Perhaps one of the best kept secrets of Italy and the Basilicata region is the ancient and remote city of Matera. Considered to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on earth, this area is an enchanting blend of the old world customs and new world delights.
FESTIVAL & EVENTS
Matera is a city steeped in tradition. For that reason, one of the city’s biggest celebrations is the Sagra della Madonna della Bruna which takes place every July. It is a week-long festival with roots tracing back to as early as the fourteenth century. Colorful floats gather to participate in the Procession of the Shepherds in which the image of the Virgin Mary is carried throughout the city. The procession draws to a close with the crowd descending on one of the main floats and tearing the structure to pieces and destroying it. The event ends with a highly anticipated and colorful display of fireworks that light up the night sky. Also during the celebrations, colorful light displays are set up in the streets and squares of the city center.
Another event held in July is the Festival Duni, which is a concert series dedicated to eighteenth century composer Egidio Romualdo Duni, who was a Matera native.
OUTDOOR IN MATERA
One of the more unique activities in Matera is touring the Palombaro Lungo. Located under the city’s main square, the enormous cistern is almost fifty feet deep and can hold more than 1,000,000 gallons of water. The cistern was originally created as a reserve for residents of Sasso Caveoso via an inventive and complex water collection system from caves and tunnels that collected rainwater. The guided tour of the cistern goes about fifty-five feet deep underground to allow tourists to see firsthand one of the biggest tanks dug into the rock of Matera. Palombaro Lungo draws visitors from across the globe and is so revered amongst locals it is often referred to as the water cathedral.
A bridge over the ravine connects the Sassi to a grass covered hillside sprinkled with dozens of small Paleolithic caves from thousands of years ago. The area is more commonly known as Murgia National Park or Parco Regionale Archeologico Storico Naturale delle Chiese Rupestri. Inside the park, travelers can admire historic cave churches filled with remarkable frescoes and Romanesque architectural details. The area is home to more than just caves, with glimpses of unique plant and animal species throughout the park.
Additionally, the area around Matera is filled with several other parks and natural areas. Examples include the San Giuliano Regional Reserve, which is known for its ancient San Giuliano Lake. Activities that can be enjoyed in nearby parks and reserves include bird-watching, hiking, trekking, climbing, and archery.
INDOOR IN MATERA
While much of ancient Matera is fascinating to behold from various lookout points in the Sassi or from the top of Civita Hill, there are many hidden treasures tucked away in the interior of the city.
Casa Noha is a sixteenth century cave dwelling exhibition that educates visitors through an almost half hour multimedia exhibit on life in the Sassi over the centuries. Though the people’s trying history is often sorrowful, it will give you a better appreciation for the area and all that it has overcome in recent years. There’s also no better way to relive the area’s long past from pre-history to the modern era.
Although Matera has literally dozens of churches with simply stunning architecture, perhaps one of the most picturesque and visited is that of Matera’s Cathedral. Visitors must climb to the highest point atop Civita Hill to tour the Romanesque cathedral. Though the cathedral has seen years of renovation in its chapels, some seventeenth century frescoes, two twelfth century frescoed crypts, and a thirteenth century fresco of Madonna della Bruna with child remain. The cathedral’s Romanesque-Apulian exterior is magnificent and is complemented by a large, gorgeous rose window in the front center. The interior is in a cross layout with three naves and has a bell tower that is over one hundred seventy feet high. Matera’s Cathedral offers one of the best views of the sprawling rock city below.
Also not to be missed is the rock church of Madonna de Idris. The church exterior is literally carved out of the rock face. There are some remnants of frescoes on the walls that were damaged by time and weather, but they are still quite amazing to behold in person. The church gets its name from a set of water pitchers known as idrie that sit on either side of a Madonna and child painting on the main altar.
Other beautiful churches include the Church of San Francesco d’Assisi, the Church of Purgatory, the Church of San Giovanni Battista, and the Church of San Domenico.
