Visiting Matera was always on my mind since I first heard of Matera and the ‘sassi’, the stones, which are cave dwellings in rocks. Until the late 50ies, peasants families lived in these caves with many children and their animals to keep warm, without electricity, fighting malaria and other diseases when the Italian prime minister (back then De Gasperi) declared it the “disgrace of Italy” and forced the inhabitants of the sassi to relocate into a new town, built especially for this evacuation into modernism. But they wouldn’t be Materani if they would not be strong characters. The young generation is proud of their heritage and creative enough to invent and build a future for their city and youth.
Matera, once capital of Basilicata (or Lucania, until 1806) became an UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993, mainly because of the rediscovered underground water cisterns system. And in 2019, Matera will be the next European Capital of Culture! The Materani are ready to welcome visitors from around the world. They have renovated many caves and abandoned houses and rent rooms to visitors, sell handicrafts in caves, or revive Lucanian cuisine in cave restaurants.
This summer it was time to go. It is 300 km from Pizzo, and just a 3 h and 20 minutes drive. I was bitten by the travel bug for several reasons but that would be an entire separate post. So one Monday morning I sat in the car with my young companion, our son of 15 years. With a map of Southern Italy on his lap (yes, a real map!) where I had marked with a yellow marker our 4 day round trip (Pizzo Calabro, Matera, Polignano, Monopoli, Ostuni, Lecce, Otranto, Lido Pizzo and Gallipoli and back to Pizzo Calabro. Later we added Alberobello, but this is another story/post).
I was so totally in the adventure mood. But since we live in modern times, I thought better to book us some airbnbs (2 nights Matera and 2 nights Lecce). Our airbnb host in Matera was informed about our arrival around 1pm. My son’s favorite songs were playing over and over out of a speaker. The sun was shining and the car was running smoothly on the autostrada A3 which was just recently renamed to A2, autostrada del mediterraneo. With my marked Italy map I thought to be well prepared. And Angelo had said, “at Tarsia you head east on the superstrada”. Well, first little mistake. Instead of leaving A2 at Tarsia North, we left the autostrada at Tarsia (one exit too early) which led us on tiny little streets through picturesque villages and landscapes over the mountain. When we finally reached a larger road we made a pit stop at a deserted petrol station. Just two trucks and a bar, which reminded me of a road movie on Route 66 in a similar wild region. Actually, everything around us made me think of California. I kept talking to my son about California. Look, these yellow hills with that single green tree and that awesome blue sky. So California!
After a long drive we finally hit the Calabrian East Coast and drove North to Basilicata. It really was nice driving. You are not allowed to drive over 90 km/h most of the time and you are warned about 10 times before any speed control, most of them are signaling that they are inactive anyway, so you I felt very relaxed (far from the stress on a German Autobahn).
Finally we reached Metaponto, built by ancient Greeks, and turned left towards Matera. Our airbnb host had called me just now and I told her where we are and that we will probably reach her in around 45 minutes. Well, I did not foresee that we will get lost in Matera. We found the street with the free parking zone that she had recommended (thanks to Waze, my navigation app that we used for details in addition to the paper map). Regarding the very dark clouds and strong winds, and the predicted soon coming downpour, we left the car quickly and I run in the wrong direction - uphill - since I had that picture of Matera on a hill in my head … I wondered why my 12 minutes walking distance became suddenly 19 minutes. So I started asking locals. Well, the new town is higher than the old town and you have to walk downhill. When we reached Piazza Veneto the downpour hit us. We aquisted some colourful umbrellas and tried to make it to the Piazza del Duomo. We arrived totally soaked, and found our airbnb host’s son still waiting for us and leading us to the apartment. Wow! This apartment worth the two days I had spent to study all the available flats on airbnb. You must imagine that almost every third cave and every fourth abandoned house is now a lovely B&B. It is an incredible choice and very difficult to make a decision. They look all very stylish!
I am happy to share my accommodation tip. I deem it a fantastic choice, because of its location right in between the two ‘sassi’, the two stony hills, “Sasso Barisano” (direction towards Bari) and “Sasso Caveoso” (the oldest area), next to the Duomo on the top of it all with great views of ‘sasso Barisano’, easy to find (once you know), near the free parking zones. There is no need to sleep in a cave to have the cave experience. You can visit several cave houses with authentic interiors. You can visit a modern sculpture museums (MUSMA) stretched over several caves, and you can dine in cave restaurants. Actually, when I looked closely at photos of bedrooms in caves I got already claustrophobic by imagining the narrow space. And traveling with a teenager it was a good idea to have some space to relax in between exploring and at night.
Our host was awesome. I always would pick an airbnb superhost, but Maria Angela was a megahost. She also gave good tips for what to see and where to eat. Actually, you do not need to be prepared for Matera. Just stroll up and down the alleys, get lost and explore. It is all about getting the feeling of how life was back then.
Of course when in a hurry, you can just stop by to see Matera from across the canyon, from the site of the Murgia Timone. In the morning sun Matera will glow pinkish, and in the evenings you watch the skyline against the sun at sunset which is quite popular when first lights are on in the little windows and alleys. But to get the real feeling, I recommend to stay 2 days and 2 nights. Of course you can stay longer! This place is full of magic and has so much history to show and tell. Just stroll around and discover, it is like travelling back to our roots of mankind.
Matera is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world dating back to the Palaeolithic period. On the other side of the little canyon in the “Parco della Murgia Materana” you can visit simple Neolithic caves where people lived up to 9000 years ago. Matera is exciting and fun for every visitor, from child to archaeologist.
Matera is not “been there done that”. Looking at my photos, I remember the good grounded feelings the empty caves and the sparse rocky landscape gave me. Although mainly abandoned, I could feel the live of 1000 years. If you have lost your creativity or lost your inner center, go to Matera, stay at least two nights, and the stones will work their magic on you. One day I will be back.
See a brief video about Matera by the UNESCO here
The Guardian: “The miracle of Matera: from city of poverty and squalor to hip hub for cave-dwellers” (17.06.2017)
Accommodation: Al Duomo Relais, Recinto Annunziata Vecchia, 3 in 75100 Matera, phone +39 328 4261649 or +39 320 5740151, email: firstname.lastname@example.org (host and owner: Maria Angela P.)
Restaurant: L’Abbondanza Lucana, Via Bruno Buozzi, 11, 75100 Matera, phone: +39 0835 334574