Imagine a region that has miles of white sand beaches on one coast, picturesque rocky bays on the other, two mountainous national parks, and one of the world’s oldest cities. Add lots of warm sunshine plus fine food and wine and you might expect the area to be a tourist mecca, busy with hotels and tour buses. However, Basilicata, the arch and instep of Italy’s boot, has all the above but – thanks admittedly to a history of poverty and difficult access – little mass tourism.
What to see and do
The Sassi lay empty for decades after the war, their inhabitants rehoused, but from the 1980’s people started moving back, modernising caves and converting them into hotels, bars and shops. Matera gained Unesco world heritage listing in 1993 and is now more prosperous, but there has been no jarring change in appearance or atmosphere. The steep steps, rocky outcrops and stone alleyways could be Babylon or biblical-era Jerusalem, and have been used in films including, recently, the 2016 remake of Ben Hur, Wonder Woman and this year’s Mary Magdalene.
Now scrubbing up for its year as European Capital of Culture in 2019, Matera is more striking than pretty – Levi wrote of its “painful beauty” – but few other living cities in Europe have such a magical air of real antiquity.
The Sassi are in two sections, the Barisano and the older Caveoso, where more of the sights are. There are over 150 rock-cut churches here and in the countryside nearby, many of which can be visited (tickets from €2.50 for one church to €6 for three). Less-visited than most – it’s a 15-minute walk south along the Gravina ravine – is 13th-century Santa Barbara, with astounding rock paintings.
The hard life of cave-dwelling peasants is recreated in the Casa Grotta (adult €2) on Vico Solitario, with two furnished cave rooms complete with animals and papà enthroned on a stone latrine in a corner.
Beneath Piazza Vittorio Veneto, the Palombaro Lungo is a 16-metre deep series of water tanks dug in the early 1800s to keep Matera, high on its limestone hill, supplied with water in hot dry summers. A €3 ticket (under-18s free) includes a guided tour (four a day in English) of cisterns waterproofed with terracotta and porcelain. They are as impressive as any cathedral, though excavated from the earth rather than soaring skywards.
Matera is not all about old stones; there are new ones at the Musma contemporary sculpture museum (closed Mondays), in 16th-century Palazzo Pomarici, whose collection includes works by Picasso and De Chirico as well as striking modern works in plastic, glass and metal.
Where to Shop
Foodie souvenirs include pasta, olive oil, dried cruschi peppers and crapiata, a mix of grains and pulses for soup. Artisanal makers are setting up shop as Matera’s star rises: Elisa & Janna make unusual jewellery from recycled metals and cloth. At Pandora Cuoio, Gianni Maragno hand-crafts handsome leather bags, belts and sandals.
In an 18th-century house on the edge of the Sassi, with great views from its little roof terrace, Casa Diva (doubles from €85 B&B) opened in 2015 and has eight individually designed rooms with names like Monk and Artist. Breakfast is at a huge communal table beneath pop-art portraits of local characters, from a philosophy professor to a knife grinder.