Matera is a city unlike any you’ve ever seen. It is considered the third longest continually-inhabited settlement in the world (after Aleppo in Syria and Jericho in Palestine). People lived in caves here during the Neolithic era, as far back as 9000 years ago, and possibly longer.

Officially part of the Basilicata region in southern Italy, Matera is located close enough to Puglia that I (as most visitors do) decided to include it in my itinerary. Hopefully this photo-essay will give you a good idea of what it’s like and why it was chosen as one of the European Capitals of Culture for 2019!

Matera in photos

Murgia Park, Matera (Matera in photos)

On the northwestern edge of town, the Gravina torrent (previously a river) cuts through a wide gorge where early inhabitants dug their home-caves in the soft tufa stone of the valley walls. This is now a protected area called Murgia Park (Parco della Murgia Materana) which includes abandoned caves and villages but also about 150 cave-churches (chiese rupestri). You can access and hike through it from town.

Iconic view of Matera, from the cliff promenade (Matera in photos)

Iconic view of the Sasso Caveoso

A pedestrian street in Matera (Matera in photos)

A pedestrian street

Eventually people started building their dwellings higher up on the plateau by combining rock walls with bricks and stones, giving birth to the sassi, now considered the “Old Town”, an endlessly photogenic mixture of narrow streets, staircases, and buildings which are built in, against, or around the natural rock. This is now divided into two parts: the more restored Sasso Barisano, and my favourite, the poorer but more atmospheric Sasso Caveoso, right by the edge of the gorge.

Madonna de Idris cave church, Matera (Matera in photos)

Madonna de Idris cave church

Between the 8th and 13th century, inhabitants built numerous rock churches, some of which still exist today in different states of completeness. Their once colourful frescoes are now partly faded or destroyed, but being restored. The incomplete Madonna de Idris Church (above) is probably the most unusual and most photographed. From a distance, it has the characteristic look of a “melted candle”.

"New Town" Matera (Matera in photos)

“New Town” Matera

Renaissance part of Matera (Matera in photos)

Matera's Cathedral (Duomo) (Matera in photos)

Matera’s Cathedral (Duomo), recently renovated

San Francesco d'Assisi church, Matera (Matera in photos)

San Francesco d’Assisi church in the New Town

During the Renaissance, Baroque buildings were built on a flat ridge between the two sassi, which now constitute the “New Town”. For a while, Matera was a well-balanced society, with a middle-class of merchants that conducted business with the towns of Puglia to the east.

Sasso Caveoso, Matera (Matera in photos)

Sasso Caveoso

View of Matera's Sassi from the Cathedral (Matera in photos)

View of Matera’s Sassi from the Cathedral

However in the 17th century, trade stopped and the middle class disappeared, leaving the rich in the opulent buildings of the New Town, and the poor in the cave-homes of the Sassi down below. Labourers lived in dank airless overcrowded caves with their large families and their animals, without running water or sanitation, attracting flies and mosquitoes which caused diseases. Matera had become the shame of Italy. Conditions became so appalling that in 1952, the “sassi-dwellers” were relocated to newly developed towns on the outskirts.

Sasso Caveoso in Matera, at night (Matera in photos)

Sasso Caveoso at night

The Sassi then remained abandoned for several decades. However, the ressemblance of the Old Town to cities from biblical times didn’t go unnoticed by movies producers who used Matera as a film set, often playing the part of ancient Jerusalem. And for sure, when you look at it all lit up at night, it does look like a film set!

Soul Kitchen, cave-restaurant in Matera (Matera in photos)

Soul Kitchen, a cave-restaurant in the Sasso Caveoso

Small restaurant in the Sasso Caveoso, Matera (Matera in photos)

Small restaurant in the Sasso Caveoso

The government, finally seeing the value of the city, started restoring it in 1986 and it became a UNESCO site in 1993. When you visit, you can now stay in cave-hotels, and eat on cobblestone terraces or inside cave restaurants.

If a cave hotel is beyond your budget, consider this little guesthouse which has a very nice breakfast spread.

As an increasingly touristy destination and 2019 European Capital of Culture, now is the time to visit Matera!

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