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Matera, the ancient city in the Southern Italian region of Basilicata, is often only visited as a day trip, but you really need to spend several days there to appreciate how unique the city is and to experience its beauty and magic. Known as the cave city, sleeping in one of their cave hotels makes for a truly memorable night’s sleep.
We talk to Paolo Maragliulo of Apulia Handmade, a local tour guide who has been working with people visiting the region for many years. Originally from Puglia, he now calls nearby Matera home. He tells us all about the ancient Sassi caves, the beautiful surrounding landscape as well as the modern part of the town, which actually dates back to the 18th century, is full of amazing sights to explore, unique artisans, and fantastic restaurants.
What you’ll learn in this episode
- Matera, in the region of Basilicata, was once known as the shame of Italy, yet now it is not only a UNESCO World Heritage site, it was also a European city of culture in 2019
- Basilicata, as a region, seems almost deserted – with only 54 people per square kilometer. While nearby Puglia has 4 million people, Basilicata has only 500,000. This adds to make it a fascinating region to explore because it’s like jumping back in time 50 years
- Much of the region is quite difficult to explore, but Matera is easier because it’s so close to Puglia
- It is recommended you travel by car to get the most out of your visit, as public transport in the region is notoriously slow. Paolo just traveled from his hometown of Lecce to Matera, where he now lives, by train. As there’s no national railway system, he had to go to Bari first by train, then take a little company called FAL and for the last 60 km, which took 1 hour 41 minutes. So to go 180 km, it took 4 hours.
- Paolo runs a lot of cycling tours in the area which the area is perfect for as there are so few cars and you have a lot of back roads. Driving in the region, there are a lot of twisting roads and beautiful and wild scenery. Unlike some regions where driving is a bit hairy, driving is pretty straightforward in this area.
- Matera is very different from any other place. The surrounding area is on a large, high plateau full of durum wheat fields, and then all of a sudden, as you approach, you reach this very deep canyon. On one side, it’s like limbs of rock – full of caves. There are nearly 5000 caves that have been occupied since the beginning of the Neolithic age – basically since cavemen. The town has been lived in continuously since the Neolithic times to now
- This under area full of caves, many of which have been turned into hotels now, is known as the Sassi
- When you’re walking around, every step you take, you’re walking over where someone was living. You have chimneys you pass by that belong to people down below. The government, in the 50s, when the extreme poverty came to light, decided to empty the area. People were living in really bad conditions, sharing the space with the animals, with no sewage system, no running water, and no electricity. Between 1952 – 1968 15,000 people moved out. This adds to the sense of it being frozen in time
- Although, of course, famous for these otherworldly caves, the modern town, on the top of the canyon is a beautiful town in its own right. You’ve got a really interesting contrast between this ancient city in the canyon and the beautiful newer (but still historic – 1700s) town on top. You can explore the Sassi’s underneath and you can be completely alone and then the next minute you go up on the upper town, and you are surrounded by the locals strolling around the main street, which is on a flat section, and the vibe is very lively with lots of people, cafes and restaurants
- Matera has been inhabited for over 1000 years. One reason this area became a kind of hub, is because it was a great place to hide or rest. You have caves already built, to shelter in as well as for religious rituals and for burying people. It was in a great position for protection. When you’re driving heading towards Matera, you wouldn’t realize the canyon exists until you get very close
- The caves are made out of limestone. There are 2 types – there is the harder limestone which has been carved naturally by the rainwater to create the natural anyone. Then you have the soft limestone which people themselves could carve to make the caves/their homes larger
- There are many fossils in the area and you can see them as you walk around – seashell fossils embedded in the walls
- People, particularly Italians, come to Matera without really expecting or knowing what it looks like/what is there. They just see that it is UNESCO, and it makes a handy stop on the way to Puglia or Calabria, or Sicily. Then, they generally end up lamenting that they haven’t spent enough to explore it properly
- Not only is it frustrating for people themselves to not feel they’ve spent enough time, but the fact that it’s become a day trip destination also has an effect on the city itself. There are wonderful artisan shops and craftsmen there, but they can get lost amongst the souvenir shops. Someone spending a little bit longer is more likely to find these things and support local crafts
- There is a local ceramicist, who rather than as per most ceramics producers in Italy – buying clay from Tuscany – goes out by himself and collects this local clay, which is a whiter clay. A great example of a local producer, unique to the area
