Matera is the third oldest city in the world, being continuously populated since Palaeolithic age. Known as “the city of stones”, its history is really charming and will convince you to book a visit. Let’s discover it together!
Excavated in the rock, Matera is formed by a net of caves inhabited since Palaeolithic age.
Matera’s stones are, in fact, an urban settlement created from the different civilisation forms following one to another through the years, starting from the Neolithic villages.
Still during the 50s, the decline situation faced by its inhabitants was not known to the rest of the country: the city was hiding a poor society, with diffused malaria and families living inside the caves together with their animals.
Those worrying circumstances were exposed by Carlo Levi, an Italian-Jewish writer, painter and activist, in his book “Cristo si è fermato ad Eboli” (Christ stopped at Eboli):
“In these dark holes, with walls cut out of earth, I was seeing the beds, and some pieces of miserable furniture, and some ragged clothes hanged up to dry. On the floor were laying dogs, sheep, goats and pigs. Every family has, usually, only one of those caves as a full house, and they sleep all together, men, women, children and animals. This is how twenty thousand persons. I saw plenty of children. [...] But the majority were having big, bloated, enormous stomachs and yellow faces marked by malaria.”
That is why in the 50s a national law ordered the evacuation, obliging the citizens to move to modern buildings, which are actually constituting the “new city”.
The old town, though,has been progressing quite considerably in the last 70 years.
Today it is a place where to walk in the sun, admire the architecture fall in love and get an idea of all the main beauties to discover in the south of Italy.
In 1986 it has started its recovery phase, and the 17 October of 2014 was awarded as European Capital of Culture for 2019.
From being “the shame of Italy” to being the first city in the south of the country to receive this award.
A big value redemption: what in the past were run-down pits are now charming residences and polished shops.
Became popular among Italian tourists in the last ten years, this ancient city still remains partially unknown for the foreign visitors, but from next year this status will probably change.
This is the right moment to take the chance to visit this beautiful city and its solid tradition when tourism gets the better of it.
It is not the easiest place to reach, even though since it has been declared UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993, the number of visitors has still been increasing.
Matera is not yet linked to the National Railways net, but this apparent inconvenience can become a sort of advantage: the city can be visited even together with Apulia, its neighbour.
Bari train station is located at 60km from Matera and from there the city it is connected by the so-called Ferrovie Appulo Lucane, the narrow gauge railways.
From the Central station in Matera, you can reach the stones in 15 minutes by feet or taking the bus "Linea Sassi" (Stones Line).
The closest airport is the one of Bari Palese (approximately 60 km).
By car, you have different alternatives, according to your starting point:
• from the Thyrrenian coast: take the highway Salerno - Reggio Calabria and follow the guidelines for Potenza. Then head towards Metaponto on SS 407 route, "Basentana", until you won’t reach the directions for Matera in the surroundings of Ferrandina Scalo;
• from the Adriatic coast: take the highway Bologna-Taranto and exit at Bari Nord. Head towards the industrial area and then to Altamura-Matera;
• From Calabria and Sicily: take the highway Reggio Calabria-Salerno. Exit at Sibari and head on SS 106 Jonica route to Taranto. Take the exit for Matera, near Metaponto;
• From Salerno: the easiest way is to overpass Taranto, going ahead on SS 106 Jonica route until the exit Matera, near Metaponto.
By bus, you can choose between several lines (Flixbus, Italobus, Marino, Marozzi and Liscio) according to your starting point.
When you arrive , the first thing to do before starting the visit to the stones (which here are not literally meant as rocks, but as districts of the city) is to enjoy a coffee in the small square Piazzetta Giovanni Pascoli.
In this way, you can enjoy the atmosphere of the city.
Casa Noha (Noha House)
The entry gate in Matera is represented by Casa Noha, donated to FAI, the International Trust for Italy, in 2004 by the families Fodale and Latorre, whose ancestors lived in this residence.
The house wants to tell the city and its Stones’ history with an interactive exposition in a renovated environment which still reminds of the city’s origins.
An example of the private Stones’ architecture, with its tuff structure, owned by the noble family Noha, it shows all the beauty of these buildings.
