What if I were to tell you a place existed both untouched by time or tourists? In Italy, nonetheless.
What if I were to tell you I’ve discovered the most curious, unique and hauntingly beautiful city in Italy? What if I were to tell you it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world? What if I were to tell you you would only hear the musical lilt of Italian there, and if you were to visit, you would have the place to yourself?
Oh, and what if I were to tell you it’s a place you’ve never heard of?
I’m not making this up. Such a place exists, and I discovered it almost by accident this summer.
Matera was the biggest surprise of 2013 for me.
I don’t know about you guys, but I really love being surprised when traveling, or well, surprises in general actually. Little known fact about me, I actually never grew up, and basically I’m a big kid.
Whether I end up in an unexpectedly gorgeous place or getting a letter in the mail (who doesn’t love getting snail mail?) anything that shakes up routine and puts a smile on my face when it’s least expected makes me really happy.
This is really depressing to admit, but now that I’ve traveled so much (too much, to be honest) and lived abroad, I find it harder and harder to be surprised by a place, especially in Europe, where I’ve spent so much time. Have you ever felt this way?
That being said, I will never stop searching for new and interesting places to see, and when people I meet on the road dish out suggestions of places I’d like, I’m all ears.
Rewind four months.
The legend of Matera
I had extended my stay in Paxos, Greece for an extra day, and I hopped on a local ferry to visit Antipaxos, a beautiful uninhabited island nearby. After a long, tedious morning of snorkeling, snoozing and getting my tan on, I left my towel and sandals in the sand and climbed up to the bar for some lunch.
Since there were approximately 15 people on Antipaxos that sunny day, it was easy to make friends with everyone and chat about what brought them to this random part of the world.
Since I was a girl by myself, as per usual, reading on my Kindle and stuffing my face with tzatziki and octopus, in Greece it was more or less an open invitation for a conversation.
Someway or another that I can’t even recall now, a conversation started between me and the women at the table next to me. Two retired ladies from Australia, they were on an extended holiday together with their partners. Like me, they were fans of getting off the beaten tourist path and seeing sites that not many people had heard of before.
We got to talking about Italy, where I had just come from and where I was heading back to after Greece, and me being me, I started pestering them for suggestions.
And so began the story of Matera.
Have you head of Matera? Basilicata? Be honest here.
I’ve no shame in admitting that though I’ve been to Italy close to a dozen times now, I had never heard of Matera.*Gasp*
Now for those of you who have heard of it, pipe down.
Listening to these women wax poetic about this seductive city in southern Italy, I could literally hear the passion and love in their voices and I could tell what this place meant to them. Matera seemed to genuinely surprise them and was a highlight of their European tour – they couldn’t stop talking about it!
Then they dropped a bomb. Matera was the city where Mel Gibson filmed Passion of the Christ.
Those are the kinds of places I want to experience, and I knew immediately I had to see Matera for myself.
Once I stepped foot back on the land of eternal sunshine and neverending pasta, I made a beeline straight for Matera.
Well, almost a beeline. Southern Italy is very much like southern Spain in many respects, such as shitty public transportation, a lack of English speakers when you need them, and not having things go according to plan.
(Disclosure, I was sold NOT from the fanatical Christian film but the fact that Matera is so old it looks like Jerusalem and I’m a history nerd)
The journey to Matera
After bidding farewell to Brindisi and the warm southern coast, I caught the train to Bari where I was supposed to find a Sunday bus to Matera (replacing the usual weekday local train).
God damnit, at this point I should know better.
Need a laugh, try to imagine me in a taxi driving around the suburbs of Bari with a driver who spoke no English and who tried to drop me off not at a bus station but at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere with no schedule posted, with no shops or people nearby, all while mutter “no bus lady” to me while I yelled back “Matera. Basilicata. Sassi. Mel Gibson” in my best Italian accent and refusing to get out of the car.
Not wanting to get stuck in Bari with no way to get anywhere without a phone, after a little screaming fight in English and Italian, my taxi driver and I struck a deal where I had to shell out 40 euros for him to drive me an hour to Matera, which although wasn’t part of the plan, also wasn’t as expensive as I thought it would be.
