Travel Itinerary for Matera: Exploring Southern Italy's Hidden Gem
Matera is one of the most unusual, interesting and singular tourist destinations in Italy. While located in the off-the-beaten-track region of Basilicata in southern Italy View Map, Matera is internationally famous for its extensive and ancient cave dwellings, known as sassi, that were inhabited as far back as Paleolithic times.
The term “cave dwellings” is a bit misleading in that while the original dwellings were fairly primitive, consisting of nothing more than natural caves or rooms hollowed out of the soft rock, later sassi were more elaborate and included stone structures with facades that extended outward from the cave rooms and that look much like traditional housing. Once scenes of squalor and stiffling poverty, many of the sassi have undergone extensive, often very stylish renovations and been converted into trendy B&Bs, hotels, galleries and restaurants in the spirit of sassi-meets-South Beach.
Some of the sassi have also been renovated and restored as stylish residences with all the trappings of modern life such as wireless internet connections, cable TV and air conditioning. However, not all the sassi have been renovated and there are long stretches of uninhabited sassi in various stages of arrested decay.
Primarily because of the sassi, Matera has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and is in the running to be the European Union’s Cultural Capital for the year 2019.
But there is much more to Matera than the sassi. My intrepid companion and wife, Julie, and I recently spent several very enjoyable weeks in Matera visiting museums and craft studios, attending concerts at the local musical conservatory and, of course, visiting centuries-old palazzi, churches and cathedrals. It is an incredibly friendly, engaging and, yes, safe city. The time we spent in Matera was one of our most relaxing and enjoyable Italian adventures in years.
Since Matera has approximately 58,000 inhabitants, it is not exactly a small town by Italian standards. While the city has some grungy areas with architecture evocative of some former Soviet bloc countries, the Centro Storico, the town’s historic center, is very attractive and has a small-town vibe with its tangle of winding streets and narrow alleys filled with people out and about, daily farmers’ market, bakeries, sidewalk caffes and gelaterias.
Because most of the places of interest to visit are in Matera’s relatively compact historic center and non-resident automobiles are prohibited in the historic center, visitors are probably best served by staying at a B&B or hotel in the historic center or within walking distance of the historic center. We stayed at La Corte B&B, a small, pleasant and accommodating B&B owned and managed by the charming Angela. La Corte is centrally located with convenient access to Piazza Sedile, restaurants and the Cathedral. But there are numerous B&Bs and boutique hotels at all price points in Matera's historic center.
Because of the arresting landscape and beautiful views of the sassi, Matera is a natural movie set and over thirty movies have been filmed in the city over the years. Numerous directors, starting with Pier Paolo Pasolini and Roberto Rossellini, have used Matera as a backdrop for their movies. More recently, Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie “The Passion of Christ” was shot almost entirely in Matera.
And of course, we ate and drank very well. The cuisine of Matera and Basilicata in general is based on simply prepared seasonal dishes that utilize the region’s own agricultural products, with cheeses, sausages or orecchiette (a type of pasta made from locally-grown durum wheat and shaped like little ears) often playing starring roles. Local red wines from Basilicata and close-by Puglia, like Aglianico del Vulture, Primitivo and Uva di Troia and refreshing whites like Greco Bianco and Malvasia Bianca di Basilicata, are worth lingering over. We found the food always fresh, tasty, well prepared and relatively inexpensive, only rarely paying more than 70 Euros (approximately $85) for a dinner for two with a bottle of wine.
During this time we heard very little English spoken anywhere as Matera is not on most American tourists’ radar screens. And my experience is that foreign travelers that do make the effort to visit Matera do so only as an interim stop on their way to more popular destinations like Rome, the Amalfi coast or various sites in Puglia or Sicily. They stay only a day or maybe two, visit the sassi and then are off with their Michelin guide books to Rome or wherever.
While Matera is a little isolated and difficult to reach, it is one of Italy’s most picturesque and inspiring destinations and well worth the effort. The following is a proposed three-day itinerary for those intrepid travelers that want to discover the singular charms of one of southern Italy’s most interesting cities.
Not included in this itinerary is the Museum of Torture, one of the local attractions we decided to skip.
This will be a day for touring so make sure you have comfortable walking shoes. Start the morning in true Italian fashion with a cappuccino or espresso and cornetto (Italian croissant) on the patio of the Vittorio Veneto Caffé with its umbrella-bedecked tables on Piazza Veneto, the social hub of the city (view activity on webcam). This tiny caffe is the place to be in Matera. From here you can view the ebb and flow of crowds of Materani on the piazza as they visit the nearby shops on their morning errands.
