Nearly 70 years after it was abandoned as ‘Italy’s shame’, Matera is one of two 2019 European Capitals of Culture – but this city of caves is not the only draw in Basilicata, says Gareth Clark...
“Basilicata has always been poor – even the mafia didn’t bother us,” my guide, Nicola, smiled. It’s a Iine I heard a lot in this improbable region. Paradoxically, it has enough oil to make a Texan envious – yet for decades it was known only as ‘Italy’s shame’.
Now, Matera is a European Capital of Culture for 2019, famous for its once-abandoned caves, and the many other reasons it's become a must-see destination while in Basilicata, or even on a longer tour of Italy.
In the 1940s, the writer Carlo Levi, exiled to southern Italy by the fascists, wrote of a city of caves called Matera. He told of its ‘tragic beauty’, and of its people who lived in ‘dark holes’ known as sassi, hand dug from the rock since prehistory.
Levi’s words later caused a stink in post-war Italy, and in the 1950s Matera’s sassi were cleared and its residents relocated. After lying derelict for decades, it was only in the 1990s – after a park was created to protect the 150 rock-cut churches pocking its hills, and once UNESCO had earmarked the city for World Heritage status – that redemption began in earnest. Caves became hotels, homes and restaurants, and shame gradually turned to pride.
Today, about 1,500 people live in the cave districts, though some 30% of the sassi still remain empty, Nicola revealed as we tramped the cobbles of the Sasso Barisano (cave district). When he was in his teens, he and his friends hung out in these caves; one we visited is now a theatre built into the rock.
After Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ was shot here in 2004, Italy woke up to Matera: locals throng its piazzas, and it’s been named European Capital of Culture for 2019. Yet beyond the sassi, the region’s wonders remain little known.
Basilicata is a wild land of lonely ghost towns, wineries in ancient volcanoes and colourful history – Greek ruins and Albanian villages built by 15th-century refugees stud hills and valleys.
Two days later, high in Pollino National Park, I saw its wild side for myself. My guide pointed at a solitary giant Bosnian pine, ancient and rare, surrounded by the skeletal remains of dead trees – one last tragic beauty in a region of slow wonders.
Give yourself longer than one or two days to explore Matera. Here's how to make the most of 3 days in the city...
‘Italy’s shame’ is now its pride and joy. Locals fill Matera on weekends and saint’s days. Bag a tour: many off-radar sassi require a key.
Archaeologist and guide Nicola Taddonio, who runs Sassi Tour, grew up here. His half-day city walk delves into hidden alleys, trawling a history thronged with invaders (Greek, Roman, Byzantine). Visit the private St George sassito see how such caves were repurposed for each era – first as a church, then for oil production, then later for wine.
The half-day Murgia Park tour roams the ravine to reveal rock-cut medieval churches and their delicate murals. It also affords fine views of the sassi districts, including the abandoned and still partly off-limits Casalnuovo.
Delve into the cathedral-like Palombaro Lungo cistern below Piazza Vittorio Veneto, and visit Casa Grotta, recreating life in a sassi, where dung was burned for heat!
Later, dine on local farm produce (try cruschi peppers) at Agriristories then sleep in a ‘4-star cave’ at chic Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita.
Ruins, ruins, ruins! 40km south of Matera in Metaponto lies the 6th century BC Greek temple called the Tavole Palatine – well, bits of it. The temple and archeological park show how Greek influence here gave way to Roman.
To the west lies the ghost town of Craco. Once a wealthy village, by the 1990s landslides had forced out its 1,800 residents; today, guided tours roam its eerie caves and church.
Head 70km north-west to Castelmezzano and Pietrapertosa – the highest hilltop village (1,088m) in the region. Most come for the daredevil zipwire between the two, but a Saracen fort, secret tunnel and trails into the Lucanian Dolomites are worth exploring.
Bed down in Castelmezzano’s agriturismo Grotta dell’ Eremita for cosy rooms and rustic local cooking.
Drive on to Rotonda, gateway to the beech forests of Pollino, Italy’s largest national park. Camping is verboten here and trails are sparsely marked, so guided day hikes are the best way to explore.
Iole Esposito (iole.esposito24@ gmail.com) is a bundle of energy and has hiked here since childhood. Her 12km loop around Colle dell’Impiso visits five mountains over 2,000m; it also passes rare Bosnian pines, known locally as loricato pines.
River trekking up the Mercure is an option in summer, but a hot choc at Rifugio Fasanelli is preferable on snowy days. If time permits, visit one of the Arbëreshë villages, founded by Albanians who fled the Ottomans in the 15th century. Traditions survive in towns such as San Paolo Albanese.
Finish back in Rotonda for a night in albergo diffuso Il Borgo Ospitale, and fine meaty fare at its braceria, A’ Rimissa.
1. Bag a unique stay
The albergo diffuso (‘scattered hotel’) began as a way of reviving Italy’s old towns, turning abandoned homes into unique rooms for visitors. Matera’s sassi have been reimagined as cosy, candlelit escapes by hotels such as Sextantio.
2. Red Med redemption
Basilicata’s volcanic Vulture region is known for its red wine, Aglianico del Vulture. Head to Barile, an Arbëreshë village where wines are matured in caves dug into the volcanic rock, where you can tour its oldest winery, Paternoster.
3. Head for the sea
The coastal villages of Maratea are scattered along the cliffs of the Tyrrhenian coast. Climb to the hilltop churches and marble Christ on Monte San Biagio, then explore sea caves below by kayak.
4. Grab a holy relic
Matera’s Festa della Madonna Bruna procession begins quietly at dawn but come evening fireworks hit the sky, a float rolls into the Piazza Vittorio Veneto and all hell breaks loose – locals attack it to rip off a piece for luck. (2 July)
Snow blankets Pollino National Park around December to April. Skiing and snowshoe hikes are possible, and the park is two hours away by car.
To experience Matera during a festive period, the annual Festa della Madonna Brulla takes place in July.
You'll need a car to get around Matera, so recommend flying to Bari (in the north) and road-tripping across Basilicata, winding past crumbling citadels and ending with the pizzerias of Naples.
A few more useful things you'll need to know...
Population: Basilicata has a population of approximately 570,000.
Time zone: GMT+1 (or GMT+2 from April to October).
Currency: Euro (€), approximately €1.12 to the UK£.
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