Once called ‘the shame of Italy’, this city should be on your 2019 European bucket list

Lets’ go back to the Italian 1950s for a moment. While northern Italy is catching up with the world, things are not looking so bright in the country’s deep south. One of Italy’s poorest regions, Basilicata seems to have been stuck in time. Industrialisation and motorisation have never really reached this rural area and the regional capital Matera is a vast slum. Built over the course of 9,000 years, one of Europe’s oldest continuously inhabited cities equals sadness and misery. Its inhabitants live in crammed cave dwellings that they share with their livestock, without any sanitation or electricity. Waterways are a dumping ground and the stench is hardly bearable. Get the picture…?

In fact, living conditions in Matera are so bad that disease is rife and more than 50% of new-borns die in infancy. Amidst all of this, Italian prime minister Alcide de Gasperi, visiting Matera in 1950, dubs it ‘the shame of Italy’. He decides to evacuate the city and move the population to newbuilds further uphill. One of Europe’s most ancient cities seems to be dying a quiet death…

Matera, the abandoned city

Fast-forward to 2019 and things couldn’t be more different. After decades of silence, Matera is getting its voice back. For more than 60 years – in reality a short hiatus in the city’s long history – hardly anyone was living in the Sassi, the old ‘stone’ districts. As buildings crippled, nature started to take over. However, fascination with Matera grew after it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993 and film producers discovered the beauty of this abandoned city (The Passion of the Christ was famously shot here). At the same time, the government (now wanting to prevent Matera’s unique heritage from disappearing) launched a scheme to lure young people back to the old town. With the help of subsidies people were invited to take on restauration projects, bringing the deserted cave dwellings back to life. The rising popularity of house-sharing platforms such as Airbnb, allowing people to rent out their newly renovated homes to growing numbers of tourists, further contributed the revival of the city.

This way to the Sassi…!

And 2019 promises to be the Matera’s best year yet as it will be Europe’s Capital of Culture (alongside Plovdiv in Bulgaria). For 12 months the city will be the scene of a wide range of cultural activities and events, drawing visitors from all corners of Europe and beyond. It will be another turning point, putting Matera firmly on the tourist map. About time to start planning a trip to this unique city!

Matera’s streets are still relatively quiet, but not for long

Matera is small and can easily be seen in a day, but I’d recommend staying overnight as there’s something magical about this place as dusk sets in and the light changes. Moreover, staying the night will give you the opportunity to experience Matera in style: in a former cave dwelling. As mentioned, many of the city’s thousands year old cave houses, carved in the rocks of a steep ravine, have been turned into rental apartments and boutique hotels. Sleeping in such a glam ‘grotto’ can come at a bit of a price (especially during high season) but is a real treat and unlike any other accommodation you’ve ever stayed in!

Sleeping in a grotto conversion is a must when in Matera

During the day, discover the Sasso Barisano and the Sasso Caveaso – the two oldest districts that make up the Sassi – with a guided group tour that takes you to some of its most fascinating places, including a centuries old cave church and an original cave-dwelling-turned-museum. Some of these caves were dug out as far back as the prehistoric period! Throughout the ages new layers of construction were built on top of them. When wandering through the dense network of streets, every now and then you stumble upon a small opening that offers incredible vistas of the Sassi and the steep cliffs it was built on. For the most spectacular panoramas, head to the Murgia Timone National Park, which is located on the other side of the ravine and is a great spot for hiking and watching the sun set over the city.

Sunset over the old town seen from the Murgia Timone National Park

Because Matera’s process of reincarnation has only just started, many places deep down in the old town are still empty and there are no basic amenities such as shops or supermarkets. But this sense of desolation and abandonment is exactly what makes Matera so fascinating – it’s as if time has stood still here… Life is slowly returning, however, and more and more establishments (many of them targeting tourists though) are setting up shop in the Sassi. One of the most spectacular ones (if you’d ask me) is Enoteca dai Tosi. Located in a beautifully renovated cave dwelling and with a gorgeous interior design, this wine bar is the perfect place for a late evening glass of something whilst absorbing Matera’s mesmerising beauty.

Enoteca dai Tosi is located in a wonderfully renovated former cave dwelling

Matera has plenty to offer in terms of food, too. Although Basilicata and the rest of the deep south of Italy may be known for its cucina povera, or ‘cuisine of the poor’, the local diet is rich in flavour. Symbol of the regional cuisine of Basilicata are the peperone di Senise, sundried red peppers that you’ll see everywhere in the area. Matera itself is also famous for its bread. Made of durum wheat, it’s characterised by its massive size and customised stamps, which were traditionally used so that families, many of whom would often share communal ovens, could recognise their loaf once baked.

Other traditional dishes include vermicelli frittata (fried vermicelli), pasta with lu’ntruppc (a meaty sauce) and lagane pasta with chickpeas. And finally, there are numerous fabulous local cheeses and cured meats. One of the nicest places to try some of them is Cibinium, a newly opened trattoria located in a former cave dwelling in the heart of the Sassi. A glass of bubbly with it and you’ll be as happy as a kid, guaranteed!

Bring on that cheese and charcuterie platter!

Although not originally part of the local diet, ice cream has found its way to Matera. Like anywhere else in Italy, the city has its fair share of ice cream parlours these days. The best gelato can be found at I Vizi degli Angeli, an ice cream laboratory on the main shopping street. Enjoying your ice cream whilst watching locals and visitors stroll the street it’s hard to imagine this place was once hell on earth…

Gelato from i Vizi degli Angeli is worth the wait

Matera is celebrating its revival, and if there was ever a perfect time to visit this marvel of a city, it’s 2019!

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