Afterwards, walk to the Matera Tourist Information Office a few doors down from the Caffé and get a walking map of the city. The office has cards, brochures, wine guides and maps of the city and is staffed by very helpful people conversant in English.
Armed with a walking map of the city, get set to view some interesting churches. Directly across the piazza from the caffé is the small, unassuming church of Santa Lucia alla Fontana. Originally founded in the 10th century as a convent, the church has a very nicely decorated interior done in muted colors. It’s well worth a quick visit.
From here, it is only a short walk past some interesting craft and clothing shops on Via San Biago to the Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista (Church of St. John the Baptist). Built in the early 13th century, the church is a great example of medieval, Romanesque architecture. The somber interior is nonetheless awe-inspiring with its high cross-ribbed, arched ceiling and a statue of St. John the Baptist at the rear of the church.
From here it’s not far to the much larger and imposing Chiesa di Sant’ Agostino (Church of St. Augustine) which has a commanding view over the sassi below. Built in the 16th century on the ruins of another older church, the interior of this monumental church has a series of chapels with interesting carved stone altars adorned with statues and paintings.
By now it’s time for lunch. A walk down Via d’Addorzio from Chiesa di Sant’ Agostino will take you directly to the front door of Le Botteghe. Don’t let the modest exterior dissuade you – inside is an airy and spacious series of brightly-lit dining rooms with high, arched, white-washed ceilings. It is an excellent restaurant that serves traditional dishes with some novel combinations and an outstanding wine list.
Without a doubt, the sassi are the main tourist attraction in Matera. The sassi are a labyrinth of houses, winding streets, narrow up-and-down alleys, ancient rock churches and inhabited as well as abandoned cave houses. Armed with a walking map, you can tour at your own leisure. But there is a lot to see and visitors can spend an entire day wandering the sassi, getting lost in the maze of alleys, stairways and dead ends. While there is nothing wrong with that, to really get the most out of your afternoon tour of the sassi, hiring a guide for your tour of the sassi is highly recommended. Guide hires can be arranged at the Tourist Information office on Piazza Veneto.
The highlight of a tour of the sassi are a series of ancient, Byzantine-style churches hewn out of the rock. Santa Maria de Idris is carved into a huge rock pinnacle perched on a rock ledge overhanging the ravine. Another rock church, Santa Lucia alle Malve contains 10th century frescoes. The small but dignified Church of San Pietro-Caveoso is free-standing and the only one of the churches not carved into the rock.
The Trattoria Lucana is a great place to relax and have dinner and wine after a tour of the sassi. The restaurant serves traditional dishes of Lucania (the old term for Basilicata) and is very popular with locals. Mel Gibson dined here so often while filming the “The Passion of Christ” that the owners dedicated a dish in his honor - “Fettucini alla Mel Gibson.” But don’t let that deter you. Friendly staff, expertly prepared regional dishes and an outstanding wine list make for a thoroughly enjoyable dining experience.
Plan to have your morning espresso or cappuccino at the Bar Tavola Calda or one of the other caffes on Piazza Sedile. While lingering over your coffee or espresso you will probably be serenaded by music from students practicing at the music conservatory on the side of the piazza.
Afterwards, you may want to walk to the offices of the Conservatorio of Music at the end of the piazza and check the Conservatory’s bulletin board for schedules of forthcoming concerts. They are typically free and most are held at convenient venues in Matera.
Afterwards, explore the city. Walk up Via Duomo off Piazza Sedile to the Cathedral, the highest point in the city. The relatively flat and simple exterior of the Cathedral is a dramatic counterpoint to the colorful baroque excess within. The walls and columns in the Cathedral are painted a light blue with opulent gold trim and the nave is lined with chapels on both sides. The flat ceiling over the nave is painted with bright murals. Unfortunately, the church was closed for restoration at the time of our visit but it was possible to view the interior through the open church doors.
The wall directly in front of the church has a commanding view of the sassi below.
Retrace your steps down Via Duomo to the gallery of sculptor Pietro Gurrado. Gurrado sculpts playful, whimsical statues out of tufa, the soft stone found throughout Matera. Even though the pieces are generally too large to tote back on the plane, the gallery is a real treat.
Cross Piazza Sedile to Via del Corso, the main street of Matera’s historic area, and visit the clothing and gift shops, bakeries, wine stores, salumerie and gelaterie that line the street.
Before lunch, retrace your steps on Via del Corso to Via Ridola and the small but very interesting Church of the Purgatorio on the right. The wooden entrance doors of the church are carved with skulls and crossbones. Another skull and crossbones along with a Latin inscription is etched into the stone above the entrance doors. While I couldn’t read the Latin inscription, I am sure it encompasses the stern admonitions of an exacting God. One lady we met told us that she found the church so frightening and intimidating that she was afraid to walk unescorted past the church when she was a little girl.
