Are you wondering why you should visit Matera Italy in 2020?
While travelling through Italy with my mother in September 2019 we visited Matera on a whim. I’m so glad we did – it was the highlight of our Italy experience. Compared to other places we visited in Italy, Matera was fresh and uncrowded. Matera, known as Italy’s city of caves, is quickly opening its doors to travellers, so this UNESCO World Heritage site won’t remain an undiscovered jewel of Italy for long.
Even if you’ve never heard of Matera you may recognise it on the big screen. The latest James Bond movie ‘No Time to Die’ was filming while we were there, and it is the town where the Passion of Christ was also filmed.
The whole town is built on top of, and around, cave systems dating from millennia ago. As one of the oldest cities in the world, it oozes history. With lots of steps in Matera, it isn’t really suitable for young kids or older people with mobility issues – as the town is best explored by foot. The people are very friendly – unlike some of the major tourist centres of Italy we visited. People in Matera are proud of their town and excited to see tourists!
How to get to Matera
Matera is off the beaten path. The cheapest way is a bus trip from Bari to Matera. The trip takes about an hour and cost us about 5 euro each. Go to the Matera Central bus station. From there go to the Tourist Information office to orient yourself. Tourist Information offices are called “TI’s” throughout Italy.
We arrived late in the afternoon. Once we arrived at the TI they called our accommodation, Matera’s B&B, for us. Before too long Thomas from our B&B came to collect us on foot. Thomas carried our bags, and we followed him up steps and around quaint corners to our accommodation.
Explore the Sassi
After settling into our clean room we walked and explored at our own leisure before retiring for the night. Matera’s B&B is only 30m from the Duomo – Matera’s Cathedral which dates back to 1270 and is quite stunning.
Our accommodation was 50m from the Sassi district which is a beautiful historic hillside neighbourhood to walk around. There are three distinct parts to Matera – the old neolithic caves, the Sassi district (old town) where caves have been turned into habitable dwellings, and outer Matera (the new suburbs).
Breakfast was included in our room rate. It was a short walk away at a cafe down the street called Monkey Drink House. They had good coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice, fresh bread, and croissants. Everything we needed to fuel up for more walking.
Lunch was a quick bite at a cafe in a plaza. We were on a budget and found quick bites for lunch or dinner at cafes or bakeries (panificio) suited us best. There are plenty to choose from in Matera. I had an excellent calzone one evening from a local bakery (see the photo – look for the flying angels. Let me know if you find it!).
After breakfast we saw some of the James Bond filmings before booking ourselves in to see Palombaro Lungo – the old underground water system. These giant cisterns conserved water in the dry climate and provided people with a secure water source. They are no longer in use. You need to book at their office, on the day. It is a 20 min tour and well worth the visit. We were booked for 1pm, so had time to catch a quick bite for lunch before going underground to see the old city cistern. It was not at all expensive to join the 20 min tour and it was amazing. (see the gallery at the top of the post for more photos)
Walking tour of Matera
At 3pm we went on a walking tour around Matera. Our friendly guide, Vito, led the way for 2 hours. The tour started at the TI and included a tasting of local pesto and wine at the Tourist office when we returned. The tour was fascinating and explained the extensive history of Matera. We heard how people were relocated out of their cave homes for hygiene and safety reasons in the 1950s. Since then, Matera has cleaned up and rejuvenated the Sassi district where many people now live and work again. There are lots of artisans in the old town. As we walked around the Sassi area it was interesting to have the fake walls built by Mel Gibson for Passion of the Christ pointed out. Everywhere you walk there is something to see with a story attached.
The people of Matera are rightly proud of their history and welcome travellers.
Later that evening we went to visit the Church of Santa Maria de Idris, an old church carved from the rock. There are a number of rupestrian churches (churches carved from rock) in the area. It had a closing time at 9pm. Even though we got there at 8.45 pm, unfortunately, it was already shut. The walk there was worth it though, there are lovely views from that spot.
That night we took our host Thomas’ advice and walked around at night. Thomas had called Matera “the village that sleeps” meaning that at night the streets are empty. We loved our nighttime ramblings. The streets are well lit and safe.
Unfortunately, we had to leave early this day. We took a 7.30am taxi to a bus station in outer Matera (newer part) to catch a bus back to Bari to continue our travels through Italy.
We needed another day, easily. There are neolithic caves with the first signs of men across the river that run tours – we ran out of time – but so wish we’d had time to visit.
If you can’t manage it this year, make sure to visit Matera in 2020 before the world finds out about it.
Trip taken September 2019.
You may also be interested in this article and free itinerary covering Tuscany, Florence, Rome and Venice.