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Matera surfaces with Italian art and culture to the fore

By Rebecca Hay

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The fabulously quirky Matera. Picture: APT Basilicata .
The fabulously quirky Matera. Picture: APT Basilicata .

“Wow this is surreal’’ exclaimed an excited Ruaridh and Flossie in unison as they surveyed the unique scene in front of them.

Welcome to Matera, dubbed the most spectacular city in Italy – and certainly the most quirky. Currently boasting acclaim as the 2019 European capital of culture, it really is a sight to behold.

For decades it was the most deprived place in Western Europe with 20,000 inhabitants living in depressing and wretched cave dwellings. Travel forwards to 2019 and it’s a vibrant, fun place to be, with culture, class and lovely locals oozing out of every pore.

Given Unesco World Heritage status and described as “the most outstanding example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean’’, this strange but enticing city has you falling in love with it again and again as you explore.

It’s a 75-minute bus ride from the main gateway to the region of Puglia, Bari, which itself is a lovely spot to visit, with lots of beautiful architecture, some nice beaches and relaxing bars and restaurants.

Matera is inland and – in the summer – hot, which means you have to do your sight-seeing at a leisurely pace and, in keeping with the locals, it’s a case of get up and explore early, head home for a siesta early afternoon, out again early evening and back for a rest before the partying begins.

The Sassi district starts here. Picture: APT Basilicata.
The Sassi district starts here. Picture: APT Basilicata.

In the 1960s, Matera’s caves were cleared and the place stood empty until artists and the adventurous decided to call it home and now it's booming with cafés, hotels and art galleries vying for your business.

As you hit the main square, eye catching with its crystal arches which light up colourfully at night, Matera looks like a small and pleasant city.

But a short walk down some steps and you are in another world. The Sassi, to give the district its official name, is a mass of honey-stoned tiny alleys, simple squares and cave churches, all with a backdrop of a strange but enchanting landscape.

Such is its beauty, it has been used in many films, with maybe its most famous starring Mel Gibson in The Passion of Christ.

The beauty of the place is to simply walk round, get lost and see what you stumble across. There are museums dedicated to showing how people lived and worked in the caves, magical now, but no doubt dark and depressing in ancient times.

Religion plays a big part in Matera’s life and there are 150 churches to see as part of the park of the Rupestrian. Experts have unearthed beautiful paintings which have been drawn on the stone and, in the cathedral, a Nativity scene was discovered built into the rock.

Rock art in Matera. Picture: APT Basilicata.
Rock art in Matera. Picture: APT Basilicata.

The year of culture has allowed Matera to erect fascinating sculptures including a space elephant hanging from the sky and a very intriguing piano and pianist.

Art is everywhere, with Italy’s finest showing off their modern take on life, and culture is the main attraction with an impressive list of events in 2019. Night time when it cools, you will find the locals gathered in squares enjoying open air classic concerts with musicians and singers dressed in their finery against a colourfully lit backdrop of one of the city’s finest churches.

Festivals also play a big part and at the beginning of July, the Festa della Brunsa, a week-long religious feast, is held and is rounded off with a parade through the town and in honour of the Madonna Bruna, who is carried aloft through the streets.

The locals are enjoying their year of fun and it must seem a long way from the dark depressing times when Matera was regarded as an embarrassment to Italy.

What’s great is that it’s mainly a tourist destination for Italians, who flock there in their thousands to see a place that is now the pride of their country. British voices are few and far between as only a few have discovered this delicious secret – so go now and I guarantee you too will fall in love.

Magical backdrop to an open air concert.
Magical backdrop to an open air concert.

Need to know

Getting there

Low-cost carriers fly into the main airport of Puglia at Bari and, from here, there are bus and train links to Matera and surrounding towns.


Apartments are aplenty in Bari and Matera. Try out La Bomboniera in Bari. Run by the nicest Italian you can meet, Nicola goes the extra mile to help you have a fun stay. His apartment is a bus ride from the centre with good transport links and the apartment is first class. Email Nicola at labombonierabari@libero.it

Staying in the Sassi district of Matera is a unique experience, but we had heard the caves could be a bit claustrophobic after a while, so we opted for a top-notch apartment near the bus station and close enough to reach the old and new town. Email Massimiliano at visitazionesuite@gmail.com

Tourist information

Check out www.aptbasilicata.it

The Space Elephant.
The Space Elephant.

Pack smartly

Most airlines now charge for onboard luggage, but if you pack cleverly you can get away with a bag which neatly fits under the seat. The Kathmandu Litehaul 12L Plus 1 fits the airline edict with aplomb and is not only smart, but with lots of secret pockets inside, you can fit in a surprising amount of clothing. Made from 12 plastic bottles, it turns into a daypack when you reach your destination. Check out: www.kathmandu.co.uk/packs-and-bags/litehaul-12l-plus-1.html

Explore the narrow alleys of Matera.
Explore the narrow alleys of Matera.

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