Italy,  Travel

Matera Explained: 10+ Facts You Need to Know About It

When you have just one day to visit a South Italian city 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 Matera itinerary – let’s go over [number] FAQ that you need to know before you hit the road.

Where in Italy is Matera and how old is it?

It is located in the Southern Italian region 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 Italy but the entire world!

As the capital of the province of Matera, its original settlement lies in two canyons carved by the Gravina River. This area, the Sassi di Matera, is a complex of cave dwellings carved into the ancient river canyon. Over the course of its history, Matera has been occupied by Greeks, Romans, Longobards, Byzantines, Saracens, Swabians, Angevins, Aragonese, and Bourbons. (This is very important for the (un)orthodox churches that you’re going to visit!)

Why is Matera famous?

This city is most famous for the previously mentioned Sassi. But, what exactly are they?

Sassi di Matera are a very special kind of stone houses dug into the calcarenite rock itself. They were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993 together with the park of the Rupestrian Churches (more on this later).

In the words of UNESCO itself:

This is the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem. The first inhabited zone dates from the Palaeolithic, while later settlements illustrate a number of significant stages in human history.

So, what exactly happened to Matera in the ’50s?

In the 1950s this town was known as “The Shame of Italy“. So, the government of Italy forcefully relocated most of the population (roughly 16.000 people) of Matera‘s Sassi to areas of the developing modern city.

They didn’t do it because they were cruel (though, it was very insensitive, and pretty ruthless because they left the city to rot) – they HAD to do it because the locals lived in extreme poverty and unhealthy living conditions. And the modern Italian government considered it inhuman.

However, the story of Matera got a beautiful plot twist in the 1980’s thanks to Raffaello De Ruggieri.

You see, until 1948 and Carlo Levi’s memoir “Christ Stopped at Eboli”, Matera was a forgotten place in one of the Basilicata region‘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 Italy, leaving it a pagan, lawless land, riddled with ancient superstitions.

Levi then singled out the Sassi for their “tragic beauty” and hallucinogenic aura of decay-“like a schoolboy’s idea of Dante’s Inferno,” he wrote.

Two black and white photos of old MAtera. On the top right [source: Pinterest] we see a group of local women in front of sassi, stone houses. On the bottom left [source: David Seymour, Magnum photos]a young girl standing on tin cans (1948)
On the top right [source: Pinterest] we see a group of local women in front of sassi, stone houses. On the bottom left [source: David Seymour, Magnum photos]a young girl standing on tin cans (1948)

After the 1800s town‘s ancient cave dwellings 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 Matera evolved from being labelled “the shame of Italy” 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 Matera‘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, Matera 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 prehistoric caves in tufa limestone and rising up to the more elaborate structures built atop them – Matera looks like you’ve jumped into the time travel machine and went all the way back to Ancient Jerusalem!

"Matera is one of the oldest living cities in the world in terms of continuity. You can find older cities in Mesopotamia, but they have not been occupied in modern times. Where else can you now sleep in a room that was first occupied 9,000 years ago?"
Antonio Nicoletti
urban planner from Matera

This all led to voting this Basilicata region‘s city the European Capital 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 Matera?

As I already mentioned, this city is located in the province of Basilicata (Southern Italy) 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 Matera is now a must-visit place in the South of Italy, 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 ancient city if you’re situated in one of the touristic epi-centres.

How do you get from Naples to Matera?

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.

An image showing three options to reach Matera from Naples - by car, bus and train, with highlighted times, stations, distance.

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 Matera.

How do you get from Rome to Matera?

Similar to Naples, other than by car, you can reach the oldest city in Italy by train or bus, but even aeroplane.

You can hop on the bus at Rome 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 Rome 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 prehistoric caves and sassi.

But, if I may suggest, you could adjust your itinerary a bit. Instead of going directly to Matera, you could take a train to Bari Centrale station, spend the night in this yet-another drop-dead-amazing city, grab breakfast, go back to Bari Centrale and take a direct train to the old city of Sassi.

The last option is even better! Since the “via Bari” 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 Bari. 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 Bari to Matera?

