Matera, the new European Capital of Culture in 2019

Matera, Basilicata’s jewel, may be the third-longest continuously inhabited human settlement in the world. Natural caves in the tufa limestone, exposed as the Gravina cut its gorge, attracted the first inhabitants perhaps 7000 years ago. More elaborate structures were built atop them. Today, looking across the gorge to Matera’s huddled sassi (cave dwellings) it seems you’ve been transported back to the ancient Holy Land. Indeed, the ‘Città Sotterranea’ (Underground City) has often been used for biblical scenes in films and TV.

Old Matera is split into two sections – the Sasso Barisano and the Sasso Caveoso – separated by a ridge upon which sits Matera’s gracious duomo (cathedral). The sassi, many little more than one-room caves, once contained such appalling poverty and unthinkable living conditions that in the 1950s Matera was denounced as the ‘Shame of Italy’, and the sassi-dwellers were moved on. Only in later decades has the value of this extraordinarily built environment been recognised.

Recently, though, entrepreneurs have returned home after stints in Rome and Milan and given new life to the city, which is the 2019’s European Capital of Culture. Thankfully, they’ve allowed the place to speak for itself — opening elegant hotels with vaulted cave rooms and restaurants that offer refined takes on local classics, like orecchiette with fennel sausage served with chewy semolina bread. The best way to appreciate the city’s labyrinthine layout is on foot. Wandering the Sasso Caveoso, visitors shouldn’t be surprised to find themselves standing on a ninth-century graveyard, across from an impeccable Baroque palazzo and above an 11th-century church-turned-family home, where 700-year-old frescoes still color the calcareous walls.

The city truly will takes your breath away at every corner. The hilly landscape provides vista after vista. With or without Matera maps, the cave dwellings provide surprise after surprise.

Today, in an odd and imaginative twist, gentrification has transformed the previously impoverished colony into a landlocked Mediterranean paradise filled with boutique hotels and charming restaurants.  The Matera landscapes and skylines are magnificent, filled with a craggy mosaic of spires and uneven rooftops. It’s especially gorgeous at dawn and dusk as the sun breaks over the stone filled Sasso center.

If you are thinking of choosing Matera for a stay you need to know know that also has an incredible food scene, you will be pleasantly surprised by the great dining options in the city of caves. In  Matera’s restaurants, you will find homey, simple food with deep flavors built around the classic Italian concept of Cucina Povera – the idea that great food is built on ingredients that are cheap, accessible and local. Along with wonderful bread and charcuterie, the Lucanians in Matera make extensive use of mild sun-dried chili peppers that impart deep earthy flavors to much of their cuisine, especially the brilliant handmade cavatelli and orecchiette pasta.

A city that boasts an authentic and robust culinary tradition, made of extraordinary products that have remained intact over time, thousand-year old traditions handed down through generations, genuine flavours of a simple, peasant cuisine inspired by the soil, agriculture and pastoralism. Think crapiata, an ancient legume and cereal soup that’s perfect nourishment on the coldest days, and then dishes based on lamb, peperoni cruschi (dried sweet peppers); lagane, a fresh pasta similar to tagliatelle but thicker, broader and shorter; the cialledda, also known as the “reaper’s breakfast”, a mixture of wet bread, tomato, cucumber, peppers and olive oil.

Preparations based on simple ingredients with an intense flavour, which compose a rich and varied gastronomic offering. There are cured meats, lucanica in primis, made with pork shoulder from free-range animals bred in the wild, coarsely chopped with a knife and seasoned with wild fennel and then stuffed into a natural casing and hung to dry. Then there’s wild boar sausage; Rionero ventresca (innards sausage); and then cheeses, truffles (like scorzone); Strazzata, a typical local focaccia, and the pride of the region’s production: the bread of Matera. Emblem of local gastronomy laden with symbolic meaning: until the ’50s, the bakers of Matera used to mark loaves with a wooden stamp that depicted their family, to distinguish them after collective baking. In the shape of a croissant, Matera bread is reminiscent of the maternal Murgia ravine, and is made with durum wheat flour and natural “mother” yeast. There is so much food in the city that you will not have enough time to try everything and you will leave with the desire to return to try what you have not tasted.

Matera and its Sassi, the Caveoso and the Barisano. Matera and its natural quarries that guard its soul, the murals that have marked its international fame and the hidden crypts that reveal the traces of a cultural mix yet to be discovered. Matera and its food culture rooted in the past. Among alleys and churches carved out of rock, hermitages, cave dwellings and baroque buildings, Matera is presented in all its glory for this 2019. Do yourself a favor, don’t miss this unique place in the world. Matera is a jewel!


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