Italy: Matera – from shame to chic in 50 years

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Matera - Sassi, Basilicata
Sassi di Matera (c) Fototeca ENIT/Sandro Bedessi

There’s a tiny corner in Southern Italy that has only recently come out of the shadows. Much maligned as recently as 50 years ago as “The shame of Italy”, Matera, the ancient revamped capital of Basilicata, with its magnificent rocky cavernous landscape and its troglodyte dwellings, has been awarded European Capital of Culture for 2019 and is preparing to swing open its doors to tourism.

So is it worth going to visit?

Without a doubt, Matera is very easy on the eye. Imagine a scene of tightly knitted hillside stone dwellings, so compact that sometimes one sits on top of the other. It’s ancient style oozes a sort of mysterious grandeur with a mix of cave churches carved into the mountain and ornate grand churches in the old town. It could sit easily within the pages of Dan Brown thriller blockbuster.

For one can’t help but wonder about all the goings on and strange characters that may have lurked in those ancient cave dwellings of Sassi di Matera (the stones of Matera) for the best part of 9000 years. Indeed, Bronze age evidence of human existence in the area makes this one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world.

From shame to chic

Matera - A reproduction scale of Sassi by Rizzi Eustachio - living next to animals
Reproduction of how people used to live next to animals in Matera (c) Fototeca ENIT/Sandro Bedessi

Yet not so long ago, living conditions were so bad that the streets of the two sassi (meaning “stones”) districts of Barisano and Caveoso, became inadvertent sewers, homes were badly ventilated often with 90 per cent humidity and on top of that farmers lived with their animals (horses, sheep) in small spaces. None of this was helped by overpopulation, disease and poverty.

The council was so appalled that they evacuated the 20,000 inhabitants and moved them into square two-story homes dubbed casa Mussolini with modern amenities on the outskirts of town. Matera was now ripe for renovation, and has scrubbed up beautifully, so much so that it is gearing up to be a European Capital of Culture for 2019.

Now bathing in the warmth of the limelight, the city is bound to become the next must-visit.

Go for a walk

Matera - S.Giovanni Battista church
S. Giovanni Battista church (c) Fototeca ENIT/Sandro Bedessi

Matera is divided into the civita – the town centre –  and surrounding sassi cliffs. It’s a walk of sometime steep ups and downs and highlights include the sensational views especially from Parco della Murgia Materana, the national park.

The thirteenth century Cathedral of Santa Maria della Bruna made from tufa stone, stands tall overlooking the Sassi from the hightest point on Civita hill. Inside it is rich in Baroque style, with stucco, paintings, gilded frames and sculptures.

Several other churches cut out of tufa stone but a notable exception is the 13th-century San Pietro. It’s worth checking out the Appian Way to Cripta del Peccato Originale to see the medieval cave paintings.

High in this hills is the cave church of Santa Lucia alle Malve, one of 155 rupestrian (made of stone) with extraordinary frescoes.

Film fame

Matera seen from Civita da S. Maria di Idris
(c) Luca Aless

It’s hardly surprising that Mel Gibson chose to film his The Passion of the Christ in 2003. The sassi caves are instantly recognisable as is the church of San Nicola dei Greci which selected as the location for the Last Supper.

Also look out for the soon to be released Ben Hur spectacular starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Huston where Metera features as the backdrop.

The forthcoming Wonder Woman is being shot in Matera and is due for release in 2017 and stars Gal Gadot, David Thewlis, and Robin Wright.

Check out the bread

Matera - bread
(c) Sharron Livingston

Bread making was a big deal way back when. Households would prepare the dough (enough for a week) called Pane di Matera IGP with 100% Lucanian milled semolina grain known as “Senatore Cappelli.” Once a week the trumpet would sound and a baker boy would pick up the dough to take central bakery for baking. It was returned later fully baked. For this service, the baker kept some of the dough for sale as part payment.

Bread is still a big deal and you can taste it at  Il Forno Di Gennaro on Via Nationale, owned by fourth generation baker Particia. You may even get a demo.

Ravenous? Dine in a cavernous restaurant

Baccanti Ristorante, Matera
Baccanti Ristorante (c) Sharron Livingston

Matera has a few rustic restaurants but Baccanti Ristorante does a fabulous Podolico cheese flan with pork sausage as a starter, and hearty dishes such as lamb chops and calf’s cheek served with vegetables

Matera Tours

Viator Matera Basilicata Italy

Package deal:

Sunvil  feature short breaks and multi-centre holidays to the Matera and the south of Italy. A three night stay at the Sextantio Le Grotte Della Civita Hotel in Matera from costs from £745.00 per person. This price includes return flights from London Gatwick to Bari, a hire car and three nights’ B&B accommodation. Alternatively, stay at the Palazzo Gattini for £691 per person on the same basis. A seven night itinerary to Basilicata and Puglia including two nights in Matera before heading off to explore Puglia, starts at £1345 per person, including return flights from London Gatwick, car hire and B&B accommodation in stylish small hotels.

Where to stay

Le Grotte della Civita, which comprises 18 cave-cum-bedrooms is luxuriously rustic and ripe for romance. For those in search of a spa as well, Locanda di San Martino Hotel e Thermae Romanae’s Roman baths may tick the box, while Palazzo Gattini provides spirituality with a view.

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