Matera is one of Italy's most impressive, unusual and extraordinary destinations, a place like no other in the world.
It is located in Southern Italy, on the arch of Italy's boot, in the region of Basilicata, bordering another famous region in southern Italy, Puglia. It is about an hour and a half train ride from the city of Bari.
The incredible town has an ancient history dating back to prehistoric times and is famous for the extensive cave-dwelling districts called "sassi", that are carved into the rocks and have been inhabited for centuries until the present time. The Sassi are believed to be 9000 years old and one of the first human settlements in Italy. The landscape is unique and beautiful. The streets often run on top of other houses that are dug into the rocks.
There are two major Sassi districts - Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano.
Until the late 1980s the Sassi was considered an area of poverty. Since then, the local administration has become more tourism-orientated and has promoted the regeneration of the Sassi as a picturesque touristic attraction with the aid of the Italian government, UNESCO, and Hollywood. Today there are many thriving businesses, pubs and hotels, and the city is amongst the fastest growing in southern Italy.
The Sassi and rupestrian churches of Matera were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. The city has also been elected as one of the two 2019 European capitals of culture (the other is Plovdiv, Bulgaria).
In addition, Matera was the stage of the filming of many biblical movies including Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ". Recently, Matera became one of the settings for the filming of the new James Bond movie "No time to die" 2020.
The best way to see Matera is on foot and is also advisable to join a guided walking tour. You can also use a three-wheeled taxi (tuk-tuk). At first glance, it may seem quite complicated to navigate through the city's maze of streets, stairs, churches, overlapping houses and caves. However, if you get a map the orientation might be a lot easier. Besides, many of the sights are located on hills and are well-visible from a distance. At night Matera is beautifully lit up.
You may start your tour at the city's main square Piazza Vittorio Veneto, situated above one of the main cave-dwelling areas, Sasso Barisano. The square is dominated by the majestic facade of the Palazzo dell'Annunziata built in the first half of the 18th century by Mauro Manieri, an expert on the baroque style. Here you will also find the tourist information office from where you can buy your map and get valuable directions from the staff.
At Piazza Vittorio Veneto you can visit the Palombaro Lungo, a huge manmade water cistern that supplies the city with water. The cistern is dug into the rock during the 16th century. Its scale and ingenuity are certainly impressive. You can see it only by joining a guided tour, the price is 3 euro.
Don't miss the terrace at the square, from where you will enjoy gorgeous panoramic views of the Civita neighbourhood and the Sasso Barisano.
From the terrace, you can go downhill and continue your walk through the sassi until you reach the Matera Cathedral (Duomo) which stands on the opposite hill.
Your way will take you through small lanes, alleys, stairways and stone houses, some still closed off and abandoned.
Matera Cathedral is a Roman Catholic cathedral, built in Apulian Romanesque style in the 13th century. It is dedicated to the Virgin Mary under the designation of the Madonna della Bruna and to Saint Eustace. The church has a 52 m tall bell tower and next to the main gate is a statue of the Maria della Bruna. The main feature of the façade is the rose window, divided by sixteen small columns.
Much of the interior received a Baroque-style decoration in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Cathedral is easy to be spot as it is high on a hill and a beautiful panorama can be observed from its location. The Cathedral ideally divides the Sasso Barisano from the Sasso Caveoso.
In addition to the Sassi districts, Matera is also popular with its rock (rupestrian) churches that are cut into the rock of hillsides and ravines. These churches were mostly created by Basilian monks who were fleeing the iconoclastic persecutions in the Byzantine Empire during the 8th and 9th centuries. The caves often contain faded frescoes in the Byzantine style.
It is well worth visiting one or two of these atmospheric ancient places of worship.
Santa Maria de Idris church is a good example of a rupestrian church that is also one of the most popular and visited churches.
It is located at the top of Monterrone, a large limestone cliff that rises in the middle of the Sasso Caveoso.
Dug into the Idris rock, this church dates back to the 15th century and is part of a rock complex that also includes the oldest crypt, dedicated to San Giovanni in Monterrone. This crypt is important for the frescoes it preserves, ranging from the 12th to the 17th centuries.
Santa Maria de Idrisis near another popular church -San Pietro Caveoso and it offers a unique view of the city and the Gravina.
