Matera, Italy: 7 Tips to Be a Pro

Matera, an enchantingly beautiful town in Italy

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Matera is a city we love for its delicious sassi and beautiful landscapes. It’s located at the border of Basilicata & Puglia. It is not only stunning, but also fascinating. Its history dates back over 30,000 years.

Did we mention it’s easier than you think?

These are 7 top reasons Matera should be added to your itinerary for your next Italy vacation. If you love UNESCO World Heritage Sites (who doesn’t?) Don’t forget our blog about other stunning UNESCO World Heritage Sites in southern Italy.

1. The famous Matera sassi are not what you think.


The sassi de Matera

Many people believe that Matera’s cave dwellings can be called “sassi”. They are not. Two neighborhoods of stone dwellings are called “sassi” in Italian.


The Neolithic caves of Matera

These dwellings don’t always appear like caves from outside. (The Palaeolithic Caves, as seen in the photos, are located across the ravine to Matera’s ancient centre.

These dwellings are carved into rock and look more like homes stacked one on top of another. Their interiors can feel almost cave-like. This is a clever and space-saving design. If you step onto one of these narrow lanes, you will be standing on the roof of the house below. This is also smart for sharing water. Water would be collected on the plateau above town, and then brought down to the community.

These were the main quarters that Matera saw rise up.

2. Aside from Petra, Jordan, Matera is the oldest continuously-inhabited settlement in history


The Palaeolithic caves in Matera

The “Palaeolithic Period” is the oldest period of human history. This was a time when woolly mammals roamed the Earth and the last Ice Age was ending. Guess what? This was the time when Matera was established. (We are talking about around 15,000 B.C. ).

Matera is different than other Palaeolithic settlements because the inhabitants and their ancestors never left. They dug in, literally. The Iron and Bronze Ages saw the emergence of metal tools and the construction of underground caverns and cisterns by settlers. They also dug tombs in the soft volcanic rock (called tufa) that was found throughout the landscape. They also built dwellings, which is a famous fact.

These dwellings and the people who lived there remained through all of the subsequent waves of rulers and empires from Greeks to Romans and Byzantines. Even though things have changed, they (and their descendants!) are still there.

3. Matera was the location where The Passion of the Christ film was shot

Mel Gibson chose Matera for his 2004 film The Passion of the Christ because of its unarthly beauty and ancient history. It’s not just him who has set a Biblical film there: Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), Beresford’s King David (1985), Hardwicke’s The Nativity Story (2006), and Beresford’s King David (1985) were also all shot here.

4. Matera was not always easy.


Life in Matera’s stone dwellings: not always so romantic (photo courtesy of Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario)

Matera is a romantic place today. It wasn’t always like this. You can still imagine the challenges of living in an ancient town sassi. Homes, churches, and stores are all connected by narrow pathways or stairs. Living in a Matera stone house would be difficult for those who are used to modern conveniences.

Matera was also poor in the 19th and 20th centuries. One-room, stone-built homes were often shared with other animals, such as donkeys, and without heat or plumbing. The Casa Grotta Di Vico Solitario demonstrates what life was like in the 1950s. Malaria was rampant. The conditions were so dire that the 1952 law passed by the Italian government forced Matera’s residents to move into new, modern buildings. The “new Matera”, located up the hill from the ancient Sassi, is still in existence and home to the majority of Matera’s residents today.

The area was then declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. Matera is becoming more popular and people are returning to the sassi to restore the stone homes or open them up as luxury hotels. Matera’s residents of the 19th and early 20th centuries would be amazed to see their town today.

5. You have the opportunity to visit Matera’s stone churches, but please don’t touch their frescoes


The Matera rupestrian church Madonna di Idris,

Like the homes, the churches of Matera are made from stone. These churches are known as “rupestrian church”. Many of them date back to Middle Ages and have vibrant frescoes covering their interiors.


A fresco from one of Matera’s rupestrian Churches that is still in good condition.

These churches are fascinating and haunting, but unfortunately they are in poor condition. Although some restorations were made, the frescoes are still very delicate. What’s worse is that they are being damaged by tourists. Damage caused by tourists–particularly from touching them. Frescoes are very sensitive to moisture so your natural oils can cause damage. You can see in many churches where frescoes are almost gone. This is because people have grasped onto them around doorframes.

Please, see the frescoes before they disappear. Your admission ticket price will help to fund their restoration. Never, ever touch them.

6. Matera might not be for you if you hate stairs


Are you coming to Matera? Expect to climb stairs!

You might not like to stay in it. You will need to climb stairs in order to get from your hotel or church to another. There are many of them. Don’t forget accessibility for those with disabilities.

Bring your walking shoes and be prepared to sweat, especially if you visit in the summer. It can get quite hot in the south of Italy, even at the end September.

Beware!

7. Although there is no Trenitalia train from Matera, it’s not impossible to get there by bus or car.


Bari train station with Matera trains

Even seasoned Italy tourists don’t know this: Matera can be connected by train to other Italian towns!

The Trenitalia website is a source of confusion. If you plug in “Rome” or “Matera”, no solutions will appear. There is a train station in the area. (There is!). It isn’t on the national rail system.

If you prefer to travel by train, it is best to get to Bari first. It is connected to the national network so you can check prices and times on the Trenitalia website. It takes approximately 4 hours to go from Rome to Bari. Next, go to Ferrovie Appulo Lucane. Enter “Bari Centrale” as your starting point, and “Matera Centrale” as your destination. There are many options. The ride is approximately 1 hour, 15 minutes or 1.5 hours long and costs around 2 euros. It’s only a 15 minute walk from the station to reach the sassi in Matera.

The trains to Matera don’t depart from the main station at Bari Centrale, but rather from a smaller station outside of it. If you are looking for the place you want, you can see the building marked “Ferrovie Appulo Luccone” when you step outside on the piazza at the station.

This is a smaller train service and may not be available on Sundays or holidays. If that happens, you can take a bus from Bari or Matera. Just ask at the station.

There are buses from Rome, Ancona and Florence to Matera, but in general the train is the most efficient and cheapest way to get there.