A Magical Weekend In Matera – Why You Need to Visit Italy’s Best Kept Secret

weekend in Matera

I have always been a lover of Italy. I spent many years travelling the length and breath of the country, visiting it’s beautiful hilltop towns and walled cities. However, nothing I had seen prepared me for our weekend in Matera.

 

Looking at Google maps, it seemed like a straight forward drive from Bari airport for our weekend in Matera. However as we got closer to the old town, or Sassi as its more widely called, we realised it wasn’t going to be plane sailing, or driving, in our case! We were the only people driving on the cobbled streets and the only road signs we could understand said, ‘no entry’!

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Google maps was soon redundant so I decided to go with ‘Ciao’, out of the window of the car and hoped for the best. After a few frantic waving arms from locals, telling us to go back, luckily an elderly ‘nonna’ pointed us in the right direction to our hotel. We pulled up outside, delighted that we had finally made it, only to find out that there was no car park at the Casa di Lucio hotel….
 

 

 
All was not lost, as the Casa di Lucio is a sister hotel to the 5* Sant’Angelo Luxury Resort, which is located close by. We were able to check-in there and they kindly valet parked our car, albeit with a €25 fee! It transpired that this hotel is one of the only hotels inside the Sassi that has parking facilities. Driving in the Sassi (the literal translation of Sassi is stones) is forbidden unless you are checking-in or checking-out of your hotel. We had to advise the hotel of the exact time we wanted our car the following day, so that they could drive us to the garage in the new town of Matera to collect it. Similarly we had to advise them of our check-out time, so they could have the car parked at the hotel for the minimum amount of time.

weekend in Matera
 

 

 
My initial reaction was one of amazement at this strange parking system, especially for a five star hotel, but when we walked outside and took a long look at where we were staying, realisation began to set in. It was like stepping into a film set – Matera somehow didn’t seem real. Perched on top of a rocky mountain were caves, houses and streets, piled up on top of each other. I even spotted churches carved out of caves! The Passion of the Christ was filmed here and I immediately understood why, I felt like I was going to bump into the 12 disciples at any time! The sand coloured stones and the lush green valley below, combined to make it one of the most remarkable places I had ever laid eyes on.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Matera is not only visually stunning, but it has a remarkable story too. It has been inhabited for 0ver 9000 years and is the third oldest continually inhabited settlement in the world. Up to seventy years ago, thousands of poor families lived side by side with animals in tiny caves, without electricity, water, or sewage facilities. Riddled with malaria and other infectious diseases, Matera was labelled the “shame of Italy”. Finally in 1953 the Italian government decided to re-house its population in the new part of the city, or the ‘new Matera’ as it is now known. Matera was practically deserted until 1993, when UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site. It is hard to believe it has literally gone from ‘rags to riches’ in seventy years. It is now the European Capital of Culture of 2019. 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Contrary to popular belief, Matera is NOT located in Puglia, it is the region of Basilicata. Although many people, like we did, choose to combine a weekend in Matera, with a trip to neighbouring Puglia. You can read my recommendations on top places to visit in Puglia here.

When I was booking our trip, I knew I wanted to stay inside the Sassi and I really wanted the ‘wow’ factor. After walking the 100 meters to our hotel room, or more accurately our ‘house’ in the Casa di Lucio hotel, it wasn’t long before I knew I had achieved my goal. Not only was it bigger than our house in Dublin, but it was so beautifully designed to compliment the surroundings. It was aptly called the ‘Royal’ apartment and I’m sure it has housed many royal guests since its opening.
 

Ironically, the Royal apartment is the only room in Casa di Lucio that is NOT built inside caves. That didn’t bother us, we were too busy enjoying the stunning views from our three balconies! Our three-bedroom house with a massive hall, kitchen and office, was incredible. It even had a mezzanine, which the kids quickly renamed as their ‘den’. The Sassi was lit up at night time,  so we enjoyed a glass of Chianti with a spectacular view from our balcony, while the kids were tucked up in bed. It was heaven.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Casa di Lucio, although only 13 years old, is the oldest hotel in Matera. The owners decided to buy some caves in 1999 (as you do!) before the rebirth of Sassi di Matera began. In 2005 they expanded, and although many thought it was ludicrous, they decided to open a luxury resort called Sant’Angelo. They added rooms over the years and now it is the most prestigious hotel in the Sassi.

weekend in Matera
 

 

