Guide to Matera: learn the secrets hidden within the stones
Let’s go south and back a couple thousand years ago. Matera is one of the most ancient cities in the world found in the Italian region of Basilicata. First occupied in the Palaeolithic Age, the myriad natural caves surrounding the city were then used as living spaces by peasants and artisans during medieval times. Matera was also home to the Byzantines and the Normans, to later attain to cultural rules dictated by the Roman Empire, the Renaissance era and the Baroque period. The fascinating famous Sassi (Italian for the “stones”) are in fact two areas of ancient Matera made up by the Sasso Barisano and the Sasso Caveoso. These two districts of Matera hide the complex themes of contrast, border regimes, competition, civilization, culture and diversity. It is one of humanity’s finest pages of history.
Although Matera was once known as “the shame of Italy” reigned by poverty and squalor, this year it is no longer a hidden gem since it has been nominated as the humble European Capital of Culture 2019.
Top things to see & do in Matera
Matera is the city of stones. The “Sassi”, which form a colossal cultural landscape, were designated in 1993 as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. From the architectural point of view, they present humans’ ability to adapt to any environmental circumstance. The complex rocks were initially only excavated by men in prehistoric times to then evolve during the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque Era, reaching modern times into a series of incredible elements such as: caves, small palaces, churches, neighbourhoods, stairways, balconies and gardens. All this divides the city in two with the “Sasso Caveoso”, which occupies the Southern area and the “Sasso Barisano”, which inhabits the Eastern side.
Start your experience by losing yourself in the numerous streets built within the core of the city, which are all combined by Piazza Vittorio Veneto situated in the old town area. You can decide to first get the stairs that bring you to the underground of Matera recognised as the Palombaro Lungo, the extensive cistern for water collection. From here you can also choose to go north where you can find the Chiesetta di San Giovanni Battista or south alongside via del Corso to reach the Chiesa di San Francesco d’Assisi in Piazza San Francesco, which brings to Palazzo Lanfranchi if continuing on via D. Ridola and Piazza Duomo if advancing towards Piazza Sedile and Via Duomo, home of the noble palaces.
From either Piazza Vittorio Veneto or via d’Addozio you can headway your journey in the Sasso Barisano. What cannot be missed here are the Chiesa di Sant’Agostino, the cripta di San Giuliano and the Chiesa di San Pietro Barisano. But let’s get out of the old town and take a walk on the predominant street via Madonna delle Virtù, where on one side you can admire the city’s unique coastline scenery, with the first rock church San Nicola dei Greci yet the panorama Parco della Murgia Materana on the other side. Crossed by the river Bradano and the stream Gravina, the park, another piece of the UNESCO World Heritage together with the Sassi, offers a breath taking landscape led by cliffs, gorges and caves. Once up there, you can easily pretend for a second to be a prehistoric shepherd surrounded by approximately twelve hundred botanical species. Keepsakes of the prehistoric period are well preserved in Matera at the National Museum Domenico Ridola.
The Park extends all the way to the Sasso Caveoso and its natural setting plays as the main character for the architectural constructions. Hence a must see are the rock churches Santa Lucia delle Malve, the most mesmerising Madonna de Idris, Convicinio di Sant’Antonio and Santa Barbara. You just need to walk all the way down via Madonna delle Virtù and end up at Piazza San Pietro Caveoso. Don’t forget to stumble on a peasant’s living conditions by visiting the “Casa Grotta”, a cave dwelling fully furnished with tools of the time.
Matera: European Capital of Culture 2019
All the above are the reasons why Matera is 2019’s European Capital of Culture. Three hundred thirty days, forty eight weeks of events, projects and installations reflecting the city’s history, culture and tradition into the eyes of the world. This year’s theme is “Open the future”. Every Saturday night, a project called “Social light” will illuminate fifteen different areas of the city. An open space itinerary will bring you through two hundred works of Salvador Dalì. One of the most important art exhibitions will be “Ars Excavandi” at the National Museum the 31st of July. These are only three of the myriad events, shows, art exhibitions, installations, workshops and laboratories going on this year in Matera. You have until the 20th of December. You just need to purchase a passport (€19) that will allow you to take part in all the events; some will need to be reserved in advance.
What to eat in Matera
Enough about walking and sightseeing, let’s sit down, rest and have some food. The typical Matera food that needs to be tasted at least once in a lifetime is the Pignata di Pecora, sheep meet cooked in three days time and served with hot smoking vegetables and potatoes to create a tender yet striking sensation. First Italian rule: never forget a regional glass of wine. Either a white Verdeca or Chardonnay, or a red Aglianico del Vulture or Taurasi. If you instead prefer something refreshing and still completely Italian or simply crave for dessert, you have to try the renown I Vizi degli Angeli’s velvety gelato. Yet this year, the month of June offers a surprise with the Breadway festival of food and design.
How to get to Matera
Buy a train ticket from Roma Termini or Roma Tiburtina to Matera and across the hills of Italy, in only five hours and twenty minutes you will reach this year’s European Capital of Culture.
If you plan on staying longer than a weekend, we recommend you rent a car to be able to explore the rest of the surroundings as well.