- Paolo loves to show visitors the water system. The town has an amazing, ancient system of collecting water. The rainwater is collected from the rooftops and goes down into the gutters and then flows down into cisterns. All the cisterns are connected, so the first one works as a filter – so the sediment settles down, then when the water reaches the top, it takes another channel and then goes on to another. When you have both your cisterns filled up, the water continues down to someone else living below – so the dwellings are connected. So it was all about sharing
- There are also giant cisterns, like the one that is under the main square and you can visit – the Palombaro Lungo
- There is a lot of magnificent nature surrounding Matera. One thing that you can do is a trail that starts from the canyon/Sassi area, you go all the way down, take a bridge across the river and continue up the trail. There are lots of abandoned caves to explore, there are rock churches and if you go in the morning – you have the sun lighting up the old town of Matera, creating an amazing view. As there’s so much countryside and few cars, hiking and cycling are great and safe options
- There’s a skull church, Chiesa del Purgatorio (Church of Purgatory), in the upper town from the Counter-Reformation time – during the 1600s. This church is decorated with skulls, skeletons, and death-related features. The idea of this was to remind you that we’re going to die one day, so you better behave!
- A church Paolo loves to take visitors to is St. Johns, a very small church built in the Middle Ages. It’s a bit out of the way, so barely any tourists go there. Usually, our churches are full of baroque decor, but this one is really simple with a charming, almost mystical atmosphere
- San Giovanni in Monterrone has some amazing frescoes from the 1200s. You climb up to this rock and then when you enter, it’s like a different world
- 15 minutes drive outside of Matera is the Cripta del Peccato Originale (the crypt of the original sin). This is a unique place because the frescoes are extremely old (way, way older than those modern ones from the 1200s!) It’s a special experience – you start at someone’s private farmhouse, then they let you walk to this crypt, found within the canyon itself where it had been hidden for centuries. You then have this experience with lights and an audio-recorded voice that explains the history and all about the paintings
- Due to its ancient and also other-worldy looks, Matera has often been used in movies – most recently James Bond and most famously Mel Gibson’s Passion of Christ. It was the village Wonder Woman was born in – which found the locals baffled by all these hugely tall, Amazon women walking around – as the majority of Southern Italians, Big Paolo (who is known in Matera for being tall) aside are not very tall
- Local specialties include Peperone crusco (crusco meaning crunchy) where long peppers are sun-dried and then deep fried
- Matera is famous for its bread which is now an officially protected product (IGP). The bread in southern Italy is made with durum wheat, which gives a yellow color and it’s higher in proteins and lower in gluten. It’s a very different bread from others you find around Italy. There’s a very thick crust because in the past it was made in huge portions – 5 to 7 kilos even and the crust keeps the moisture. It’s made like this to make it last for a whole week. In the past, the bread was made at home and taken to the communal bakery to be cooked. Each family had stamps carved from wood with their initials, so they would imprint their initials and so once cooked they’d know which was theirs
- One of Paolo’s friends, a baker, has done a lot of research trying to track down these original recipes because people don’t remember anymore. There were generations who were ashamed of their past. The newer generations are trying to go back and celebrate and record these things.
- Bread is often found in a salad or as bruschetta. In Italy you do not eat the bread as soon as you get it at the table – it is designed as an extra implement to help you clean your plate. Dipping your bread in oil and vinegar and eating it before you meal starts is actually considered rather rude
- A traditional fish dish that might surprise, is baccalà – salted cod coming from Norway. It has been commonly used in the area for a long, long time because cod arrives salted and dry, so it would last a really long time
- A lot of local dishes will contain bread, with lots of vegetables and legumes. The legumes actually relate to the wheat growing in the region, because if you want to grow wheat, you also have to grow legumes because when you plant them, to help the soil to get enriched. Mashed fava beans with a wild kind of chicory is another popular dish
- There are some amazing local cheeses. They have free-range cows in the area called the Podolica. Podos in Greek means walking, so they are free range. They don’t eat as much as a regular cow, so they produce less milk, but it’s a high concentration of nutrients and so the cheese produced with this milk is extremely good and has a price to match. Caciocavallo is cheese that comes shaped like a teardrop, that you hang over a bar so they age without touching any surfaces (because of the humidity in the caves).
