Matera is a city that I feel everyone should see at least one time in their lives. Getting to it is not easy, but once you arrive, and glimpse the city that lays before you, the travel will be forgotten, and instead, you will find yourself wondering why you had never visited the place before! There are three ways to arrive in Matera. One is by auto. You can rent a car and drive, from whatever Italian city you happen to be in. The other is by bus. There is a bus from Rome, but I have done this before, and it is a bit of a long ride, at about six hours or so. The third choice is to fly into a nearby Italian city, and then take a car (either rented, or hire a driver) to Matera. We chose the third option: Flying into Bari, and hiring a driver to take us to Matera. The flight from Milan to Bari only took an hour or so, and the driver was waiting for us upon arrival in Bari. Once in the car, we were in Matera less than an hour later.
We had booked a room at the Locanda di San Martino Hotel & Thermae Romanae, which is a hotel/spa set in the heart of one of the city’s two zones of the Sassi, but more on that later. Our room was actually a few minutes walk away from the hotel, on one of the streets that lined the ravine full of the ancient residences, now known as the Sassi.
I recommend staying in an actual Sasso, as long as you are aware that it may come with a few challenges. The Sassi are ancient habitations that line the ravine, that were cut out of the rock, much like caves. Historians say that people have been living in these dwellings since the 10th millennium BC. For this reason, Matera is considered one of the oldest continually inhabited settlements in the world. For centuries, the Sassi were considered uninhabitable, fit only for the poor and destitute. Living conditions were terrible, without running water, or in later times, electricity. Disease was rampant, and the area was considered dangerous.
In the 1950’s, the Italian government stepped in, and forced the population living in the Sassi to vacate their homes, and move up into the more modern section of the city, at the top of the ravine. For years after this, the Sassi were considered a disgrace and embarrassment.
Then, in the 1980’s people began cleaning the ancient structures, and refurbishing them, adding all of the comforts to which society has become accustomed, namely, running water, electricity, cable television, internet, as well as air conditioning and dehumidifiers. Slowly, bars and cafés, restaurants and B&B’s began to open up. In 1993, UNESCO declared the Sassi a World Heritage Site, and since then, there has been no looking back! Now, it is possible to stay in the Sassi, and experience a bit of luxury, even if, at the same time, you need to keep a dehumidifier on. After all, you are in a cave! I have been to Matera four times now, and every time I have visited, I have stayed in a Sasso.
The Sassi, as I have mentioned above, line the ravine leading down to the Gravina River. Naturally, because the Sassi line a ravine, there are steps everywhere! The more modern part of the city, at the top of the ravine, is basically flat, but once one enters into one of the two Sassi zones, you will be continuously walking up and down stairs. For that reason, there are very few streets that are accessible to automobiles, and parking must be found at the top of the ravine, or at the bottom of the Sassi. There are no other options.
Again, there are two zones of Sassi in Matera: The Sasso Caveoso, and the Sasso Barisano. We were staying in the Sasso Barisano.
At the very top of the ravine, you will find the more modern section of Matera. This area dates back only as far as the Renaissance. It is lined with lovely shops, palazzos, and Baroque churches. It is also relatively flat!
At first, it may be daunting to walk around the narrow, winding streets of the Sassi, but in actuality, it is next to impossible to get lost. The city is best pictured as a dove, with its wings spread. The two wings are the two Sassi. The body of the dove would be the modern, higher city. With that in mind, knowing that heading up means heading out, one can explore the Sassi with peace of mind.
The Church of San Pietro Barisano, located in Piazza San Pietro Barisano, dates from the 12th century. It is the largest of the many Rupestrian Churches to be found in Matera. These are churches that were cut out of the side of the rock, and they can date from right after the time of Christ, to the Medieval era.
Next up: Exploring more of Sasso Barisano, and the city of Matera!
Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Italy, as well as everyone else whose lives are being affected by the terrible pandemic that the world is now having to fight. Be strong. Have faith. There will come a day when we wake up, and find that it is over, and life will, once again, have normality to it.
Note: This blog is written in English and Spanish, and the author takes no responsibility for the quality of any other translations which may appear. If you have enjoyed this post, please, check out our archives for more posts from destinations all over Italy. Grazie!