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matera italy

Italy's Matera: Where the Past Echoes in Caves

Posted on 29 Feb 2024

​​​​​​​Anyone who knows me well knows that I love Italy. It’s not such a surprising statement, is it? Your average person probably loves Italy, because what’s not to love? Indulging in a limoncello as you sit in the sun by the seaside, a flirtatious waiter bringing you yet another pizza, as you contemplate having a gelato soon after. I think if I were to pick a word to describe Italy, it would be indulgence.  

Whenever I visit Italy, I indulge on food, sun, relaxation, and enjoyment.  

One of my favourite places to visit in Italy is the city of Venice. You can read about my fourth and most recent trip to Venice here, an experience that included a canal-side lunch with a pigeon, a sunrise Rialto Bridge photoshoot, and nearly destroying my camera. 

It’s easy for me to say that Venice is my favourite place in Italy that I’ve been. But last year I spent 18 days running around Italy on behalf of Rabbie’s (#jobperk) and because of a wonderful little 6-day tour I went on, I now have a few more places that I rave about. 

One of those places is Matera. 

Your average person won’t have heard of Matera, but you may have seen it in movies like The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Ben Hur (2016). For those of you who have watched No Time To Die (the 2021 James Bond movie instalment), you might recognise this small yet unfathomable city from the scene in which James goes to pay respect at Vesper’s grave... only to have it blow up in his face. He then proceeds to have an incredibly nail-biting chase scene through the city he and Madeleine are visiting for their romantic getaway. Those intensely winding streets where Bond can’t resist yet another high-speed chase is the city of Matera. 

Now that I’ve wandered those streets for myself, my hat goes off to the stunt driver who pulled that scene off. Good LORD

James Bond scenes aside, this city is astonishing, and I cannot tell you how much I want my friends (anyone, really) to visit this amazing place. 

Matera is tucked away in the Basilicata region of southern Italy, a region characterized by mountains, valleys, and coastlines along the Ionian Sea’s rugged figure. Basilicata’s history dates back as far as the Paleolithic era, a landscape so ancient... a place like Matera makes sense. For within Matera are the Sassi, ancient cave dwellings which are among the oldest inhabited settlements in the world... which makes Matera one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities that exists today. 

Influenced over the millennia by various civilizations, including the Greeks and the Roman Empire, gives Matera an eclectic look about her. She flourished during the medieval period, becoming a hub of culture, trade, and art. And today her historic centre is characterized by medieval churches and narrow winding streets weaving around cliffs and stone-carved dwellings. 

matera italy

You might be surprised when you visit today, noting how the region and city specifically is thriving, but once upon a time this was a very poor region. For much of the 20th century, Matera faced economic challenges and social issues. The wonderous Sassi districts we explore today were once dominated by poverty and overcrowding which led to unsanitary living conditions and Matera being labelled the "shame of Italy" for some time. And the region in which Matera lives, the Basilicata region, was referred to as the “forgotten region” of Italy due to historical neglect, economic challenges, limited infrastructure, and population decline. 

In the 1950s, the Italian government sought to address the poverty and overcrowding by relocating residents to new housing developments outside the city. But this unfortunately led to the neglect and deterioration of Matera's Sassi District. In the latter half of the 20th century, Matera was revitalized and its cultural heritage preserved, leading it to becoming a UNESCO Heritage Site in the 80s.  

Fuelled by tourism, popular culture, cultural initiatives, and infrastructure, Matera reinvented itself and is now a thriving tourist destination and cultural hub. 

Coming up in this blog:

  • The Sassi
  • Matera Cathedral
  • Parco della Murgia Materana
  • Matera's Rock Churches
  • The MUSMA

What To Do in Matera 

Matera is the kind of place where you take a camera (and a good pair of walking shoes) and simply wander. But if you’re looking for a little more guidance, here’s a to-do list: 

The Sassi 

As previously mentioned, Matera’s cave dwellings are so unique, it’s a big draw for most who visit this city and are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Carved into the limestone cliffs of Matera’s impressive ravine, the caves were once used as homes, churches, and workshops. Today, many of these caves have been restored and converted into hotels, shops, galleries, and restaurants... but some are museums where you can see what life might have been like living and working in these caves. 