San Pietro Caveoso is a Catholic worship place situated in the Sassi of Matera and it is the only church in the Sassi not dug into the rock. It was originally built in 1300 and has a 17th-century Romanesque-baroque facade and frescoed timber ceiling. It is located right next to Santa Maria de Idris church.
Actually, there are two churches in Matera, both dedicated to the Apostle Peter - San Pietro Caveoso (in the Sasso Caveoso) and San Pietro Barisano (in the Sasso Barisano).
San Pietro Barisano originally called San Pietro de Veteribus, is the largest rock church in the city of Matera, dating back to the 12th century.
In the area next to San Pietro Caveoso church you will see the remarkable Murgia National Park with splendid vistas. The spectacular rocky landscape features cliffs, gorges and caves, and it has been included in the UNESCO World Heritage List together with the Sassi di Matera.
A rigorous hike through the La Gravina ravine takes you to the palaeolithic caves that were once used as houses and churches. You can also hike to the Belvedere from where you’ll have a breathtaking panoramic view of Matera’s Sassi.
Another interesting religious monument is the Convent of Sant'Agostino, a complex formed by the church and the convent, dating back to the late 16th century.
The convent was built in 1592 by the monks of the order of the Eremitani of Sant'Agostino and the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie was built in 1594. The facade of the church is dominated by the central portal, surmounted by a niche with the statue of Sant'Agostino.
Near Sasso Caveoso, in the central Piazza Giovanni Pascoli, you'll find the impressive building of
Palazzo Lanfranchi, a former seminary, now it is a museum that houses a large collection of paintings by Carlo Levi. In front of the museum opens one of the most beautiful and popular squares in the city, that also offers a fantastic viewpoint to admire the Sassi and Murgia park.
In this area, you will also notice other two impressive buildings: Saint Francis of Assisi church and Palazzo del Sedile.
The Church of Saint Francis of Assisi is a church built in Baroque style in the San Francesco Square and is dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi, after the saint visited Matera in 1218.
The church has undergone numerous transformations in the 13th and 15th centuries. In the 18th century, the architects Vito Valentino and Tommaso Pennetta constructed the Baroque facade of the church that has three statues in its upper part, with the Virgin in the center, and Saint Francis and Saint Anthony on the sides.
The Palazzo del Sedile, located in the square of the same name, was built in 1540 by Archbishop Saraceno for municipal meetings.
Its current appearance is due to restoration in 1779. The façade has a huge arch and four niches with statues representing the four cardinal virtues, Justice, Fortitude, Prudence and Temperance.
The two statues at the top are St. Eustachio (Eustace), left and Madonna della Bruna on the right, these are Matera’s patron saints. The two bell towers have a sundial and clock.
Until 1944 it was government offices and is now the Egidio Romualdo Duni Conservatorio Nazionale, named after the composer who was born in Matera. There is an auditorium in the basement for concerts and cultural events.
Other sights in Matera you may also see and visit include:
Chiesa di Madonna della Virtú and Chiesa di San Nicola del Greci – a 10th-century monastic complex carved out from the limestone rock with many frescoes.
The Museo della Scultura Contemporanea (Museum of Contemporary Sculptures) - home to a stunning collection of sculpture displayed in unique cave exhibition spaces. There are works of art which tell the story of Italian and international sculpture from the late 1800s to today.
Museo Archeologico Nazionale Domenico Ridola - The caves have a long history of settlements in Matera and this little museum gives you some insight into that.
Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario - There are various cave dwellings which have been turned into little museums where you can see what it was like to live in the Sassi up to the 20th century. This is a private residence preserved exactly as it used to be a hundred years ago. Carved out of the rock, it has multiple smaller caves: an entrance hall, a place where the cistern was built, a place where tools and instruments were kept, a bedroom and a kitchen-like area with a window to the outside. No running water, no plumbing and no way to freshen the air, except for the breeze, if there happened to be any.
There are also many restaurants and bars located inside the former cave dwellings where you can indulge yourself in fine-dining.
If you plan to stay for several days in Matera you may consider having an authentic experience and staying at some of the old cave-houses that are being converted into comfortable modern dwellings and hotels.
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