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Photo Essay Part 1: Matera, Italy – Stepping into the Past

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.

Matera Italy: Extraordinary town - Stepping into the past

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.

Matera, Italy: Map of Basilicata

Source: Tourizm Maps

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.

Matera Italy: Murgia and view of Sasso Caveoso

View of Sasso Caveoso

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.

Matera, Italy - Map of the Sassi

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.

Matera Italy: Sasso Barisano

Sasso Barisano

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.

Matera Italy - San Pietro in Caveoso

San Pietro Caveoso

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.

Matera Italy: Church of San Pietro Caveoso

Right on the edge!

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.

Matera Italy: San Giovanni in Monterrone

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.

Matera, Italy: Abandoned caves

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.

Matera Italy: Caves Deemed Unfit

Caves still deemed unfit

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.

Matera Italy: Caveoso New and Old

New town on top of the old

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.

Matera Italy: Wedding in the Sassi

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?

Matera Italy: View from the Murgia Materana Park

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

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  1. Looking forward to part 2!

  2. I visited Matera a few years ago. It is so true what you say in the first few lines. There really is no place like it that instills such sensations. There was also a wedding taking place in town when I visited. I would love to go back and have more time in Matera.

    • Thanks for stopping by the blog. I think many people underestimate Matera, myself included, as I had originally planned on just a day trip. There is more to see than you could possibly cover in just a day or two. The next time we are back, it would be fun to hike in the Murgia National Park.

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