Matera

The ancient city of Matera is known as the cave town of “Sassi.” It consists of dwellings carved into the rocks, which have been preserved for centuries. The area has evidence of human settlement from the Paleolithic period and has a unique and incredible rocky landscape. Matera has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is European Capital of Culture 2019.

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The rock town of Matera-Sassi

What fundamentally distinguishes Matera from other places are the Sassi, two settlements on two neighboring hills consisting of cave dwellings.

The two Sassi are called Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso and the term Sasso is to be translated with district in this case. The Sassi are two rock hills on the steep slopes of the Gravina river valley.

Initially, it was the natural caves that people used as storage or shelter. Since the tuff stone could be well worked on, the accommodations were soon expanded and entire apartments were dug into the mountain, which were constantly expanded by additions. In addition to each other and on top of each other, a branched cave town in the rocks was created over the course of the millennia.

Walking through the alleyways of the Sassi of Matera, the trail practically always leads over the roof of an apartment.

Over the course of the millennia, a cave town was built in the rocks, a nested network of cave dwellings, narrow streets and small squares, in between rock churches, which together have a large Architectural artwork.

The Sassi (stones)

The grottoes were carved into the relatively soft sand stone and tuff. Initially, it was the natural caves that people used as accommodation. Since the stone could be well worked on, the accommodations were soon expanded and entire apartments were dug into the mountain, which were constantly expanded by additions. The people cut quaders out of the mountain in order to use them as building material for the porch. The deeper the caves were dug, the more building material was extracted and built up as a façade in front of the grotto.

Over the course of the millennium, a cave town in the rocks was created, a nested network of cave dwellings, narrow streets and small squares, in between rock churches, which together gives a large architectural work of art.
Today, the cave dwellings, the “Sassi of Matera” as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Humanity, are known worldwide and are listed as a historic monument.

The cave churches in the Sassi area

Rock Church Madonna della Virtù and San Nicola dei Greci
The complex consists of the two rock churches Madonna of Virtues and San Nicola dei Greci, which are connected.

Madonna della Virtù – Church of Our Lady of Virtues
The 11th century church Wore all the typical architectural features of a three-aisled Romanesque-style basilica. What is special about the construction method is that it was carved into the rock, that is, in a negative way. The round arches, the capitals, as well as the jewellery elements were incorporated into the rocks, so that the church is practically part of a part.

Fresco paintings from the 14th century. And 16th century Decorate the walls of the central apse and the right aisle. They show the crucifixion scene with the Virgin Mary and St. Giovanni Evangelist.

San Nicola dei Greci
Above the church Madonna della Virtù is the monastery settlement of St. Nicholas the Greek
With the crypt. The frescoes confirm the Byzantine character of the crypt. Fresco paintings show the crucifixion with Mary and San Giovanni Battista and in the left aisle a triptych of saints Nicola, Barbara and Pantaleone.
We recommend visiting with a local guide.

More rock churches
Rock Church of San Pietro Barisano
Rock Church of San Pietro Caveoso
Rock Church Santa Lucia
Madonna de Idris/San Giovanni in Monterrone

Cave dwellings

Today it is possible to stay in a cave yourself. Of course, with all the comforts, running water and heating. And, of course, the individual hotel rooms are separated from each other and have a private bathroom.

It hasn’t always been that way. People used to live in a single room, sleeping, cooking and caring for their animals. In one of the museums in a cave apartment, it is impressively depicted. Especially for children, this is a lasting memory.

You can find our recommendations for hotels further down in the travel guide.

The Murgia plateau

On the other side of the Gravina River is the Parco della Murgia Materana, from which you have a wonderful view over the Sassi of Matera.

Matera’s Murgia Park is also home to grottoes and small chapels, most of which can only be visited with guides and are otherwise locked.

A steep hiking trail with a bridge leads through the river valley, which is sometimes closed for safety reasons. To get to the park, you have to bypass the river valley by car (or shuttle).

Especially recommended is the romantic sunset in the Murgia park. From the plateau, the tuff stones appear at dusk in warm colours and Matera glows like an Italian Christmas nativity scene. Beautiful!

Our visitor guide

Arrival

By car from Bari Airport or Brindisi. There is, however, hardly any parking In Matera. However, the City is expected to come up with something for 2019. Because there will be many to come.

Check if you can drive to the property. This is not possible everywhere in the rocks. Your landlords will certainly help you with specially designed vehicles.