- Traditionally in the area, they don’t eat a lot of meat but salami is popular again because they would hang and dry it
- One meat dish specialty is Pignata. This is a kind of stew cooked in a ceramic pot, filled with vegetables, cheese, and meat (especially lamb) that they covered with a piece of bread dough. It cooks at a very low temperature for a very, very long time (traditionally would be cooked all night long). When they serve it to you, you open up the bread on top and the inside is like a treasure
- They historically do everything in an economical way. For instance, when it comes to backing Foccacia – they do it when the oven is high – then you don’t waste that temperature and when the oven is still hot, but using less energy, you cook legumes or Pignata
- There is a restaurant where you can try this dish, called La Pignata. It’s not a touristy place. It’s not in a cave and it’s not in a nice location, but the food is really authentic and tasty
- Le Baccanti is a gorgeous location for a fine dining experience in a cave, with lots of local products selected by the chef
- For the famous restaurant in Matera, L’Abbondanza Lucana, make sure you go there hungry as it’s hard to resist all they have on offer
- La Latteria is a favorite of Paolo. It is a small restaurant that used to be in a grocery store run by the owner’s father. Here you can try the fantastic local cheeses, salami, salads, and grilled vegetables as well as the fava bean dish and soups. It’s a great option for lunch especially
- The museum in Matera takes you through all the different eras of Materia’s history, starting at that Neolithic age. It shows you how the people lived there. You can find a lot of houses which are like mini museums because they have set the house exactly as it was when the family was there. You can see their tools, their furniture, and see the things people did to survive in such a tough environment
- The Palazzo Lanfranchi contains a museum that describes itself as modern but we’re talking 1500s. There’s a section dedicated to the writer Carlo Levi, whose book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, brought the history (and the poverty) of the Basilicata region. The title alludes to the fact that they were not really Christian, with a lot of rituals, superstition, and magic
- Paolo suggests you stay two nights at the very least. As it’s not very quick/easy to come to Matera, so if you plan a day to get there, you can stop at various places along the way. You can then arrive in Matera in the late afternoon and you can enjoy Matera at night. Then you have another full day to explore, and then the day after, you have an entire day to drive and explore on your way to your next destination
- Matera is truly spectacular at night. For a real wow moment in your travels, stay overnight in Matera. It’s all lit up, it’s very quiet down in the canyon and you can just have a sense of the history and the beauty of the place
- It’s a really special and interesting experience to stay in a cave hotel. It can feel quite cool with a bit of humidity too and is also strangely quiet. If you live in a city where there’s a lot of noise, it’s an interesting experience to be within a city but with literally no noise at all
- Paolo recommends a few hotels. He loves a cave hotel called Sextantio. They have restored a section that it’s a little bit out of the way, and their restoration in a very respectful way. He also likes Aquatio, which gives you a real sense of the simplicity of the life of the people living there. It can be quite shocking to think that perhaps you alone or maybe with your partner are sleeping in this cave where not so long ago it would have been a dwelling for a family – of 10/15 people and with their animals too. Paolo talked to a man recently, who told him that he and his brothers, in the wintertime, used to fight to be closest to the animals, which may sound strange but is because it was warmer, the closest you were to them
- There are other hotels which give you great access to both the Sassi and the upper town. Hotel Sassi is a great reasonably priced hotel, giving you an experience that is halfway between being in a cave and being in the upper part of town. Il Sorriso Dei Sassi is a charming hotel in a great location and being run by Paolo’s girlfriend, a Matera local, you’ll get lots of great tips and information
About our guest – Paolo Maragliulo
Paolo is originally from Lecce, but now lives in Matera.
He has studied “Conservazione dei Beni Culturali” which is basically art history, history, and restoration; when he started his area (Puglia and Basilicata) were far from being as popular as they are now.
His dream was to tell everybody the beauty of his region and he bet everything on that. Paolo now works as a tour guide for European and overseas companies.
