As one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2019, the city of Matera – with its extensive collection of troglodytic cave dwellings, rock-cut architecture, rupestrian art, ancestral history and cultural heritage – is enjoying the limelight.
Half constructed and half carved into the rock, Matera is an ancient agro-pastoral hub which blurs the boundaries between urban and rural. Here nature is at one with culture, the primeval with the spiritual. While touring the UNESCO-listed old town, visitors tread time-polished stone and brush past walls of calcareous tuff, lose their way down winding alleys and then up uneven steps, taste rich farmhouse dishes and discover traditional crafts. The city unfurls slowly, culminating in a series of belvederes that reflect each other like timeless mirrors set in stone across a deep gorge.
The old town’s Sassi are formed by two districts slotted in adjoining pits, Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso. In between stands the elegant cathedral, which looks out over the gorge. Rock-cut dwellings are scattered all around, often grouped around small squares called vicinato (‘neighbourhood’). These distinctive abodes are representative of the way of life for the city’s inhabitants until around the 1980s (by which point most inhabitants had been forcibly resettled or the dwellings modernised), some of which date back millennia. As such, Matera is one of the best-preserved prehistoric settlements in the Mediterranean, and is claimed to be among the world’s oldest continuously-inhabited cities.
A visit to Casa Noha is an excellent way to get acquainted with the local history and culture. This 16th-century restored palace presents visitors with a video overview of the city’s past, from its early days to the radical rehousing project that began in 1952. That year, the Sassi started being abandoned due to extreme poverty, disease epidemics and the lack of modern facilities, which had earned the city the infamous label of Italy’s ‘national shame’. Improvements only really began in the 1980s as part of a wider restoration project thanks to which, Matera is the European Capital of Culture 2019.
Next door to Casa Noha, another historic palace hosts the MUSMA sculpture museum, an emblematic example of Matera’s cultural regeneration.
But life in the Sassi before the 1950s was much more than hardship and poor living conditions. Faithful reproductions of traditional cave dwellings (such as Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario and Casa Grotta del Casalnuovo) bring visitors face to face with the customs of a millenarian society, as well as the ingenious ways through which the Materani thrived in the seemingly inhospitable environment. Particularly remarkable is the water harvesting system adopted both in individual dwellings and public facilities; one of the reasons why the city was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993. The biggest public cistern is also one of Matera’s most popular attractions, the Palombaro Lungo, a subterranean masterpiece of hydraulic engineering.
If the porous walls of former cave dwellings exude hints of former lifestyles here, clues to Matera’s spiritual life lie within the chambers of the roughly 150 rupestrian churches located in and around the old town. Dating from as far back as the eighth century, these sites bear testimony to the passage of Oriental monks whose ascetic calling harmonised with the bare and silent depths of the grottoes. Western religious orders settled here too, resulting in art and architecture which mix Latin and Greek-Orthodox influences. Madonna delle Virtù, San Pietro Barisano and Santa Maria de Idris are some of the examples located within the Sassi.
A complete tour of the rupestrian churches takes visitors to another UNESCO landmark, the vast archaeological park facing the Sassi from across the Gravina gorge. Best seen on a guided tour, Parco della Murgia is home to dozens of religious sites, historic fortified farmsteads and traces of early settlements going all the way back to the Palaeolithic Age. To further explore the ancestral roots of the city, many of the region’s prehistoric artefacts are on display at Museo Ridola.
Other main sights worth visiting during a few days’ stay are Castello Tramontano, Palazzo Lanfranchi (Museum of Medieval and Contemporary Art) and Cripta del Peccato Originale.
Al Vecchio Mulino (Via Lucana 205/B, 75100) is located at the doorstep of Sasso Caveoso, within the complex of a historic mill now converted to residential use. Opened in 2016, this B&B offers fresh facilities and modern rooms including classic and family rooms, and the garden room, in which dogs are also welcome. Each room is fitted with air con, an LED TV and comfort mattresses specially designed to ensure a proper rest. Guests have access to the kitchen, while breakfast comprises sweet and savoury local specialties (vegan and gluten-free options upon request). Other amenities include a meeting room, laundry and a tour operator service.
