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Exploring Matera – the city of caves

Matera in Basilicata

Matera is probably the most unique place I’ve ever visited. It is absolutely breathtaking and awe-inspiring to visit a city that dates back to the Stone Age and is one of the oldest, continually inhabited cities in the world. I highly recommend a visit to Matera, the city of caves – there’s no other place like it.

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Where is Matera?

Many people (myself included, until my husband corrected me) think that Matera is in Puglia, due to its close proximity to the region and that Bari is the closest airport. But Matera is in Basilicata, the second smallest region in Italy. Most of Basilicata is made up of hills and mountains.

How to get to Matera

How to get to Matera of course depends on where you are coming from. We flew from London to Bari and then got a taxi to Matera, which cost €100. There is a bus, which we got on the way back and only cost €25 for the both of us, however it only runs at certain times of the day. You can hire a car from the airport, however make sure you’ve organised where you’ll be able to park it in Matera. The journey from Bari airport to Matera will take around 45 minutes to an hour, depending on traffic.

What’s the best month to visit Matera?

Matera’s tourism is not seasonal so you can visit Matera at any time of the year. If you’re not a fan of the heat then probably avoid visiting between June and September. In December there is a living nativity, which brings in a lot of tourism and is a really unique thing to experience.

Where to stay in Matera

I’d highly recommend staying in one of the Sasso areas of Matera. ‘Sasso’ means stone in Italian and ‘sassi’ is the plural, stones.

We stayed at Palazzo Del Duca, which is in Sasso Caveoso and was close to the cathedral. It dates back to the 14th century and is located in the Civita, which is the highest point of the city and where nobility used to live.

Our room was huge, beautifully decorated and very comfortable. The staff at the hotel were so lovely and very helpful. It was in a great location and easy to walk to all the main sights. I’d really recommend staying here and would definitely stay here again.

Bathroom and bedroom at Palazzo del Duca in Matera

Our room didn’t have a view, however that wasn’t really important to us. If you’re looking for a hotel room in Matera with a view, take a look at Hotel Sassi.

The history of Matera

The rocky plateaus full of caves, that you can see from the city, is called Murgia and the caves were first inhabited in the Palaeolithic age (the stone age), while later settlements show a number of significant stages in human history. The caves were abandoned in the 1400’s and people started moving in to the Civita in the 5th and 6th centuries.

UNESCO describes Matera as,”… the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem.”

The caves of Murgia in Matera

Rain is extremely important in Matera’s history and The Drop by Japanese artist Kengiro Azuma is a bronze statue that is symbolic of the city. People had private cisterns in their homes that collected precious rainwater, for non-drinking purposes. The municipality provided drinking water through water fountains and five huge public cisterns called the Palombari – which you can visit today.

Bronze statue of a raindrop by Japanese artist Kengiro Azuma

Matera was once known as ‘the shame of Italy’ because of the poverty, the overcrowding, and the shocking standards that people lived in. In the 1950’s over half the population lived within the Sassi and they were all evacuated and moved to more modern quarters – leaving it a ghost town.

Due to a government incentive, people leased the caves and started fixing them up – building homes, hotels and restaurants. And now Matera is a must-visit destination for tourists around the world.

In 1993 it was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and in 2019 it was the European Capital of Culture (along with Plovdiv in Bulgaria).

What to do in Matera

There is lots to do in Matera, however you only need around two to three days to see everything. We stayed two nights and felt it was enough time to see what we wanted to see. Here’s what I recommend doing in Matera.

Do a walking tour of the Sassi

Our hotel recommended a two-and-a-half-hour walking tour of the Sassi, run by Martulli Viaggi. It was really informative and gave us a lot of information about the history of Matera. As part of the tour we visited a cave house as well as the Convicinio Di Sant’ Antonio, which are four cave (Rupestrian) churches dating back to the 12th century. The churches have frescoes that date back centuries.

A fresco in the Convicinio Di Sant' Antonio in Matera

Visit Santa Maria de Idris

Santa Maria de Idris is one of the most iconic sights in Matera. A Rupestrian church dating back to the 15th century, it’s built on Monterrone, the cliff that lies in the middle of Sasso Caveoso. It also includes the oldest crypt, which is dedicated to San Giovanni in Monterrone. This crypt is home to the most beautiful frescoes, dating from the 12th to the 17th centuries and include John the Baptist and Peter the Aspostle.

If you want to visit, there is a small entry fee which you can pay at the door. Note that you are not allowed to take any photos or videos inside the church and crypt.

Santa Maria de Idris church in Matera

Visit a ‘casa grotto’

There are a few ‘casa grotto’ or ‘cave houses’ that you can pay to visit to see what a traditional home looks like. The one we visited was included in our walking tour. It was fascinating to see how families lived – even their livestock lived in their home with them!

A bedroom in a cave home in Matera

Visit Matera in miniature

A fun thing to do is to visit i Sassi in miniatura, which is located in Sasso Barisano in Via Fiorentini 82. It’s completely free to visit and is definitely worth spending 20 minutes to half an hour having a look around.

i sassi in miniature in Matera

Matera resident and artist, Eustachio Rizzi, spent three years building miniature versions of the Sassi. The craftmanship is amazing and so detailed. They also have a shop where you can purchase smaller pieces for your own home, which I believe are made by his children.

Matera in miniature

Visit San Pietro Caveoso

San Pietro Caveoso, also known as Chiesa dei Santi Pietro e Paolo (the church of Saints Peter and Paul) is located in Sasso Caveoso, quite close to Santa Maria de Idris. The initial construction of the church dates back to 1218 and it was once considered one of the major religious landmarks of Matera – because of the size of the parish and also for the wealth of its assets.

Chiesa dei Santi Pietro e Paolo in Matera

It’s beautiful inside with centuries old frescoes and also a stunning false ceiling of painted wooden planks which represent “The Christ who entrusts the future of the Church to San Pietro”, ” Madonna del Confalone “and” Conversion of Saint Paul “. The original ceiling was hidden in the eighteenth century.

The painted wooden ceiling of San Pietro Caveoso in Matera

Visit Mudesca – the Museum of the Excavation

We actually just stumbled upon this museum whilst we were walking around Sasso Barisano. For just €3 you can walk around three excavated areas and learn how the people of Matera used to live, collect water and preserve their food. It was very interesting and also doesn’t take very long to visit – 30 minutes is enough time to see and read everything.

Excavated area in the Mudesca museum in Matera

Explore the Palombaro Lungo

The Palombaro Lungo is a system of cisterns that were built to collect water for drinking water for the citizens of Matera. It is the largest cistern in the town and was man-made in the 16th century, with it being enlarged over the centuries as the population grew.

Palombaro lungo in Matera

It has a capacity of 5 million liters of water, with a depth of 16 meters and a length of 50 meters. It’s very irregular in shape due to it being built from various caves, which were then combined. The Palombaro Lungo was disused in 1927 as a national aqueduct was built. In 1991, whilst the municipality were carrying out some works, they decided to explore the disused cistern and now tourists can visit to see a part of history.

It costs €3 per adult to visit and takes around 15 – 20 minutes. Note that there are quite a lot of stairs and no accessible access. The Palombaro Lungo only opens at certain times during the day so check before you visit.

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There is lots to see and do in Matera, city of caves. I highly recommend putting this amazing city on your travel list – there really is no other place like it.

Matera the city of caves

Kirsty Marrins

Reader, writer, occasional runner, travel lover.

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