When the sun rises over Matera, Italy, it’s like a spotlight has been cast on the ancient set of a Hollywood movie—except this is the real thing.
The sun’s glow brings a warmth to the winding stone streets and ages-old structures with arches, passageways, gates and distinctive doors.
The heart of Matera is a 10,000-year-old community where people and animals once lived in cave dwellings and stone structures built out of malleable rock of a ravine. Abandoned in 1952 after the government determined it was uninhabitable and the entire population was moved to more modern residences, the area became known as “the shame of Italy.” This historic and architectural wonder was neglected for decades.
However in 1986, the Italians launched a major restoration program, which led to the creation of museums and hotel facilities. In 1993, UNESCO declared the area known as the Sassi District, a World Heritage Site.
Italy is a well-known and popular vacation destination with Rome, Venice and Florence drawing hordes annually. Since Matera, a lesser known city located in the arch of southern Italy’s boot, has come alive again with locals taking residence and merchants opening shops in the Sassi, tourists are discovering an Italian experience unlike any other.
One now can walk the meandering cobblestone streets and climb steps that range from steep to shallow throughout this district past homes, residences, churches, bed-and-breakfast inns. Be prepared for a vigorous workout as one descends deeper into the district—remember it exists in a ravine—and returning means climbing back up all those stairs and inclines. Everything in the Sassi retains an ancient appearance since it’s all built out of the distinctive white rock native to the area. No wonder so many movie directors have chosen Matera as the location for their films, particularly biblical-themed films such as The Passion of the Christ, King David, The Nativity Story and more.
The views both close up and from a distance are nothing short of spectacular, regardless of whether one strolls the streets early morning, during the day, at sunset or in the evening. At night, with the glow of sporadic lighting, the old city has a more mysterious feel.
Those who hunger for a unique experience can overnight in one of several cave hotels in Matera such as Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita, which has 18 rooms and suites lite with natural light, candlelight and just a few touches of modern life such as modern bed and linens and WiFi.
Not all of Matera is ancient, though. Modern hotels, eateries, shops, offices, theaters, residences and a large public park are located on the streets surrounding the Sassi. Here merchants offer clothing, jewelry, gelato and experiences intended for locals and visitors. And in the evening, the streets and piazzas are full of locals engaging in the Italian tradition of “passeggiata” (the little walk) strolling to see and be seen and reconnect with neighbors, relatives and friends.
While the Sassi district is almost exclusively traffic free, the rest of Matera bustles with compact cars as well as buses bringing visitors from Rome and other areas.
My hotel during three days in Matera was the Albergo Italia, which had rooms with high ceilings, large rooms and a spectacular views of the Sassi. It is conveniently located steps away from places to grab a drink, something to eat and an easy walk to shopping, dining, museums, churches and the heart of the Sassi district.
The group I was traveling with dined several nights at Ristorante O’Llamord, located deep in the Sassi, which served flavorful pastas accompanied by Italian wines and our favorite nightcap to end the meal limoncello, a lemon flavored Italian liquer. The quality of the meals was matched by the friendliness of the staff who didn’t mind taking group photos and laughing with us between courses.
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