The beautiful city of Matera is located in the lesser-known region of Basilicata. It is a spectacular place to explore on leisurelyprivate tours in Italy
Matera sprang to tourists’ attention after Mel Gibson chose it as the backdrop for his movie “The Passion of the Christ”. Dramatic rocky landscape and ancient history make this area a fascinating destination for those who are looking for the roads less travelled. Matera is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited settlements in the world with the earliest cave-dwellings dating back to Paleolithic times. Greeks, Romans, Byzantines have left their marks in the city’s history. Some decades ago Matera was synonymous with poverty, squalor and malaria. Locals lived in caves without electricity, running water or sewage sharing small spaces with pigs, donkeys and chickens. To end this national shame, a law was passed and in the 1950s and the cave residents were moved to modern houses.
The ancient neighbourhoods, known as sassi, were abandoned for a few decades. In 1993, Matera was made a UNESCO World Heritage site, for being “the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem”. Due to the growing interest the sassi began a new lease of life, restructured and turned into comfortable homes and luxury hotels. Today more and more visitors are attracted to the labyrinth of narrow alleyways and carved grottoes in the Matera’s ancient neighbourhoods of Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso. The small museums of Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario and Casa Grotta del Barisano show what these cave-dwellings would have looked like in the 1950s.
There are many rupestrian churches in Matera that were carved from rock by Basilian monks in the 8-9th centuries. Many of them have beautiful fading Byzantine frescoes and are very atmospheric. Make sure you visit Madonna dell’Idris and San Giovanni in Monterrone to appreciate their beauty.
After walking up and down the numerous steps in Matera you will be happy to refuel on the tasty local dishes. The Trattoria Lucana serves excellent traditional food of Basilicata and has a pasta dish called “Fettucini alla Mel Gibson”. Apparently, Mel Gibson dined here almost every day while filming the “The Passion of Christ” and the owners created that dish in his honor.
Photos by. Andrea Rinaldi, Lorenzo Gaudenzi, Paola Sucato.