Matera is not the easiest place to reach which is why it has managed to remain relatively unknown, especially to foreign tourists, although its historical center “Sassi di Matera” became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, along with the Park of the Rupestrian Churches. On 17 October 2014, Matera was declared Italian host of European Capital of Culture for 2019 with the Bulgarian town of Plovdiv.
Less than 70 years ago some 15,000 people, mostly peasants and farmers, were still living in grottoes carved out of limestone that dated back to Matera’s prehistoric era: dank dwellings with no natural light, ventilation, running water or electricity. Until the 1950s, Matera was a source of shame for Italy, a place of poverty, malaria and high rates of infant mortality, where people lived in caves without electricity, running water or sewage. Carlo Levi’s book Christ Stopped at Eboli raised awareness of the desperate conditions people were living in and about half of the 30,000 population were moved to new homes in the modern part of the city between 1953 and 1968.
But still now that the conditions are changes, visiting Matera you’ll spend a lot of time in caves. You’ll sleep in a cave, eat in a cave, drink an aperitivo in a cave, and even view modern sculpture in a cave. The ancient neighbourhoods, known as sassi, are a series of grottoes carved out of limestone, teetering on the edge of a ravine. It’s one of the most unique and spectacular places we’ve visited in Italy or anywhere in the world.
A recent report by the University of Siena said that more than 25% of Matera’s housing stock is available to rent on Airbnb, more than anywhere else in Italy.
The Airbnb phenomenon is currently the subject of fierce controversy in Italy, criticised for a “Disneyfication” effect on Italian cities such as Florence and Venice. Locals have complained about being pushed out and say the souls of historic centres are being threatened.
But people in Matera beg to differ. The Sassi still lack basic amenities, such as a supermarket, so there is little demand from locals to live there, and the holiday lets have helped plug a shortage in hotel beds, especially during the low season, Acito said. And while Matera now draws in some 600,000 visitors a year, it hasn’t yet suffered the same stampede inflicted on the more traditional Italian hotspots.
The best way to explore the neighbourhoods Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso is on foot, roaming through the labyrinth of narrow alleyways, up and down uneven stone staircases, discovering dead ends and tiny courtyards adorned with flower pots, cave churches and expansive views of the sassi.
Whether you stay for a few days or live there, you feel an emotion. You imagine how generations of people lived.
Matera is truly special—with a spectacular setting, fascinating history, and excellent cuisine it’s made even better by the undiscovered feel. That won’t last, so visit now.