 
While Casa di Lucio is classed as a four-star hotel, the Royal apartment is definitely five-star, in my view. Breakfast was included in the cost and was served at the five-star Sant’Angelo resort. Later that evening, when I witnessed tourists lugging their suitcases up and down the cobbled-stone streets, from the new town of Matera to the Sassi, I realised how fortunate we were with our choice of hotel and why it is worth paying a premium price for a weekend in Matera.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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We decided to take tour of the Sassi by Piaggio, which was a great way to get our bearings, and ideal with children. The city has two sides, Sassi Barisano and Sassi Caveoso. The former is more developed and houses art galleries, boutique hotels and restaurants, all inside the caves. The latter has yet to be developed, but you can manage to look inside some of the caves and see how these people lived just seventy years ago – it is remarkable. To be frank, if you never visited a museum, church or exhibit here, you would still be blown away by Matera’s beauty and it’s history. We climbed up stone staircases, posed for pictures inside colourful doorways and had pizza on pretty piazzas, all without actually visiting many of the local attractions.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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We also drove across the ravine to Murgia National Park, to catch one of the best views of Matera. You can also walk across, but you need to hike down, cross a rock bridge and hike back up the other side, which wasn’t ideal with kids. In fact most of Matera is hilly, so don’t even think about bringing a buggy! If you fancy the hike, it is a great opportunity to explore some of the small palaeolithic caves at the same time. We went for sunset, but I think sunrise would probably be best, if you want to see the light reflected on the Sassi.

weekend in matera
 

 

 
It was a bit of an ordeal to get our car from the car park, so we decided to make the most of it and took a spin to a nearby beach,  before catching the view of Matera at sunset. Castellenata Marina is only a 35 minute drive from Matera, so if you wanted to combine a city and beach break, this would be ideal. Although deserted in late October, it is a stunning beach with numerous beach bars along the promenade. I think a long weekend in Matera, that included a day at the beach, would be perfect during the summer months. 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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There is no doubt about it, the reason we booked a weekend in Matera was to see the Sassi, but it is fair to say that the new town was worth exploring too. The Piazza Vittorio Veneto is as pretty as it sounds and has plenty of restaurants, bars and shops to keep you amused. Buskers entertained us in the evening time and it is so close to the Sassi that we easily walked from one to the other, stopping for selfies along the way!

weekend in Matera
 

 

 
We dined out both evenings, but the cuisine was one of the few things that disappointed me throughout my visit to Puglia and Basilicata. I had heard so much about the regions specialities, but I felt a little underwhelmed. The pane di Matera’s, or local bread, that is recommended in every travellers guide, was just ok and the orecchiette pasta dishes were not exactly earth shattering. We enjoyed many tasty light bites in the trattorias scattered throughout the Sassi, but the experience of dining al-fresco in such a dramatic setting, outweighed my love for it’s cuisine.

weekend in Matera

We did however manage to come across a great find in Matera, La Cola Cola. It was recommended by our hotel and despite being hard to find – we spent a half hour climbing up and down old staircases to find it, it was worth it! Situated inside a cave from the 1700’s, with a panoramic terrace, you could sit inside or out and still have a memorable experience. We chose inside because it was late October and quite chilly at night time. It was packed with locals and the atmosphere was superb. The food was delicious and so cheap too! The Bresaola with parmesan, lemon and rocket was sublime and the pizzas were a big hit with the kids. 

weekend in Matera
 

 

 
The ironic thing is there were so many interesting places to see over the weekend in Matera, but we actually saw very few of them. I can’t tell you that we visited the most amazing museums and cathedrals, or all about the beautiful frescos in the rock churches. We didn’t even visit the ‘must-see’ Casa Noha, the multimedia exhibit that tells you the story of Matera. We had no urge to see the ‘top 10 things to do in Matera’ because the whole city is like a museum. We had two memorable days exploring this incredible city, climbing up stone staircases, peaking inside ancient caves, stopping for gelatos and taking in the spectacular views. Matera is one of the most fascinating cities I have visited, not only because of it’s beauty, but because of it rags to riches success story, that is straight out of a fairytale. As the European Capital of Culture in 2019, let’s hope it stays that way before the crowds arrive.  

 

 

How to get there:

Ryanair fly direct from Dublin airport to Bari, the drive time is one hour to Matera. I stayed in the superb Casa di Lucio hotel, which has standard rooms and larger suites depending on the number of people travelling.   

 

Like this post ? Why not combine a weekend in Matera with a visit to Puglia. Check out my top three places to visit in Puglia here.

 

Sarah
 

The Travel Expert