Welcome to southern Italy!
A rocky start in Matera
Cursing at me in Italian, my unwilling savior pretended to not know where Palazzo Viceconte (my hotel )was, and insisted on dumping me in the main square before speeding off back to Bari.
Matera and I were not off to a good start.
With sweat dripping in my eyes and the steaming hot July sun beating down my neck, I threw on my backpack and started the walk of shame through central Matera, holding my guidebook and saying “Palazzo Viceconte” to everyone til I finally found it.
Try following a map of Matera one day and you’ll see what I mean.
After a warm welcome by the hotel staff and a reviving espresso, I made my way to my room to drop my bags and put on some fresh clothes. With the lights off, and just the hint of bright sunlight peeking through the wooden shutters, I knelt on the armchair and flung them open.
Blinking quickly, my eyes adjusted and were greeted by one of the most glorious views I’ve ever had from a hotel.
The hot sun was starting to set, bathing the old quarter of Matera in a soft yellow light. With green fields and dusty caves dotting the hillside on my left, across the bank and up the hill, historic Matera sprawled below me. Cats prowled along the old mossy roofs and occasionally I could see people moving around like ants below, and every so often a bell tolled somewhere deep in the heart of the stone city, casually reminding you that Matera was, in fact, still alive.
It smelled old. Rustic clashed with new elegance in Matera, combined with a little bit of a wild side, and offering up a boatload of surprises.
I think Matera and I would get along after all.
The history of Matera
Why do I find this chunk of Italy so fascinating?
Well, because Matera is different; it has an interesting story, and I love a good story.
Not to bore you with too much history (it’s been a hard lesson to learn that not everyone loves history as much as me), Matera is basically the most badass city in Italy because it looks like it hasn’t changed since dinosaurs roamed the planet. Ok, exaggerating, since the time baby Jesus roamed the planet.
Now, being the nerd that I am, I’ve been to my fair share of “historical” Italian cities, but Matera puts them ALL to shame. All of them.
I’d say for 80% of the time walking around the Sassi, aka the ancient town or the oldest part of the city, I could stand still and literally see that NOTHING has changed in thousands of years. How many cities can boast that?
In fact, for 80% of the time I was getting lost in the Sassi, I was completely alone, with only a few kitty cats for company.
While all incredibly cool and fucking stunning IMO, I haven’t even gotten to the best part yet.
Prehistoric in nature, and what is suspected to be the earliest inhabited place in Italy, people dug their houses straight into the caves and rocks in the side of the ravine, created a cobbled together city filled with winding staircases, streets that run on top of the houses and caves after caves after caves connected by underground tunnels and passages.
How cool is that?
In fact, this was such a remote and impoverished corner of Italy, that people lived in the caves with their livestock without electricity or running water until the 1950’s (IN ITALY!!!) when finally a book was published catapulting Matera into fame and shaming the Italian government into building new, modern houses above the Sassi and forcibly moving everyone out of the caves.
That’s right, at the same time my mom was born, people still slept with their goats and sheep for warmth in Matera, same as they did 9,000 years before.
Nowadays, people are slowly returning to the Sassi and are restoring the old cave houses bit by bit. They even have wifi.
Though for the most part, it is still abandoned and empty, with hollowed out cave buildings overrun by cats and weeds.
It’s no surprise that Mel Gibson chose Matera to film Passion of the Christ in. You can really imagine it as Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.
Getting lost in Matera
The best way to get to know Matera is to wander and get lost. In fact, you will get lost no matter what you do so you should just embrace it.
Because the Sassi is so old and hasn’t been renovated, not only are there few streets for cars, there is also no order in the way it’s laid out. Though I have to be honest, I did see cars parked in some places I was astonished they managed to get there. I think magic might have been involved somehow, especially because I saw no people. None.
As a general rule, the more overgrown and dodgy a staircase or alleyway looked, the more chance it led to somewhere awesome. Just follow the cats.
You won’t be disappointed, I promise.
Sleeping like a princess in Matera
Every day I would wake up at the Palazzo Viceconte throw open my shutters and take it all in. Did I mention I was sleeping in a 17th century palace?
