Population: About 60,000
Claims to fame: One of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, its Sassi cave dwellings are a UNESCO World Heritage site and Mel Gibson filmed The Passion of The Christ here.
Pros: Stunning natural surroundings descending into a deep ravine, not overcrowded with tourists
Cons: It is hard to reach with public transport, the train to Bari from Rome takes about four hours and then you have to change to a rickety local train which takes another 1-1/2 hours.
I hadn’t really heard about Matera until I noticed it was on the not-to-be-missed list of one of my Italy travel guides. I didn’t know what to expect, I thought it might be just another old and pretty town. When I told Italian colleagues and friends I planned to visit, some turned their noses up a bit and wondered why on earth I was heading there.
I’m glad I went through with the trip though because my experience was truly magical. I visited in December, and I arrived in the late afternoon when the sun was starting to set. As darkness fell on the town and twinkling lights came on in the streets, it looked like a real-life setting of the nativity scenes or presepi that were being set up in churches across the country.
I checked into my room, which was actually a cave. I wanted to experience what it was like for the inhabitants of the Sassi– the cave dwellings in the ancient heart of Matera where people used to live until the government forcefully rehoused them in the 1950s.
On my first evening, I walked around the centre of town, exploring some very old and beautiful churches. My favourite was San Giovanni Battista, which dated back to about 1230 and had an impressively decorated entrance. Inside I felt inspired to pause for a moment’s reflection but I was interrupted by a local guy who had followed me in and wanted to chat. In general the locals were very friendly and happy that I had come down to visit…
I woke up early the next day so that I could take some panoramic shots in the morning light. I was lucky- it was a perfect crisp blue morning.
I then met my guide, a former Sassi dweller, and we began our tour. We firstly walked past a flight of steps in the town which he said actor and producer Mel Gibson had used for scenes in his movie “The Passion of The Christ”.
We then started to explore the archaeological site nearby where we spent the day popping in and out of the caves. It was interesting to learn how the dwellings developed thousands of years ago, and how the locals cleverly designed them so that light reaches in even to the back. Here’s an example of how naturally well-lit the caves are:
We visited the cave church of Santa Maria de Idris and the crypt of San Giovanni. The frescoes in the crypt, dating back as far as the twelfth century, were particularly fascinating.
All in all, I had an amazing time in Matera. I would highly recommend a visit, even though it takes a long time to get there. If you make it I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.