I feel like I was arriving in Matera for days… the anticipation, the planning, the worries… then I got here, after two buses and how much walking?! So I arrived at night but had not seen the sassi… the following morning, after extended hours of sleeping and reading, finally getting outside – still no sassi… There are so many people around now – I’m at the Palazzo Lanfranchi – is something going on? A little to the left… a balustrade, an informational placard, a sheer drop… and the view… finally, they are here – the sassi caveoso… I see them now, and they are fantastic… but wait people really lived here?
What to do
The sassi (caves) of Matera are famous as dwellings dug out of the rock in tiers. The sassi caveoso and sassi barisano have been UNESCO world heritage sites since 1993.
You must see the rupestrian churches (chiese rupestri) that are hewn directly into the rock. Madonna de Idris rises up from the sassi and is a focal point of the skyline. The church has frescoes from the 14th century though some are badly damaged. There is also San Pietro Barisano and Santa Lucia delle Malve plus more in the greater area. Entrance is €3 to each church but combination tickets are available. Open every day.
Start at the Casa Noha for a really great video on the history of Matera. Originally the sassi homes of two families, entry is free but a donation of €4 is encouraged (closed Monday and Tuesday). Neolithic people lived in natural caves in the cliff face. Later on more caves were excavated from the soft tufo rock before becoming largely uninhabited until the 16th century. At this time an influx of SerboCroats created fine homes in the sassi area. However the difficult 19th century forced more and more people to live in caves and more and more sassi were hewn from the rock resulting in very poor conditions, once described as resembling Dante’s Inferno (in Carlo Levi’s Christ stopped at Eboli). In 1952, residents were relocated to new neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the town or to rural villages and prevented from returning to the sassi without making costly renovations. The sassi became the world’s largest abandoned historical site.
Museo Nazionale Ridola has many archaeological finds from the Matera area including stone tools, pottery and jewellery as well as a reconstruction of a mud dwelling from the area. Entrance is a reasonable €2.50.
Piazza Vittorio Veneto is one of the main squares in Matera. It comes alive in the evening for the passeggiata… It is good for people-watching at any time of the day. While I sipped on my cappuccino I was lucky enough to witness the start of a charity cycle race through and around Matera called Il Palio dei Sassi. Later on I also saw a random procession of horses and horse drawn carts, some quite elaborate…
Other churches such as the Baroque San Francesco d’Assissi, Il Duomo and Chiesa del Purgatorio, gruesomely decorated with skulls, are worth looking out for.
I was also interested in visiting the Castello Tramantano, MUSMA (contemporary art museum) and the Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario but did not have a chance to.
Be careful who you talk to. I met a man offering private tours of the city. He briefly showed me an official looking card hanging around his neck but when I hesitated also pointed out his wedding ring and a picture of his baby daughter that he had in his wallet. A seemingly benign encounter but had me very suspicious – needless to say I politely refused all offers…
Stay at Habitat, a gorgeous one-bedroom apartment in the heart of the sassi caveoso at a very reasonable price.
Eat at Il Terrazzino just off Piazza Vittorio Veneto. Get a table outside for a great view of the sassi. I had a huge spread of antipasti with local cheese (burrata) and salami (soppressata) as well as fried and roasted vegetables with bread.
I very much enjoyed the wonder of Matera and though it is not as undiscovered as I expected (or rather, secretly hoped) it deserves every visitor and recommendation it gets!