If you’re staying in Bari, the capital of Southern Italy‘s region Apulia – you’ll have absolutely no trouble reaching this ancient city as it is only 70km away.

There are:

How do you get from Lecce to Matera?

Lecce is yet another historic city in the Southern Italian region Apulia. It is the capital of the Salentine peninsula (yes, the “heel” of Italy‘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 Matera 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 city of Domenico Modugno (Volare)) where we spent most of the day. Around 5 pm we were already on our way home, province of Salerno.

Three photos showing the historic center of Lecce, with a color pallet of three dominant color.

But for now, let’s get back to how you can get from Lecce to Matera, if you don’t have a car.

Unless you find a guided tour, you can always take a bus Lecce – Taranto – Matera. 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 Bari Centrale (1 hour 18 minutes, €10-€55), and at that same station, you can take a train to Matera 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 Matera‘s Sassi.

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 Matera, and can you visit both in one day?

Alberobello is yet another Apulian town that you simply have to visit – no questions asked! If you’re on a tight schedule, an excellent idea is to visit Matera and Alberobello in one day. Spend the majority of the day in the old town of Sassis, and then enjoy the romantic sunset in the surreal town 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.

Three photos depicting Alberobello and its trulli bathed in sun, with a pallet of three dominant colors, their codes and unique names.

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 Bari in your itinerary, as the train line is Alberobello – Bari Centrale – Matera Centrale Station. The price of both tickets (one way) is €8-€12.

Getting around Matera in One Day

A lot of people wonder how much time do you need to explore the city? 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 town is composed of two parts:

  • Sassi Barisano
  • Sassi Caveoso

And some of the things you do not want to miss are:

  • Piazza in front of the 13th century church San Francesco d’Assisi,
  • Stone churches,
  • Local traditional food,
  • Stone house structures and finally
  • Palombaro Lungo

Of course, if you’re feeling very adventuristic, you can visit the neolithic caves across the Gravina di Matera.

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 abandoned caves that shepherds used as shelters.

Piazza 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 13th century with some heavy 15th century alterations. The facade and the majority of plaster were done in the baroque style in the 18th century.

Fortunately, Matera, thanks to its devoted people, regained its glory.

But, other than this symbolic reminder, you should visit the piazza in front of this church, because it offers the most spectacular view of the historic centre and sassi.

If you ask me, this should be the very first stop of your walking tour.

Rupestrian Churches

Remember De Ruggieri from the beginning?

Well, he and his group discovered numerous architectural treasures over the course of years in the Sassi district. And they included many rupestrian churches (rupestrian church = cave church) covered with priceless Byzantine frescoes.

They managed to identify over 150 cave 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 rupestrian church 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.

Two photos depicting rupestrian churches of Matera. Pallet of four dominant colors.

There are over 150 churches of this sort in Matera, and there are numerous walking tour packages with guides, that include various rupestrian churches.

We bought our tickets in the Complex of Madonna delle Virtu (where some of the scenes from Mel Gibson’s “The Passion” were filmed), and then we went over to the Church of San Pietro Barisano 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 Italy 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 restaurant (Osteria Belvedere al Vecchio Frantoio) and try their locar bread. Yes – Matera is not only known for its other-worldly architecture but its bread as well!

The particular bread from Matera has long been the city’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 restaurant you choose, I’d recommend you to take a traditional menu, packed with locally made pasta, homemad sauce and wine.

Palombaro Lungo – A Giant Cistern

Once you’ve freshend up in one of the local taverns – head straight to Palombaro lungo, the giant cistern you do not want to miss out on.

You’ll find the cistern under the main square – Piazza 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).

Tamara Biljman home page of Walkindsky Explores content marketing practices

About Me

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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Interesting Matera Fact

Matera is the only place in the world where people can boast to be still living in the same houses of their ancestors of 9,000 years ago.

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I am an art historian turned content strategist who spends days exploring what makes people tick on all channels of communication. I love making sense of data, exploring new AI tools and crafting compelling content that raises brand authority. This doesn’t really come as a surprise considering my background – Interwar propaganda art that earned her two MA degrees and articles in international scientific journals.

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