Paolo does food tours, cultural and archeological tours, hiking and cycling tours, and also works as a trip designer and consultant for individuals and companies. He has also worked for 5 years for a British theatre company so he has millions of stories to tell you with his theatrical style and it is there where he made plenty of experience leading groups of people on a multi-day tour
He has lived almost all his life in Lecce, but I am an addicted traveler; no matter what means of transport – his aim is to explore and that is the way of living my life.
He is now based in Matera, an amazing UNESCO site, and a perfect location to go exploring Southern Italy. His girlfriend Alessandra also runs a gorgeous B&B in Matera, Il Sorriso Dei Sassi (The Sassi Smile)
You can find Paolo on these channels:
- Website: www.apuliahandmade.it
- Instagram: www.instagra.com/paolomaragliulo
- Facebook: www.facebook.com/apuliahandmade
Places mentioned in the show
- Chiesa del Purgatorio (Church of Purgatory) – an 18th-century baroque church that is adorned with lots of skulls, skeletons, and other death-related decoration
- Palombaro Lungo – giant cistern underneath the main square, available to visit on pre-arranged tours
- Santa Maria de Idris – also known as “Madonna de Idris”, this church is located inside the Sassi
- San Giovanni in Monterrone – church with amazing frescoes
- The Crypt of the Original Sin – Cripta del Peccato Originale, the 8th/9th-century church discovered by the Circle of the Stairs in 1963
- Palazzo Lanfranchi – museum which contains a special selection dedicated to writer Carlo Levi who brought attention to the poverty of Matera in the 1945 – Christ Stopped at Eboli
- Sextantio – beautifully restored cave hotel
- Aquatio – luxury cave hotel and spa
- Il Sorriso Dei Sassi (The Sassi Smile) – a charming guest house in a great location, with vaulted stone ceilings, lots of character and is run by Paolo’s girlfriend Alessandra
- Hotel Sassi – a great reasonably priced hotel – an experience that is halfway between being in a cave and being in the modern
- La Pignata – local restaurant to try the local dish Pignata
- Baccanti – cave restaurant with amazing food
- L’Abbondanza Lucana – famous restaurant in Matera
- La Latteria – a small restaurant, loved by locals and great for trying local cheeses, salamis
- Osteria Pico & La Gattabuia – great local restaurants recommended by Paolo
Food & Drink
- Peperone crusco – also known as peperoni cruschi. Crusco means crispy and these are long red peppers that are sun-dried and known as “the red gold of Basilicata”
- Matera bread – now a protected product – a bread made from durum wheat, is yellow in color with a thick outer crust
- baccalà – salted cod from Norway is a traditionally used product
- crapiata – a legume and wheat soup, eaten in August
- mashed fava beans with wild chicory – ‘fave e cicoria’
- Caciocavallo – a stretched curd cheese. Caciocavallo Podolico is one of the world’s most expensive cheeses
- La Pignata – in the past Materans would only eat meat 2 or 2 times a year, during festivals and they would have this dish, cooked in a ceramic pot, of vegetables, cheese, meat (usually lamb), covered in bread dough and cooked on a very low temperature overnight
- Sassi – the cave house making up a substantial area of Matera
- Lombards – a Germanic people who ruled most of the Italian Peninsula from 568 to 774
- Podolica – breed of cow from southern Italy
- Christ Stopped at Eboli – a memoir by Carlo Levi, published in 1945
Resources from Untold Italy
- Read more about the wonders of Southern Italy and other lesser-known areas of Italy in Hidden Gems in Italy and learn about the wonderful coastline of the nearby region in Best beaches in Calabria
- Listen to our other episode with Paolo Episode #135 Ancient connections along Puglia’s pilgrim trails, to episodes on Matera and its region, Basilicata in Episode #097 Magical Matera – the cave city and Episode #047 Basilicata – Ancient southern region of tradition and history and episodes on nearby region Puglia in Episode #080 Picturesque towns of Puglia and Episode #046 Foodie adventures in Puglia
- How to plan a trip to Italy – our article that takes you step by step through trip planning so you can avoid our mistakes
- Italy Travel Planning – our FREE online community where you can ask questions and get inspiration for planning your trip
- Travel shop where you’ll find items mentioned in the show
Prefer to read along as you listen? You can download a PDF version of the full transcript of this episode.