Matera, Italy's magical city of stone and caves

Matera is a European Capital of Culture for 2019, famous for its once-abandoned caves, and the many other reasons it’s become a must-see destination while in Basilicata, or even on a longer tour of Italy.

Why were Matera’s famous caves abandoned?

In the 1940s, the writer Carlo Levi, exiled to southern Italy by the fascists, wrote of a city of caves called Matera. He told of its ‘tragic beauty’, and of its people who lived in ‘dark holes’ known as sassi, hand dug from the rock since prehistory.

Levi’s words later caused a stink in post-war Italy, and in the 1950s Matera’s sassi were cleared and its residents relocated. After lying derelict for decades, it was only in the 1990s – after a park was created to protect the 150 rock-cut churches pocking its hills, and once UNESCO had earmarked the city for World Heritage status – that redemption began in earnest. Caves became hotels, homes and restaurants, and shame gradually turned to pride.

Today, about 1,500 people live in the cave districts, though some 30% of the sassi still remain empty, Nicola revealed as we tramped the cobbles of the Sasso Barisano (cave district). When he was in his teens, he and his friends hung out in these caves; one we visited is now a theatre built into the rock.

After Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ was shot here in 2004, Italy woke up to Matera: locals throng its piazzas, and it’s been named European Capital of Culture for 2019. Yet beyond the sassi, the region’s wonders remain little known.

Basilicata is a wild land of lonely ghost towns, wineries in ancient volcanoes and colourful history – Greek ruins and Albanian villages built by 15th-century refugees stud hills and valleys.

Two days later, high in Pollino National Park, I saw its wild side for myself. My guide pointed at a solitary giant Bosnian pine, ancient and rare, surrounded by the skeletal remains of dead trees – one last tragic beauty in a region of slow wonders.

What do Matera locals recommend?

‘Italy’s shame’ is now its pride and joy. Locals fill Matera on weekends and saint’s days. Bag a tour: many off-radar sassi require a key.

Archaeologist and guide Nicola Taddonio, who runs Sassi Tour, grew up here. His half-day city walk delves into hidden alleys, trawling a history thronged with invaders (Greek, Roman, Byzantine). Visit the private St George sassito see how such caves were repurposed for each era – first as a church, then for oil production, then later for wine.

The half-day Murgia Park tour roams the ravine to reveal rock-cut medieval churches and their delicate murals. It also affords fine views of the sassi districts, including the abandoned and still partly off-limits Casalnuovo.

The ruins of Craco (Shutterstock)

Delve into the cathedral-like Palombaro Lungo cistern below Piazza Vittorio Veneto, and visit Casa Grotta, recreating life in a sassi, where dung was burned for heat!

Later, dine on local farm produce (try cruschi peppers) at Agriristories then sleep in a ‘4-star cave’ at chic Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita.

When’s the best time to visit Matera, Italy?

Snow blankets Pollino National Park around December to April. Skiing and snowshoe hikes are possible, and the park is two hours away by car. To experience Matera during a festive period, the annual Festa della Madonna Brulla takes place in July.

Whenever you visit, you’ll need a car to get around, so we recommend flying to Bari (in the north) and road-tripping across Basilicata, winding past crumbling citadels and ending with the pizzerias of Naples.

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