The city of Matera was voted European Capital of Culture in 2019, which put it on the map of thousands of international tourists and prompted a veritable renaissance for the city’s cultural scene. The positive effects of this initiative can still be felt despite the setback caused by the pandemic. There are two main lessons to be learned here. First of all, European programs supporting lesser-known destinations do help, in the long run, generating a positive ripple effect that can last for years. And second, Matera is a spectacular and unique place with a lot to offer to all kinds of visitors, from individual tourists to business travellers. Here’s what you need to know about Matera and its charming history, architecture, traditions, and vibrant cultural scene. And while Matera’s tenancy as European Capital of Culture is up, we still invite you to visit and enjoy everything this city and its surrounding region have to offer.
How being European Capital of Culture put Matera back on the map
What you need to know about the “Sassi di Matera”
Whenever someone mentions Matera, it is highly likely that they will mention the “Sassi” in the same sentence. While the word itself means “rocks” or “stones”, the name “Sassi di Matera” is used to describe the old town itself, which evolved from a prehistoric settlement and it is essentially a system of caves dug into the side of the calcareous rock that makes up the local mountains. These dwellings are acknowledged to be among the earliest human settlements in the Italian peninsula. As incredible as it may seem, part of the local population used to live in the “Sassi” well into the 1980s. Most of the historic caves have now been reconverted either as tourist sites or even as restaurants and boutique hotels. Most of the caves, however, are not habitable.
Visit Murgia Materana Park
The “Parco della Murgia Materana” offers one of the most beautiful rock landscapes in the world (in no small measure thanks to the “Sassi”) and it combines the beauty of its natural scenery with a wealth of historical, archaeological, and artistic treasures, including its churches and their set of frescoes dating back to the ninth and tenth centuries. If you are in the area, don’t forget to visit the villages of San Nicola all’Ofra and Cristo La Selva, and the viewpoint of Murgia Timone, which offers the best possible perspective for a stunning photo of the Sassi. Those who just want to go hiking and commune with nature at its finest will be happy to know that the local flora and fauna are among the most varied and interesting in Italy. Purchase an excursion with a licensed guide to enjoy this experience to the fullest.
The Crypt of Original Sin
The Crypt of Original Sin is an all-time favourite of tourists and scholars. Its suggestive name and unique history make it one of the most evocative places in Southern Italy. This grotto owes its unusual name to what has also been called “the Sistine Chapel of wall painting”: a stunning example of early medieval painting, with hundreds of frescoes depicting scenes from the Old and New Testament. The works, all of them dating back to the 9th century, were discovered in 1963 by a group of locals. Up until that point, the grotto had been used by the local shepherds as a shelter for their cattle. The Crypt is now fully accessible, upon reservation.
Art is everywhere. Hidden in the caves or displayed in the MUSMA
The local administration did a great job combining Matera’s unique history and ancient tradition with modern art and the requirements of contemporary culture. Palazzo Pomarici is a 16th-century residence, now home to the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture of Matera. The MUSMA houses many national and international works of art of remarkable prestige and is worth a visit. Art, however, takes many forms in Matera. If you go back to the Sassi, specifically to the cave known as Sasso Barisano, you will find the rock complex of Madonna delle Virtù and San Nicola dei Greci, with an old monastery, a cave house, and a cellar. Besides the unique architectural profile of these “buildings”, you might be lucky enough to witness one of the many contemporary art exhibitions that take place here during the year, and enjoy the fascinating contrast of the ancient and the modern as they coexist harmonically within the rocky frame of these incredible grottoes.