In addition to its other cave buildings, Matera is naturally home to a cave auditorium called Casa Cava. Highly regarded for its impressive natural acoustics, the auditorium is often a venue for local concerts, music performances, and other cultural activities.
As you wander throughout modern day Matera and the Sassi, be sure to stop in some of the unique shops that showcase local craftsmanship in everything from homemade furniture, lamps, ceramics, and jewelry to miniature detailed reproductions of the Sassi.
Viewing the city of Matera seems to invoke an unmistakable spirit of adventure in all who visit. But perhaps one of the best spots to take in your surroundings is at the Belvedere Murgia Timone. This is where the crucifixion scene from the movie The Passion of the Christ was filmed and offers simply stunning views of all of Matera and the neighboring ravine and Murgia National Park. This is a wonderful photo opportunity for the family to capture a truly once in a lifetime experience.
A favorite of both locals and visitors are the many dining establishments found inside the Sassi caves. These restaurants have a magical atmosphere complete with handmade décor, candlelight, and deliciously authentic regional cuisine. Mealtime in Matera is a leisurely activity, so plan to enjoy some family bonding over mouthwatering and locally made cuisine.
Now that you have appreciated the modernization of the Sassi caves, take the family to Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario so they can appreciate the history of where they have just walked. This cave abode mirrors what most homes in the Sassi looked like prior to their people’s relocation in the 1950s. The display includes one bed with a mattress stuffed with corn leaves, antique furniture and tools of that period, a weaving loom, a dedicated room for manure of the animals such as pigs and donkeys that stayed in the cave, as well as a small fireplace and kitchen area. It is a solemn experience to see what life was like in the area before its revitalization in the late twentieth century.
Parents can encourage their children’s sense of wonder as they travel through the beautiful archways, winding alleys, and labyrinth of pathways of the city that are alongside historic churches, tiny courtyards, and hundreds of stone stairs. This is a great activity for the children and gives them firsthand knowledge of what it was like for a child their age to travel through the ancient dwellings through the centuries.
A great place to visit with young travelers is the Tramontano Castle, which dates back to the sixteenth century. Though the castle was never completed, it is this aspect that makes the monument interesting. Throughout the year, the castle hosts some of the city’s concerts and other cultural events.
GROUP AND PRIVATE PARTIES
Adults often enjoy congregating at one or more of the cave-side wine bars in the Sassi. It is a wonderful way to engage in conversation amongst good music and unique art and décor. Be sure to try the locally grown and produced Matera wine or Basilicata’s Aglianico del Vulture wine.
UNIQUE EXPERIENCES IN MATERA
Matera is filled with extremely unique and distinctive experiences not found anywhere else in Italy, thanks to the charm and history of the rock dwellings of the Sassi. The Sassi area is divided into two main parts, Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano. While both areas have narrow alleyways, dozens of stairways, and charming archways and courtyards, that is where the similarities end. Sassi Caveoso is preserved so well that it is an authentic depiction of life before the 1950s, so much so that the rock is beginning to crumble is some places. Sassi Barisano is a revitalized and refurbished part of the ancient town that now holds boutique hotels, fine dining, and quaint shops.
Touring the Sassi by day is very moving, but to walk amongst the streets and lookout points when darkness falls is to leave visitors truly speechless. Once dusk arrives, the sky turns a deep blue and the Sassi warmly glow with lights representative of the new life present and thriving there.
In a country filled with amazing places, Matera truly stands out. Nothing quite compares to breathing in the city’s millenary history while exploring the rupestrian churches or cave dwellings. Whether you are interested in history, art, or culture, a vacation to Matera is said to leave a lasting impression on all travelers.
"Derek and I really enjoyed ourselves. I am glad that we didn't pack all of our days full of tours. It gave us time to look around the city
In summary, it was a GREAT trip! I am very happy that we went through you to plan everything for us. Everything went as planned with no surp