Italy, Mr Bond? 24 hours in Matera
Make mine a martini, shaken not stirred while we tell you our insider tips on how to best experience the coolest city you've probably never heard of.
Where Her Majesty’s favourite spy goes, your Muddy cultural spy has already been! The much delayed and anticipated new Bond film No Time to Die is finally released on 30 Sept and the trailers are full of jaw-dropping Aston Martin chases around Matera, a little-visited but stunning city in Italy’s southern Basilicata region.
I took the kids there during summer hols pre-Covid and I’m telling you about it now so you can book before the hoards descend in 2022.
Its incarnation as a Hollywood film set is a recent one – until the 1950s Matera was known as ‘Italy’s shame’, a devastatingly poor city with no running water or electricity, with the inhabitants still living in caves.
The government built new housing and shipped them away from the old Matera. Since then its been given UNESCO designation (justifiably so – the city is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in history dating back to the Palaeolithic period), investment has come into the city, the Sassi (meaning ‘stone’) district has been gentrified and in 2019 it was crowned European City of Culture.
HOW TO SEE IT BEST
Walk! That might sound blindingly obvious but the Sassi district of Matera is a stunning maze of cobbled streets, nooks, crannies, false starts and steps everywhere. Ditch the car just outside the old city and limber up.
But if you’re expecting large green spaces here think again – this is the venue used by Mel Gibson to replicate Jerusalem when he filmed The Passion of the Christ so it has an untouched, almost biblical air. You can pretty much walk around the perimeter of the city, from which you look across at hundreds of cave dwellings. It’s extraordinary.
Start with the cathedral, definitely. On the top of Civitas hill, a 13th century beauty with amazing views of the Sasso Barisano. Its exterior is plain, but go inside and it’s a visual feast of frescos, chandeliers and ornate worship. We were all blown away by it, even the kids.
The Church of Santa Maria de Idris is also absolutely worth your time. Perched high on rocks, this tiny church reveals ancient frescos inside – the effort involved in building such a small church in such a tricky location is mindblowing.
What else? The Museum of contemporary sculpture (Museo della Scultura Contemporanea) is awesome – its set in caves (of course) in a 16th century palazzo, with an emphasis on Italian sculpture from the 19th century to present. Well it doesn’t sound exactly glamorous but in Piazza Vittorio Veneto you’ll find an ancient cistern (Palombaro Lungo) – the second largest in the world. The cistern was carved by hand in the 1770s, but was only rediscovered in 1991. Bonus: in a very humid city, it’s very cool down here!
Don’t expect Milan or Rome! But you’ll have a pleasant meander down the main shopping street, Via del Corso. In no particular order (I was just on holiday so was having my own mooch!) interesting shops to check out include Calia Interiors, chock full of stylish, angular Italian sofas and furniture and Elisa & Janna for unique jewellery. For fashion try Boutique Anna, which does a great line in accessories along with lust-worthy coats, dresses and shirts.
EAT & DRINK
Plenty to be said for heading to one of the piazzas for a simple lunch – we sat in Piazza Vittorio Veneto and had a fantastic, if slightly pricey, pasta stop at one of the trattorias. (BTW you’re round the corner from yet another church worth your attention, the Romanesque San Giovanni Battista).
You can sit outside on fabulously upholstered chairs for a coffee or dine on the terrace at Ridola. For a magical evening meal, head for Alcova, with its strings of fairy lights in its cavernous interior and killer cocktails. And if you just want to pick up some gourmet goodies on the hoof, definitely pop into II Buongustaio Matera, a deli packed to the rafters with fine cheeses, cured meats, pastas, pastries and wine (warning: you’re gonna need extra baggage for the trip home).
We didn’t stay the night so I can’t personally recommend a hotel but if I was going to park my head anywhere, and had the budget to burn I’d go for Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita, above, or Sant’Angelo Luxury Resort – both big on the luxury cave dweller theme. For something less pricey, Hotel in Pietra is a good option, set in a stunning 13th-century rupestrian chapel. I’ve heard the Air B&B scene is massive here too so definitely check that out – this gorgeous sassi house is £145 per night and sleeps four.
HOW TO GET THERE
It’s just under three hours flight to Bari; then a 90-minute train to Matera so enough effort to warrant a long weekend.