Matera was our home base for the better part of a week while we explored surrounding parts of Basilicata and Puglia. The original town is carved into soft rock along the cliff edge of a gorge. The new town has been built slightly higher up along the ridge. From the opposite side of the gorge, Matera looks like this.
The ravine (Gravina) is a surprisingly small river these days that carved this. The switchback paths that lead down to the river and up to the plateaus on either side have been in use for a very long time. 9000 years by some estimates. The oldest dwellings here were natural caves in the soft stone. Some of them as recently as the 1950s were not much more than that. The houses are known as 'sassi'.
The Sassi Caveoso is one of the two major sassi areas of Matera. If it looks a little bit like an Escher drawing, that's because it is much like that. This portion of Matera has not been renovated and most of these are abandoned and gated off.
Several of the sassi can be entered although most of those are either in a state of disrepair or have been renovated extensively into restaurants or hotels. This example is a museum in the caveoso district of town. The dwelling consists of a series of rooms carved deeper into the rock. The first room is the living / cooking area. Beyond that is a sleeping area, a manger for livestock and then a cellar for food/wine storage. The inclusion of the livestock into the living area was partially responsible for the rampant disease Matera suffered from in the first half of the 20th century.
Nowadays the new and the old exist side by side, or on top of one another as the case may be. It's often hard to tell them apart. Travel between places is by a series of extensive ramps, stairs and tiny alleyways. All of the hotels and the tourist offices give out maps although it's really a great place to just wander at random.
Looking across the sassi area the line of newer buildings on the horizon is part of the new city of Matera. Of all the cities we spent time in while in Southern Italy, only Naples compares to Matera when it comes to the passeggiata, or evening stroll. It really seemed like every man, woman and child in the city were out along via Lucana and via del Corso at dusk each evening.
There are not a lot of specific sites to see in Matera. There are dozens of churches carved out of and into the rock walls much like the homes. Probably the most photogenic of these are San Pietro Caveoso (free standing on the left) and San Giovanni / Madonna de Idris (carved into the rock outcrop above it). Adding to the scenery, this little piazza is perched on the very edge of the ravine.
The tall spire of the duomo is the other major landmark in town and can be seen from most parts of the sassi areas. If you climb up to the hill it is on you'll find it's actually built right into the rest of the buildings in typical Matera style. There is a small plaza on two sides and a nice view to the north.
After dark Matera is at its prettiest. Wandering through the alleys at night in search of some tucked-away restaurant is definitely part of the experience here. Most of the hotels, including the residence (apartment) we stayed in are in the new town, generally close to the sassi. There is plenty of shopping along via Lucana but we tried to make at least a brief foray into the sassi each evening. Of course you do have to consider the post-meal climb back up to your room afterwards.
We made many little side trips from Matera. Very nearby the cave dwellings on the other side of the gorge are worth a visit. Cities like Bari, Taranto, Martina Franca and Alberobello are easy day trips. Just north of Matera is the city of Altamura which is best known for its bread products (just pick a bakery at random and stop in). The Castel del Monte, shown here, is about an hour or so to the north as well.