Like any good cave system, plenty of dark and spooky legends have developed over the years. From Troglodytes to ghostly brides, hidden treasure to benevolent spirits, my personal favourite is the Legend of the Cursed Cave. The tale goes that there is a cursed cave hidden within the Sassi district, haunted by malevolent spirits and wicked creatures of darkness. Locals warn against venturing too deep. Should you get lost inwithin the Cursed Cave, you will never return. *Insert evil laugh here* 

italy matera

Matera Cathedral 

Her full name is the Cathedral of Santa Maria della Bruna, but you can call her Santa Eustachio or Matera Cathedral for short. Every good church is dedicated to someone of note, but this one is dedicated to two. First, the patron saint of Matera, the Virgin Mary (also referred to as Santa Maria della Bruna), and an early Christian martyr known as Saint Eustace.  

She’s a stunning example of Apulian Romanesque architecture... try saying that five times fast. Built back in the 13th century, the cathedral’s facade catches the eye with a divine rose window and intricate carvings. And she’s as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside, her interiors adorned with Baroque and Neoclassical touches.  

While you’re there, make sure to spot the fresco of the Virgin Mary. Legend has it that this fresco miraculously appeared overnight. During the construction of the cathedral, all those years ago, workers noted there was one unfinished wall without any decoration. But overnight, a beautiful fresco of the Virgin Mary appeared on the wall, and it was believed to be a divine intervention. The fresco is called the Madonna della Bruna and you can still see it today.  

Parco della Murgia Materana 

Surrounding an already incredible city is the beautiful Parco della Murgia Materana. This regional park sits atop a vast limestone plateau, so be prepared (excited) for a rugged landscape of cliffs and artful rock formations.  

When I was there, I didn’t have time to wander about the park but spotted dozens of people exploring. Like tiny ants on a hill. And I suspect what they were doing was less about going for a wee jaunt and more about trying to find the lost treasure that is supposedly buried somewhere within the park’s rocky terrain. Next time I’m bringing my map and metal detector.  

matera italy

Matera’s Rock Churches 

Right down in Matera’s heritage-listed Sassi districts, keep an eye out for the rock churches. Also known as rupestrian churches, these ancient buildings were carved into limestone cliffs back between the 8th and 13th centuries. Some are small, simple chapels, while others are elaborately decorated with frescoes and Byzantine-style artwork. 

One associated legend that made me go “oooh” was the legend of the Madonna delle Tre Porte (Madonna of the Three Gates). When a group of bandits attempted to rob the church, a mysterious woman appeared and blocked all three entrances with her veil. The bandits fled in fear and the church was saved. She sounds badass and I now want to know how to fight with a veil.  


The Museum of Contemporary Sculpture Matera (or MUSMA) can be found in the Sassi districts, housed in one of the historic cave complexes. So, to say this is one unique museum is an understatement. The museum is brimming with contemporary sculpture which showcases both Italian and international artists. The museum's permanent collection includes works by renowned sculptors such as Giacomo Manzù, Mimmo Paladino, and Igor Mitoraj. 

It’s a multi-sensory experience set against a stunning backdrop and surrounded by an atmospheric setting you’re not likely to get anywhere else. Just saying.

italy matera

I guess one final thing of note is to eat. I shouldn’t have to tell you to eat while you’re in Italy. Because who would say no to Italian food? One of my best meals during the trip was had at Matera and I even found my favourite Italian dessert of all time (Tartufi – not to be mistaken with mushrooms, this is, in fact, a chocolate dessert worth dying for). 

I suspect I will return to Matera soon. It’s the kind of place I’m desperate to spend more time in. The kind of place you could spend days exploring... and now that you know it exists, you can explore it too on tour with us or in your own time. Either way... the labyrinth awaits.