Matera, a stunning city in Italy’s Basilicata region, is rich with history, cave hotels and authentic Italian food. The time to visit Matera is now.
Have you heard of Matera? Did you ever visit Matera? Probably not if you’re an American. Most Americans visit the Italian trifecta of Rome, Florence and Venice. Don’t get us wrong – these are all world-class cities. But there’s so much more to Italy than these three popular cities to the north. As an example, Naples is the home of pizza and other edible delectables. And then there’s Matera.
We were drawn to visit the city that was tagged a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993. We had first heard about Matera in Italian cookbooks not to mention the visually stunning (despite its subtext) Mel Gibson movie ‘The Passion of Christ’. Based on the food and the movie’s scenery, we had to visit Matera during our most recent Italy trip.
Our Arrival at Matera
We entered Matera in search of our hotel after a long day of travel. At first glance, Matera looked like any small Italian town with churches, small boutiques and a strolling array of citizens enjoying the nightly passeggiata.
Before we parked our rental car, Daryl dashed down a stairway searching for our small cave hotel. After finding the entrance to Antico Convicino, he returned to the idling car and a skeptical Mindi who was starting to think that the visible town center was all there was of the ancient town.
“It’s a cute town, but it’s not so special,” she said.
Daryl laughed as he led her down the undulating stairway of thousand-year old stones that revealed the ancient cityscape of converted cave dwellings also known as Sassi for the first time. Mindi quickly changed her mind.
Antico Convicino is located at Via San Pietro Caveoso, 18/30, 75100 Sassi Matera, Matera MT, Italy.
A Photo Op at Every Angle in Matera
It hit us as we were exploring Matera the next morning. The city truly is a photo opportunity at every angle. The hilly landscape provides vista after vista. And the cave dwellings provide surprise after surprise.
Ironically, the glorious city has a storied past. Until the 1950’s, Matera was a wretched place – a sort of Italian Gulag where political prisoners were sent to live in the dreary sun-scorched desolation of rocks and stone. Today, in an odd and imaginative twist, gentrification has transformed the previously impoverished colony into a landlocked Mediterranean paradise filled with boutique hotels and charming restaurants. The renewed city also brings tourists of all ages, even the hipsters.
The Matera landscapes and skylines are breathtaking, filled with a craggy mosaic of spires and uneven rooftops. It’s especially gorgeous at dawn and dusk as the sun breaks over the stone filled Sasso center.
Tour busses only travel through the town for a few hours a day. Sightseeing crowds are generally gone by early afternoon and it’s easy to find solitary landscapes among the stone filled desolation. There is no shortage of spots for a peaceful moment for reflecting on Matera’s vivid past and present.
Traveling Tip: When walking through Matera, be sure to carry a fully charged camera and a wide-angle lens. The city is like a time machine. As you walk through its dense, narrow passageways you will surely be in awe at each twist and turn, and you will literally want to click your camera at every step.
Matera is for Foodies
In Matera, we found homey, simple food with deep flavors built around the classic Italian concept of Cucina Povera – the idea that great food is built on ingredients that are cheap, accessible and local. Along with wonderful bread and charcuterie, the Lucanians in Matera make extensive use of mild sun dried chili peppers that impart deep earthy flavors to much of their cuisine, especially the brilliant handmade cavatelli and orecchiette pastas.
Food like this can be found at family run restaurants like Trattoria del Caveoso, a casual trattoria that we stumbled upon while wandering around town on our first night. We savored the cavatelli con peperoni cruschi with its crunchy dried Lucani peppers, ricotta salata and fried bread crumbs in the dimly lit cavern (a repeated theme in Matera) filled with colorful a mix of locals and tourists. We washed the hearty food down with a bottle from the restaurant’s affordable list of local Basilicatan and Puglian wines. This is the type of restaurant that deserves a second visit, and we enthusiastically obliged.
Tasting Tip: The charcuterie in Matera is second to none. When you eat at Trattoria del Caveoso, be sure to try the lonza. Their take on the cured pork loin is as buttery as sushi.
Trattoria del Caveoso is located at Via Bruno Buozzi, 21, 75100 Matera MT, Italy.
We never thought we would taste better gelato than the gelato that we enjoyed in Bologna on a previous trip, but Matera came close. Our favorite gelato was the organic (biologico) gelato served at trendy Lounge Caffè. The nutty pistachio and chocolate cherry flavors and creamy textures were spot on.
Lounge Caffè is located at Via del Corso, 60, 75100 Matera MT, Italy.
Dig Deeper in Matera
As if the ancient city with its caves isn’t enough, Matera is situated over a ravine. This topography makes the city perfect for hiking and exploring.
The bend of Matera’s main road through the Sassi empties into the Parco della Murgia Materana, a mini Italian version of the Grand Canyon, where adventurers can rock climb and where less adventurous travelers can hike through many of the cities nearby ravines which wind through a network of caves, picturesque hills and peaceful streams. (We fell into the latter category.)
One can only explore so much in a day, and Matera has plenty of cafés for chilling out and enjoying a drink or two. Then again, drinking a bottle of wine on a hotel terrace looking out on the city is the ultimate chill-out experience.
Tasting Tip: Go to Il Buongustaio for wine, cheese and charcuterie. You can purchase all necessary provisions for a memorable picnic. Then go back to the shop later to buy edible gifts to take home for friends, family and yourself.
Il Buongustaio is located at Piazza Vittorio Veneto, 1, 75100 Matera MT, Italy.
Why You Should Visit Matera Now
Without a direct train line to Matera, the city has a delightfully non-touristy vibe. This situation won’t last forever since Matera has been designated the 2019 European Capital of Culture in Italy. It’s inevitable that the crowds and trains will come in droves.
Where else can you stay at a cave hotel? It’s a unique experience that you will never forget. Matera has cave hotels ranging from basic hostels to fancy hotels in former palaces. It truly is a unique experience.
There are tourists in Matera now, but not many, with most coming and leaving by bus long before the sun sets. As more and more cave hotels are built and with people like us spreading the word, Matera will rival the popular northern cities in terms of tourism.
The Matera experience will still be special but less so, as happens when a place is crowded with tourists. In other words, now is the time to visit Matera.