An introduction to the unique town of Matera
Matera is often described as ‘unique’, ‘memorable’ and a ‘must-see’. It has a kind of raw beauty that, at the risk of sounding cliché, must be seen to be believed. We spent two days in Matera and fell in love with this very unique city.
Firstly you need to understand the city has two distinct faces. The new part of town that lies above the ravine. Its grand boulevard Via Del Corso stretches through the centre and is lined with museums, shops, restaurants and several churches.
The second area is the Sassi District. The Sassi helped Matera be named as the European Capital of Culture in 2019. This part of Matera is a collection of former cave dwellings that were carved into the the sides of the ravine.
The Sassi District is further divided into two areas: Sasso Barisano, the more developed of the two, and Sasso Caveso. The latter is more rustic and less ‘built up’ and is home of several unique churches. One is Chiesa dei Santi Pietro e Paolo and it sits on the edge of a ravine. It’s difficult to look at it and not think it’s real!
Matera in recent times
Until the 1950s, families lived in slum-like conditions in the Sassi. Think overcrowding, families living with animals and malaria. In 1952, the government passed a law requiring the families to leave the Sassi and move into housing in the town above.
You can visit a refurbished cave dwelling to see how the families used to live. We visited Casa grotta del Casalnuovo in Sassi Caveso which 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 into the living conditions from only 60 years ago.
Even being there, it is difficult to comprehend that people lived in such squalid conditions not that long ago.
How to spend two days in Matera
- Go back in time by wandering around the Sassi District and get lost. With cars only permitted along one road and only open to locals, you pretty much have the streets to yourself. Considering its history, the roads and laneways can only be described as a maze. 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 town’s restaurants. Many of the restaurants have been converted from former cave dwellings, providing a unique experience,
- 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 you’ll likely be walking a lot.
- If at all possible, plan on spending two days in Matera. The city has a very different feel when it transforms at night when the lights come on.
- 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 stairs and limited shade. Visiting during the hottest time of day is best avoided. Even though our visit was during 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, knowing some Italian 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 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. There is also a taxi rank. On foot, the walk takes about 15 minutes.
Travelling to Matera on a Sunday or Public Holiday
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. We were travelling on a Sunday and the 1.5 hour bus ride turned into a 2+ hour bus ride through several towns on its way from Bari to Matera. And this was after a four hour layover in Bari waiting for the regional bus.
If you’re taking 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. Good luck!
More Photos of Matera
Staying in Matera
There are many options when staying in Matera, ranging from high end luxurious hotels to more basic B&B accommodation. For our two days in Matera, 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 went out of their way to make sure we had a great stay. This included driving us to the train station on the day we left.
The room was very large, with the bed located in the loft. The small balcony provided amazing views of the Sassi and the Cathedral. The apartment also had a kitchen (though we ate out for each meal). The B&B’s attached restaurant is 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 told us about 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.
Click on the following link to see posts of the rest of the 10 day trip to Puglia
Have you visited Matera? Did I miss any highlights? Leave me a comment below!