small but dignified Church of San Pietro-Caveoso is free-standing and the only one of the churches not carved into the rock.
- Hike to the Murgia Materna Park
Murgia Materna covers 8000hc and you can get an idea about the nature diversity and discover abandoned caves and churches. You can easily spend one day here
- Learn the history of Matera at Casa Noha
The center is founded by two families. Whose ancestors used to live here on the premises. The documentary and special video projection they screen it’s an unique way to tell you the story of the city. During 45 minutes you can learn so many things.
Entrance is based on donation
- Make a tour of the city
- Piazza Vittorio Veneto
Here you can find Palombaro Lungo- the largest cistern in town and is under Plazza Vittorio Veneto. Was built in 1846, thanks to Bishop Di Marco, as a water reserve for inhabitants of Sasso Caveoso. It has 15m deep and was part of an ingenious water collection network of channels to catch rainwater and water of aquifer close to Castle Tramontano
- Chiesa Santa Lucia alla Fontana
Was originally founded in 10th century as a convent, the church has a very nicely decorated interior. It worth a short visit.
- Take Via Lucana cand go to Castello Tramontano
It is up on the hill next to the city center, a 15th-century castle. This unfinished castle was owned by Count Tramontano. Before finishing it, the count was killed by the peasants in from of the church. The used to sleep with all the new brides in their wedding night. Well, this thing wasn’t that pleasing for the villagers. The castle is currently closed for restoration.
- Continue on Via Lucana and delight yourself with an amazing view in Piazzetta Pascoli
It is an amazing place for the panoramic view over Sassi.
- Santa Lucia alle Malve
Is a rupestrian church in Matera, an ancient monastery that welcomed Benedictine-order nuns between the 8th and 16th centuries.
Mostly shepherds and nomads had lived in some of the natural grottos of this territory since the Paleolithic, but when the iconoclast persecutions began, religious communities started building places of worship underground, escaping the ban on the veneration of images. Inside Santa Lucia alle Malve – located near Sasso Caveoso – you can still see many mural paintings, mostly from the 13th century, with a wide range of holy representations including the Nursing Madonna, Saint Michael the Archangel, Saint Gregory, Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastica.
- Madonna de Idris
Was carved out of the rock face and partly rebuilt after the barrel vault collapsed some time before the beginning of the 14th century. A small bell-tower rises from the building, lending balance to the complex. The church continued to function as a place of worship on certain feast days, until the 1940s. The interior is extremely plain, with no architectural features worthy of note. The walls of the crypt were once richly covered with frescoes, some of which deteriorated through lack of attention.
- Storica Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario
A glimpse of life in Old Matera, you will have to visit this Sasso. You will see a reproduces room of the old time.
- Chesa de San Pietro Caveoso
Dates from the late 13th – early 14th century, although the original building goes back to 1218. It is regarded as one of the major religious points of reference in Matera both for the size of the parish and the strength of its assets. The Baroque façade is decorated with pilaster strips that frame the portals and end in acroteria, and the niches contain statues of Saints. This place of worship has undergone a good many alterations and restructurings over the course of the centuries and has lost many of its original structural characteristics.
- Casa Noha
Is an exhibition Hosted in several rooms of a 16th-century family home, it relates the sometimes painful social history of the town and its Sassi, warts and all. The presentation is made using films projected onto various walls and lasts approximately 20 minutes.
- Domo de Matera
Is in the highest place of the city. The flat and simple exterior of the Cathedral is in dramatic counterpoint to the colorful Baroque excess within. The walls and columns of the Cathedral are painted light blue with opulent gold trim and the nave is lined with chapels on both sides. The flat ceiling over the nave is painted with bright murals.
The Cathedral offers an amazing view over Sasso Barisano.
- Chiesa San Piero Barisano
It is a rupestrian church located in Sasso Barisno that has a Romanesque façade and Baroque style in the inside. There are 7 altars. A series of frescoes and a crypt with the ossuary.
- Chiesa San Giovanni Battista was built in early 13th century, is a great example of medieval, Romanesque architecture.
What to eat?
The cuisine of Matera and Basilicata, in general, is based on simple, prepared seasonal dishes that use the region’s own agricultural products.
Meats, vegetables, homemade pasta (orecchiette) topped with tomato sauce, broccoli, cardoncelli mushrooms, cheese (pecorino and caciocavallo), extra virgin olive oil and of course bread of Matera IGP (ideal for the typical tomato bruschetta, with cream and wild onions peppers bran) are the basis of Matera dishes.
Among the specialties: Pignata, made from sheep meat, vegetables, herbs, cooked in a clay pot in the wood oven; the Ciallèdd made with stale bread, potatoes, onions, herbs, eggs and turnips that have taken the place of the flowers (the asfadeli) of the original recipe; the Crapiata based on legumes (spelled, chickpeas, lentils, grass peas, peas, beans), wheat and potatoes. All with red decided (Aglianico and primitive) and fragrant white (greek, Muscat).
After we have visited this Italian town sculpts in stone, remains in our hearts.
Beautiful small houses, amazing view, night and lights of the living, pulsating, warm town. Narrow alleys are teeming with shops selling artistic plaster ornaments- decoration typical for Matera and other Italian specialties. Charming old town seduces pedestrians with a sweet scent of perfect black espresso or cappuccino.
You should visit it! It’s really worth it!