To get lost in the Stones area
The ancient areas of the city includes two Stones - Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso – and the best way to discover both of them is by feet.
You can fully enjoy your visit having a walk among the tight alleys looking like labyrinths and the nice yards full of sparkling-green cactus.
Going up on the old stone stairs, you can admire a gorgeous view, discovering all corners and crossing the great stone arches to find out about this ancient world.
Sasso Barisano has developed a lot, as the old caves has been beautifully renovated to create artistic, breath-taking spots, shops, hotels and traditional restaurants.
Sasso Caveoso, instead, really shows the life lived here until not that much time ago.
Due to security issues, a number of caves became recently inaccessible (so don’t try to overpass the fences), but you will still be able to glimpse the caves, mostly untouched from the 50s.
At the margins of Sasso Caveoso area, you can walk through the deserted caves and imagine how it was to live here some years ago.
It is a more crude side of the city, but for sure also the most charming one.
“Whoever sees Matera cannot help not to be touched, for its expressive and moving bruised beauty.”
A visit to Casa Grotta in Vico Solitario
Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario (literally “the Cave House in Lonely Alley) is an historical site which is really worth to see.
It is an exact copy of how people were living in those locations in the XVIII century, furnished as back then.
The whole family – composed of six persons on average – and animals such as donkeys, chickens and pigs were living together in this cave.
Cross the gorge
From the two Stones districts, you can see beyond the gorge ang glimpse a hill hosting small caves.
Those are the original Palaeolithic caves which make Matera so unique: old aggregates of houses dig just before a deep gorge, called "Gravina".
Just to put this in perspective: we are speaking of more than 7.000 years ago!
Visitors can actually cross the gorge to explore the caves and enjoy one of the best perspective panoramas of the city.
Take the stairs of the Saint Lucy Monastery, cross one of the rock bridges and then choose one of the alleys crossing the hill.
To fully enjoy the view, sunset and sunrise are the golden hours for this walk.
Don’t forget a bottle of water and avoid to choose the warmest hours of the day for this visit.
Discover the Cathedral
On the peak of Civita hill, in the highest point between the Stones, is located the Madonna della Bruna and Sant'Eustachio Cathedral.
In roman-Apulian style from the XIII century, it has recently been reopened, after a huge renovating project lasted 10 years.
This is one of the most interesting touristic sites in Matera.
The majestic and impressive structure will allow you to admire even more the fantastic view on Sasso Barisano.
Madonna de Idris, a small rocky church, also deserves a visit.
Visit the Musma – Contemporary Sculpture Museum
If you are passionate in art and contemporary sculpture, don’t miss the Modern Art Museum in Matera, located in a building from XVII century and beautifully renovated.
You will find it in S. Giacomo street and it will have a real emotional impact with its centuries-old rock spaces and its sculptures.
Taste Matera’s PGI bread
Matera is famous also for something else than the Stones: its bread!
Loaf-shaped, reminding stones and caves, it is made with local durum wheat semolina, starter yeast, water and salt following an ancient traditional recipe from the Naples Reign.
This leads to a unique taste and a delicious crunchy crust, perfect to combine with traditional cheese like caciocavallo podolico, goat cheese and cacioricotta cheese.
What to eat in Matera
Matera’s cuisine is very simple and includes plenty of vegetables and legumes, symbol of the farmers’ culture, such as black chickpeas, blue sweet peas, the Senise PGI peppers and the red eggplants.
If you love cold cuts, you will love the local sausage and the so called pezzente from Matera mountains, a particular kind of sausage made with the fattest pig parts.
Accommodation in Matera
The cosiest and most charming place to stay in Matera are b&b in the caves, in which you have several great options.
One of those is La Corte dei Pastori (literally: the shepherds’ Court) renovated with care, with a stone vault ceiling and a very simple furniture.
Matera is very warm, so we suggest to start visiting early in the morning to enjoy the city as your private museum.
The touristic calm of Matera won’t last for long, because in addition to the award as European Capital of Culture for 2019, it is also on the Lonely Planet list of the most visited cities in 2018.
In case you prefer to have a guide not to miss anything of this suggestive place, we really recommend you to book a guided tour through the Stones.