Puglia Grand Tour: Part 5 Matera

Published on:  | Last updated: 1 August 2017

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Distances
Monopoli - Gioia del Colle 41 kms
Gioia del Colle - Matera 35 kms

This section of the tour connects Monopoli with the UNESCO world heritage-listed Sassi of Matera. The Sassi (literally 'the stones') are the historic heart of the city of Matera, and make it probably Italy’s most extraordinary city. Built on the side of a ravine overlooking the Gravina river. The houses often have fairly modest exteriors but behind the house are a series of chambers and cisterns, often going down for two or three levels below the surface. The rock excavated from the valley-side was used for the construction of the houses. This means that the city has an extraordinary multi-dimen­sional feel as the streets run over the top of the houses below.

Video by Timmy Henny for cantforget.it{aly} | show in overlay

The city also has a complex system of cisterns and channels for collecting and storing water from the plateau above.

Matera went into decline through a combin­ation of overcrowding and a reduced water supply, and in the twentieth century it was a desper­ately poor place: in 1949 the the infant mortality rate in the city was four times the national figure (nearly one baby in two died). Primo Levi in his book Cristo si è fermata a Eboli (Christ stopped at Eboli) recounts his sister’s description of a visit to the city in the inter-war years with children begging for quinine (malaria was endemic in many parts of Italy until the 1950s). Recalling Dante, he called Matera a girone d’inferno (a circle of hell).

The city became the vergogna nazionale (national scandal/​national shame): the image of people living in caves (and sometimes keeping their animals there as well) was intol­erable for a country that was rapidly becoming one of Europe’s major indus­trial economies.

In 1954 the Italian government passed a special law for the compulsory evacu­ation of the Sassi - the heart of the city. Two-thirds of the city’s inhab­itants were expro­priated and forced to move to new neigh­bour­hoods, planned by leading urban planners. In 15 years 15,000 people were trans­ferred to new homes and the Sassi were abandoned - it became, in effect, illegal to live there.

It took more than 30 years for the law to be overturned, as academics and others argued for a re-evalu­ation of the Sassi, and really it wasn’t until the UNESCO put the city on its World Heritage list in 1993 that the city’s fortunes started to turn around: at the time there were only 7 other World Heritage-listed sites. Suddenly the city which, a gener­ation before, had been seen as a national scandal, was ranked, in the eyes of the world, alongside Roma, Firenze and Venezia.

The cave dwellings are being carefully restored and brought back into use. Inside the temper­atures remain a constant 16 degrees winter and summer - in many ways they were and are a very practical places to live. Today there are stylish hotels and restaurants reusing the old spaces. Thousands of people have moved back into the Sassi, and thousands of homes and buildings restored and brought back into use, but possibly it will take another 20 years for the area to fully recover.

Matera (Basilicata)

Matera (Basilicata)

What to see in Matera

For a flavour of what life was like in the city as it was, visit the
Casa Grotta - a recre­ation of a typical cave house is well worth a visit - look out for the baby cradle suspended above the bed so that the parents could rock the cradle without having to get up. The
La raccolta delle acque is dedicated to the system of ducts and cisterns for collecting and storing rainwater, which was a funda­mental part of the ecology of the city.

For me, the MUSMA - Museo dell a Scultura Contemporanea museum was one of the stand-out sights. (Pages in English). Built in a restored 17th century palazzo and the chambers and galleries under­neath it. the contrast between the contem­porary sculpture and the raw stone of the walls works extremely well. It's an extraordinary place to visit even if contem­porary sculpture isn't your thing.This short video (1:19m) from visitmatera.com will give you and idea of the MUSMA exper­ience:

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Also well worth a visit is the the collection of striking and dramatic paintings made by Carlo Levi during his period of internal exile in Basilicata at the Centro Carlo Levi (it was common for the Fascist government to send its political opponents to the far south of the country where they were kept under a sort of house arrest).

The chiesi rupestri

The other part of the heritage of this area are the chiese rupestri (rock churches). Chapels and churches hewn from the rock, and decorated with frescoes. The chapels were the work of the basiliani monks - monks from Anatolia and Syria escaping religious perse­cution under the Byzantine empire, who settled across Salento and Basilicata., and settled in the caves at Matera and, bit-by-bit began to excavate them into churches and chapels hewn out of the rock, and decorated with frescoes.

There’s more inform­ation, together with image galleries on the oltrelartematera.it website. There’s:

The star sight is the Cripta del Peccato Originale. Here's a short (1:01m) video from visitmatera.com. Follow the link for an excellent photogallery.

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The Cripta is on a vineyard near Matera. You need to make a reser­vation to visit it. For inform­ation on how to book go to Musma.it: The Crypt of Original Sin. The meeting point for the visits is at the ticket office at the Azienda Agricola Dragone:     Azienda Agricola Dragone location map.

More information

Places to stay

Hotels and B&Bs

Find and book places to stay with Booking.com

Booking.com pages for places on this section of the route:

 About these links

If you use these links to book accom­mod­ation Booking.com will pay me a small part of their commission. This helps support the costs of producing this site.

I use Booking.com to find and book places to stay when there are no campsites in the area. The large majority of hotels and many hostels are now on ‘Booking’. I like it because it means that I can get almost-instant confirm­ation. The rating system is also a reliable guide to the quality of the accom­mod­ation.

I’ve never had a problem finding places to keep my bike —even if it’s a cupboard or store room. I always use the ‘special requests’ field on the booking form to tell the hotel that I’m travelling with a bike, which gives them the oppor­tunity to let me know if there’s a problem.

Many properties offer free cancel­lation but it’s a good idea to check the condi­tions as these vary from property to property.

Thanks to Booking.com, (travelling early season) I got good deals on:

Hostels

There are a couple of hostels in Matera:

Campsites

There are virtually no campsites away from the coast.

In Gioia del Colle I’ve stayed at, and would recommend, the Ciacco Bed and Breakfast but there are a number of others in and around the town.

  Map of campsites along the route:  PGT-campsites-map-show map in overlay    |    PGT-campsites-map-show map in new window   

Transport and services

Trains

There is a train station in Matera. Services are operated by the Ferrovia Appulo Lucane (FAL) operates services between Bari in Puglia, and Matera in Basilicata. The Basilicata region has invested a lot in new trains, and there are now only a few trains that can't take bikes. You can check by downloading the pdf timetable: (ferrovieappulolucane.it: orario treni). Trains that can't take bikes have the words 'NO BICI' at the top of the column. The timetable also shows services where buses replace trains.

New train on the Ferrovie Appulo Lucane

New train on the Ferrovie Appulo Lucane. Picture from Wikimedia Commons

Articles in this series

Get in touch

Please get in touch if you find any errors in the information, or if there’s anything, good or bad, that you’d want other cyclists to know.


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