A quick guide to visiting Matera
Matera is often described as ‘unique’, ‘memorable’ and a ‘must-see’. As a person who is rarely short of words, I can easily say that Matera is indeed indescribable, with a kind of raw beauty that, at the risk of sounding cliché, must be seen to be believed. It is a city with two distinct faces. The new part of town above the ravine, with a grand boulevard, Via Del Corso, several churches, museums shops and restaurants, all with a modern-ish feel. The second, the Sassi District and the reason Matera has been named the European Capital of Culture 2019, is a collection of former cave dwellings, carved into the the sides of a ravine. The Sassi District is further divided into two areas. Sasso Barisano, the more developed of the two Sassi, and Sasso Caveso, the more rustic and less ‘built up’ area and home of several unique churches, including Chiesa dei Santi Pietro e Paolo sitting on the edge of a ravine.
Until the 1950s, Matera’s Sassi Districts were inhabited by families living in slum-like conditions (think overcrowding, families living with animals, malaria and disease ridden). In 1952, the government passed a law requiring the families to leave the Sassi and to move into housing in the town above. To get an idea of the former living conditions, you can visit a refurbished cave dwelling set up as a representation of the way people used to live. We visited Casa grotta del Casalnuovo in Sassi Caveso which cost 3 euros and is made up of several rooms over three levels. The information is presented in English and Italian (one follows the other) played through a series of speakers in the cave. Though a guided tour through the two Sassi Districts would be ideal, visiting a cave dwelling provides a less expensive option while still gaining some insight as to the conditions people were living in only 60 years ago. Despite visiting a cave dwelling, it is difficult to comprehend that people lived in those conditions not that long ago.
Things to do in Matera
- Go back in time by wandering around the Sassi District without a map and get lost. With cars only permitted along one road and only open to locals, you have the streets to yourself and room to explore the never-ending maze that are the back streets of the Sassi. I recommend having a map of Matera saved onto google maps (on your smart phone or tablet) so that when you eventually need to find your way back to your starting point, you’ll be able to do it!
- Enjoy regional cuisine in one of the many restaurants, many having been converted from former cave dwellings
- Stay overnight, preferably in a converted cave dwelling, and wander Matera’s cobblestone streets after dark as the Sassi District is transformed when lit up at night
- Visit the Chiesa dei Santi Pietro e Paolo sitting on the edge of a ravine along with several of Matera’s other historic buildings
- Find one of the many vantage points for indescribable views of the Sassi District. My favourite spots for viewing Sassi Barisano were along Via Duomo or outside the Matera Cathedral
- Stroll along Via Del Corso in the newer part of the city with (or without) a gelato for people watching
Tips for visiting Matera
- The Sassi District is a maze of cobblestone streets with lots of stairs. Make sure to wear comfortable shoes because it’s likely you’ll be doing a lot of walking
- If at all possible, stay overnight in Matera because it transforms at night when lit up
- You may be approached by unregistered tour guides soliciting tours. You can politely refuse their services and they will likely move onto the next group of people
- The Sassi District can be quite hot and with lots of stair climbing, visiting during the hottest time of the day is best avoided. Even though our visit was in the beginning of October, it was quite hot during the middle part of the day
- While many people can speak English and you’ll be able to get by without knowing Italian, learning some Italian before visiting can be very helpful. Being able to communicate with local people and hearing their stories in their own language was a highlight of our trip
Getting to Matera
While Matera is fairly isolated, it is often included as part of a longer trip to the Puglia region. The easiest way to visit Matera is by car, though it is also accessible by public transport. Located just across the border from Puglia in the Basilicata Region, Matera is easily reached from Bari via the regional train line Ferrovie Appulo Lucane. The regional train, which is different to the national Trenitalia train service, departs from a station adjacent to Bari’s main train station – Bari Centrale. The trip from Bari to Matera takes approximately 1.5 hours and the train station is located next to Matera’s new town. To reach the Sassi District from the train station, there is a local bus service in the piazza a couple minutes from the train and bus terminal and there is also a taxi rank. On foot, the walk takes about 15 minutes.
Be careful if travelling to or from Matera on a Sunday or public holiday. The regional train does not run on these days and is replaced by a bus. This happened to us and the 1.5 hour bus ride turned into a 2+ hour bus ride through several towns on its way from Bari to Matera, after a four hour layover in Bari waiting for the regional bus. To catch the bus, exit Bari Centrale onto Via Giuseppe Capruzzi. The bus stop is on the same side of the street as the train station and is across the street from Tabaccheria Di Nacci Giuseppe. The bus stop is labelled by a fairly indiscreet sign.
Staying in Matera
There are many options when staying in Matera, ranging from high end luxurious hotels to more basic B&B accommodation. We stayed in a converted cave dwelling located at the bottom of Sassi Barisano called B&B Sax Barisano. The owners were very friendly and couldn’t have gone out of their way more to ensure we had a great stay including driving us to the train station on the day we left. The room was very large with the bed located on the second level loft. The apartment had a balcony with amazing views of the Sassi and the Cathedral and a had a kitchen (though we ate out for each meal). The B&B also had a attached restaurant where breakfast is served each morning. We ate dinner there one night and had a lovely meal, the owner gave us (too much) wine and he told us the history of the cave, the restoration and life in general in the Sassi. I would highly recommend it as a central location in the heart of Sassi Barisano.
Have you visited Matera? Did I miss any highlights? Leave me a comment below!