Matera, The Ancient Cave City of Basilicata
Strange things motivate people to travel. A Pinterest post. A famous book. Chasing remnants of family history.
This trip to Italy was inspired by a few shredded pages of a travel magazine I had stuffed in my planner and a burning desire to sleep in a cave. Not just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill cave, but a lux cave hotel, situated in the ancient Italian city of Matera.
My cave hotel dreams, realized at Albergo Sextantio Le Grotte Della Civita
The Mister and I decided to make Matera our first stop on our 3 week trip to Italy. A few days in Matera, two days in Lecce and the remaining 10 days at a wine and cooking school in Puglia. A little history, a little wandering, a LOT of eating and drinking.
We flew into Bari and took the “Pugliairbus” directly from the airport. I don’t usually rely on Italian buses to get around, but I forgot to get an International Drivers permit to hire a car, so it was public transport for us.
When the Pugliairbus bus dropped us at the “Matera” stop, I was convinced we were in the wrong spot. No sign of the dramatic cliffs and ancient caves pictured in the travel magazine. Just a traffic circle, Saturday morning shoppers and city buses chugging through very modern streets.
It seemed the ancient, hidden cave city of Matera was actually hidden.
We left the bus stop and bumped our luggage along the streets in search of the Sassi District, the heart of Matera’s ancient cave city.
The modern city fell away quickly, the paved streets turned into cobbled pathways which drew us to an opening at the edge of a ravine. We peered over the city wall and down onto a truly magical sight.
Rocky ledges jammed with cave houses, one on top of the other. A tumble of doors, roofs, and windows glowing in the late afternoon sun.
We followed our map to the hotel. Up, down, up, around until we arrived hot, sweaty and disheveled at our hotel, the Albergo Sextantio Le Grotte Della Civita. So much for looking glamorous on arrival in Italy.
A better way to get to your hotel room. If only I had known…
A little history lesson
After a little/lot of freshening up, we set off to explore the city before dinner. It took about 15 minutes and 40 wrong turns to realize that maps are only 50% useful in Matera. Like Venice, getting lost is the best way to understand and appreciate everything the city has to offer.
It’s hard to believe this enigmatic cave city was once considered the shame of Italy. Condemned in 1952 for its inhospitable, harsh living conditions, the Italian government forcibly relocated the entire population of Matera to surrounding areas. The cave city, continuously inhabited for over 9000 years, was left to crumble.
The cave homes slowly filled with damp and dirt. Some collapsed entirely. The abandoned cave city fell into the hands of squatters, criminals, and smugglers.
Over time, enterprising Italians and displaced families lobbied to return. One by one, caves were leased, purchased, reclaimed and renovated, despite their horrendous condition. Tiny hotels and small cafes opened their doors to accommodate a slow trickle of curious visitors.
Unesco declared Matera’s Sassi a World Heritage site in 1993, noting it was “the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem.”
Richard Gere used Matera as the setting for “King David” in 1985. Mel Gibson filmed “Passion of the Christ” in Matera in 2004. Matera was the shame of Italy no longer.
This isn’t to say the city is entirely gentrified. Our long way round to dinner leads us through Matera’s labyrinth of passageways past the small boutique hotels and tidy cafes to the edge of gentrification.
The occasional derelict cave home stands tucked between renovated homes bedecked with flowers and curtained windows. Abandoned caves, empty windows, and grass-covered doorways stare down into the ravine, waiting their turn for renovation.
Hunger drove us back to the center of Matera and we inadvertently joined the evening passeggiata (promenade). Older Italian women and men sat outside their homes gossiping and inspecting everyone who walked by. I think we passed.
We spent the next 3 hours in the stone-vaulted L’Arco restaurant, gorging ourselves on the tasting menu and enjoying a bottle of the local Matera Primitivo. We walked back to our hotel through the magical, otherworldly glow of Matera at night.
Romanesque Church of St. John the Baptist
What do see and do in Matera
Walk. Matera is a city meant for exploration. On foot, without a map, with a sense of adventure. Think of it as a Venice without the water. Spend most of your time in Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano, the ancient cave “neighborhoods” of Matera.
Explore the ancient Rupestrian churches and admire the frescoes. There are over 155 ancient churches in and around Matera. Don’t miss Chiesa di Santa Maris d’Idris and San Giovanni in Monterrone, connected by a narrow passageway and filled with gorgeous frescoes. Chiesa Madonna Delle Virtu and San Nicola dei Greci, 11th-century churches and crypts dug deep into the rock. Even if you aren’t a fan of touring churches, the connected, underground crypts and passageways are worth a look.
Go see the Crypt of Original Sin. It takes a bit of doing to arrange an escort to this cave. I never made it because I didn’t stay in Matera long enough to do everything I wanted to do. Don’t be me. This cave is known as the Sistine Chapel of cave churches. You can book here.
Hike into the ravines and explore abandoned caves. Follow in the footsteps of holy men and admire the ancient, primitive wall paintings.
Where we stayed
We stayed at the spectacular Le Grotte della Civita. The photo I had ripped out of a travel magazine years ago was of this hotel. It is quite an experience.
Where we ate
I’m not sure how we managed to eat this often while we were in Matera, but there you go. Prices are very reasonable, especially if you stick to the delicious, simple, local menu items.
Baccanti Ristorante Via Sant’Angelo, 58-61 75100 Matera, Italia, Tel. +39 0835 333704, email: firstname.lastname@example.org (Closed Sunday evenings and Mondays).
Ristorante Alle Fornaci 7, Piazza Firrao – 75100 Matera, Italia, ristoranteallefornaci@virgilio.
L’Arco Osteria Via Beccherie, 49 Matera, Italia, Tel.+39 0835 334626, email: email@example.com.
Il Terrazzino Vico San Giuseppe, 7 (Piazza V. Veneto) 75100 Matera, Italia, Tel. +39 0835 332503, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
What to read
Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year by Carlo Levi, available at Amazon.
What to watch
The Gospel According to St. Matthew, 1964, Pasolini
King David, 1985 with Richard Gere
Passion of the Christ, 2004 with Mel Gibson
Ben Hur, 2016 with Morgan Freeman and Jack Huston
How to Get There
The closest airport to Matera is the Bari International Airport (43 miles). There is a seasonal shuttle direct to Matera. EasyJet, British Airways and Ryan Air fly direct from London go Bari. Brindisi is also an option, albeit a farther one.
Check here for information from the Puglia Region Airport Authority.