Matera, Italy is an extraordinary town that is so surreal that it feels like you have just stepped into the past. From the second you catch a glimpse of the Sassi District, the ancient and historic part of the town, you know there are few places on earth that offer you this same sensation.
The fact that the movie Passion of the Christ was filmed here is a testament to this and that was when I first heard about Matera. Surprised that setting of the movie was filmed in an actual town and not a set in Hollywood, it was on my “must-see” list.
For that reason, when we planned our trip Puglia, we also included Matera in our itinerary although it is in the region of Basilicata. However, it’s only about a two-hour drive from our bed and breakfast in Puglia.
Due to time constraints, we only stayed in Matera for a night but to fully explore attractions such as museums and churches in the Sassi as well as the Murgia Materana Park, a two to three day trip would be ideal.
We had an incredible time in Matera and here are some photos from our trip with some short commentary to share some interesting facts about this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Sights of Matera, Italy in a day
To give you an idea of the Sassi district, below is the map to get you oriented. The Sassi District is divided into two areas, Sasso Caveoso and Sassa Barisano. Both areas are spectacular yet different.
Sasso Barisano is the bigger of the two and is better kept, while Sasso Caveoso is less touched and have retained more of the feel of what the Sasso was like in the past.
We were staying in the Sasso Caveoso area near the Church of San Pietro Caveoso and this whole area is absolutely stunning. The Church of San Pietro Caveoso sits serenely on the edge of the cliff with its back to the Murgia Materana Park.
In the Sassi, there are two types of churches commonly found here, built up ones like San Pietro Caveoso and those dug into the rocks, better known as rupestrian churches, which date back to the Middle Ages. We were told that there are 150 rupestrian churches around this territory.
On the right side of the photo above, you see a stone peak and immediately below to the right, there is a door. That is an example of a rupestrian church that has been dug into the rock and this particular one is San Giovanni in Monterrone.
In Sasso Caveoso area, some caves, even to this day, are closed off as they have deemed unsafe. Matera, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993, was once known as The Shame of Italy, through Carlo Levi‘s writing, an anti-fascist who was exiled to live in Basilicata between 1935-1936.
During his exile, he recorded the appalling living conditions in Matera through his memoir “Cristo si è fermato a Eboli” (Christ Stopped at Eboli). Eboli is a town in the province of Salerno in Campania and from the title, it’s obvious what he was trying to get at.
The book got the nation’s attention and in 1950’s the government stepped in by relocating those living in the Sassi to the modern areas of the town.
Since declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, efforts have been made to restore some of the caves. However, some of them have been dug out too much that the floor or the roof of the house below, depending how you see it, is too unstable and difficult to restore.
Nevertheless, Matera has come along way from being called the “Shame of Italy” and has regained a new life that attracts many visitors who are here for a special occasion or like us, are curious to see this town in person.
If you plan on visiting Matera, I would recommend that you join a guided walking tour to fully get a sense of this mesmerizing town. However, make sure they are licensed guides as driving into the Sassi district, they are those who would stop your car and asked if you were interested in a tour.
They may offer ridiculously cheap rates but do you really want to take a tour with a company or group that pulls these tactics?
While Part 1 has given you some historical background to Matera, in Part 2, I’ll share some photos of a luxury cave hotel and cave restaurant as well as the main Piazza in the Sasso Barisano area. There was also an impromptu visit to see how shepherds make caciocavallo the old-fashioned way. Look out for Part 2 on Matera, Italy.
Photos were all taken by BrowsingRome