Matera, Basilicata, Italy – European Capital of Culture

There’s a tiny corner in Southern Italy that has only recently come out of the shadows. Much maligned as recently as 50 years ago as “The shame of Italy”, Matera, the ancient revamped capital of Basilicata, with its magnificent rocky cavernous landscape and its troglodyte dwellings, has been awarded European Capital of Culture and is preparing to swing open its doors to tourism.

Why visit Sassi di Matera, UNESCO World Heritage

Without a doubt, Matera is very easy on the eye. Imagine a scene of tightly knit hillside stone dwellings, so compact that sometimes one sits on top of the other. Its ancient style oozes a sort of mysterious grandeur with a mix of cave churches carved into the mountain and ornate grand churches in the old town. It could sit easily within the pages of a Dan Brown thriller blockbuster.

For one can’t help but wonder about all the goings on and strange characters that may have lurked in those ancient cave dwellings of Sassi di Matera (the stones of Matera) for the best part of years, Bronze age evidence of human existence in the area makes this one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world.

Matera – from shame to chic in 50 years

Yet not so long ago, living conditions were so bad that the streets of the two sassi (meaning “stones”) districts of Barisano and Caveoso, became inadvertent sewers. Homes were badly ventilated often with 90 per cent and on top of that farmers lived with their animals (horses, sheep) in small spaces. None of this was helped by overpopulation and poverty.

The council was so appalled that they evacuated the 20,000 inhabitants and moved them into square-shaped two-story homes dubbed casa Mussolini with modern amenities on the outskirts of town. Matera was now ripe for renovation, and has scrubbed up beautifully, so much so that it has been awarded European Capital of Culture.

Now bathing in the warmth of the limelight, the city is becoming the next must-visit holiday destination.

What to see in Matera

Matera is divided into the civita – the town centre –  and surrounding sassi cliffs. It’s a walk of sometime steep ups and downs and highlights include the sensational views especially from Parco della Murgia Materana.

The thirteenth century Cathedral of Santa Maria della Bruna made from tufa stone, stands tall overlooking the Sassi from the hightest point on Civita hill. Inside it is rich in Baroque style, with stucco, paintings, gilded frames and sculptures.

Several other churches out of tufa stone but a notable exception is the 13th-century San Pietro. It’s worth checking out the Appian Way to Cripta del Peccato Originale to see the medieval cave paintings.

High in this hills is the cave church of Santa Lucia alle Malve, one of 155 rupestrian (made of stone) with extraordinary frescoes.

Explore Matera’s film fame

It’s hardly surprising that Mel Gibson chose to film his The Passion of the Christ. The sassi caves are instantly recognisable as is the church of San Nicola dei Greci which selected as the location for the Last Supper.

Also look out for the soon to be released Ben Hur spectacular starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Huston where Metera features as the backdrop.