For our last stop on our babymoon to Italy, we visited the city of Matera in the Basilicata region of Southern Italy. Matera is about a 4-hour drive from Positano, and I chose to add it to our itinerary based on its unique beauty and history. Matera is a city of limestone caves, or sassi, first excavated and inhabited in the Paleolithic period. Today, those caves have been transformed into restaurants, hotels, apartments, shops, and museums, making the city a striking mix of ancient and modern.
The old town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, but Matera is still relatively unnoticed by foreign tourists. The majority of visitors we encountered during our stay were Italians exploring their own country, or Italian schoolchildren visiting on field trips. At one attraction, only two English tours were available a day, which just demonstrates the relatively “undiscovered” status of this picturesque town.
That all may be about to change, though. Shortly after we booked our trip, the New York Times released their annual 52 Places to Visit list, and guess which city was number three? In 2019, Matera will be Europe’s Capital of Culture, so the city is preparing for an influx of visitors.
What we did: We were pleasantly surprised by how much there was to see in Matera! Our hotel provided us with a local tourist map, which included several different suggested walking paths. We found following these routes to be the best way to experience the city. There were many, many historical sights to explore, most inside the famous sassis. You can explore monasteries and crypts, tour reconstructed cave dwellings, and descend into what was once the city’s water supply cistern. You’ll find yourself wandering through twisted alleyways, and taking lots of winding stairs, but you’ll discover so many hidden little stops along the way—the experience is akin to exploring Venice. Keep your eyes peeled and wander in galleries, churches, and gelato shops as you go.
One of our favorite stops was MUSMA, the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture Matera. Modern sculptures are sited in the centuries-old caves, creating a juxtaposition of modern and ancient lines. The contrast is striking, making this a really special and impactful place to view art.
Keep your eyes open for the Church of the Madonna delle Virtù, with its natural rock walls and views of the valley, and the Church of the Purgatorio, for its striking exterior covered in motifs of skulls and bones. We also liked the tour of the underground cistern, which you can find in the main plaza, Piazza Vittorio Veneto.
Where we stayed: We stayed at La Dimora di Metello, a small boutique hotel that has carefully renovated ancient caves into beautiful and spacious rooms with modern amenities. Our suite was gorgeous and huge (there was a living room! with a couch!), and we had a nice balcony with a view of the city. We also had some of our favorite breakfasts at this hotel, with hearty potato focaccia and delicate almond pastries. I have two small complaints about the hotel—first, they use strong floral scent diffusers that I did not like at all. I immediately removed ours from the room, but the scent lingered throughout our stay. Second, some of the modern fixtures favor form over function. The waterfall-style shower looked cool but hit the shower’s glass wall rather than my body, as an example. Still, though this hotel had a few quirks, we thought the service and amenities were excellent, and the design was truly stunning.
What we ate: We also had some fabulous meals in Matera. We had dinner at La Gatta Buia, a modern Italian restaurant that’s (surprise!) set in a cave. We had a delicious lunch at Ristorante da Nico right across from our hotel, where Andrew discovered his love of black truffles over a plate of tagliatelle. I also tried the orecchiette there, which this region of Italy is known for. Both dishes were hearty and flavorful. Just down the road from our hotel, we also enjoyed Osteria al Casale. My husband even ordered a pizza to-go, which they were happy to box up and send home with us. We were impressed by the prices at all three restaurants. They were so low that I expected tiny portions, but we were served hearty, filling portions everywhere we went.