But inside the Church, it’s a different story. The small church has a four-leaf clover pattern with small chapels in each corner alcove. The church’s interior is a heavenly light blue color and colorful frescoes adorn the walls, a dramatic counterpoint to the skull-and-crossbones and stern admonitions posted on the exterior of the church. There appears to be a message here for the subtly-challenged.
There are several trattorie (small restaurants), many with outdoor patios, on Via Ridola just a short distance from the Church of the Purgatorio. Worth checking out are Pizzeria Van Gogh, Hemingway Restaurant and Caffé, La Forcagna Taverna and Shibuya Bar and Caffe.
A little further south on Via Ridola is Palazzo Lanfranchi, home of the Museum of Medieval and Modern Art (Museo di Arte Medievale e Moderna), which houses a small but spectacular collection of medieval, Renaissance and contemporary art. One of my favorites is a beautifully rendered 14th century, gold-colored sculpture of the Madonna on a throne holding the Christ child that is, well, simply divine. There are also several rooms containing drawings and paintings by Carlo Levi who was an accomplished artist as well as a famous writer. The exhibit highlights the changes in his style from the 1920’s to the late 1950’s.
If this impressive art collection was on display in a major city like Rome, Florence or Washington, DC, a visitor would be elbow-to-elbow with other spectators jostling for viewing positions. Here, you have this great art virtually to yourself.
One of the great pleasures of Matera is the evening promenade (called passeggiata) which takes place between 7 and 8 o'clock every evening. People appear as if on cue and simply begin strolling up and down the approximate quarter-mile between Piazza Sedile and Piazza Veneto. There are no cars to contend with, it’s just people out and about, strolling leisurely. Except for teen-agers, whose main interest it would appear is simply to flirt and chat one another up, this is a family event. Older couples dress up with sport coats or suits while young families are more casually dressed. Young couples may have one or two toddlers in tow and maybe an infant in a stroller. They stop periodically to compliment children of other families who in turn are effusively complimentary about how beautiful and/or well-behaved their children are. There is a lot of animated air-kissing when people exchange greetings.
It is great fun to watch, either standing on the sidewalk or sitting in one of the restaurants or caffes lining the street that are usually filled to overflowing with people. Better yet, you can simply join in the fun of the procession and stroll slowly, arm-in-arm with your sweetheart.
After the passeggiata, it’s time for dinner, so head over to nearby Il Cantuccio Ristorante on Via della Beccherie. The restaurant’s menu is hand-written on a blackboard and posted outside each day. Reservations are required and tough to get because the restaurant is small, with perhaps a dozen tables at most. It has a vaulted ceiling with polenta-colored walls. The menu is stylish and imaginative and the service is low-key but impeccable. The formidable wine list consists almost exclusively of Aglianico and other wines from Basilicata. It may well be the best restaurant in Matera.
After dinner, stroll over to the piazza in front of Palazzo Lanfranchi on Via Ridola. From the vantage point of the high wall to the left of the Palazzo you have a stunning view of the sassi at night with their twinkling lights punctuating the evening darkness.
Start the morning by having coffee at Caffe Schiuma on Via Stigliana in what is the “new” part of town. This elegant pasticceria serves excellent coffees and pastries.
Afterwards, head back to the Matera Tourist Information Office on Piazza Veneto where you can meet your guide for a tour of the rock churches in the Regional Natural History Park of the Matera Cave Churches, which is a short distance from Matera. (Note – reservations for guides can be made in advance at the Tourist Information Office or at the MUSMA. A car is necessary for touring the park so if you don’t have a car you must also make arrangements for a driver).
The Park is one of Italy’s most spectacular rocky landscapes and contains numerous caves that have housed various monastic settlements and religious communities since prehistory. Numerous churches were carved out of the rock in medieval times and contain colorful frescoes dating back to the 9th century. The Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After your tour of the Park, rest your feet during lunch at the Terrazza dell’Annunziata Caffe on the rooftop of the Palazzo dell’Annunziata on Piazza Vittorio Veneto. This osteria serves well-prepared pizzas as well as traditional local dishes. But you come here for the view as well as the food. The panoramic view of Matera from the outdoor terrace is fabulous.
Regardless of whether you’re a fan of contemporary art or not, the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture Matera - popularly known by its acronym MUSMA - is a “must see” gallery. Housed in the impressive 17th century Palazzo Pomarici in the heart of the sassi, it has multiple levels of theatrically-lit caves hewn out of the rock that serve as exhibition areas for the modern art. It is probably the most enterprising contemporary art museum in southern Italy.