Every girl’s dream come true, am I right?
Tucked away at the highest point of the Sassi, it straddles both sides of the ancient city and overlooks the surrounding landscape. This means, of course, great views from everywhere, especially the rooftop terrace which was my favorite part.
Hidden behind the cathedral, the Palazzo Viceconte is a massive palace that fell into ruin before being restored for a decade by a local family. A maze of beautiful rooms decked out with antiques and the owner’s art collection, I was almost overwhelmed by the sheer novelty of it all. You could easily spend the day exploring all of the nooks and crannies of this hotel.
It was almost like night at the museum, where as a tourist, not only do I get to visit a beautiful historic palace and art gallery, but I also get to sleep there and spend the night. I’m a big fan of experiential and unique travel, and this was definitely a big part of why I loved Matera so much.
If you’ve ever dreamed of sleeping in a palace, the Palazzo Viceconte is the place for you.
And since I was living out my princess fantasies, I was allowed to have cake for breakfast, right? By the end of my time there I’m sure they wanted to hide all the chocolate crostata from me. I don’t blame them.
Perhaps one of my favorite parts of the palace was underground. The owner has been renovating the rooms below ground and has plans to turn them into a gallery for his extensive photo and portrait collection for guests to explore. After some nudging, I was able to go see for myself.
Bright, poignant portraits against with the stark stone walls created a stunning contrast between modernity and antiquity, not unlike Matera itself.
And a little bit of luck in Matera
And if Matera couldn’t get any better, I just happened to show up in town on the same day as their massive annual patron saint festival, Madonna della Bruna, which after living in catholic Spain for years, I’ve learned can be a massive party.
Matera didn’t disappoint. Again.
Things were starting to get rowdy by midday with locals crowding around the main square in the hot sun chatting (screaming) with their friends and family. Unfortunately, I already had plans and ended up leaving before the crowning event, when a beautiful handmade procession is literally ripped to pieces by the crowd on its way to the main square.
Here’s a video of it that several locals showed me. I can vouch that the ripping apart of the float is intentional and happens every year.
I know I say this a lot, but Matera is DEFINITELY a place that I can’t wait to get back to and explore more. I feel so lucky that I heard about when I did, and that I was able to squeeze it in my itinerary while in Europe.
I made a promise to myself when I started blogging professionally that I would still make time for spontaneous adventures around the world, and Matera was the perfect example and good reminder to my future self.
Don’t plan too much and listen when people give tips.
Matera is the kind of place that I can envision being overrun with tourists in 10 years, so go now. Go while you still have the chance to see it before it was restored. Go when you can sleep in a city that’s thousands of years old at an affordable price. Go now so you can say later on, “I was there before it was famous.”
Italy is incredibly popular with tourists, and for a good reason. There are hundreds of spectacular places to see. But don’t forget about the south.
I loved Matera, in all its crumbling, overgrown glory. It was the closest I’ve ever gotten to experiencing and seeing a city as what it must have looked like a millennia ago. Walking along the broken cobbled backstreets overrun with weeds and felines, I felt my inner Indiana Jones twitch, knowing that I was getting to experience a place that not that many people have heard of.
All I can say is that Matera struck a major chord with me, and I can’t wait to go back.
So if you ever find yourself on a uninhabited island with a blond American blogger asking for travel tips, life will have come full circle and I will be the one raving on about this stunning unknown spot in southern Italy.
Practical tips for Matera
- Trenitalia doesn’t go to Matera. You can take it to Bari, and then catch a local train with Ferrovie Appulo Lucane to Matera. However, don’t trust the bus schedule or phone ahead and make sure it’s accurate.
- Otherwise you can take a bus to Matera from various cities in Italy. I took one to Salerno from Matera.
- The closest airport is Bari and you’re best shot is most likely renting a car and driving directly to Matera from there
- It’s very, very hot in the summer months, make sure wherever you stay has air conditioning that works
- Matera is not very well suited for wheelchairs or anything of the sort. The whole city is stairs so be prepared for that
Many thanks to Palazzo Viceconte for hosting me during my time in Matera. Like always, I’m keeping it real – all opinions are my own, like you could expect anything less from me.