I recently visited Matera, Italy with a group of friends and found ancient architecture built on the brink of a sprawling green canyon with a picturesque river running through its bottom. What more can I ask for? A lot of the city’s notoriety comes from being the setting for Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ, and I can certainly understand the choice to film the movie here. Take away a few modern signs for restaurants and stores and the city looks much like it did hundreds of years ago.
The city’s most surprising element is its ability to assimilate with the canyon and rocks on which it is built. Everything from wine bars to churches have been created inside of caves carved from the cliffside. Matera’s caves are called Sassi and date back at least 9,000 years. Shockingly, they were where 50% of Matera’s population lived a mere 70 years ago.
Today, the caves are making Matera a very popular tourist destination. I first caught a glimpse of the ancient, now-uninhabited, Sassi when I stumbled upon la Gravina, the canyon that winds by Matera. The caves stick out everywhere on the far side of this massive expanse. Well-equipped hikers had driven to the far side and could be seen trekking around the cave sites.
The most striking cave that I visited was actually a church, Chiesa San Giovanni. Hewed into one of the city’s rock peaks, the church can be visited free of charge. It is easily viewed from most areas of the city and has the distinction of having a gigantic rock peak for a roof. The front room of the church is somewhat modern, but make sure not to stop here. A small doorway to the left of the altar takes you inside the ancient Santa Maria Idris church where the people in Matera once came to pray for rain. Legend has it that they licked the church’s floor to entice the storms.
One of the best views in all of Matera can be had from the Belvedere Luigi Guerricchio Pittore, a terrace located above the ancient part of the city. From here you can see many of the locations for many scenes from The Passion of the Christ. From there, we took a staircase down that took us through the old city where we found a wealth of attractive alleys, old homes, and several restaurants that were open. We stumbled upon a store run by the Tenute Iacovazzo Winery, which was offering a free tasting of their wines. Five local wines were being offered, one of which was made using Primitivo grapes from three different growing seasons. The wine was made from the 2006, 2007, and 2008 harvests, and had a rustic, masculine character that made it stand out.
Matera is located in the Basilicata region of Italy, and it has several food specialties, including an incredible stuffed foccacia. Foccacia is a lot more than bread in Materia, and its foccacia can be filled with everything from spinach and ricotta to sausage and onions. The flaky bread on the outside ensures that the delicacy is more than just a snack, yet not too heavy. The salami made in Matera is also worth trying. It is made with chili peppers which produces a very spicy taste. Paired with local cheeses and a wine made from the native Aglianico grape is a match made in heaven. Aglianico is thought by many to be southern Italy’s most noble grape, and possibly the origin of the world-famous Nebbiolo grape, used to make Barolo wines.
As the day wound down, I still hadn’t seen enough. I suggest spending at least two days in Matera if your travel schedule permits. The city has a lot to offer, as does the surrounding countryside. The best time to visit the city is April-June, and September-October.
Written by and photos by Mattie Bamman for Europeupclose.com