Make the most of your 2 days in Matera, the top place to go in southern Italy’s Basilicata region. Matera is known for its picturesque sassi districts, large settlements of cave houses and Rupestrian churches dug into the soft tufa rock in a ravine. One of Italy’s most evocative ghost towns, Craco, is also in this area.
Matera was once thought of as the shame of Italy with its overcrowded settlements of cave houses filled with people living in poverty. Most of the inhabitants were relocated in the 1950’s and the cave houses were abandoned.
Today the sassi area has been cleaned up and people are starting to remodel the houses to make them habitable, turning some of them into hotels and restaurants. In 1993 it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and in 2019, Matera will be the European Capital of Culture.
Start your visit in the historic center of the medieval town above the ravines. Piazza Vittorio Veneto is the main square and gathering place for locals. Several bars and churches are around the square and in the center is a large fountain that is sometimes lit with colored lights at night. Near the square is an overlook where you can view one of the sassi districts, Sasso Barisano.
For an interesting look at the city’s water ancient supplies, go downstairs near the Roman ruins in the square to the Palombaro, the city’s largest cistern that supplied the sassi with water.
Walk along the main street, Via del Corso, lined with shops, restaurants, and bars. Visit the 13th century Cathedral whose interior was remodeled in Baroque style. Continue walking through the ancient gate to another overlook where you’ll see the cave settlement of Sasso Caveoso.
The sassi settlements are one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited areas, having been used as housing since the Neolithic age and evidence of use in the Paleolithic has been found too. Sassi literally means stones so this area is called the Stones of Matera. Many films have been made in the sassi of Matera, including Mel Gibson’s the Last Passion of the Christ.
Take the path down into the Sasso Caveoso and explore the small, winding streets lined with houses and churches carved into the soft tufa stone. At the bottom of the ravine is the early 13th century Church of San Pietro Caveoso.
Continue walking along Via Madonna delle Virtu’ and you’ll be in the larger of the two sassi districts, Sasso Barisano. Visit the complex of Madonna delle Virtù e San Nicola dei Greci, cave churches with frescoes and carvings. A little farther along you’ll come to a “typical house” restored to give you an idea of what it was like to live in one of these cave dwellings.
Guided Tour: Discover Matera Walking Tour is a 2 hour walk through the Sasso Caveoso district with a visit to one cave dwelling and a cave church. The tour also includes the Baroque historic center of Matera.
Matera is really beautiful at night so it makes a good place to stay. If you’d like to stay in the sassi districts there are a number of cave houses and churches that have been made into hotels. I stayed at Locanda Di San Martino Hotel and Thermae Romanae. Or stay in one of the hotels above the ravines with a view over the sassi. I’ve also stayed at Albergo Italia right above the sassi.
While Matera can be reached by train, you’ll need a car to get to the remote abandoned village of Craco, about an hour’s drive southwest of Matera. Once a thriving medieval town, a landslide destroyed half the town and the other part was abandoned soon afterward leaving a haunting set of ruins. As you walk through what’s left of the town (the oldest part that was built on solid bedrock) you’ll see remains of houses, a bakery, stores, bars, and churches.
To visit Craco, you’ll need to take a guided tour by going to the main visitor center. There you’ll watch a short video with information about the town. Then you’ll don a hard hat and walk through town accompanied by a guide (an English speaking guide is available) who tells you more about the town and shows you the sights. The tour lasts about an hour and the only inhabitants you’re likely to see are cats, dogs, or a couple of horses.
If you don’t have a car, you can spend more time wandering through the sassi, shopping, or visiting Matera’s museums and churches. Another option is to take the Basilicata Wine Tour that includes transportation from your hotel in Matera. You’ll get to see some of Basilicata, including the castle and Jewish catacombs at Venosa and the castle in Melfi with lunch at a farm house and visits to two wineries.