This past weekend, my husband and I took a trip to celebrate my 24th birthday. We visited Matera, Alberobello, and Castel del Monte in Basilicata and Puglia, on a two day, two night jam-packed road trip. Matera is a bit of an off-beat location, a weird destination in comparison to Italy’s more conventional offerings, but without a doubt, one of the most spectacular and unique sites the country has to offer.
Matera has become a tourist destination thanks to its historical sassi district, where homes were built one on top of each other, in caves carved into the soft rock. It is also one of the world’s oldest towns, and has been inhabited without interruption since the Paleolithic era.
There are virtually no cars in the city center, so visitors spend their time winding their way up and town sloping stone pathways and tilting staircases. If you visit, prepare to be lost. No map can save you from the feeling that you have been dropped into the middle of an Escher drawing.
Though Matera today is extraordinarily well maintained, it has a lesser-known history of disease and poverty. A general lack of sanitation and increased public attention led to Matera becoming a post-war rehousing project in which the government forcibly moved most of the cave’s residents to new housing. Read more about Matera’s history here…
We spent our two nights in Matera at the Hotel Sassi, which has rooms scattered around a small part of the historical region, meaning that you get your own freestanding little room-cave with a spectacular view of the city center. I was particularly excited about the breakfast, especially the thick slices of pizza-bread with sugar or potatoes on top. (By the way, a town nearby called Altamura, is known for having some of the best bread in Italy thanks to the particular durum flour used to bake it.)
What to see in Matera:
- Stroll around the city aimlessly both at day and night. If you are a photographer, make sure you have plenty of free space on your memory card.
- Visit the nearby Parco della Murgia Materana, wander, take photos, gaze at the panoramic view of the historical center of Matera. I would also recommend that you take a quick stroll up to the neolithic village, though there isn’t much left to see but the remnants of the village wall and a tomb/ceremonial site of unknown function.
- Eat at Nadi…I personally recommend the ferricelli ai peperoni cruschi, fresh pasta with savory (not spicy) dried red peppers, or strascinate e cime di rape, fresh pasta with rapini, a yummy green vegetable that is native to that part of the country. While the pasta was extraordinary, the sides of potatoes baked in ashes and the wild chicory with spicy peperoncino were even better.
- Matera also has a variety of museums including that of amateur archaeologist Museo Archeologico Nazionale “Domenico Ridola”.
- There are also the rupestrian churches carved into stone by monks as early as the 7th century. The Chiesa Madonna della Virtu’ and Chiesa di Santa Maria d’Idris both have lovely frescoes.
- The city also has several ‘cave houses’ where visitors can view exhibitions of the way in which people in Matera lived up until the cities re-conceptualization as an open air museum.