Matera on the Rocks

Little did I know on the last day of 2019 that the following year was going to be “rocky”… So what better place to spend it than a literal prehistoric city built on rocks and caves? Matera, an incredible destination in Southern Italy, was just as lively as I imagined a European Capital of Culture to be, and it didn’t disappoint in the slightest!

Matera is one of the oldest towns in the world. From the Neolithic age until today (around 7000 years) human activity has been taking place, without interruption, on the same site. These old quarters, known as the Sassi, are sprung out of a rocky area sitting on a great limestone gorge: the Gravina of Matera. They developed with a close relationship to the rock and consist of a mixture of caves and man-made dwellings.

We started off from Bari (5 euro / way and 1.5h train ride with the private Ferrovie Appulo Lucane operator) in the morning and spent around 6-7 hours walking around what is considered to be “one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.” Our main goal: to see as much of the famous “Sassi di Matera” (Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano), a complex of cave dwellings carved into an ancient river canyon.

We also managed to visit a couple of Rupestrian Churches, as well as the Romanesque cathedral built on the Civita between the two Sassi in the 13th century. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to also include in our visit a short trip to the nearby park of Rupestrian Churches, included on the UNESCO World Heritage Site. But there’s always a “next time” with those damned Italian cities, right?

From the train station (Matera Centrale) we walked to Vittorio Veneto Square and enjoyed the first glimpse of the splendour of Matera from the Luigi Guerricchio Belvedere in Sasso Barisano. The sight from here is what you usually find when you Google Matera, so get ready for some incredible views.

View from Luigi Guerricchio Belvedere in Sasso Barisano, Matera

A pleasant walk on the via San Biagio brought us to some interesting landmarks, like the Church of San Giovanni Battista. We continued our walk on via San Rocco, and from there we descended in the heart of the ancient town, or the “Sassi di Matera”. This area still preserves many prehistoric troglodyte settlements, thought to be among the first ever human dwellings on the territory of present-day Italy. Many of these caves or caverns, perfectly adapted to their terrain and ecosystem, have been in use up until the 1950s and have now been turned into museum.

To see what a real peasant dwelling was like before the Sassi were abandoned, we visited several typical cave dwellings with old furniture and tools, like the Casa Grotta Antica Matera in the Sasso Barisano and the Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario in the Sasso Caveoso. These are typical dwellings partly man-made and partly excavated, whose formation can be dated back to the beginning of the 18th century.

Entrance to Casa Grotta Antica Matera in Sasso Barisano, Matera

A dwelling was usually inhabited by one family, but the family at that time was usually a large one, with several children (on average six). The dwellings were furnished with a bed, a chest of drawers, a dowry chest, a small table, a loom and other tools, and a small kitchen was equipped with a classic brick cooking area.

Inside the dwelling, a stall for animals and a manger had been carved out. It was usual for the inhabitants to keep their animals inside the dwellings – mules, horses, chickens, pigs and other farmyard animals were welcomed inside.

This mostly peasant way of life survived up until 1952 when, with the first special law for the Sassi, the transfer of over 15.000 people to new quarters in the modern city began. At that time, Matera had about 30.000 inhabitants and the transfer of half of its population occurred between 1953 and 1968. After the transfer, the ancient dwellings became the property of the government, 70% of the Sassi being now owned by the State and managed by the Town Hall.

The Sassi, having been incorporated into the UNESCO World Heritage List, are now undergoing a complex restoration and renovation so as to show to greater advantage the impressive historic, artistic and commemorative resources found here.

Another favourite stop of mine right next to the Casa Grotta Antica Matera in Sasso Barisano was I Sassi in miniatura. Here, the skilled craftsman Eustachio Rizzi created a very exact reproduction of the Sassi of Matera in tufa rock. He started working in May 1996 and continued to do so for 3 years before finishing the 12 sqm and 3500 kg replica. If you have the time, go in his workshop and buy a tufa souvenir.

I Sassi in miniatura reproduction

Following via Madonna delle Virtu, we circled around the Sassi, allowing us to enjoy the views over the Torrente Gravina, the valley of the Gravina di Matera River, which houses old cave dwellings and cave churches.

Although the park of the UNESCO-inscribed Rupestrian Churches is a little out of the way, you can still visit this kind of monuments in Sasso Caveoso. For example, the Santa Maria de Idris – San Giovanni in Monterrone complex, located on the spur of rock that rises in the Sasso Caveoso, consists of two churches that have been completely excavated in the rock.

The Church of Madonna de Idris, mentioned in 14th century documents, still preserves 17th-18th century frescoes of various saint: St. Eustace (the patron saint of the city of Matera), St. Anthony of Padova, the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Michael. Passing a small opening on the left of the main altar, you find yourself in an older church, called San Giovanni in Monterrone, which preserves various notable frescoes from the 11th-16th century.

Santa Maria de Idris – San Giovanni in Monterrone complex, Matera

From there, we literally climbed over the heights of the Sasso Caveoso up to the Basilica Pontificia Cattedrale di Maria Santissima della Bruna e Sant’Eustachio, the former seat of the Bishops, later Archbishops of Matera.

The last leg of our Matera day trip brought us on the streets bordering other impressive landmarks, like the Palazzo Lanfranchi (The National Museum of Medieval and Modern Art), the National Archaeological Museum “Domenico Ridola” and the great Baroque Church of Saint Francis of Assisi.

Palazzo Lanfranchi – The National Museum of Medieval and Modern Art in Matera
The great Baroque Church of Saint Francis of Assisi in Matera

A nice late lunch (and a glass of wine) later and we were off to the train station to catch the last train back to Bari!

Vino e Dintorni Enoteca in Matera

Unanimous opinion – extraordinary place, which deserves at least another one or two extra days to explore! If you’re in the area (or not!), don’t think twice and go visit Matera! 🙂

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