Matera Explained: 10+ Facts You Need to Know About It
When you have just one day to visit a South that is actually pretty hard to reach – you better make sure to do it right, because you may not get another chance.
So, before we dive into the ultimate itinerary – let’s go over [number] FAQ that you need to know before you hit the road.
Where in is and how old is it?
It is located in the Basilicata. And it has been there since the Paleolithic times (10th millennium BC).
According to Leonardo A. Chisena if continually inhabited it would have been one of the oldest continually inhabited settlements in the world. Even though it hasn’t been inhabited for 12 millenniums straight, it has been occupied continuously for at least 3 millennia making it not only one the oldest cities in but the entire world!
As the capital of the province of , its original settlement lies in two canyons carved by the Gravina River. This area, the , is a complex of carved into the ancient river canyon. Over the course of its history, has been occupied by Greeks, Romans, Longobards, Byzantines, Saracens, Swabians, Angevins, , and Bourbons. (This is very important for the (un)orthodox churches that you’re going to visit!)
Why is famous?
This is most famous for the previously mentioned . But, what exactly are they?
are a very special kind of stone houses dug into the calcarenite rock itself. They were named a in 1993 together with the park of the Rupestrian Churches (more on this later).
In the words of UNESCO itself:
In the 1950s this was known as “The Shame of “. So, the government of forcefully relocated most of the population (roughly 16.000 people) of to areas of the developing modern .
They didn’t do it because they were cruel (though, it was very insensitive, and pretty ruthless because they left the to rot) – they HAD to do it because the locals lived in extreme poverty and unhealthy living conditions. And the modern government considered it inhuman.
You see, until 1948 and Carlo Levi’s memoir “Christ Stopped at Eboli”, was a forgotten place in one of the ‘s least populated area. All hell broke loose when Levi wrote about his years in Basilicata (where the fascists exiled him). He suggested that Christianity and civilization had never reached the deep south of , leaving it a pagan, lawless land, riddled with ancient superstitions.
Levi then singled out the for their “tragic beauty” and hallucinogenic aura of decay-“like a schoolboy’s idea of Dante’s Inferno,” he wrote.
After the 1800s ‘s became “dark holes”, home to filth and disease, with barnyard animals in dank corners, chickens running across the dining room tables, and extremely high infant mortality rates, thanks to rampant malaria, trachoma and dysentery.
So what happened? And how on Earth did evolved from being labelled “the shame of ” to one of the most exotic and most wanted locations on every traveller’s list?
In 1959, at age 23, Raffaello De Ruggieri and his older brother founded a cultural club to save ‘s past – Circolo la Scaletta, the Circle of Stairs. Their little group, composed of relocated Materani and likeminded students and housewives decided to take matters into their hand and rebel against the government’s decision.
And this all of this piqued the interest of the film industry as well.
Because of its unique landscape, has since then often been used for filming biblical scenes. Ever watched Mel Gibson’s “The Passion”? Yep – that’s what I’m talking about. Matera even became “home” of the 25th James Bond instalment – No Time To Die.
Starting with the in tufa limestone and rising up to the more elaborate structures built atop them – looks like you’ve jumped into the time travel machine and went all the way back to !
This all led to voting this ‘s the of Culture in 2019.
Now that you know about Matera’s unique resurrection story – it’s about time to find out how to reach it and admire it in person.
How do you get to ?
As I already mentioned, this is located in the province of Basilicata () making it a bit hard-to-reach place. But, the fact that it was named the Capital of Culture in 2019 had several major upsides. One of them is that is now a must-visit place in the South of , which made it more approachable.
But, unless you’re vacationing in Basilicata, you’ll have some travelling to do (but it is so worth it!). So let’s cover how to reach this if you’re situated in one of the touristic epi-centres.
How do you get from Naples to ?
Obviously – my vote goes to the car. You cannot possibly imagine a more beautiful road trip than this one. You leave the deep-blue sea behind you in Campania and head directly to the green (or golden depending on the season) sea of wheat.
The distance between the two cities is about 251 km. This means it would take you about 3 hours to reach the destination.
