Defined by Unesco as the “the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region” and declared a World Heritage in 1993, Matera is the second regional capital of Basilicata.
Why you should visit Matera
Matera is one of a kind, a place you should see at least once in your life. It is enchanting and enchanted, in other words: unique. I will prove it to you, but you have to give me at least one day, as the light hitting this city will reveal a different mood hour after hour.
If you ask a sailor if he gets bored of the see, he will answer no, as the sea is always different. There is a boat here, then a wave there and then again another boat. To me, this perfectly applies to Matera, with the difference that the city remains still, but the light dances on the surfaces to create the impression that there is a wave just round that corner appearing and disappearing in a few seconds.
So, come with me for this 24-hour journey.
How to arrive
Imagine you have travelled by plane and have landed in Napoli or Bari or even Rome. you have rented a car, that’s the best way to reach Basilicata, and have left in the morning to come to Matera. Maybe you have had a quick lunch in Campania or Basilicata or Apulia, and have finally reached Matera in the early afternoon. In the new part of the city you will find parking spaces along the streets. If they are delimited in white, they are free, while you have to pay (generally 0,70/ 1 euro) if they have blue lines. But you can also choose a private parking lot.
First, you might consider to join one of the many guided tours that the city has to offer. And I really recommend to do it first thing first as it is easy to get lost. Well, you can always understand where the main points are, as the Cathedral is visible and so are the several Belvedere. But if you are looking for a specific house, believe me, you might get crazy as the narrow streets of Matera have no rules, no clear direction, and even Google Map is not able to tell you how to reach that souvenir shop you are looking for!
Join an organized tour
The tours organized by the tourist office cost 20 euros included the entrances to a house and few other buildings of interest. There are other private companies that will approach you as soon as you arrive. They all provided certified guides, so you can trust them, but the price can be a bit less: generally 12/15 euros. Do not forget to bargain, especially if you are a large group or a family with children. You might receive a couple of euros discount that you can invest in an ice-cream! So, put that coins back in the pocket, we will use them later. Ready for the tour?
The Sassi (cave dwellings) are of a strong bright shade of grey. They almost reflect the light that hits overwhelmingly.
The tour will start from the upper part of the city, and will stop in one of the many belvedere.
You will learn that the ancient city is divided into two main districts: Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano. You will immediately notice a long street, Via delle Beccherie, which divides the two Sassi and where you will return at night for a surreal walk. The name comes from becco, beak in Italian, and recalls that of the beccaio, butcher. This was in fact the street of the butchers.
Stop at the beautiful Cathedral
Maybe you will have the opportunity to visit the Cathedral. If you are planning your own visit, you need to book in advance the Cathedral entrance, due to Covid-19 precautions. The official agency to book it is here.
The Cathedral is a celebration of the Baroque style inside, hosting paintings, frescoes and a beautiful Nativity, while outside it is in the so called Romanico Pugliese, Apulian Romanesque.
While descending down the narrow streets to explore the cave, you will understand how the houses were built and why the city developed in vertical.
Enter one of the ancient homes
Houses where all carved in the rocks, conceived as a hole where the different rooms were located one after the other. People used to live here together with their animals and there were no bathrooms but just a hole used as loo. You can now understand that the conditions where really bad and the population was extremely poor. But when in the 1950s the Italian government decided to clear out the Sassi promising its inhabitants a home with bathroom, the people of Matera struggled as for them the community they lived in was more important than their conditions.
Life, in fact, was all outside their front doors. Your neighbour was more important than your brother because of their proximity as moving from a side of the city to another was not easy. You will find yourself gasping while walking here. Imagine doing it while transporting food or wood for your home.
The entrance to these houses is 2 euros each, but generally one is included in the guided tours.
The light on the city is still strong, it is hot but the wind will never leave you, so the tour will some how be pleasant. And now that it is over, it is time to invest the money you have previously saved. I have only one tip: ice cream.
Time for a break
My favourite gelateria is I Vizi degli Angeli in Via Ridola 36, one of the main streets in the central upper part of the old city. As a lactose intolerant I was amazed on how great the dark chocolate and the coconut flavours were. Creamy, not too sweet, just perfect.
Here you are close to Museo Ridola, Chiesa del Purgatorio and Palazzo Lanfranchi. Maybe you can visit one of these attractions and save the rest for the next day.
Time to go back to the belvedere. The sunset has started and soon the light will be provided by moon, stars, restaurants and pale city lights. If you want to eat here, you need to book a lot in advance. I was suggested to eat at the restaurant la Cola Cola. I tried in two different days but it was impossible.
Enjoy a traditional dinner
Instead, I went to dinner in the new part of Matera and it was really good. Here you have to try Peperoni Cruschi, dried and fried capsicum peppers generally served with salted codfish, eggs or even as pasta topping.
And when the night comes…
After dinner, it is time to descend again the Sassi and literarily walk without a destination. Get lost. And try to understand the nature of this ancient settlement. How do you feel, knowing that here people have done exactly what you are doing now during a war, in the Middle Age, before or after a crusade. You are retracing a path that has been signed by your ancestors over and over and over.
It is not a surprise if this city is the favourite set of many film directors. The latter has seen the 007 James Bond fighting against crime during the day, and maybe eating peperoni cruschi at night. Time to confess, Mr Bond!
It’s night. Time to sleep. Maybe in one of the many BB of the ancient city. The darkness has now become the protagonist, but the silent leaves space to the many people coming here for a late drink from the nearest villages and cities. Many youngs gather and chat outside pubs and bars. I didn’t find it noisy though, as there aren’t cars, you won’t hear loud music and locals are really respectful.
The next morning, it’s oh so quiet
When the new day is about to approach, try to wake up before Matera wakes up. The darkness will slowly leave for a whitish dawn. In a few hours the light will be so strong that it will be difficult to stand. It’s life coming back again. People will go back to work, shops will slowly reopen. You might meet someone cleaning or collecting the garbage. It’s time for a first coffee, and then a sweet. Matera is ready to welcome other tourists, other families other lovers.
People change everyday, Matera remains there, unaltered, undiminished, the same yet new and different.
To sum up
Maybe this is the reason I try to return there every year. It is now time to leave, maybe for another location in Basilicata. Knowing that if someone will propose you: “hey, shall we visit Matera next year?”, with a subtle smile you will immediately answer: “sure, let me bring you there”.