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
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!