Both the bus and the train would take you anywhere from 4 to 5 hours. And you wouldn’t be able to make stops to admire the view.
But, in case you opt-in for a bus ride – when there’s no pandemic, there’s a bus three times a day that will take you from Metropark Napoli Centrale to Villa Longo Stazione.
If you’re a train lover – you can take a train from Napoli Centrale to Ferrandina-Pomarico-Miglionico Station. Some 390m away you’ll see Ferrandina Scalo where you can take another train directly to .
How do you get from to ?
Similar to Naples, other than by car, you can reach the oldest in by train or bus, but even aeroplane.
You can hop on the bus at Tiburtina station and you’ll reach the destination after some 6 hours.
If you decide to take a train – the route will be very similar to the one from Naples. From Tiburtina or Roma Termini you can take a train to Ferrandina-Pomarico-Miglionico Station. Some 390m away you’ll see Ferrandina Scalo where you can take a train that will take you directly to the locality and .
But, if I may suggest, you could adjust your itinerary a bit. Instead of going directly to , you could take a train to Centrale station, spend the night in this yet-another drop-dead-amazing , grab breakfast, go back to Centrale and take a direct train to the of .
The last option is even better! Since the “via ” train ticket option costs anywhere from €33 to €111, maybe it’s better to consider the aeroplane. Take a Leonardo Express train from Roma Termini to Fiumicino airport where you’ll catch a 1h flight to . Once you land, take one of two daily buses (Pugliairbus) and you’ll reach your destination in 1 hour and 15 minutes.
How do you get from to ?
If you’re staying in , the capital of ‘s region – you’ll have absolutely no trouble reaching this as it is only 70km away.
How do you get from Lecce to ?
Lecce is yet another historic in the . It is the capital of the Salentine peninsula (yes, the “heel” of ‘s boot).
I would recommend you to include Lecce in your itinerary if you’re not already staying there.
As a matter of fact – that’s how we organized our one-weekend romantic getaway. The first day we went to where we had lunch, and then went straight to Lecce for an afternoon walk. We had dinner in Alberobello, and in the morning we went to Polignano a Mare (the birth of Domenico Modugno (Volare)) where we spent most of the day. Around 5 pm we were already on our way home, province of Salerno.
But for now, let’s get back to how you can get from Lecce to , if you don’t have a car.
Unless you find a guided tour, you can always take a bus Lecce – Taranto – . The ride takes around 3h and 30 minutes, and the cost of a one-way ticket is €41-€56.
But, maybe a more secure way would be to take a train, as there are more time options. The train goes from Lecce to Centrale (1 hour 18 minutes, €10-€55), and at that same station, you can take a train to Centrale (1 hour 45 minutes, €4-€6).
If, however you decide to rent a car, the prices start at €60, and it will take you 2 hours and 15 minutes to reach .
When all things are taken into consideration – I would say that the train is the best option in this particular case.
Bonus: How far is Alberobello from , and can you visit both in one day?
Alberobello is yet another Apulian that you simply have to visit – no questions asked! If you’re on a tight schedule, an excellent idea is to visit and Alberobello in one day. Spend the majority of the day in the of Sassis, and then enjoy the romantic sunset in the surreal of white trullis.
Alberobello is just 72 km (44 miles) away. This means it will take you around one hour by car to reach your destination.
Unfortunately, there is not a direct bus solution. From Alberobello, you’d have to take a bus to Gioia del Colle Ospedale, then walk to Gioia del Colle and take a bus to Alberobello. The price of both tickets together (one way) is €4-€7, and the ride takes around 2 hours and 45 minutes.
If you decide to go by train – it would be wise to include in your itinerary, as the train line is Alberobello – Centrale – Centrale Station. The price of both tickets (one way) is €8-€12.
Getting around in One Day
A lot of people wonder how much time do you need to explore the ? Well, this really depends on what you’re interested to see and explore. We did it in a couple of hours, but you can choose to spend the entire day there, or even a romantic night or two, as well as an entire week in one of the boutique hotels.
So, let’s see what is there to see – that way you’ll be able to create your perfect itinerary.