A family-run guesthouse, Le Dodici Lune (Via S. Giacomo 27, 75100) occupies a group of abandoned cave dwellings which have been renovated by keeping the original structure unchanged. Next to a communal terrace offering private access, each room has a story to tell about those who once lived there and their way of life, offering an immersive experience in a typical Sassi setting. The bare stone encloses ample and minimal spaces equipped with modern comforts, while the large suite comes with a fireplace, free minibar and Jacuzzi tub. A homemade buffet breakfast is among the services offered. Due to its location, near the MUSMA museum, it is recommended to wear comfortable shoes to reach the guesthouse.
It must have been easy to come up with a name for Hotel Il Belvedere (Via Casalnuovo 133, 75100), given the postcard view from the terrace opens onto both the Sassi and Parco della Murgia. Single, double and superior rooms provide a quintessential Sassi experience, where elegant furnishings are coupled with original features such as natural tuff stone, mangers and old cisterns. Classic rooms are also available, offering modern comforts. Other than the terrace, the communal spaces include a breakfast room. Located at the edge of Sasso Caveoso, Il Belvedere is accessed both from within and outside the Sassi.
More than just a hotel, San Giorgio (Via Fiorentini 259, 75100) is also an archaeological site preserving a little bit of Matera’s history. Its 40-meter-deep caves originally housed a rupestrian church, then an olive oil mill and finally a wine cellar, before they were unearthed in recent times during the restoration of an 18th-century residence. Converted into an albergo diffuso (“scattered hotel”), the complex offers a wide range of suites which either peek into the caves or look out on quaint private terraces, blending together history, well-being and comfort.
Gradelle Pennino (Via Pennino 3, 75100) is a small B&B offering a romantic atmosphere surrounded by the charm of the Sassi. Both the four-guest apartment and the master bedroom boast country chic décor coupled with a retro touch, while breakfast is served on two panoramic terraces which well represent the architectural style of this part of the Sassi. The main terrace overlooks the spur on top of which are located Santa Maria de Idris and San Giovanni in Monterrone churches: A perfect location for a relaxing and slow-paced stay.
Eat and drink
Housed in a prestigious palace that once belonged to one of Matera’s richest families, Dimora Ulmo (Via Pennino 28, 75100) makes a proud display of its noble heritage. Its four rooms are finely designed and enriched by a selection of contemporary art from the private collection of Nico Andrisani, one of the project’s founders. Over 600 wines feature on the list, while the food menu includes traditional and gourmet options which reflect Chef Michele Castelli’s local origins as well as his experience working in the three-Michelin-starred kitchens of Massimo Bottura. Dimora Ulmo is becoming established as a reference point for fine dining in Matera.
Baccanti (Via Sant’Angelo 58, 75100) gives centre stage to the authentic flavours of Matera’s agricultural heritage, made of simple recipes and scrupulously sourced local produce. A sample menu might include wild chicory leaves on mashed fava beans, stuffed ravioli with salsiccia pezzente (the local sausage) or tagliolini with lamb ragout. The food options are well matched by red and white wines focused on regional labels. The grotto setting couldn’t be more suited to savouring traditional cuisine, while outdoor seating with views over the Sassi is also available.
Opened in 2017, Enoteca dai Tosi (Via Bruno Buozzi 12, 75100) is an original take on the local gastronomy. This wine bar and cellar is shaped by a wide circular staircase descending three levels underground, lined with bright green lampshades which contrast vividly against the bare stone. Tables are replaced by large seating steps scattered across the three levels, adding to the inventive interior design. A wide selection of wines explores the whole of Italy from north to south, including options both by the glass and the bottle. The food menu revolves around Venetian-style cicchetti inspired the local ingredients and recipes.
Located along one of the Sassi’s thoroughfares, Ristorante del Caveoso (Via Bruno Buozzi 21, 75100) is all about traditional food served in an elegant yet unpretentious manner. Crapiata materana (a legume and cereal soup) and fave e cicorie (fava beans and chicory) are some of the options on the primi list, while the mains are focused on beef, pork and lamb. The pasta dishes include both local classics and signature recipes, among which the crunchy peperone crusco (a much-acclaimed variety of red pepper typical of this area) is a common feature.