Off the main entrance of the museum is a courtyard with impressive wrought-iron gates that are themselves works of art. They lead to ancient hypogean caves that now serve as galleries. The sculptures are artfully displayed in the unique environment of the caves and the juxtaposition of modern art displayed in ancient caves is as unusual as it is fascinating.
On the other side of the courtyard is a wrought-iron staircase leading to the permanent exhibition galleries on the first floor of the museum. As with other museums in Matera, you can view the individual galleries at your leisure since there are no crowds to distract you.
For your final evening in Matera have dinner at the atmospheric restaurant Il Terrazzino which is not far from Piazza Veneto. The restaurant serves pasta, pizza and local, seasonal dishes and has an attractive terrace directly overlooking the sassi. The restaurant’s Affettato Misto is outstanding as is the Orecchiette al Tegamino, the specialty of the house. Call for reservations and ask, weather permitting, for a table by the terrace wall. The view of the sassi at night with their shimmering lights is ethereal and enchanting.
After dinner with a glass of limoncello in hand, you may well find yourself toasting your good fortune and planning your next trip to Matera.
COMING AND GOING:
How to get there
Matera is a little out of the way and not easy to reach. You can rent a car and drive to Matera. The drive from Rome to Matera, for example, takes approximately five hours and from Napoli approximately three and a quarter hours. Since Matera's street grid is just this side of chaotic and car access to the center of Matera is limited, drivers should look at a map in advance of arrival as well as check with their hotel for directions and parking recommendations.
Alternatively, you can fly or take a train to Bari, rent a car there and drive to Matera. The drive from Bari to Matera takes approximately one hour. While train and bus transport from Bari to Matera is feasible, service is sporadic and time-consuming and not recommended.
Finally, you can hire a driver to meet you in Bari for the drive to Matera. For costs and information regarding a hire car, check with Experience Puglia, Southern Visions Travel or Sassiweb. My recommendation is to hire a car and reduce the stress and enjoy the view of the rustic Basilicata countryside.
Where to Stay
La Corte B&B, Rione Vetera 70, Ph: +39-0835-335-811 La Corte Matera
Albergo Italia Hotel, Via Ridola 5, Ph: +39-0835-333-561 Albergo Italia Hotel
Hotel del Campo, Via Lucrezio 1, Ph: +39-0835-388-844 Hotel del Campo
L'Hotel in Pietra, Via San Giovanni Vecchio 22, Ph: +39-0835-344-040 L'Hotel in Pietra
Hotel Caveoso, Rione Pianelle 26 (Piazza Caveoso), Ph: +39-0835-310-931 www.caveosohotel.com
Hotel Sassi, Via S. Giovanni Vecchio 89, tel:+39-0835-331-009, www.hotelsassi.it
Hotel Locanda di San Martino, Via Fiorentini 71 ph +39-0835-256-600 www.locandadisanmartino.it
Other B&B’s in Matera: www.bed-and-breakfast-in-italy.com
Where to dine
Il Terrazzino, Vico San Giuseppe 7, Ph: +39-0835-332-503 www.ilterrazzino.org
Terrazza dell’Annunziata, Palazzo dell’Annunziata (Piazza Vittorio Veneto), Ph: +39-0835-336-525
Nadi, Via Fiorentini 1/3 (Sasso Barisano), Ph: +39-0835-332-892 www.ristorantenadi.com
Ristorante San Biagio, Via San Biagio 12, Ph: +39-0835-333-014 www.sanbiagioristorante.it
La Stalla, Via Rosario 73, Ph: +39-0835-240-455 www.lastalla.net
Trattoria del Caveoso, Via Bruno Buozzi 21, Ph: +39-0835-312-374 www.trattoriadelcaveoso.it
Ristorante Il Borghese, Via Lucana 198, Ph: +39-0835-314-223 www.ristoranteilborghese.com
Il Cantuccio Ristorante, Via delle Beccherie 33, Ph: +39- 0835-332-090
Showroom of Pietro Gurrado, Sculptor, Via Duomo 3/5, Ph: +39-0835-33-04-47 www.pietrogurrado.com/
Modern Art Museum of Bailicata, Piazzetta Giovanni Pascoli Ph: +39-0835-256-262 www.palazzolanfranchi.it
General information and area Guided Tours
Sassiweb, an informative Matera website, www.sassiweb.com
Website of the Commune of Matera, www.turismomatera.it
Experience Puglia, Ph: +39-080-348-1568 www.experiencepuglia.com
Southern Visions Travel, Ph: +39-080-743-603 www.southernvisionstravel.com
Webcam: there is a live Matera webcam where you view the ebb and flow of activity on Piazza Vittorio Veneto, Matera's major social hub.
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