24 hours in Matera
Have you seen the new James Bond car chase scenes around southern Italy? Happens that Muddy was there this summer, checking out the cool places to go. Make mine a martini, shaken not stirred while I tell you my insider tips.
Where James Bond goes, your Muddy cultural spy has already been! I saw on the news this morning the scenes from the new film, where the Aston Martins skid their way around a south Italian city.
That city is Matera, and it so happened that I went there on my summer hols this year. I kept meaning to tell you about it as it’s so under-the-radar and I guess now is the time! Matera, in Italy’s southern Basilicata region, was known until the 1950s 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 this year it’s 2019 European City of Culture.
Cue my insider tips for making the most of a Matera weekender! You ready to rumble?
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 Crea che Ricrea, a gallery and artisan craft shop full of individually knitted clothes, kids toys, wire work and furnishings. Calia Interiors is chock full of stylish, angular Italian sofas and furniture. For fashion try DesBoutique or Boutique Anna.
Eat, drink, stay
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).
For something a bit more glam, try Dottoni for lounging/wine barring, the very cool Ridola where you can sit outside on fabulously upholstered chairs for a coffee or dine on the terrace or in the more temperate interior, or for a magical evening meal, head for Alcova, with its strings of fairy lights in its cavernous interior and killer cocktails.
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 £121 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.