Basilicata, Italy – Visit the Ancient Sassi (Stones) of Matera

Travel south from Rome to Matera, the capital of Matera Province in Basilicata and a UNESCO Heritage site of hillside caves within 20 miles of the Ionian Sea. The extraordinary town of Matera, also called Lucania, is of great interest to historians, archaeologists, and theologians for its resemblance to Jerusalem in biblical times. Movie producers used realistic locations in the area for Mel Gibson’s controversial The Passion of the Christ, King David with Richard Gere, and The Nativity Story. An increase in tourism brought a welcome boost to the economy of this ancient city. The cave-like houses of the two districts, Sassi Caveoso and Sassi Barisano, are architecturally unique, with each one built on top of another and interiors carved out of the rocky hillsides. Narrow, winding streets and crooked, steep stairways connect the cave homes where generations of families may have lived since the prehistoric ages.

Things to See & Do:

Wildlife and bird watching are popular with visitors to Matera, where nature lovers and photographers can spend hours in the natural habitat of cormorants, herons, and falcons. Wolves, badgers, and otters are among the small wildlife in these reserves, and the rare yellow spotted Tortoise of Herman makes its home near the sandy shores.

Guided cycling tours are available to the Natural History Park of the Matera Caves of Churches about 9 miles from town. There are over 150 churches to see, as well as the 9th century frescoes in the cave of a hundred saints (the Crypt of Original Sin.) If you have time, you can explore other national parks in the Basilicata region such as San Guiliano and the Policoro Woods, on foot, on horseback, or by white water rafting

Among the churches in Matera are the 8th century Benedictine church of Santa Lucia of the Malve, the San Pietro Barisano, the 16th century San Agostino church, and the Cathedral to Santa Maria della Bruna.

The 17th century Palazzo Lanfranchi, built by the Capuchin monk Copertin, houses a collection of sacred and contemporary artwork. It features paintings by Carlo Levi, author of the book and film Christ Stopped at Eboli, wooden sculptures, clay works, cultural exhibits, and paintings from other provinces in Italy.

Hours: Tues-Fri, 10:30-12:30pm, 4:30-6:30pm. Admission: $2.70, $1.35

Others places of interest include the National Archaeological Museum “Domenico Ridola,” established in 1911 by Ridola, physician and Senator of Matera. The museum features ancient artifacts from the Old and New Stone Ages, gathered from his numerous excavations. Hours: 9-8pm, Closed Mon. Admission: $3.

The MUSMA, Museo della Scultura Contempranea, which opened in Oct 2006, is a huge 2-level museum with rooms of magnificent sculpture, wall and floor artwork, jewelry, and displays in hallways, cellars, courtyards, and on the veranda. The impressive exterior view of the caves and the Gravina Canyon is no less impressive than the unique interior of the museum. Known as the friendship museum by Curator Giuseppe Appella, most collections are privately donated. Hours: 10-2pm, Tues-Sat. Admission: $6

Events: Various festivals, religious celebrations, and live theatre take place all year. One of the most popular is the Madonna Della Bruna festival, which begins at sunrise on 2 July and continues until nightfall. From the early morning procession of shepherds, parade of horseback riders and local police, and crowds of vendors, everyone gets involved. At the end of the day, the mule-drawn cart carrying the throne and Madonna is pulled through town, while the locals grab pieces of the float as a promise of good luck and a plentiful harvest. A splendid fireworks display ends the festivities sometime after midnight.

Where to Stay:

The 5-star Palazzo Gattini overlooking the town features 20 luxurious rooms and suites; each is unique with 18th and 19th century décor, handmade furnishings, restored frescoes, and modern amenities. Rooms have separate sitting areas, and some have balconies where guests can enjoy the view. Condé Nast recognized this prestigious hotel on their 2009 Hot List. Guests receive a complimentary breakfast, use of the underground spa, pool, and golf course on the grounds. Fine dining at the elegant Le Bubbole restaurant onsite.

Rates: $180/room. Special Weekend & Other Packages – from $186 to $600+ for the ultimate luxury.

Sant’Angelo Hotel & Resort has 23 rooms and suites, a library, conference facilities, courtyards, 2 bars, and the popular Regia Corte restaurant and lounge terrace. Amenities for guests include complimentary Internet access, breakfast, room service, and shuttle service to the railway station or to/from Bari Airport ($89 for 2, one-way). Rates: $161/dbl room

Hotel Albergo Italia is centrally located and offers comfortable accommodations and a friendly atmosphere at very reasonable prices. The rooms are spacious and clean, the service is excellent, and the Basilico restaurant is next door. Avg Rates: $87/dbl

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The designer Hotel Basiliani in the archaeological area overlooks the Gravina Canyon. The striking all-white décor of the 11 guestrooms provides an interesting contrast between the contemporary and the old limestone cave houses of the Sassi. Each room has a private entrance, and guests receive a full breakfast, free parking, and Internet access. Good value for your money. Rates: $66/sgl, $86/dbl.

The 7 rooms at the Residenza Le Dodici Lune have individual balconies, TV, cooking facilities, & refrigerator. Restaurant onsite; the Residenza is pet friendly. Rates: $101/room

Hilton Garden Inn has 125 guestrooms, free parking, and restaurant onsite.

Rates: $109/room

Where to Eat:

Le Botteghe is highly recommended for a quiet, comfortable atmosphere, good service, and excellent food. The menu features ear shaped pasta baked with ham and cheese, pasta with mussels, and grilled beef. There is a wide selection of wines, side dishes, antipasto, and local specialties. Try the famous Pane de Matera, the bread with a tradition that began with the peasants who had no electricity or running water until the 1950’s. Each family had a personal breadstamp, which was placed on each loaf after baking in wood-burning ovens. Bread was used as an ingredient in many dishes, and breadstamps were so important they were often given as wedding gifts.

Hours: 12:30-3pm (Lunch), 8pm–(Dinner). Prices: Lunch, $66 for 2, Dinner entrées range in price.

The menu at Ristorante Luncanerie includes delicious local pasta specialties, roasted suckling pig and boar, unusual side dishes, and goat cheesecake for dessert. Canvas booths, old wall paintings, and 16′ ceilings add a rural appeal to the restaurant. Friendly service & creative cuisine. Prices: $72-$85 for 2.

Trattoria del Caveoso, centrally located, is ranked #1 by numerous travelers to Matera. The seasonal menu features traditional and gourmet cuisine including lamb, fava beans, pasta, grilled steak, and a selection of wine and desserts. Outstanding hospitality and service. Prices: $27-$47. Open year round, except Sun evenings and Mondays.

Stroll through town after sunset to experience the magical panorama of street lamps glowing in the darkness across the ancient white Sassi of Matera.

Getting there: Flights from Rome, Milan, major European cities, and the UK to Bari airport, regular Pugliair bus service to Matera, or a 50-minute drive. By rail from Bari to Matera, about an hour, $5 one-way.

Sharon L Slayton

Filed Under: Movie tourism

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