<em>Photo: Mattia Balsamini</em>

Matera on the move

This ancient city in Italy's south has undergone major restoration. A UNESCO world heritage site, Matera has appeared in several movies - and offers great roads for the GTC4Lusso

Michele Weiss

Thinking about the last century, it’s a miracle that Matera, in southern Italy’s Basilicata region, is one of this year’s European Capitals of Culture (the other is Plovdiv, in Bulgaria). As recently as the 1950s, the city - built upon one of the oldest human settlements in the world - was a symbol of the backwardness of Italy, a country that emerged from the Second World War in ruins.

Endowed with a rich architectural and cultural heritage, Matera is particularly famous for the centuries-old 'Sassi' - the two rocky settlements characterised by homes dug into the calcareous stone that were awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1993. Many visitors will recognise the Sassi as the location where parts of Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ were shot.

A city built in layers, moving upwards from the Sassi you reach the Piano - the old city - which harbours the most spectacular historic palazzi, symbols of Matera in the Renaissance and in the 17th-18th centuries. Like Palazzo del Sedile (1540), located in the splendid piazza bearing the same name, which is the only public building in the entire city whose origins are secular. It is at the heart of the city’s salottino, a sort of open-air living room where residents meet for drinks in the many cafés. This is the busiest and most elegant part of the city.

Matera - first settled some 10,000 years ago - is a study in contrasts: a few steps away from the elegant palazzi, the poor once lived in homes dug out of the rock. An example is Casa Grotta, dating from the 1950s, the only residential unit where a peasant family lived among work tools, sleeping quarters and a donkey stable.

After having been abandoned for years, restoration - which began in 1986 - has transformed the city into a sparkling international tourist destination, with an antique ‘heart’ that beats to a modern and seductive rhythm. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Sassi themselves. After being largely abandoned in the 1950s, today it is believed that this neighbourhood is home to some 2,000 people.

Matera's historic <em>Sassi</em> will feature in the next James Bond adventure, out in spring 2020 <em>Photo: Mattia Balsamini</em>
Matera's historic Sassi will feature in the next James Bond adventure, out in spring 2020 Photo: Mattia Balsamini

Many are new entrepreneurs who have converted old cave dwellings into ateliers, art galleries, hotels, boutique B&Bs, restaurants and bars, thus transforming the heart of the old city into an open-air museum.

At night, the atmosphere is reminiscent of the movida of Madrid, making the Sassi particularly popular with tourists and young locals, who have returned in their droves to live in this unique location. Aside from its architectural diversity and beauty, Matera is also known for its many traditional arts and crafts, like the manufacture of traditional wooden chessboards and timbri (seals) that were once used by local families to mark the bread dough which they brought to bake in communal ovens.

And, of course, there are lots of delicious foods, ranging from the traditional Matera bread to dishes like cialledda - a simple dish made of softened bread, tomatoes, salt, oil and oregano - and crapiata, a soup made with beans, buckwheat, hulled wheat, chickpeas and lentils. All to be enjoyed with sips of excellent local Primitivo di Matera wines.

No matter where you go, you encounter the workshops of new artisans, determined to explore and revitalise the region’s antique traditions. In the Manifesto di Matera 2019 (‘Matera Manifest 2019’) the will to ensure the city remains alive and open to the future is clear: visitors are given a ‘2019 Passport’ which assigns ‘temporary citizenship’.

Those who obtain the passport commit to leaving behind an object that represents their idea of culture. All the items collected will form the basis of ‘Open Future’, an exhibit that will showcase the passions and lifestyles of lovers of global culture.

Indeed, for the entire year Matera has been playing host to a plethora of events, concerts and exhibits - including on the Anthropocene and Escher - for the multitudes of visitors flocking to the city’s ancient and uniquely fascinating quarters. With its rich calendar of cultural events and the natural - and man-made - beauty with which it is endowed, the time to visit Matera is now. Don’t miss it.