My Favorite City: Matera in Southern Italy

How the ancient city of Matera has flown under travelers’ radars for so many years is a foreign concept to me, as I have found it to be one of the most fascinating and stunning cities imaginable. Matera is so beautiful and packed with so much history that it became the location for the filming of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. While you won’t find a McDonald’s in town, and those with limited mobility may find navigating the hills and cobblestones surrounding the city’s cave dwellings troublesome, simply sipping a glass of local wine on a terrace overlooking the ravine in the old town is well worth the trek.

Although I am no history expert, I researched much of Matera prior to my first visit in November 2021. Believed to be the third oldest city in the world, Matera’s past is likely to surprise most tourists. Formerly known as “the shame of Italy,” Matera sat in Italy’s poorer region of Basilicata, having been destitute and ridden with malaria and poverty. Famished families were living alongside malnourished cattle in cave dwellings, and quality doctors were few and far between. Carlo Levi wrote the famous novel “Christ Stopped at Eboli” to recount his eye-opening experience as a resident of Matera and seeing the city’s squalor firsthand. After speaking out about his concerns regarding the fascist regime in Italy during the dictatorships of Hitler and Mussolini, Levi was exiled from the northern part of Italy to Matera in 1935. Without Levi’s book gaining so much traction and drawing attention to the horrendous conditions in the town, it is unlikely that Matera would be the beauty it is today. In 1952, the Italian government forced an evacuation of the city as the inhumane conditions failed to improve. While flying under the radar and essentially abandoned for years, families of its former residents eventually revisited the ghost town and succeeded in reestablishing their roots. In 1993, Matera’s cave city became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is only gaining popularity with the rise of social media.

In order to preserve its ancient beauty, it is imperative that modern creature comforts such as convenient parking and highways never infiltrate the beloved city. My advice? Ditch the car altogether. On my first visit, I took a bus ride from Bari to a bus station within a 30-minute walk of the old town, where my Airbnb was located. I made the hike with my backpack at night, walking through the more modern parts of the city until stumbling upon my stay, where I was greeted by a friendly man and two cats to unlock the guest house for me. Navigating Matera without Google Maps would be virtually impossible for a first-timer, and even Google Maps doesn’t always prevail within the city’s old cobblestone streets. Be prepared to walk up many steps and hills, and be mindful of slippery stones with rain – I almost took a tumble or two myself.

There is also an option to get to the city via train, however, this is a trickier option for non-locals. On my second visit, I took the Ferrovie Appulo Lucane train line from Bari Central Station into Matera Central Station; however, the ride wasn’t without hiccups. I was not aware or informed that there would be a transfer, as I was almost positive I had purchased a direct ticket. I missed my transfer (of course) and ended up in the tiny rural city of Gravina in Puglia for an hour until I was able to catch the next train to Matera. As it turns out, Gravina in Puglia is also a stunning town and also the film site of James Bond 007.

There is nowhere quite as quiet as Matera at dusk; it truly cannot be described until you experience the piercing silence at night yourself. Cats roam around freely and frequently, while hikers in the ravine can be spotted from many restaurant terraces while enjoying an afternoon espresso. On my first visit, I successfully hiked across the recently renovated bridge towering over the river to get to the other side of the ravine. After a relatively short and steep hike, I was able to explore the cave dwellings and see an unmatched view of Matera from the top.

Matera is well-known for its tasty bread with a crisp crust. Most of the restaurants I found in Matera were top-notch, including Tierra, where I was fortunate enough to feast on unique entrees incorporating horse meat, quail and truffle-based dishes. Another one of my favorite spots, La Grotta nei Sassi, serves up some of the best veal I have ever tasted with a fantastic pear and ricotta cheesecake to finish off the meal. After dinner, head to Roger the Club for a cocktail or two and exceptional customer service from a staff who treats each other and its customers like family.

Although I know there are more places I need to explore, each year, I feel a tug in my heart to return to Matera. I haven’t decided exactly when or if I will return for a third time, but Matera is never far from my mind.


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