You can travel directly from Bari by train Ferrovie Appulo-Lucane (FAL). The Journey takes about 90 minutes. Otherwise, the Italian railway goes to Ferrandina and from there zou need to take a bus. This odyssey lasts over 6 hours.

If zou book a trip with us, then we take care of all that. Hotel and accompanying program.

Hotels

In Matera you can sleep especially, namely in a former cave in the middle of the Sassi. We are happy to combine your trip to Matera with exclusive hotels on favourable terms. This is not always easy, but we are already able to do so.

  • Palazzo Gattini Luxury Hotel (very classy)
  • Sextantio Hotel in the caves of Sassi (a very special experience)
  • Aquatio Cave Luxury Hotel & Spa (5 star cave hotel)

We are also happy to combine your stay with another accommodation with charm, clean, safe and according to your budget. Please include your hotel requests at the time of the enquiry.

From disgrace to a UNESCO World Heritage Site

In Matera, there were immense hygienic problems after World War II, which favored diseases such as malaria and put child mortality at 44%. This problem was only created by bricking with the sewage system that led into the river to create housing. As a result, the wastewater was no longer sufficiently removed and vermin polluted the water system.

The Italian writer Carlo Levi made these conditions a theme in his novel “Christ only came to Eboli” in 1944. That led to an outcry across the country in the fledgling Italian republic and was said to be ashamed across Italy of the conditions among which people in Matera had yet to live. The government in Rome then pushed through a drastic measure, letting the Sassi in Matera completely clear, so that the entire area had run out of apartments. 30,000 people were forcibly moved to modern housing in the 1950s. By 1968, the relocation had been completed, the Sassi were cordoned off and the grottoes were decayed. Children used the grounds – unlawfully – as an adventure playground.

It was not until 1986 that the Sassi were rediscovered and listed. In the 1990s, restoration began and restaurants, museums, B & B, artists ‘ workshops and hotels in the Sassi were built, so that today it is possible to recreate the feeling of life of yore under modern circumstances.

In 1993, another turn took place towards a better future: The Sassi of Matera were declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco. In the meantime, around 3000 people live and work there again – most of whom live from tourism, and museums, bars and trattorias have sprung up in the alleyways.

European Capital of Culture 2019

On 19 January 2019, Italian President Sergio Mattarella officially opened the year of Matera as European Capital of Culture with a big celebration in Matera.

There was great cheers among the population when Matera was named European Capital of Culture 2019 in October 2014. Matera had prevailed over the Italian cities of Cagliari, Lecce, Perugia-Assisi, Siena and Ravenna.

Matera now has about 60,000 inhabitants, of which (as of 2017) about 2000 live in the Sassi. Some of the Sassi are still standing empty, waiting for investors. 80% of Sassi are owned by the city of Matera and can be leased for long term. Only 20% of the grottoes are still privately owned. Investors must commit to renovating cautiously.

Care is taken to establish sustainable tourism in Matera.

Movie backdrop

World successes such as the “Passion of Christ” by Mel Gibson and “The First Gospel of Matthew” by Pier Paolo Pasolini have their origins in Matera.

The Italian producer Pier Paolo Pasolini shot the 1964 film “The First Gospel – Mattäus” in the Sassi, which by then had already been abandoned.

Mel Gibson rediscovered the spectacular setting for his 2004 monumental film “The Passion of Christ.” This made the place interesting and it has been considered an insider’s tip ever since.

Destinations

Matera is located in the Basilicata region bordering Puglia. The nearest airport is an hour away in Bari, Puglia. The area is beautiful, but not easy to access in terms of transport and tourism. You need a car. However, you can also get to Bari by train and bus.

Beautiful day trips can be done after

  • Castel del Monte
    It is the motif on each 1 Euro cent coin. A very interesting structure with octagonal floor plan, a great atrium – also octangular, defensive towers – zou already guessed it, octangular.
  • Alberobello with the Trulli
    These are round limestone buildings without mortar with a cone-shaped roof that have been erected in this Area for about 700 Years. They served as an apartment, storage and stable. This architectural style was allegedly created in order to escape a tax.
  • Ostuni
    Beautiful small town in the Puglia region known for its white houses. The city is very popular with visitors from the UK. Let’s see how this develops now. Despite the many foreign visitors, or perhaps because of this, you can study the “dolce far niente” here very well. Pure relaxation.
  • Monopoli
    The city is also located in Puglia and, like Ostuni, is suitable to immerse yourself in the lifestyle of southern Italy. In Addition, there is the beach life and the evening walks along the sea.
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