‘Matera’ is probably lesser known UNESCO World Heritage Site in South Italy. The site is inhabited from pre-historic time. The ancient site has cave dwellings dug in the tuff rock along the slopes of a hill. These houses are so compactly arranged that roof of one house serves as a floor for the upper house.
A walk through this ancient city reveals how the settlement flourished at one time then declined and lead to slums and then finally as a forgotten place somewhere remote from other popular cities in Italy.
Want to know how to explore Matera- UNESCO World Heritage site? Keep reading…
How to reach
The nearest airport is Bari in Puglia region of Italy. From there, one can reach the historic site – Sassi of Matera– in about an hour by car. There are numerous group tours as well which are arranged by local travel agencies. I would say, the car will be the best option. There is a paid parking available near the site.
The entry to this World Heritage Site is free for all. One can freely roam around the place. To enter some churches or houses or to visit museums on site, one needs to pay. There is much to see outside and one need not go inside each and every section. Below, I have listed some important sites where you can pay for entry and it is worth visiting.
How to explore
Matera (new city) is little crowded and confusing. There are signboards all around but still, we might get lost. 🙂
If you are coming by car, you will probably park in a public paid parking on ‘Via Lucana’. Then follow the signs and you will reach Belvedere Piazzetta Pascoli. In this square, there is a National Museum of medieval and modern art. One need to pay for entry. Just beside this building, is a viewing platform. Go there and have your first sight of Matera Sassi. Take some photos and walk along the street in front of the museum.
This street has lots of cafes, shops, bank, ATMs etc. On the way are again churches like Santa Chiara, Chiesa del Purgatorio, San Francesco and another archeological museum- Domenico Ridola. I would suggest you visit this museum for getting little more details about the history of the place.
Keep walking and you will reach the ‘Piazza Vittorio Veneto’. There is a tourist office, some more restaurants, and cafes. This is probably the last place to find food choices so better get energized. For budget travelers or for small appetite, there is one warm sandwich vending machine also.
In the same square, right in the middle, you will see steps going down. I recommend going down. There is another viewing gallery for some more photography. This down-stair is actually an entrance to ‘Palombaro Lungo’. These are ancient cisterns and today open for public. One needs to book a guided tour (at the entrance of the cistern). This is a fun experience for kids. It takes about half an hour.
Now, from the ‘Piazza Vittorio Veneto’, turn right. There are also some more shops and a few restaurants. Yet another chance to fill up. At the corner of the square is a drinking water fountain. Fill your bottles for the day.
Keep walking straight while checking on to your right side for more viewpoints. One can walk on the parallel road which is on the lower level and it goes from the cisterns in the ‘Piazza Vittorio Veneto’. One can take that road as well.
Just keep walking ahead keeping the iconic Church tower towards the right. We are going towards ‘San Augustino Church’. It is at the far end of the site and involves good enough walking. If you are with young children, I would say to skip it and walk across the valley towards ‘The’ tower.
Once you reach the ‘San Augustino Church’, admire the stunning view of the Sassi of Matera and valley in front. My first photo above is from this site. Go inside the church and take a cool breath for a while. Wait! that’s not all, there is more to see. Walk further inside in this church and discover pre-historic church remnants which was built by the ancient settlement. Admire the remnants of ancient frescos as well.
After a bit of relaxation, take a return journey via the same main road. Now head towards down in the valley and reach on ‘Via Florentini’. It’s again considerable walk. This street goes back towards the ‘Piazza Vittorio Veneto’. But we want to go to Matera Cathedral for its iconic tower (which we are looking at from the start of our day).
Check out my video series about Matera.
Go an exploring the area while walking towards the tower and away from the Via Florentini. You will pass many small lanes, houses, gardens and will get to see the site from various angles. Remember, this will be all uphill walk through steps of a steep road.
While walking around, we reached the ‘Piazza del Sedile’. This is again little buzzing square with some shops and restaurants. If interested, visit the shop of Musical instruments in the corner. Continue walking uphill and you will reach Matera Cathedral. This is big open square which hosts the Cathedral, viewing platform and few shops. Take lots of photos from here and then go inside the cathedral. The entry is free and photography is allowed. Take advantage of it and satisfy yourself after a long walk. One must visit this cathedral. If possible take a guided tour for some interesting information.
Relax for a while here. We have covered more than half of the Matera World Heritage Site. Fill your water bottles in the fountain in front of the Cathedral. Ready? let’s go…
Now keep the ‘Café Duomo’ on your right and cross the square. There is small (in fact tiny) lane. You will think for a while if it is a right way then it is right, just enter. On the other end, you will get a view of another side of the hill. Now the popular Sassi is on the backside and the valley in front is mostly barren with a thin river flowing deep down. Observe the hill slopes opposite the valley. You can see some caves, keep observing and you will recognize many such caves spread around. These are most ancient cave dwellings of the site. One need to do separate day hiking to explore them.
Now turn right, keep walking along the valley and you will reach ‘Piazza San Pietro Caveoso’. There is a church and observation area facing the valley.
Keep walking and you will reach ‘Casa Grotto’. This is the place for which we came on this side of the hill. This is a museum of ancient Cave Dwelling. Entry is paid and I insist to go inside. There are four rooms on display which give us a nice idea about the lifestyle that time and some history stuff through information panels and audio-visual. If you can understand Italian, then there is audio information as well. The complete visit will take about half an hour but it broadens our understanding of the place.
After this Cave Dwelling, walk ahead and reach ‘Santa Lucia Church’. There is also a small display/museum of the ancient lifestyle and church ruins. But the place is more popular for photography. Take photos with a new perspective of the site.
The ‘Belvedere Piazzetta Pascoli, – where we started to explore, is on the left-hand side. Next, we are heading towards it. Are you tired? Stop at the bakery on the way for a pizza slice or grab an ice-cream. There are few restaurants also if you wish. Check out the famous Matera bread at the bakery.
By the time you reach the Belvedere Piazzetta Pascoli, it might be an evening. If you have time in hand, stop till sunset for twilight photography. When the sun sets, the street-lights lit up and those stone houses glimmer in wonderful yellow tint. This makes our day fulfilled with great satisfaction.
Note that there are still many more things to see and at the same time, one can leave one or more places from this itinerary as per interest.
Some facts and tips
- Matera Sassi is a huge open area spread across the hill slopes. It means one needs to walk a lot. First of all, you will need comfortable walking shoes, cap, sunglasses and water. It will be always a good idea to carry some light food with you.
- Do not bring prams, not even small ones. There is no place to keep them and not possible to walk with them.
- One of the characteristics of Matera- UNESCO World Heritage Site is its structure. There are numerous lanes and paths which interweave the place. There is no route correct or wrong.Just take a way you like and discover something new.
- There are many accommodation options available inside the Sassi and in the new city area. One can stay in a stone cave like accommodations also.
- Overall, I found the place little costlier when it comes to food, souvenirs or similar stuff.
- If you are going to visit Alberobello- which happens to be another more popular destination nearby, do visit Matera as well. It is worthy of it. The young kids usually like the terrain to explore. For families with babies, it might be a little hectic day.
Best places for photography
- Belvedere Piazzetta Pascoli – popular panorama viewpoint.
- San Augustino Church – interesting view over the site and valley. My favorite spot.
- Matera Cathedral – a panoramic view which is not postcard popular.
- Piazza San Pietro Caveoso – View over river valley and most ancient caves.
- Santa Lucia Church – Similar to from Matera Cathedral with little variation.
The nearby destination- Ostuni is popular for its Olive oil. Read more details about what else should we buy there.
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