Matera: Italy’s Hidden Gem
By Cynthia Andrew
It’s the unwritten rule of travel in Italy and the piece of advice you’ll find in every travel book: if you’re visiting Italy, then you must go to the ‘Big Three’: Rome, Florence and Venice. I completely agree. However, it would be a shame to limit your time in Italy to just the big 3 when there’s infinitely so much more to see and do.
So, let’s take a little time to explore one such place in Italy: an unexpected, off the beaten path town known as Matera. The kind of place you want to keep as your little secret while wondering how it has managed to stay hidden for so long.
I discovered Matera quite randomly. I was reading about cave hotels and came across an article about Italy’s secret caves and the little town of Matera. A place so frozen in time, it was the location for filming scenes from The Passion of the Christ.
Most summer tourists will be headed south west to the Amalfi Coast and Capri. Matera on the other hand is located south east, so if you plan on visiting both coasts it might make for slightly longer travel times. There are several trains from most points in Italy to Bari, a neighboring and bigger city, from where you can rent a car, take a cab, take a regional train or jump on a bus to Matera. Just remember, while cabs are available (approx. $40 from Bari to Matera) there is no public transportation (which would be significantly cheaper) in Matera on Sundays. The website and app Rome2Rio is a perfect tool for scheduling train/bus/car travel all through Europe.
Where to Stay:
There are two sides to Matera, the Sassi area (Old Town) and the rest of the town. The rest of the town, while pleasant, is really not why you visit Matera. The Sassi are ancient cave dwellings and is what makes Matera unique and as such, it is imperative that you stay in the Sassi. There is no shortage of hotels in the Sassi. The best ones of course book up early but there are a lot of great options to choose from. Check out: Sant’angelo Hotel $$; L’Hotel in Pietra $$ (pictured) and Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita $$$.
What to Do:
There are many great walking tours available and even cute mini scooters you can rent to get around the Sassi. However, the Sassi begs for spontaneity, for throwing away your guidebook and maps and just getting lost for a little bit. As you go up and down stairs and steps, exploring the Sassi’s fascinating architecture, you never know what mystery lies around the corner.
Where to Eat:
Anywhere with a view. If you’re looking for a young, hip crowd, try Stone ($), which serves delicious Neapolitan pizza. For something a little more grown up and rustic, Soul Kitchen ($$$) serves up some amazing pasta and lamb dishes. What I enjoyed more than everything else was the always welcome, creamy but not too sweet gelato served at Gelida Voglia di Artigianeria dei Sassi. Best part of it all, gelato is on average 40-50% cheaper in Matera than in the bigger cities, so eat up.
It won’t take much for you to fall in love with Matera. Because there are not a lot of people of color, yes, you will experience a few stares here and there, but for the most part people stare because they aren’t used to seeing people that look like you. Rest assured, the stares are not necessarily from a negative place. I found that the people of Matera were kind, inviting and warm.
An attorney by day and a lifestyle blogger by night, I caught the travel bug the summer of 2000, the year I went to Paris for a semester abroad. Being in Paris, so far from home and friends, meeting new people, hopping on the Euroline bus to London and Brussels and anywhere else we could afford was positively life changing. I came back with renewed life focus, completed law school and every time I'm not working, I'm traveling. I'm giddier than a 5 year old with candy when I start planning my next trip.