This ancient is composed of two parts:
And some of the things you do not want to miss are:
- in front of the church San Francesco d’Assisi,
- Stone churches,
- Local traditional food,
- structures and finally
Of course, if you’re feeling very adventuristic, you can visit the across the Gravina di .
This canyon is not to be mixed with the “Grand Canyon” of Puglia – Gravina di Laterza, which is one of the deepest and greatest canyons in Europe. Formed in the last 60 million years this incision in the terrain extends for 12 kilometres, sometimes reaching a depth of 200 metres and an average width of 400 metres.
But, they are close to one another, and they both have that shepherds used as shelters.
in front of the Church of San Francesco d’Assisi
A quick history throwback:
The oldest part of the church dates back to the 11th century, but the majority of the structure we see today was built in with some heavy 15th century alterations. The facade and the majority of plaster were done in the baroque style in the 18th century.
Fortunately, , thanks to its devoted people, regained its glory.
But, other than this symbolic reminder, you should visit the in front of this church, because it offers the most spectacular view of the and .
If you ask me, this should be the very first stop of your .
Remember De Ruggieri from the beginning?
Well, he and his group discovered numerous architectural treasures over the course of years in the . And they included many rupestrian churches ( = ) covered with priceless Byzantine frescoes.
They managed to identify over 150 churches, some of which had been turned into stables by shepherds with their flocks, including one majestic Byzantine-era cavern now known as the Crypt of Original Sin, which has been dubbed the Sistine Chapel of rupestrian art.
Many of the frescoes were painted by anonymous, self-taught monks. In the of Madonna delle Tre Porte for example, images of the Virgin Mary date back to the 15th century A.D. But, you’ll notice that these Madonnas are not queen-like figures or remote, heavenly virgins typical for Byzantine art. They were painted in the image of country girls.
There are over 150 churches of this sort in , and there are numerous packages with guides, that include various rupestrian churches.
We bought our tickets in the Complex of (where some of the scenes from Mel Gibson’s “The Passion” were filmed), and then we went over to the Church of and Santa Maria de Idris.
I would suggest you explore other churches as well, and see what guided tours cover them:
Bonus art historian stories to make you look super-smart in front of your friends and family
A lot of these churches incorporate painting elements of the Byzantium school, even though they were built both just-before and after the Great Schism (the “break-up” of West (Catholic) and East (Orthodox) church), and the explanation is rather simple.
The deep south of kept to its pagan ways well deep into the Middle ages (just check out the rooftops of Alberobello’s trullis). But, around AD 1000 many religious communities started settling here.
This was just before the Great Schism, and so, many Byzantine monks, seeking solitude and refuge from borderline wars, came to these parts. Consequently, they started turning places of pagan worship into churches. And this is the reason why so many of the frescos are influenced by Byzantine art that can be seen in numerous Orthodox churches.
Local traditional food
When you’ve covered the most beautiful viewpoint, random stone houses and rupestrian churches, head over to a bakery or a (Osteria Belvedere al Vecchio Frantoio) and try their locar bread. Yes – is not only known for its other-worldly architecture but its bread as well!
The particular bread from has long been the ’s symbol. Its form and unique taste are the fruit of ancient culture and tradition that still lives on today. Everything from the way it looks to the way it tastes will blow your mind.
Whichever you choose, I’d recommend you to take a traditional menu, packed with locally made pasta, homemad sauce and wine.
– A Giant Cistern
Once you’ve freshend up in one of the local taverns – head straight to , the giant cistern you do not want to miss out on.
You’ll find the cistern under the main square – Vittorio Veneto.
Make sure to book ahead for a 25-minute tour. There are multilngual guides, who explain its conception and history (English-language tours generally leave at 10.30am, 12.30pm, 3.30pm and 5.30pm).
I’m an art historian – digital marketer – passionate traveler – addicted writer – dedicated member of a long distance relationship mashup.
I’m a materialist that has an urge to help the world. I have absurdly logical mind that helps me focus my creative hyper-energy.
It’s ok to be a crazy mixture of completely opposite ingredients.
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