Somewhere in between a deli and a restaurant, L’Arturo (Piazza del Sedile 15, 75100) is suitable both for quick bites and longer breaks, best if accompanied by a glass of local wine or a craft beer. Rich platters and restorative sandwiches top the list, featuring regional cheeses and salumi which can also be ordered to take away as culinary souvenirs. A rotating selection of salads and simple dishes is also served. The internal room is warm and intimate, while the counter and outdoor seating are excellent spots for people watching over the adjoining Piazza del Sedile. L’Arturo is also a B&B located steps away from the restaurant.
In bygone Matera, bread dough used to be kneaded at home and then taken to a communal oven for baking, but not before each loaf was marked with a signature stamp in order to make it recognisable among the many others. Today, these peculiar wooden stamps are one of the city’s typical souvenirs, made by local craftspeople such as Massimo Casiello (Via S. Francesco da Paola Vecchio 15, 75100) and Emanuele Mancini (Via Bruno Buozzi 87, 75100). Crafted on the spot and personalised for each customer, the stamps are one of the many products displayed at their workshops, which carry on the ancient tradition of artistic carpentry.
Officine Frida (Via Casalnuovo 94, 75100) specialises in sustainable fashion and artisanal designs. This workshop sources raw materials from local businesses, selecting high-quality scraps which have reached the end of the production cycle. Fabrics and other materials are then turned into clothing, accessories and home décor, through a process which brings together creativity and traditional methods. Each piece is unique and rigorously handmade, making Officine Frida an ambassador of responsibly-produced fashion in Matera.
The Cucù is a traditional cockerel-shaped whistle made of clay, whose history dates back millennia. It is believed to have originally been a rudimentary toy, before being used as a magical tool and courting gift (the larger and more elaborate the cucù, the truer the suitor’s love). Today, it is among the tourists’ favourite souvenirs, and sold in artisanal workshops such as Il Bottegaccio (Via Madonna dell’Idris 10, 75100). The collections of traditional items found in this shop also includes the Pupa, a clay reproduction of an ancient woman-shaped cheese.
After being treated to the local wine, cheese, baking specialties and so on, it’s hard to leave Matera without at least one gastronomic memento. Peperoncino (Via Bruno Buozzi 184, 75100) is the place to go for a supply of peperoni cruschi, displayed next to other regional delicacies ranging from honey and jams to olive oil and artisanal pasta. Similarly, Panecotto (Via Bruno Buozzi 10, 75100) features all the above while also housing a bistrot for tasting sessions focussing on ethical and sustainable products.
Once the core of the peasants’ diet, Matera’s bread is pure cultural heritage encased in a dark golden crust, the true gem of local gastronomy. Occasions to enjoy its characteristic fragrance are numerous: At practically every meal or snack. But it is in the bakeries that the secrets of this traditional product are kept.
Bakers since 1890, the Perrone family is one of the references when it comes to bread making in Matera. Following the abandonment of the Sassi, Gennaro relocated the family business to a modern bakery in the new part of the city, currently run by his daughters Patrizia and Sabrina. They further renovated and modernised Il Forno Di Gennaro (Via Nazionale 52, 75100), enhancing the knowledge handed down by the previous generations. High or horn-shaped loaves, friselle (dry bread) and taralli biscuits are some of the typical products, but Il Forno di Gennaro also runs hands-on workshops during which visitors learn all about Matera-style bread making (available in English).
Pane e Pace (Via Cererie 49, 75100) celebrates an inspiring bond between bread and peace. The bread sold here is made at Antico Forno di Lucia Perrone, another branch of the Perrone family. As such, the production cycle follows all the precepts demanded by tradition: only regional durum wheat semolina is used, no additives or preservatives are added, and only specially selected varieties of wood are used to heat the oven. In addition to different types of bread, a range of sweet and savoury products is available.
Opened in 1947 as a communal oven, Panificio Cifarelli (Via S. Francesco D’Assisi 13, 75100 – Sassi branch) turned into a modern bakery during the 1970s, when the widespread tradition of making bread at home was already dying out. In addition to bread, biscuits and focaccia are among the signature products, all made according to the old-fashioned way. Panificio Cifarelli has three stores across Matera, one of which is located within the Sassi.
As well as the bakeries mentioned above, Panificio Fratelli De Palo (Piazza degli Olmi 53-55, 75100) is the result of different generations handing down the family business. It first opened in 1920, and it evolved throughout the decades mixing tradition and technology. Today, in addition to a modern bakery, Fratelli De Palo is also a bistrot offering a long list of pizzas, focaccia, sandwiches and more.